Either we focus on getting people saved or we get caught up with a social gospel. Either it’s about nurturing people on the inside or it’s about reaching those on the outside. Some would agree with the first statement and yet disagree with the latter. We tend to say it’s both/and…we’re about discipling those on the inside while sharing the gospel with those on the outside. Yet, a common concern I’ve often heard has generally been, “If we’re not careful to maintain and protect what we already have we’ll have nothing to offer those we are attempting to reach with the Gospel.”
And furthermore, “Don’t forget about our kids!” We all know that we need a safe environment for our children. But really, how safe is the church today? Our children are exposed to insider-centered programming (see next paragraph), materialism, escapism, and a posture against change that cherishes maintenance at the expense of missional values. C.T. Studd once said that “Some wish to live within the sound of Church or Chapel bell; I want to run a Rescue Shop within a yard of hell.” Which one really is safer for a living faith to be passed on to next generations?
In practical terms, simply consider how our systems and common lingo caters to those of us who are in church world. We talk knowingly about being “born again,” “saved and justified by grace”, “having a burden for the lost,” “laying on hands,” or “being the bride of Christ.” Do Christianese terms such as these make any sense to outsiders who just happen to slip through the plate glass doors on a Sunday morning? And what about normal church programming? Does it make sense to members in the club but leave outsiders confused and feeling excluded? Consider passing statements such as, “We all remember what happened to Daniel’s three friends.” What does that say to the person who never saw a Sunday School flannel graph in their life? It’s simply understood that everyone present has heard the story. If we really are honest however, what we do generally translates into a holy huddle that enjoys the warmth of the campfire while unintentionally blocking out the light for those in the shadows. Perhaps in practical terms we really do have more of an either/or approach.
And what about the social gospel? Is it an either/or issue? I think scripture is clear that Jesus had a both/and approach—he met people’s physical needs while also addressing their root spiritual issues. Yet today’s evangelicals have reacted to the social gospel and focus more on just saving people’s souls, serving their congregations, and defending the faith. British theologian John Stott lists five specific reasons why this has happened:
- The evangelical reaction against theological liberalism.
- The division of the gospel into social and spiritual categories.
- Evangelicals’ disillusionment with earthly life after World War I.
- The spread of premillenialism that emphasized a rapturous withdrawal from this evil world rather than introducing the Kingdom of heaven now.
- The spread of evangelical Christianity among the upper and middle classes who equated it, more and more, with their own personal well-being.
Recently I finished reading “The Church of Irresistible Influence” by Robert Lewis. He believes that “contrary to much evidence, the church does not exist for the sake of the church. It exists for the sake of the world.” He says that most Christians are becoming more and more comfortable with each other while becoming more and more disconnected with the world. We live in fairly isolated communities with programs that meet our needs primarily. In terms of the season, we’ve lost our ability to incarnate the truth. Christ left the safety zone of heaven to bring transformational truth into our world. The law from Unapproachable Deity above hadn’t cut it…the Word had to come down and become flesh. He had to speak our language in our world in order for us to get it. By building a bridge from the eternal realm to us in time and space, Christ set us free to transcend our world and enter His (Ephesians 2:6).
If in fact, the church embraced a holistic gospel and focused its energies on becoming all things to all people in order to draw them into the Kingdom (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), perhaps the either/or dilemma would start to disappear. I believe we need a both/and approach that builds bridges to our communities and results in a vibrant faith.
Let me close yet with two reality check questions I once heard that may help you keep this conversation going: (1) If your church doors closed tomorrow would anyone in your community notice? (2) Would anyone care?