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Posts Tagged ‘social gospel’


Sometimes the people you read champion a book that was influential on them. You make note of the book. You buy it and eventually you read it.

Because of R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer and John Piper I began to read the Puritans. Due to Tim Keller I began to read John Newton. Newton has been very helpful for me.

Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching GraceBecause of Keller, and some others, I picked up Harvie Conn’s Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace. It was foundational for them in advocating for what I think is a healthy balance of seeing justice as an implication of the gospel. Transformed people will want to see their world transformed. As we grow in personal righteousness (sanctification) we will act justly and seek to love our neighbors. I seemed like I needed to read this little book when I found it in the internet “discount bin”.

Were my expectations too high? Would it exceed my expectations?

One important thing about when I read a book is how much red ink I use. That could mean either a great book with lots of “money quotes” or big ideas I want to keep track of. Lots of ink could also mean it is a book I take great exception to, as the writing in the margins argues against the authors point.

I didn’t use much ink in this book before I gave up in the midst of his chapter on prayer. It was meh to me. I was underwhelmed and found it too bound to its time.

In his preface he notes that it is not a “how-to” book. “Rather, this is an effort to look at the relation between evangelism and social questions as two sides of the same coin.” He uses the terms holistic evangelism and Lordship evangelism to describe this balance and interdependence. It was written as the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelism was doing its work.

Time can prove that many of our fears and expectations are unfounded. History takes unexpected turns. He brought up the United Presbyterian Church’s steep decline in membership. If such trends continued, he anticipated one priest (?) for each communing member by 2000. Well, they were part of the formation of the PC (USA), which while continuing to bleed churches and members still has a fair amount of money and more members than pastors.

He does address the need for contextualization, “how to communicate the relevance of the gospel.” He faults, to a degree, the seminaries’ focus that has seemingly resulted in homogeneous churches instead. We forgot to be all things to all men while presenting the one message in a way those people can get. The doctrine of accommodation should teach us that we must shape our message to the people who are listening.

In his day (and more so ours) there is a skepticism to our message and the stories of those who bear it. Conn notes that Corrie Ten Boom is seen as a “woman with high ideals who showed remarkable resiliency under pressure” rather than recognizing the triumph of grace in her life. You see the times in the skeptical views of reports of the conversions of Charles Colson, Larry Flynt and Eldridge Cleaver. Clearly the 2nd proved false. I chose not to bring up his false conversion in a sermon, thinking it was a bit too edgy. Conn mentions plenty of such things in this book.

IHardcore Postern the context of accommodation and the message he refers to the movie Hard Core about the daughter of a pastor whose daughter leaves home and enters the porn industry. Oddly, I’d recently heard an interview with the writer & director, Paul Schrader, who also worked on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, 1st Reformed, American Gigolo, and Mosquito Coast. He grew up on the Reformed Faith and sees himself as a preacher, but not of faith though the “failures” of faith often show up in his movies. We speak into this skepticism, failure and scandal, whether we realize it or not. If we do, we can speak to it as well.

In the second chapter he moves to what we are calling people to: incorporation, humanization, celebration and justice. Our words should also be backed up with actions. We speak of love, and should show love.

“Evangelism must become gospel show-and-tell, showing mercy and preaching grace.”

This can be difficult for smaller churches, like the one I pastor. I agree there is an evangelistic aspect to diaconal ministry. But our first priority is to our members. With limited resources to help the household of God, the evangelistic bent to diaconal ministry gets lost.

10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Galatians 6

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 1 Timothy 5

He then moves into justice; setting things right as part of evangelism. “The doing of justice becomes the distinguishing mark of the people of God before the world.” Instead, we seem to either be afraid of doing justice lest we become social justice warriors, or go so far as to justify the injustice. Yes, there is a real threat to devolve in to a social gospel, which is not gospel at all.

As I think about things, I struggle with the whole concept of the culture war. Doing justice isn’t about embracing or resisting worldly agendas. We shouldn’t be either SJWs or oppressors/defenders. Our marching orders are from the Scriptures, not culture. We should be walking a tightrope instead of moving toward the extremes which tends to demonize people who commit one sin while excusing others. We need to hear the call to “love mercy and act justly” instead of thinking they are opposed to one another.

One way he puts this is in talking about publicans. Among the people we meet are those who sin and those who are sinned against. Actually, every person we meet is both a sinner and someone who has been sinned against. We should address both sides of that coin.

“A gospel that does not address people as sinned-against pose a lot of problems for the publican, the sinned-against. Either he rejects the gospel or sees it as an opiate.”

The prostitute is not simply a sinner, though we want to reduce her to that. She likely has been sinned against as a child. She is likely being oppressed in the present, a slave to a pimp, as well. (The same is true for male prostitutes though we don’t speak of them often).

We can’t turn a blind eye to past and present oppression of the black community in America. The gospel is often seen as a way to placate them and keep them in submission instead of offering freedom and hope. Doing justice opens the door for the message.

He then discusses a two-dimensional spirituality. We are to obey both the cultural and evangelistic mandates. We are not to pick and choose between them. Love for neighbor means not only proclaiming the gospel but also doing no wrong to our neighbor by our actions (or inaction). Into this he returns to the Lausanne Covenant. It speaks of “sacrificial service evangelism”.

He doesn’t want us to pick one, but to see them as “two stages in God’s covenant relationship with man.” Having failed in the cultural mandate, we now have the added evangelistic mandate. Continuing to fail in terms of the cultural mandate means that those fallen social, economic and political structures hinder evangelism.

At times, this chapter is less than clear. He uses terms without always defining them. Snooze at any point and you get lost. But here are a few parts I underlined:

“This kind of spirituality does not equip us for evangelism by taking us out of the world. It puts a new world into us, the world of the spiritual, that new lifestyle caused by the Holy Spirit, centered in the Holy Spirit, and possessed by the Holy Spirit.”

“Living in the Spirit is not an evangelistic escape from history, but a participation in the new reality of history brought by the redemptive work of Christ and the applying work of the Holy Spirit.”

I’d been trying to read this book alone with my sermon series on Mark. It seemed to fit the idea of following Jesus in terms of what it looks like to submit to the authority of Jesus. We act justly and preach grace. But this short book always seemed to get lost in the shuffle, and was far more theoretical than practical.

And so I started to read the chapter on prayer and gave up. His writing style was less then helpful to me. Perhaps I’m too dull to get it, but I lost my patience for the book. It was time to move on for me. There are other books crying for my attention, and it is time to heed those calls.

I was disappointed. Perhaps it is this particular juncture in my life and ministry. Perhaps it was just bad timing. I don’t want to write off the book as utterly unhelpful, but it was not as helpful as I’d hoped. Conn’s approach seems meandering at times, lacking focus. At least I coudn’t always tell where he was going, and the process of getting there was roundabout-ish.

There is it. Hopefully you get a few good thoughts to move you forward in thinking about justice and grace in the work of the church. Biblically, they are not opposed though we often move toward extremes of either the social gospel or spirituality of the church. This is a conversation worth having as we see the rise of the social justice warriors and their mirror reflection in conservative culture warriors. Jesus, I think, would distance Himself from both.

 

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Finally! This was the reason I really bought the book. I’ve been pondering on how to foster evangelism among the members of my congregation, many of whom are introverts. Our congregation could be identified as “introverted.”

This does not relieve the congregation of the responsibility to bear witness to Christ. Jesus won’t say, “Oh, it’s okay. I know you are an introvert.”

But introversion will often shape how such a person and a congregation bears witness and evangelizes.

The term “evangelism” often strikes fear in the hearts of introverts. This is frequently due to false assumptions about what it must look like. We may picture open air preaching, or going door-to-door to talk to complete strangers. We think it means engaging the person next to us on the airplane. We think it requires the mental dexterity, speed of thought (not thoughtfulness) many of us lack.

For some people it does mean those things. Most of those people are quite extroverted. We see them doing their thing on YouTube, and they write the books on evangelism that make most of wish for the 2nd Advent, now.

“Truthfully, most introverted Christians I know would be delighted to bless the evangelistic efforts of extroverts and return to their lives of solitude and contemplation with a sigh of relief.”

In Introverts in the Church, McHugh notes that introverts must be wary of falling into a private understanding of our faith. But neither should we assume that we must evangelize like Billy Graham, the local expert in Evangelism Explosion or some other gifted evangelist you know. God doesn’t want you to be them, He wants to use YOU.

Evangelism isn’t about being the best “used car salesman” and closing the deal. I know people who seem to be “closers”, but most of us aren’t. We are ordinary people trying to be faithful and trusting that God is working thru, above and beyond our meager efforts.

McHugh proposes that we be people willing to explore mystery together rather than the salesman pitching salvation to people who didn’t think they needed it. This reveals some of his more emergent leanings (based on names he dropped earlier in the book). So it is difficult to differentiate between how he thinks introverts share the gospel and his postmodern leanings at times. Particularly this one.

There is also some confirmation bias for me. His approach is more relational, which confirms much of what I’ve been thinking. Introverts generally don’t talk to strangers, but as we grow in relationship we share more of ourselves, including our faith. Our faith is not shared out of our strength, but often out of our weakness. This treasure is in jars of clay. Our weakness often reveals the connection point for the gospel. This means witnessing is less confrontational (the gospel still confronts them even as it invites them).

“Our deepening friendships with seekers involve a deepening process of intimacy and vulnerability. … The gospel paradox is that when we reveal our own weaknesses, we come in touch, and put others in touch, with the One who has the ability to heal. … We subject ourselves to the same questions we pose to others, and as we traverse them together, we may arrive at surprising conclusions we could never have reached when simply trying to defeat another’s logic.”

His understanding of evangelism ends up looking very much like spiritual direction. He notes much changed for him when he started to realize he was not initiating spiritual conversations so much as responding to how God was already at work in that person’s life. It became about “cultivating spiritual awareness.” As I ponder this, the entry points may often be the places where they are emotional (angry, glad, anxious) or depressed.

Bearing witness to Christ, his sufferings and subsequent glories (1 Peter 1) can take different forms. At times it is confrontational as a person’s double-mindedness draws forth the bluntness of the Gospel (choose you this day…). I’ve had those conversations. At some point the person must believe or not, leaving their excuses behind. But leading up to that, you can leave plenty of hints or bits and pieces rather than a packaged gospel presentation.

In my own evangelism I should remember the lessons I should have learning in my counseling training. When encountering resistance, point it out. Don’t try to plow thru it with “shock and awe”. Rather, “you seem to be putting up some walls right now. What’s going on?”, inviting them to share their fears, doubts or whatever is going on, if they want to.

McHugh notes the quote often erroneously attributed to Francis of Assissi- “preach the gospel at all times- if necessary use words.” He fully affirms the need for words. He also reminds us that our words often need to be backed up by actions that adorn the gospel and make it attractive. We love them. After all, didn’t God love us when we were ungodly, weak, enemies and sinners (Romans 5)? Isn’t the gospel that God loved us first and sent the Son as an atoning sacrifice (1 John 3)? As a result, we can and should embrace a holistic approach to evangelism. Some may call that a “social gospel” but only if the goal isn’t the gospel. Many conservatives are allergic to “justice” or “mercy” as a part of evangelism. We are showing them justice and mercy so they will have a better grasp of who God is, not making justice and mercy the gospel. Nor calling them to justice and mercy apart from Christ who is just  and One in whom the ungodly are justified.

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6

McHugh offers some more practical suggestions at the end of the chapter.

  1. Narrow your focus. Instead of trying to share the gospel with everyone you meet, develop a few relationships you already have. These are people you’ll be friends with whether or not they come to faith. But share that part of your life with them.
  2. Ask open ended questions. Don’t do it out of the blue or in a heavy handed fashion. They can be natural out-growths of your conversation or current events.
  3. Ask for time when you don’t have a good answer. It is okay if you need to research a question they ask. It shows humility, that you don’t have it all together and expect them to have it all together.
  4. Don’t accept the premise of their question. He gets this from Leo McGarry (West Wing chief of staff). This has to do with accusatory questions. Flip the question to challenge their premise. The example he gives is flipping “How can you possibly believe in a God who would condemn people to hell?” to “Perhaps the real question is how could humans rebel against a God who created such a beautiful world?” Not really the best example. Perhaps, “What do you suggest God do with wicked people?”
  5. Find a comfortable environment. You could invite them to Christianity Explored, or a Bible Study that investigates the claims of the gospel. Maybe discussion boards. Don’t debate. Explore.
  6. Know your role. You may not bring that person from darkness to light. You are, or should be, a part of a community of faith. Getting them in touch with your community is a great thing. A healthy body will contribute to the process according to each person’s gifts and strengths.

As I noted, much of this confirmed what I was thinking already. That might be helpful. I could have done without the postmodern approach at times. I’m not advocating modernism. But we can’t assume a person has a postmodern world view. Or that the best way to grasp the gospel is thru the postmodern lens. The Bible, and the gospel, transcend philosophical frameworks and actually challenge them. But that is a different discussion.

 

 

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The final section of The Explicit Gospel has to do with implications and applications. The majority of the section has to do with what happens if you stay on the ground or in the air too long.

“The explicit gospel holds the gospel on the ground and the gospel in the air as complementary, two views of the same redemptive plan God has for the world in the work of his Son.”

Think of it as a cross country trip. If you drive it you easily get lost in the details. Especially in west Texas. Monotony can set in. The hours grind by and you lose sight of the big picture- why you are going there. You just want to get there.

If you fly, let’s say a small private plan like my friend Steve, you can’t stay in the air too long or you’ll run out of fuel. You see the big picture, but you miss out on the details. You see the expanse of canyons and mountains. But you miss the nuances of those same places.

Not the best illustration, but hopefully it helps. Unfortunately it does break down because the two modes of transportation are not as obviously complementary. They are often mutually exclusive. Too often people treat the gospel on the ground and the air as mutually exclusive instead of complementary. These are the dangers that Chandler wants to make explicit.

He begins with a discussion of slippery slopes. Most theological errors are the result of over-emphasizing something that is true at the expense of something else that is true. In trying to protect one thing, we go too far and deny something else. His goal is to encourage us to avoid this by holding both together.

“So it is not usually in the affirmation of a truth that someone goes down the slippery slope, but in the denial of corresponding truths.”

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I just finished Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology after laboring over it far too long.  I just haven’t had as much time to read as I like (this may shock some of you who think I read too much).  It is a collection of messages from one the Together for the Gospel conferences (sample pages).

I found it to be a very uneven book.  There was a great disparity in the length of the chapters, as though some speakers were given far more time than others.  Some of the shortest chapters were from those I most wanted to hear.  Yet, some of those (while good) sounded an awful lot like other messages they’ve done.  Since I don’t preach on the conference circuit, I am probably expecting too much for them to come up with a new message to fit the occasion.  When I was ‘only’ doing pulpit supply during my transition, I would preach the same text a few times, tweaking it depending on the congregation.  But no one travels hundreds, or thousands, of miles to hear me speak.  This was a tad disappointing.

The book kicks off with a rather long chapter on Sound Theology by Ligon Duncan.  He defends systematic theology as necessary for the life of the church.  It is popular today (and most days) to decry systems, but we should be able to summarize doctrine to promote understanding of the whole.  Preaching and teaching should be both expositional and theological, and Duncan notes.   This is, in part, because our theology must be biblical.  Yet, you don’t build a doctrine on only one text.  That is a HOV line to heresy.

“Systematic theology is tied to exegesis.”  John Murray

Duncan notes some problematic views that have popped up.  His charity is on display in that he doesn’t name names.  His goal is not to stigmatize anyone, but point out flaws in certain positions which tend to be anti-theological.

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One of last year’s more important books was on the topic of helping the poor.  When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself was written by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert.  This is no treatise hatched in the hot house of academia.  They have been engaged in developing these models on the field.  They have often had to learn from their mistakes.

I haven’t finished the book yet, so my comments are only with regard to the first 5 chapters of the book.  The book does come with an endorsement from John Perkins who has worked in tranformational ministry for decades.  He’s one of those guys shaking his head when Glenn Beck lumped everyone who talks about social justice in the same bucket.  John Perkins sees a connection with redemption (we seek it as redeemed people longing to see that redemption extended to others) and the need for solid theology- not liberation theology.  The book has the “dubious” distinction of being recommended by people as diverse as Ron Sider and Bryan Chappell (or Joel Belz) and Steve Childers.  This means it has enough gospel in it to be Christian, and enough justice in it to get Ron Sider to buy in.

It starts with the premise that much of the work going on around the world to alleviate poverty actually makes matters worse.  John Perkins recognizes this with the U.S. government’s war on poverty.  It left people dependent on the government.

John Perkins

Another important premise is that most Americans (and other westerners) live as though there is nothing wrong in the Majority World.  We have no grasp of how serious things can be, and think a little money can make it all better (or a concert fundraiser).  We live as if not much is wrong.  We don’t need to feel guilty for our wealth, but we do need to think of ourselves as stewards instead of consumers.

Theologically they embrace both the individual and cosmic implications of the redeeming work of Christ.  Yes, there is the forgiveness of sins.  But there is much more too!  Some churches (and Christians) seek to bring forgiveness but neglect the justice of the kingdom.  Some people seek the justice of the kingdom without bringing the forgiveness of the king.  They illustrate this from the story of a southern pastor and civil rights workers.  They both got it partly right and partly wrong.

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Glenn Beck has spread lots of heat, but not much light, on the issue of social justice.  The topic is confusing, particularly since people mean different things by the term.  But the Bible clearly teaches that God is concerned about social justice (just read the Minor Prophets) and that we should be too (try Isaiah too).

Social Justice is a slogan that has been co-opted by any number of groups.  What Beck is afraid of is the kind that is preached by politicians.  Politicians often take the duty of the church and apply it to the state in an effort to get people dependent upon the state (since they don’t believe there is a God anyway).

Some theologians have separated social justice from the gospel.  I don’t mean we are nice to people so we can preach the gospel to them.  I mean that social justice flows out of the gospel.

That means that as the work of Christ is applied to me by the Spirit, I become more like Christ in my character and concerns.  I will act justly and love mercy (Micah 6), as I walk humbly with my God.

This means that social justice is also an expression of the gospel.  It is a foretaste of the new heavens and new earth.  It reveals something (not everything) of God’s heart.

There have been a number of books that have recently come out concerned with social justice.  I haven’t read any of them, but some guys I read have.

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After the introductory chapters on gospel and community, Total Church authors Chester and Timmis begin to practically work them out in a variety of important areas.  They start with evangelism and social involvement.

“Our conviction is that Christian are called to a dual fideltiy- fidelity to the core content of the gospel accompanied by fidelity to the primary context of a believing community.  To ignore or minimize either is not merely to hamstring the task of evangelism; it is effectively to deconstruct it.”

Their thesis is that evangelism focuses on the gospel word within the gospel community.  A phrase often attributed to Francis of Assisi, (apparently falsely) “Preach the gospel; use words if necessary” has wrongly separated gospel preaching and words.  The gospel is a message, so words are necessary.  Sometimes actions are too!

Too often we think of our need to do evangelism individually.  We all have a personal responsibility.  But we all have strengths and weaknesses that should be balanced out in the context of the community.  Not only that, but as the gospel community “incarnates” the gospel, people have an easier time grasping the power of the gospel.

Their vision is to have people bringing people to social events where the gospel is lived and proclaimed by the community.  This takes some of the burden off of us to think we have to answer all questions, address every concern and close the deal like some cold call salesman.  Some are better at building relationships with others and inviting them into the community.  Others are better at discerning the particular gospel issues that need to be addressed.

Does this happen automatically?  No, but the goal is to create a culture of gospel intentionality where the community works together to proclaim the gospel.

“If church and mission are redefined in relational terms, then work, leisure, and family time can all be viewed as gospel activities.  Ordinary life becomes pastoral and missional if we have gospel intentionality.  Watching a film with friends or looking after a burdened mother’s children can simultaneously be family time, leisure, mission, and church.”

The gospel is also about the marginalized (economically, socially, racially etc) experiencing acceptance in the community because of the gospel.  This means that the gospel community is involved in society’s problems.  It does not merely do good, but connects it with the gospel.  We show love because God is love.  We show compassion because God is compassionate.  We offer acceptance because Christ has torn down all dividing walls to create a new living temple.  The grace of God is at stake, as we see in places like James 2.  The church is to be an economically, socially and racially diverse community.

“If our congregations are full of respectable people, then it may be that we have not truly grasped the radical grace of God.”

They make three assertions:

  1. Evangelism and social action are distinct activities.
  2. Proclamation is central.
  3. Evangelism and social action are inseparable.

As with evangelism, Chester and Timmis advocate a healthier, more biblical approach to social action.  We act together, rather than as individuals.  In this way people are connected to the community, and not just an individual.  As a result, the full reality of the gospel is make known from the outset- God saves us into community.  This also protects us from creating a disconnect between evangelism and social action.  The social gospel movement merged the two, losing the distinction and usually the gospel.  Fundamentalism separated the two, often abandoning social involvement in a knee jerk reaction to the social gospel.  We are to distinguish them, but ultimately not separate them as we do the 2 natures of Messiah as well justification and sanctification.

Total church is on the right track here.  It is here they lean on their Reformed heritage rather than the Anabaptist influence which has been more characterized by retreat from society (understandable since they were persecuted greatly in Europe).

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