Yesterday I attended one of the "12 Conversations in 12 Cities" leading up to the Lausanne meeting in October in Capetown, South Africa. The focus was the relationship between the church, the gospel and social justice. A panel of respected Christian thinkers and leaders interacted on some difficult questions, and it was a good and worthwhile time.
Listening, the basic question came to me: What, exactly, is the gospel? I think some of our problem is that we have failed to fully understand this term with all its implications. Some refer to a "social gospel" while others hold to a "spiritual gospel."
First, the word means good news. Most Christians know that. But thinking about what we present to others as "gospel" in light of the definition is a worthwhile activity.
Is what I tell others about God and his redemptive and reconciliatory actions good news? Both in my words and my actions? Perhaps. But not necessarily.
It depends on me. Paul wrote (II Corinthians 5) that we are the representatives of Jesus, and it's as though God were speaking through us, making his appeal to the world for reconciliation. So then we might say that we are a walking, talking gospel, an advertisement for God. Examined in that light, is what my life says good news to others? Is there a reason they should want what I have?
For most of the 20th century, the American church was split: the "social gospel" folks on one side of the fence, and the "if you died right now, would you go to heaven" folks on the other side. In recent years, the animosity between these two extreme positions has lessened somewhat, partly due to the growth of an evangelical movement that has sought a more balanced middle way.
With this is a shift among many American evangelical Christians to a better understanding of the gospel. For these, it's not "spiritual" or "social," but something bigger that includes both.
For much of the evangelical church, the good news is no longer about simple and - in the minds of most people - irrelevant questions about heaven. In fact, I'll argue that the very question ("If you died right now would you go to heaven?") indicates a badly distorted and unbiblical understanding of what God is about.
The gospel, as often presented, is a long ways from good news to anyone. How can what might happen some distant day be good news to someone who is living a hell-on-earth life? Does God not care about life here and now as well? (And as a matter of fact, there is nowhere in scripture that says anyone will spend eternity in heaven.)
When we pass out tracts about heaven and hell and are concerned only with one's "eternal destiny," and have no interest in the difficult and often dirty aspects of life here and now, we are telling the world we have nothing of relevance to their lives.
Perhaps the best place to seek an understanding of good news is in the Bible. In the Gospels, I think it's interesting that most of the time, Jesus was busy meeting the everyday needs of the people: food and health. He didn't say a lot about "when you die...," but was focused on "right now."
And if we look to the Old Testament, at ancient Israel, we will see that being "a light to the nations" wasn't about making them into Jews or even worshippers of the God of Abraham. Israel was told to practice justice, to demonstrate the blessing of a people living under the one true and living God. Over and over, Israel was exhorted to practice justice, and blasted when they refused.
So what's the good news for us?
I'm a member of a church that is perhaps 40-50 percent refugees, with a few immigrants thrown in for flavor. They come from eight or ten different countries, and are Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus.
Yes, you read it right: There are non-Christians who come to our church. Not many, but they are there. And I have noticed something, as I have been involved especially with Burmese refugees. Many are Christians, but not all. But Buddhists have no interest in hearing any Christian "good news." Nor do the Muslims. They don't consider Jesus as good news at all.
And yet, they have material needs. And some of these "needy" Buddhists and Muslims are coming and saying they want to become Christians. Nobody told them "the plan of salvation." Nobody gave them an evangelical "invitation." We don't speak their language well enough to do that, in any case. So why do they come?
"Christians take care of each other." The Christian community among the Burmese has a reputation for taking care of people. The Buddhists do not. The Muslims do not. And when people come to our church, asking for help, they are never asked if they are Christians. They receive help.
So now, we see a working definition of the gospel that is truly good news. It's what Jesus did. He loved them and met their needs, and they responded.
We love people, try to meet their needs, and accept them as they are. And they see the difference. And after a time, some are coming and saying, "I want what you have. I want to be a Christian."
That's good news.