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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Five (reinforced) fundamentals for an evangelical future

In an article on the Christianity Today website Ed Stetzer dismisses the doom-sayers and gloom-mongers who think that the church is in terminal decline and puts forward five fundamentals for an evangelical future. I am of a naturally cheerful disposition, but I think his analysis and proposals are superficial and naïve. Jeremiah warned Israel against the complacency of the false prophets who said that the people would never go into exile, or if they did, that it wouldn’t be for long, a couple of years at the most (Jer. 7:1-15; 28:10-16). Sometimes the pessimists are right.

Stetzer is confident that the sky is not falling for evangelicals: we just need to “face some truths and change some behaviors to reach the world with the message of the gospel”. He is looking five to ten years down the road, but I think that is short-sighted. That sort of outlook just keeps us trying to do the same things only slightly better.

Historically speaking, Christianity in the West is where classical paganism was in the fourth and fifth centuries. It’s on the way out. It’s had its day. It’s a thing of the past.

Paul was enough of a bonkers visionary to say to the men of Athens that centuries of polytheistic ignorance were about to be brought to a juddering halt. The God of Israel had fixed a day when he would judge the ancient oikoumenē (Acts 17:30-31).

The conversion of the empire vindicated the radical faith of the early believers and introduced 1500 years of Christian dominance in the West. But over the last two or three hundred years Christianity has been subjected to the same humiliation that it inflicted on classical paganism long ago. It has been driven from the public domain in the name of the secular trinity of Reason, Freedom and Progress—or however we wish to name the new gods.

The world has moved on.

The church has certainly proved highly adept at reinventing, repackaging, and rebranding itself, but that won’t work forever. Since the end of the second world war we must have pretty much exhausted the options—crusade evangelism, the charismatic movement, church growth, alt worship, emerging church, missional church, fresh, messy expressions of church, neomonasticism, and so on.

Sooner or later we will have to come to terms with the scale of the challenge that we face. I suggest, therefore, that Stetzer’s five fundamentals need reinforcing.

1. A clear understanding of the gospel

Because we are talking about evangelicalism, I suppose this has to come first, but it is a fundamental mistake, in my view, to limit the “gospel” to the assertion that “new life is from Jesus’ death on the cross, for our sin and in our place”.

The “gospel” is not a free-floating truth. It’s not a universal bargain. It’s not a meme just waiting to go viral. It is part of a story, and if the story does not in some manner precede our account of the “gospel”, then evangelicalism will grossly misrepresent itself to the world.

Traditionally, evangelicalism has made the gospel part of a personal narrative about sin, new life, and a final triumph over death. But that is not what we have in the New Testament. The story that frames and explains “gospel” in the New Testament is a historical one, the story of Israel.

The proclamation of good news in the early churches looked back to Jesus’ death and resurrection: this is how Jesus saved his people and became king.

It looked forward to judgment, vindication and rule—first with respect to Israel, then with respect to the nations.

The gospel was a statement about what God was doing in Israel’s world.

In this narrative context the evangelistic ministry of the followers of Jesus outlined a protracted, far-reaching, world-changing transition in the historical experience of the people of God. Whatever “good news” we have for people today, either inside or outside the church, is grounded in that historical transition.

But I am inclined to say that it is not the world that needs to hear good news right now but the church.

Isaiah proclaimed good news to Zion, and it was only later that the significance of the predicted intervention of God for the nations became apparent.

Jesus proclaimed good news to Israel, and it was only later that the apostles realised the implications of this development for the nations.

I am inclined to say that it is not the world that needs to hear good news right now but the church.

If the church again faces a very uncertain future, then we need to hear the good news that God is with us, fashioning a new future for his people out of the unsettling experience of humiliation, defeat and cultural exile. It may then be some time before we grasp the implications of this painful reformation of the church for an increasingly global secularism. But this is all beyond Stetzer’s pragmatist purview.

So I am all in favour of the keeping the label “evangelical”: it reminds us of our obligation to say something important and good about God, and in the British context it comes with much less baggage. But it needs redefining in narrative-historical terms.

2. A stronger focus on discipleship

For Stetzer discipleship is aimed firmly at the individual believer: the “largest statistical study of its kind” shows that we just need “to remind people to live out who God has made us in Christ”. Add all the discipled individuals together and you get a healthy church.

But individualism is the problem, not the solution. We are unlikely to counter the malaise of our obsession with the self, which has to be one of the most enervating characteristics of the modern evangelical church, by starting with the individual. It doesn’t matter how good our statistics are.

In scripture the formation of the people of God is determined by narrative context. We must approach discipleship not by teaching individuals to live out of their personal relationship with God but by telling a relevant story about the community in relation to the Western cultural context. From that story we will learn what sort of people we need to be. 

3. A greater passion for mission

Stetzer makes this a matter of opposing the “clergification” of the church and getting the whole of God’s people involved in “mission”. There is undoubtedly some point to this, but the focus is again on method. The analysis doesn’t begin to face up to the existential challenge posed to the church at the end of the Christian era.

So here’s the overriding task, as I see it. As we drift into the age-to-come, Christianity needs to be saved from the fate that befell classical paganism. It needs to be saved from becoming a museum piece—or there will be no future for the people of God, not in the West at least.

But there’s another side to this coin, a more fundamental missional challenge, if you like—that the name of God should be hallowed among the nations.

We’ve been here before. Ezekiel declared that YHWH would gather the exiles and bring them back to the land, not for their sake but because his name had been brought into disrepute among the nations:

And I will sanctify my great name, which was profaned among the nations, which you profaned in their midst, and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, when I am hallowed among you before their eyes. (Ezek. 36:23 LXX)

That was the mission of God.

Likewise, Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God would act as king to save his people and that through this action his name would be “hallowed” among the nations—I paraphrase slightly (Matt. 6:9-10).

I think these texts give us a simple and highly pertinent model for the Missio Dei today. God is saving his people from historical irrelevance, from an obsolescence of the age; and in the process he is re-establishing his own reputation in the secular West. 

4. Evangelism in the age of the Nones

According to Stetzer Americans live in a “post-seeker context”, so churches “will have to find new ways to lead their people to reach out to their neighbors”. It’s all about method. Again.

It’s not poor method that enfeebles evangelistic activity. It’s the lack of a compelling, historically relevant message about the living creator God. We simply don’t know what to say.

Jesus’ gospel was not the offer of personal salvation to friends and neighbours. It was the dire warning that God was about to judge and restore his people.

Paul’s gospel was not the offer of personal salvation, cleverly presented in new and exciting ways to different people groups. It was the outrageous proclamation to the powers-that-be, to the nations of the empire, that YHWH was about to turn the ancient world upside-down.

Until we develop a narrative on that sort of scale, evangelism will be no more than an uncomfortable and largely futile exercise in turning back the clock.

5. New thinking in developing best practices

If the most that we can expect from “new thinking” is better ways to perpetuate an old paradigm, then I humbly suggest that evangelicalism really doesn’t have much of a future. Evangelicalism needs a new story to tell about itself—not out of a misplaced trust in novelty but because it hasn’t yet faced up to the way the world is changing. For that, we need to learn some hard lessons from history. 

Comments

Andrew. As you know I have had issues with some important aspects of what you teach. Perhaps I still do. However on the points you raise here I am totally with you. I’ve been saying similar things for years. My circle is small!! There is a rising tide of change … In my view Some it bad ( Chalke/mclaren) some of it very good ( McKnight / wright) the opposition is immense much of it hyper pro Israel, pro individualism, decision based, pro big time hell, but things are changing I observe but it will take time. You are so right, I would add, the gospel is immense, huge , vast in scope and scale. We so need to recover it and him in all his glory!!

Hi Andrew,
I really like this paragraph, “Until we develop a narrative on that sort of scale, evangelism will be no more than an uncomfortable and largely futile exercise in turning back the clock,” but I wonder if you meant to use it twice or simply forgot to delete one instance of it.

A good paragraph is always worth repeating, but for stylistic reasons it has to go. Thanks for pointing it out.

Thank you for this post.
So Andrew, what do you make of the final throw away line in Ed Stetzer’s blog - “I’ve read the end of the book”? It seems to me that an ethic of “winning” is implicit in the attempt to somehow find the right operationalist formulae for keeping the show on the road.
Keep up the good work.

That may well be right. My own take on the comment, though, is that Stetzer has misread the end of the book. There is certainly a “coming” of Jesus towards the end of the book of Revelation, but it has to do with the triumph of the church over pagan Rome. That’s when Jesus (and the suffering church) wins. Beyond that it is not Jesus but the creator who “wins” (though that language is absent) or is finally vindicated, when he renews heaven and earth, and the last enemies are destroyed.

In view of that, I wonder what Stetzer thinks that Jesus is doing until he returns. What does he imagine he is being part of? Jesus is currently reigning at the right hand of God, along with the martyrs. Is that what Stetzer has in mind?

Andrew,

There is certainly a “coming” of Jesus towards the end of the book of Revelation, but it has to do with the triumph of the church over pagan Rome. That’s when Jesus (and the suffering church) wins. Beyond that it is not Jesus but the creator who “wins” (though that language is absent) or is finally vindicated, when he renews heaven and earth, and the last enemies are destroyed.

So, according to your eschatology, everything has been completed except:

1) some renewed physical earth and “heaven” - although I’m not sure what a new heaven means in your view. And why does heaven need renewed, or the physical earth for that matter?

2) the last enemy, which I assume you assign to physical death?

What I find strange in your view is that:

1) you have God and Jesus wrapping everything up in a matter of ~450 years (Jesus’ birth to the fall of Rome), which was all foretold via the OT Prophets etc., and then God checking out with no word via either a Prophet or Scripture. The Church is left in completed silence, on its own with no direction or warning of judgement - something YHWH always provided to Israel - concerning anything.

2) it took him only 450 years to complete everything except the two items above and now an additional 1566 years have passed. Why wouldn’t YHWH go ahead and finish up the last two items? Why wouldn’t they just be included in the same previous work? Why would they be separated out? What is he waiting for? Seems the hard stuff was already accomplished, wouldn’t you say? It’s not like man has any part to play in the last two remaining items.

-Rich

Hi Rich. Thanks for probing, as always!

There are a number of passages in the Jewish apocalyptic literature that differentiate between a political resolution to the crisis facing Israel and a later and greater cosmic resolution resulting in some sort of renewal of heaven and earth. Heaven, of course, is as much part of creation as earth is.

Some texts focus only on the political resolution, others on the cosmic. A few significant texts speak of both and insert an indefinite period of time between them.

It seems to me that Revelation 18-22 coheres with this outlook. The focus is naturally on the immediate political outcome, because it brings to a climax, as you acknowledge, a prophetic expectation that eventually the dominant pagan powers would be overthrow and YHWH would inherit the nations.

But the political YHWH is also the creator God, so the apocalyptic vision must also include, if only in principle, after an indefinite period of time (the thousand years), a final judgment and remaking of heaven and earth.

Your difficulties arise, it seems to me, because you are trying to rationalise it from a modern, post-Christendom perspective. I think to a first century Jew or Jewish-Christian or even Gentile believer it would have made excellent sense.

But, yes, it leaves us with a challenge in telling the continuing story.

Love that you included Tim Keller’s quote. The scale of the change required to recapture the essence of Acts 2~4 is vast, yet I sense and see it is happening. Total death to my stinking thinking is mandatory. The blindness I have about all the things my culture has inculcated me with must be disrupted. So much of what we (western world view mindset) see and believe is nothing more than our filtering of what the Bible actually says and means. Jesus only said and did what He say the Father doing, how much more should that be our modus operandi. The gospel is extremely good news - the path we are on needs to change, be totally re-aligned with the truth (evidenced and demonstrated, made manifest in a person). As we live out that same reality, others will be drawn to it, embrace it and also live it out.