By Frank Decker
A defining moment in a Japanese restaurant near my office took place when a number of us from various ministries around the world were chatting about missions over lunch. The conversation was candid and stimulating. After one African leader had shared about ambitious plans to reach Muslims in the northern half of his continent, his rather traditional strategy of extracting Muslims from their cultural context was challenged by a man who had over three decades of experience ministering among Muslims in Asia. “That method hasn’t worked in 1,400 years, what makes you think it will work now?” Our conversation eventually shifted from discussing tactics to identifying the reasons for those strategies as the leader of the Asian ministry looked his African brother in the eye and asked this simple question: “What is the gospel?”
The question, albeit basic, is essential. If a missionary is not cognizant of the distinction between the transcendent gospel of Jesus and the post-biblical traditions familiar to the missionary, then both the biblical message and the cultural traditions will likely be presented indistinguishably together in a package that is presented as if it is the gospel, the whole gospel, and nothing but the gospel. This is one reason why I often ask prospective missionary candidates, “What, exactly, is your message?”
The altar call, the sinner’s prayer, church buildings, the distinction between clergy and laity, and the current role of the professional pastor are five of over sixty post-biblical traditions cited in Frank Viola and George Barna’s Pagan Christianity? Exploring the Roots of our Church Practices. These things are not necessarily bad; they simply are not the gospel. They have helped people live out the gospel in certain cultural contexts, which may or may not be helpful in other contexts. Even the assumption that all believers in Jesus should be referred to as “Christians” is not an inherent part of the gospel message, and is a conjecture that foments the fallacious and even obstructive assumption that Jesus came to start a religion rather than usher in the kingdom of God.
One could argue that even the creeds were hammered out in a particular cultural context; and so they might have legitimately been quite different if they had been initially written, say, in China. And, as E. Stanley Jones has reminded us, our historic creeds are sadly lacking in an important emphasis (or even mention, in the case of the Apostle’s Creed) of the kingdom of God, a crucial element of Jesus’ teaching.
Ever since I entered full-time ministry almost 30 years ago I’ve been revisiting that crucial question, “What is the gospel?” In the process, I began to notice passages of Scripture that give a summary of the gospel message, and began making a list of these “nutshell gospels.” I Corinthians 15:1-8 and I Peter 2:21-24 are two examples from different New Testament authors.
Biblical scholar C.H. Dodd’s research of the content of scriptural apostolic preaching has helped me conclude that a solid, biblical summary of the gospel is this:
• In the fullness of time, God sent Jesus Messiah as the scriptures foretold.
• He died in shame on a cross, bearing our sins.
• He rose again from the dead.
• He is now Lord, which he proves by his Spirit today.
• God’s kingdom will be consummated when Jesus returns.
• Therefore repent, believe, and live as a member of God’s kingdom.
I normally don’t recite these points when witnessing to someone, but I find this to be a helpful outline to keep in mind. It is a message that finds its way into other cultures without necessarily being wrapped in western Christianity. It enables the non-believer to see Jesus rather than a religion. And, while the end result may not look like First United Methodist Church down the street, the point is that people meet Jesus.
Even if the gospel we share is biblical, it is not attractive to others unless the work of Jesus is evident in our lives. Otherwise, the message becomes merely theoretical; a danger in our age of information. In fact, I am convinced that the less we actually experience the living Jesus, the more apt we are to depend on intricate theologies in order to explain his apparent absence as a reality in our lives.
People from all cultures and religious traditions are hungering for Jesus—not necessarily our brand of religion. Whether or not they see him could depend on how we answer the question, “What is the gospel?”
Frank Decker is the vice president for mission operations at The Mission Society and a long-time columnist for Good News.