Saturday, September 26, 2009

What is the Gospel? What is Church?

I first visited Bangladesh in 1994. That visit radically changed my understanding of missions. Over the last 10 years my involvement with crisis relief has taught me that the gospel is not only a message of good news. I have come to understand that God is concerned for the whole person, not just his spirit and soul; not just his eternal salvation but also his whole being here on earth. I have by no means “arrived”. But I wish to share a little of my journey to understanding of a Holistic Gospel, which also changed my understanding of church and ministry and missions.

Spirituality – Individual and Private?

I was a typical evangelical. I was also a typical charismatic, which in some ways made me have an even more lop-sided view of spirituality. Reflecting on my own theology, I have come to realize that spirituality among evangelicals and especially among charismatics is rarely understood or expressed to include love and concern for others. Spirituality is understood only on the individual and personal level/context. Spirituality is individualistic – private daily devotions, understanding of spiritual things, praying in tongues, etc. Spirituality is hardly ever understood in the context of the needs of others in the world. Yet I did not reflect on this until much later that the greatest commandment includes both loving God and loving our neighbors and that surely must have something to say about what true spirituality is, if not being the yardstick or measure of spirituality.

Spiritual v. Non-Spiritual?

I think as evangelicals we commonly view the spiritual world as an interior private place and the spiritual realm as confined to the inner invisible life. Somehow we focus only on this spiritual world, while we leave the state and other human institutions to assume responsibility for what happens in everyday life. Our understanding of the gospel has its focus on eternity and has little to do with politics, economics and social issues of the world around us. From this viewpoint it does not appear to provide answers for the present. It is no wonder that the world thinks we are inadequate and irrelevant. I think we have failed to be salt and light in our communities largely because of our lop-sided theology differentiating between what is “spiritual” and what is “non-spiritual” and focusing only on what we consider as “spiritual”.

Since my first time in Bangladesh, I have through the years re-read the Bible with a new perspective. I do not see the Bible having this differentiation. I have been very much challenged by the words of St. Augustine : “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words”. I believe no matter what culture, background or educational level a person may have, one belief is universal throughout this world : action speaks louder than words. Missions and Gospel must be redefined to reflect more of the Biblical mandate – not only of preaching and teaching but the original mandate given to Abraham – that all nations will be blessed through him (now through us, as children of Abraham) : Gal.3:8

Heaven or Earth?

When we think of the Gospel, we usually think of the Gospel as the message that people need to believe in to get into heaven. So for most Christians, the focus of the Gospel is heaven. And we preach the gospel to try and get more people into heaven. One day however, it hit me that we have got it wrong. In the “Lord’s Prayer” we are taught to pray “Let Your kingdom come and let Your will be done on earth as in heaven”. That tells me that the focus of the Gospel should be earth, not heaven. God wants His kingdom in all its fullness to come to earth. Salvation, as essential as that is, is but a part of that kingdom. God is not only concerned for each person’s eternal future but also his life and his relationships on earth. His kingdom begins here and now. He wants His kingdom to rule both in the hearts of individuals as well as in every family, community, workplace and nation. That necessarily encompasses the physical, mental, emotional and social; not just the spiritual.

Made in the Image of God

Jesus said that the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost. Well, what exactly was lost? Most Christians think only in terms of lost souls that need to be saved. Actually, there is so much more that was lost that Jesus came to restore. To really understand the gospel, we need to go back to Genesis and ask why God created us in the first place. Genesis tells us that God created us in His image. That tells me that it is in looking at Him that we find our purpose.

When we think of God, we usually think of God as one. We also think of God as a Trinity, but when we think of that, we usually think of it only doctrinally. I did not realize this but one day it came to me “out of the blues” that God : Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a community. So what does it mean to be made in the image of God? I believe that God intended us not to be individuals but to be community. We were made to be community - to share and to love. That’s why loving our neighbors as ourselves is part of the greatest commandment, and that has to permeate everything we do as ministry.

Intercession – the Heart of Crisis Relief

When I first started doing crisis relief, I understood it more as a strategy to bring the gospel to unreached peoples. At the first crisis relief training I attended, I learnt that crisis opens doors of opportunity where we can be salt and light and through that we can share the message of the gospel. That was the emphasis. No doubt that is true and that is one of God's strategies for the end times. Most crises happen among the most unreached (who are also the poorest).

However, when I actually began to work among the poor, God spoke to my heart and I began to realize that crisis relief is not only a good strategy from the Lord, but what was more important - crisis relief is about His love for the poor and broken peoples of the world. I began to realize also that crisis relief is actually intercession - God using us to intervene into a community to bring His love into the lives of people. We are there not just to bring a message of love but to actually come alongside the poor and help them rebuild their lives. The Lord began to speak to me and questioned some very fundamental things that I thought I had already understood very well. He asked me what the gospel is. I began to realize that the gospel is His love for the nations and His desire for the nations to be reconciled to Him expressed by 3 Ws : Word , Wonders and Works.

What is the Gospel?

From my observations, most of the evangelical world understands the gospel only in terms of it being Word (message of good news) - the first W : Christians try to tell people that God loves them and they need to be saved. Then came the pentecostal and charismatic move of the Holy Spirit. Christians began to realize that the gospel is not only good news but also signs and wonders. This is the second W. Christians wanted not only to tell people, they wanted to demonstrate the reality of God through the power of signs and wonders. The message was not only a God in heaven but also a God actively operating on earth who wants to set you free right now. The gospel is not only about future salvation in heaven but present salvation on earth too. Not only do you need to be saved, you need to be set free from demonic power and sicknesses etc. Inner healing also came on the scene - God wants to set you free from mental and emotional bondage too.

It appears that much of the church is still on the first W. Many have included the second W into their theology and understanding of the gospel, with some practice of it (only some). Many think that's all there is to the gospel. We think that we have the full gospel now. We call ourselves "Full Gospel” this and “Full Gospel” that. I thought so too. I discovered I was wrong.

I believe God began to show me that there is a third part of the gospel that the evangelical church at large has yet to realize - and for many years I did not realize it. This is represented by the third W : good works. Not just a message of love or the power of God to set you free. The gospel is also the love of God in action. In fact the heart of the gospel is love. Because God loves us, He doesn’t want us to be separated from Him. Because God loves us, He sent His Son. Because God loves us, He does not want us to continue in bondage and His power to set us free is a demonstration of His love for us. And because God loves us, He is concerned for our well being.

God created us to be spirit, soul and body. He is concerned for our whole being. Installing a well for a poor community or starting a health clinic or school in a poor community is not just a good strategy or means to enable us to share the gospel with the people. The installation of the well and the operating of the health clinic and school by themselves, motivated by God’s love, are already part of the Gospel.

Good Works – Good Strategy?

I think many Christians agree that helping people is good. No one disagrees with that. But not many understand that as part of the gospel. I believe God wants us to love people practically; not just talk about His love and not use good works only as a strategy.

When we see good works only as a strategy, then it will be only that way - just a strategy, and people will feel it. They will feel that all we want is to convert them. Can you imagine how you would feel if people of another faith did that to us just to try to win us over to their faith? Surely we would question how genuine their love is. But if we really understand that good works is in itself a part of the gospel as much as the message of John 3:16 is a part of the gospel and as much as God's power to set free is a part of the gospel, then the kingdom of God will come into a community. All 3 are necessary. Otherwise we are not bringing the full gospel to people.

What is Church?

Once our understanding of the gospel changes, then our ourstanding of why we exist as a church will necessarily also change. God has given me the privilege to travel and meet the church in many different nations and cultures. It has been a delight to meet brothers and sisters of various cultures all over the world. Sadly however, from my observations, most churches are introverted and withdrawn from the community around them. There are very few churches that are truly mission-minded. Most churches are still locked into a self-focused and self absorbed mentality. However, even for churches who are very mission minded, most talk of church planting only in terms of the first and second W. Church planting is centered in meetings. Any kind of community projects is seen only as incidental and as a strategy. When I talk of community projects, immediately most churches will think that it costs too much money and too much time and effort, and the time should better be spent doing "outreach, preaching and teaching".

Most churches do not see that good, clean and safe drinking water, and children learning Maths and English, and the creation of work opportunities so that parents can work to earn good profits so that they can feed their children well and not be enslaved to money lenders - that all these are also a very essential part of church. The amazing thing is, we believe all this is absolutely necessary for ourselves and our own children, but not for the people we are trying to reach. Why is that?

I was training a group of pastors and church planters working in very poor areas. I asked them, “If a child in the community was seriously sick and needed emergency medical evacuation, won’t you immediately take him to the hospital?” They answered “yes” without hesitation. I asked, “Why? Are you sure that is part of your ministry as church planters?” They replied, “Yes of course, because we are to love and care for people.”

Then I asked, “So it is part of your ministry to love people only after a problem develops, but it is not a part of your ministry to prevent or mitigate the problem from happening in the first place? You mean giving someone medicine is part of your ministry as church planters, but helping his parents with livelihood so that they can provide nutritious food to that kid and he wouldn’t be so susceptible to sickness is not part of your church planting ministry? And visiting someone in prison is part of ministry, but helping him with getting good income so he wouldn’t get into crime in the first place is not part of ministry?”

They gave me a perplexed look. They confessed they hadn’t thought about that. They said they had been taught in seminary not to get involved in social work but to concentrate on ministry. They confessed that they had been having a fixed mindset/paradigm about church planting and ministry. It is amazing how the church has divorced church planting and ministry from life itself.

Planting Churches?

Actually, I don't like the term "church planting". The term implies something we do to create or bring about a certain grouping, fellowship and meeting of believers in a geographical location. I understand the need for church, but church as I understand it, from how it began in the book of Acts, is a sharing of lives, not a project. God Himself came and shared His life with us. He showed the extent of His love for us and died on the cross for us. Then on the day of Pentecost, which some say is the birth of the church, He poured out His Spirit, His life, upon us. Just as God shares His life with us, church is meant to be a community, a sharing of lives.

We meet, we talk, we share our thoughts, we go on to share our hearts, we make friends. That is how friendship comes about. We do not go about on a project with a target to make 10 friends by the end of this month, do we? If we did that, would that not be rather artificial and "plastic"? In the same way, church as it was meant to be, comes about through a sharing of lives. Church must not be confined to just preaching and teaching and meetings. In sharing of lives we would be concerned for the welfare of the community. In extending the blessings of Abraham, and in being concerned for what God is concerned, we would be concerned for their whole person which ultimately involves restoring their image of themselves as children of God and to recover their vocation as productive stewards of God’s creation. That involves restoring the ability to stand on their own feet and have the dignity of true children of God.

This is so important that we need to remind ourselves and emphasize it repeatedly. In our efforts to “win over the lost” we must not take nutrition, shelter, water, education, health care, etc as just a means of reaching people with the Gospel. All these - nutrition, shelter, water, education, health care, a means of livelihood, etc. are part of the Gospel and ought to be part of our mission. God cares and He has sent us to care irrespective of whether people respond to our message. Of course ultimately we desire that people be reconciled to God and that their eternal future be secured, but love must be unconditional. We should do our part in loving unconditionally and leave to God the results. People know when they are just the “targets” of an evangelistic project or if they are really being loved.

Church or Kingdom?

Here’s another thing that for many years that I did not realize, although I was a leader in church and in full time ministry. It struck me only much later that Jesus talked about church only twice, and He never even explained what He meant by “church”. All the time He kept talking about the kingdom of God. But we keep talking about church.

Imagine if you were Jesus and you were about to leave your apostles and go back to heaven. They are going to be the pioneers of a new worldwide movement called “church”. Won’t you prepare your apostles how to run church? Yet it is really amazing that Jesus never gave a seminar or training to His apostles what church is or should be or how church should be run. Could it be that we have really got it wrong and focused on the wrong thing – “church” instead of “God’s kingdom”? Isn’t it because we keep focusing on church rather than God’s kingdom, that there are now more than 38,000 denominations in the world?

Alongside the spiritual v. non-spiritual trap, this is another reason why the church has failed to be salt and light. We have retreated from the world because we have been focusing on “Church” rather than on the “Kingdom”. Jesus preached the Gospel of the Kingdom, whereas the church has been preaching the Gospel of Salvation. What’s the difference?

From the Salvation perspective - this world is evil, this world is perishing; have nothing to do with it. Let's get people saved from this world and its systems. Let’s get people into our churches and keep them away from this bad, bad world. Soon Jesus will return and take us away to heaven.

From the Kingdom perspective however, Jesus came to redeem all things to Himself. God is concerned with every aspect of what’s happening in this world, in people’s lives. Christians should be penetrating into the world and influencing and affecting the world by their values. Christians should be taking the lead in business, education, entertainment, sports, engineering, science, technology, civil administration, government, social concerns, family, environment, etc. to model to the world Kingdom values. Jesus told us to occupy till He comes; not run and hide till He comes.

On re-reading my Bible, I find that “church” is just the Body of Christ or the people of God. God did not intend the church to be an institution, organization or structure to do evangelism or missions or ministry. The command to disciple nations and to love and serve is to the church as the people of God, not to the church as an institution or organization or structure. But because we think of the church as the institution or organ to do ministry, that is why in an average church less than 10% of its members are engaged in ministry. 90% are just spectators, leaving it to the “full-time” people or their leaders to do that.

How did we become the way we are now? I think it has a lot to do with church history. It all began with how the pagan emperor Constantine became a Christian in order to solidify his political power and as part of his strategy he institutionalized the church. How sad that up till today, we continue to follow that unbiblical model or structure.

If we confine “ministry” to the “spiritual”, and therefore only “full time” ministry workers do the work of the ministry, we will never be able to fulfill God’s mandate in Matt.28 to disciple nations, because the rate at which we are raising up “full time” ministry workers is being far exceeded by the natural birth rate of nations by millions of times. Instead, if “ministry” is understood not only as preaching, teaching, prayer, Bible study, etc. but being agents of reconciliation and transformation in every aspect of life and bringing the whole counsel of God and of His rule to every work place and community, and the skills and natural talents of every Christian is seen as ministry and harnessed and released into the world, only then would we be discipling nations and allowing His kingdom to come through us. Our role would not be to try and get people to heaven, but to live out kingdom values and be God’s agent for His kingdom to come into every sphere of life.

Entering Into Their World

One day I reflected on how God came as a man to dwell among us. The Word became flesh. God did not just throw down some food from heaven, or send His prophets with a rescue plan. He Himself came in person to identify with our situation. Jesus identified especially with the poor, with those who were the outcasts and rejects of society and He said, “As the Father has sent me, so send I you”. Just as He entered into our world, we are to enter into the world of those in need. Jesus emptied Himself and became a servant. We are called to the same thing – to serve, to be a servant, not to show them the way things ought to be done or to tell them what to do. It is not to be “big brother” to them or to go to them with a “savior mentality”.

When we understand this, then we will realize that the gospel is not just a philosophy, or a concept or a message that can be objectively stated and that we convey through verbal, written or some other kind of communication. The gospel is not just about Jesus; the gospel is Jesus - the Word made flesh. In the same way, the gospel cannot be a message that is separate from who we are. The gospel has to be "fleshed out". It is a living message. We have to be the gospel. We have to be the living Bible, read by all who we seek to share our faith and our lives.

May His Spirit so live in us and so move us to be good news for all we seek to share Jesus with. May they feel from our hearts and see on our faces something of His beauty and love.

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