Saturday, June 26, 2010

Advice to Young Leaders #4 of 10 - Preach the Right Gospel

This is the fourth post of ten in my series of advice for younger leaders. Here's the working list:

4. Make sure you are preaching the right gospel.
5. Woo your city.
6. Decide whom you will offend before offending them.
7. Get serious about a hobby.
8. Influence.
9. Be part of your own church.
10. Don't let people need you too much.

Advice #4: Make sure you are preaching the right gospel.

I hope that this has and will be a very practical series for those of you following along. I can tend to live in the world of philosophy and theology more than day-to-day reality. This series is forcing me to communicate how my beliefs have actually worked into the fabric of my life. For that, it has been an unexpected personally rewarding exercise.

This bit of advice, though, is squarely theological: you should fully know the gospel you are preaching. I spent my early years in ministry assuming that I understood the gospel of Jesus, but I can confidently say that I did not. At best, I knew the gospel partially. That is a rather remarkable statement considering my life story. My family was converted to an evangelical church when I was eight years old. I grew up never missing a church service. My early childhood memories revolve around church. I can clearly remember the first time that I heard the stories of the patriarchs in Sunday School as a second grader. I was enthralled. I had a quick mind as a child and memorized Scriptures easily. As I grew up, I found greater community and acceptance at church than in middle and high school, so I practically lived at the church. I became a student leader in my youth group and was allowed to even teach Bible classes and sermons to the adults from time to time. I had entire books of the Bible memorized by the time I was 15 years old.

It only made sense for me to go to Bible College and pursue vocational ministry. I went to Cincinnati Christian University and began my studies there. At the time they had every incoming student take a Bible trivia test to get a handle on their knowledge. They had us take the same test after graduation to see how much we had learned in our time there. A faculty advisor pulled me aside after I took test as a freshman to tell me that I had scored the second highest marks of anyone since they had started administering the test. Basically, I knew a lot of Bible stuff before I officially started learning Bible stuff. You'd think that a kid like me would have clearly understood the gospel of Jesus...but I was relatively clueless. (For the record, after four years of college I actually dropped two points on the trivia test. That might have been a positive sign, though.)

I graduated with honors and went off to work as a pastor and church planter in Sin City. I hit the ground running - preaching 50 plus "sermons" per year my first three years in ministry. Despite all my "knowledge" and my near prodigy status as a pastor, I was more or less preaching the exact same gospel that I remembered hearing when I was eight years old. My gospel went something like this: "Every individual is a sinner bound for hell. Jesus died for your sins. Repent and give your life to God so that you can go to heaven when you die."

You have no doubt heard that gospel. The problem with it is not so much that it is a false gospel. The problem with it - according to the testimony of Jesus and his disciples - is that it isn't the whole gospel, or even the main point of Jesus' message. Individual eternal bliss and/or damnation is to the gospel what a celebration parade is to the Lakers or Yankees. It's a small ultimate experience of a much greater, broader reality.

I have written about this here time and time again, so I won't go into deeply now. But the gospel of Jesus is the gospel of the Kingdom. The good news is the Kingdom. The good news is not simply that there is now a solution to your personal individual sin problem. That's like saying this coming October, "Good news! The Cincinnati Reds are having a parade!" Well, it is good news I suppose. Parades can be fun. However, the really good news would be that the Reds are World Series Champions. The result would be a parade to celebrate the reality of a championship season. The reality is that a championship has come. For Christians, the reality is that the Kingdom has come. Your afterlife is a significant, happy result of the Kingdom come. Not the other way around.

So why is this such a big deal? Isn't it just semantics? I don't think so. A gospel without Kingdom centrality leads to a highly individualized, human-centered gospel...which leads to a highly individualized, human-centered church or ministry. A gospel that is all about you (your sin) will remain all about you (your happiness). If you find yourself in situations where you are teaching others, always teach the Kingdom. Don't teach anything that cannot submit to the grid of the Kingdom. Show your people what it looks like when God reigns on planet earth. Teach the selfish to pray, "thy Kingdom come" until they really mean it. As a student, devote yourself tireless to understanding and experiencing the reality of the Kingdom of God. If, like me, you had previously accepted a human-centered gospel, then repent and run with passion toward a gospel rooted in the the good news of the coming Kingdom of the Trinitarian God.

I found an email in my inbox this morning from a government employee who recently attended an event at our church. Last night we hosted a party for 1,000 adults with special needs in our city. We do this a few times per year. The idea came from the heart of one our pastors, Harmony Hensley. Harmony is a leader who understands the gospel of the Kingdom and desires more than anything for the Kigndom to come to those who are forgotten and unloved by the Kingdom of this world. I have removed the person's name and agency below, but I wanted to close this point with one example of what happens when the gospel we preach isn't about us...but about God and his desire to reign in our city:

I cannot thank you enough for the extraordinary ways you go overboard to demonstrate genuine respect and dignity towards individuals with disabilities through events like last night’s Luau.

We had 30 staff at the Luau last night to help and we could have had 60. I was turning them away up to the last minute because we had all of the roles filled. And then I was shocked at the hard-core, seasoned staff who were moved to tears watching people they’ve supported for years having the time of their lives side by side with “typical” junior high and high school students. It is the stuff of our dreams. I had to hold tight to my professional face myself more than once.

We feel like we have fought long and hard to have people with disabilities respected and accepted by society with limited success, and what you all at VCC are doing has already surpassed our efforts by light years. So, thank you, even though those simple two words do not even begin to express the depth of our gratitude.

In my opinion this is one answer to the prayer, "...thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven..." 


Laurie said...

One day several years ago I was driving home and listening to a Christian radio station. There was a man who had been in prison for many reasons, found Jesus and was now leading an awesome prison ministry. I remember thinking, "God, I don't have a cool story like that, that I can use to witness about you." I had been born and raised in a christian home and live a quiet life following Christ. I heard a small voice say, "teach them about Me." I then realized it isn't always about our individual stories, it is always about God and His story. Thanks Joe

Thomas said...

Rock on Joe! That's reminds me: There's a story that spurgeon told about about a poor man who grows a huge carrot. He goes to the king and he gives the king this carrot because he loves the king. The King thanks him graciously, and just as this good-hearted peasant is walking out the door, the King call him back. He says to the peasant, Where is your land? The peasant tells the King and the King tells his courtier, I have a plot next to this man's land, give it to this peasant and it will double his peasant's land. It is a joy for me to give this gift to him, because he has loved me well and truly. The courtier follows the king's orders but he gets to conniving. He decides to give the king a horse. He does the math: if the peasant doubled his land for a carrot, think what I'll get for a horse. So he gives the king his horse and the king thanks him. He leaves but the king does not call him back or give a him a portion of land. Later the King calls him to him: "Perhaps you were expecting to receive land in exchange for your horse?" The courtier, ashamed, says nothing. "The peasant gave me his carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse." Walking the Gospel with your motivation being to get to heaven is worshipping gifts before Giver.

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