The last blog dealt, essentially, with the tendency in this culture to equate the gospel with physical provision accomplished through Christian service. Again, this is not wrong, but must not be disconnected from the vocal proclamation of the gospel and the truths that must be acknowledged and surrendered to for genuine transformation and regeneration to occur. This blog will address another danger to the gospel here in America, namely the tendency to equate the gospel with relational happiness and a community to find belonging in.
Here again we must be clear about what is wrong and what is not. Obviously relationships and relational investment in the lives of lost people is hardly wrong. They are often critical to people’s conversions. Community is a biblical concept, there is no denying this either. And yet, many today have made relationships and community into the good news of Christianity, the very essence of the gospel message itself. Recently I listened to an advertisement on a Christian radio station. It began by addressing the loneliness and isolation that many today experience. Human beings are made for relationships they say. It then continues by proclaiming that the answer to this great need can be found just down the road at a local church, where friends and family are waiting to meet them. Notice what this message is ACTUALLY communicating: come be a part of the church in order to meet your relational needs.
Now, some might see this as harmless. However, the gospel is again at stake here. Is the good news of Christianity that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brings us into right relationship with God (which then leads to belonging and community in the church) first and foremost, or is it that it simply provides us with a new set of friends that help us meet our relational needs? The correct answer, at least biblically, is the former.
Some may see this as not only subtle, but a matter of splitting hairs. Is it or not? I would argue that it’s far more than splitting hairs. And here are two reasons why.
First, as with the argument in the previous blog, there is nothing distinctly Christian about relationships in and of themselves. Someone doesn’t need the church to find community. Go to a bar. That’s why people pay way more money for beer at a bar than just buying their own and staying home. Community is why they go there. I’ve heard it said that the bar is the lost man’s church. There is probably some truth to the expression. Go to a gym. Join the PTA. Get to know your neighbors. You can find friends in all kinds of places. You can also find friends in lots of false religions. Occults are some of the friendliest places one will find (until one gets further into things). Surely this is not the good news Christianity brings to the world. If it is, it’s not very impressive (or unique). We water down the gospel when we turn it into something primarily concerned with relational impoverishment.
Second, this kind of emphasis can shield people from understanding what their real need is and how Christ comes to address it. Humans have always been deceived, misunderstanding what is truly important and what is not. Our standing with God is our greatest need. We may have family problems, we may have marriage problems, we may have work problems, we may have health problems, etc…, but none of those, as pressing as they may seem to us every day, is anywhere close to being our biggest problem. They are not our most urgent needs. Our standing before a holy God, our maker, sustainer, ruler, father, and judge, is what matters more than anything. Eternity is at stake here. Eternity is not at stake with any of those other problems. D. A. Carson in his book, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, says this: “If God had perceived that our greatest need was economic, He would have sent an economist. If he had perceived that our greatest need was entertainment, He would have sent us a comedian or an artist. If God had perceived that our greatest need was political stability, He would have sent us a politician. If He had perceived that our greatest need was health, he would have sent us a doctor. But He perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from Him (emphasis mine), our profound rebellion, our death; so He sent us a Savior….Worse, many in this generation attend church to find peace and happiness, not pardon and holiness.”
I fear that far too many people come to church because they like the people in their Sunday school class, or they like playing church league softball, or they like that their kids have a Christian influence on their lives, but they never address their real need for Christ and they never really commit themselves to true Christian discipleship. They’re just looking for relationships. Community. Belonging. And they do this because of the great relational emptiness many in our culture are looking to fill, and because this is who we’ve told them we are as the church. And as long as they continue to fill pews/chairs/bar stools/whatever else people sit on in church nowadays, many church leaders won’t stir the pot. And so people are left in their deception. Church may indeed really not be about God when it’s all said and done for many churchgoers, as absurd as it may sound.
Relationships, like our witness of love and service, open doors and provide opportunities to share the message of truth, the gospel of Jesus Christ. We should certainly invest relationally in people’s lives, both believers and non-believers alike. But again, this will not be our challenge in this culture. Our challenge will be focusing on man and God, rather than man and fellow man. Our challenge will be addressing their deeper need of sinfulness before a holy God, a message that most people don’t want to be confronted with. Biblical community should also be understood as being selfless and sacrificial rather than self-fulfilling and receiving. Our community is driven by our common purpose of fulfilling the great commission, not simply meeting personal needs. It has always been ministry driven and kingdom focused. So understanding the purpose of biblical community and relationships is also helpful in maintaining proper balance.
Relationships are not the gospel. Relational fulfillment is not the good news of Christianity. It is not what the church has to offer the world first and foremost. Jesus satisfies the wrath of God on our behalf and gives us His righteousness so that we can become children of God and not enemies of God. This provision ensures eternity with Him first and foremost. This is the good news. Relationships with the unbelieving back provide the opportunity for the gospel’s hearing. Relationships, belonging and community with other believers are a by-product of the marvelous work God has done in our lives. Satisfying and purposeful yes, but the gospel by no means. Let us be cautious in making sure we get the gospel right.