Following the dashed hopes of revival something radical changed in our understanding of church during the noughties, with the advent of what I call the ’16-9′ gospel. But in order to understand it, we’ll need to go backwards a bit. One of the biggest points of contention during my teenage years was the ‘Evangelism vs Social Action’ debate. In other words, is it the job of the church to win people to personal faith in Jesus, or should we be out feeding the hungry, clothing the poor etc? Whilst in theory we kind of knew that we ought really to be doing both, in real life Christians polarised to one extreme or the other. We’re not here to be social workers, one lot said, while the other lot replied that we couldn’t possibly expect people to hear the gospel while they were starving. It was suggested that we should do social action things in order to do evangelism, which was after all the real task, which Jesus himself did, but then Jesus actually did feed the hungry and heal the sick too. So the debate went on, and where you found yourself was, of course, highly dependent on which kind of a church you had been nurtured in.
Along with many others in the church, I came to realise that the gospel I had been brought up with, and had sought to communicate to others, was a gospel which began with personal sin and ended with personal salvation. I was a sinner, Jesus came a died on the cross for me, so if I wanted to I could have his forgiveness and a new start. And of course we had the right Bible verses, in the right order, to back this up: Romans 3:23 ‘All have sinned …’, Romans 6:23 ‘The wages of sin is death …’ John 3:16 ‘God so loved the world that he sent …’ Romans 10:9 ‘If you declare with your mouth and believe in your heart … you will be saved.’ Bob’s your uncle.
I don’t have a problem with this as it stands, but we caught on to the fact that this was a ‘centre cut-out’ view of the gospel. On my telly, if you want to watch old films with subtitles, films which were made in a 4:3 format, you have to set it to centre cut-out, so you can see it properly but have two black lines down the sides of the screen. But for more modern wide-screen programmes you change the format to 16:9 and the black bands disappear, allowing you to see the whole picture. Thus it was with the gospel: switch to 16:9 and you can see that things began with creation, the story of a God who made, loves and sustains the cosmos. The story will one day end with a renewed creation, as a new heaven and a new earth, restored by their creator, come into being. The personal fall and personal salvation of human beings are merely the middle chapters of the great drama of God’s redemption.
What this means is that we are saved for a purpose: to work with God towards the renewal of all things, and the defeat of all that spoils and mars his beloved creation. If I am a character in a novel, my task is to behave throughout in such a way that when the final dénouement comes on the last page my part has made sense. So, the church came to realise, there is no great war between evangelism and social concern: they are all part of God’s great redemptive plan in which he calls us to join. We live now in the direction of the future which we believe is coming.
Next week we’ll look at church from a slightly different point of view as we begin to examine some biblical models of church, their strengths and weaknesses, and the effects they may have if we focus on them too exclusively.