Presenting the Gospel to a Modern World
To a new generation of people
we must present the gospel
©1999 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.
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The modern generation of mankind (sometimes referred to as "Generation X") are living in an age characterized by increased self-awareness. They are searching for identity, meaning, purpose, a raison d'être (reason to be). As they consider themselves and their lives, they are often confronted with emptiness and meaninglessness.
In the seventeenth century, Blaise Pascal noted that "when a man is left with nothing but himself to face, he usually falls into boredom, melancholy or despair." Such is certainly indicative of the modern generation.
As this new generation is trying to "find themselves," they are offered all the trendy self-help methods and therapies of modern pop-psychology. Rather than something beyond themselves and bigger than themselves, they are offered self-enhancement and self-actualization. These psychological agendas encourage them to "psych" themselves into thinking they are more than they appear to be, by recognizing their inherent untapped potential, via "positive thinking," "positive mental attitude," and "possibility thinking."
Modern man is encouraged to embrace a positive image of himself by a plethora of platitudes and admonitions: "The problem must be the 'erroneous zones' of your negative thinking." "You must believe yourself to be more than you presently perceive yourself to be. Accept yourself! Love yourself! Think well of yourself! Have a positive self-image, self-concept, self-value, self-identity, self-worth, self-esteem, despite how you might feel, and despite the perception you have of reality around you." The psychological self-help and self-improvement proponents continue to encourage thought adjustments contrary to all that appears to be valid objectively. "Think yourself to have extra-human power; to be evolving into self-actualizing 'gods,' wherein whatever you can conceive, you can achieve." "Be all you can be, with your unlimited potential of evolutionary progress and productivity."
The new generation is realizing that this is not the answer. They are still left with nothing but themselves, and in the same condition of despair that Pascal identified long ago.
What does traditional "Christian religion" have to offer to these people of the modern generation, to these people who are often willing to candidly admit that they have lost their sense of identity, lost a basis of meaning, lost any sense of hope? They will admit they are "lost," but not in the traditional religious sense of being "lost" in sin and going to hell when they die.
Traditional "Christian religion" tends to offer their familiar "old-time gospel" message of "how to get your sins forgiven and go to heaven when you die." That does not seem to relate to the modern generation of mankind with their questions and concerns about identity, meaning and purpose. It is illegitimate to pass this off (as some would be prone to do), saying that the new generation of men and women are looking for psychological answers instead of spiritual answers. That is not true! It is just that they recognize that anything real and spiritual must affect their psychological sense of being and identity in a dynamic day-by-day, moment-by-moment impact.
From the opposite perspective, the modern generation looks at people within "Christian religion," and what do they see? They see people who have found their identities in national loyalties (Anglicans, Scottish Presbyterians, German Baptists, American Baptists, etc.), in theological formulations (Calvinism, Arminianism, Dispensational theology, Covenant theology, etc.), in moral behavior patterns (traditionalism, conservatism, etc.), in experiential sensations and blessings (glossalalia, second blessings, etc.), and in denominational loyalties (Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc.). Identities which they do not find vital or appealing. The new generation sees such religious people as lacking real freedom, contentment and enjoyment of life; people who are stifled, self-satisfied, and sanctimonious. They see people "bound-up" in religion, who have found a "cocoon," a "comfort-zone" of confined commonality.
"Generation X" sees people in "Christian religion" who believe that their sins are forgiven in the past, their future is assured in heaven to come, but the present is the monotonous 'holding on' to 'wait it out' until they die. This does not relate to the modern generation. It is not enough to accept that the past is forgiven, the future is assured, but the present is the pits! Today's generation wants something that is effective NOW, in the present. They are the NOW-generation! "Pie in the sky, bye and bye" won't sell! They are looking for something that relates to how they see themselves in the context of the present world situation. They are looking for something beyond themselves; something with direction and destiny, meaning and purpose; something active, dynamic and fulfilling.
Does the Church...does the gospel...does Jesus Christ... have anything to offer this generation of mankind who are interested in present existence and personal identity, along with teleological meaning and purpose? I think we do! But it is going to take a new approach, which I happen to believe is a more Biblical and Christian approach than the Church has applied in the past.
Traditional "Christian religion" has allowed the message of Christianity to be solidified into static categories of epistemology and morality, reduced to merely a belief-system or a moral structure. When this happens we have but an out-moded variant of the same encouragement to "self-effort" that is offered by humanistic pop-psychology. Which is better? The self-effort to achieve unlimited human expectations, or the self-effort to conform to static religious expectations? Neither! Modern man wants to move beyond these utopian dreams and unrealistic dogmas into a dynamic involvement that ontologically establishes and empowers their being, identity and activity.
In his book, The Dynamic Word, Lutheran professor, Karl Paul Donfried, wrote,
C.S. Lewis stated the same premise when he wrote that "the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions (is that) in Christianity God is not a static thing... but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life..."2
It is imperative that we reorient, reconceive, and redefine our understanding of the gospel in living and dynamic terms. We must take our theological concepts out of the static boxes in which they have been encased, and develop conceptualizations and definitions that are dynamic and contemporary. This process is admittedly fraught with inherent dangers, for definitions are by definition static formulations, but we must consider and articulate the dynamic implications of the living Lord Jesus for people of every age.
In an attempt to begin this process of redefining the gospel in order to present it dynamically to a new generation, we might consider some of the following categories:
The gospel is not just the "good news" of the unlimited potential that every man has inherently within him, if he can just believe, visualize, and act on such. Nor is the gospel just the account of the historical life of Jesus in Palestine two millennia ago, formulated into theological, doctrinal and creedal statements of orthodox thought.
Rather, the gospel is the "good news" of the vital indwelling dynamic of the life of the risen Lord Jesus, whereby the Spirit of Christ actuates the divine manifestation of life in the individual receptive to such by faith.
Sin is not just the failure to be true to oneself and one's potential. Nor is sin to be defined theo-legally in the violations of the "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots" of God's Law or church law, thus creating a failure to measure up to acceptable moral expectations.
Rather, sin is the misuse and abuse of humanity, the dysfunction of humanity wherein they misrepresent their Creator and fail to realize their intended identity and destiny.
Salvation is not just "making one safe," delivering one from erroneous thinking about themselves. Nor is salvation just "making one safe" from the punitive consequences of God's judgment, or from going to hell sometime in the future.
Rather, salvation "makes one safe" from the destructive dysfunction of man's self-reliance, in order to function constructively as intended by the Creator, living out of the dynamic of divine enabling.
Grace is not just the fortuitous coalescence of circumstances that allows an individual to self-actualize in the consciousness of one's infinite potential. Nor is grace just the abstraction of an "undeserved favor of God" objectified historically in "God's Redemption At Christ's Expense," and extended experientially as the "threshold factor" of a regenerative conversion event.
Rather, grace is the dynamic free-flow of God's activity, consistent with His character, whereby He actuates His life within His creation by His Son, Jesus Christ.
Faith is not the creating of reality by "positive thinking" or "possibility thinking." Nor is faith just the believing of correct tenets of orthodoxy in the veracity of historical events and the accuracy of theological formulations.
Rather, faith might better be conceived of as "our receptivity to God's activity," both initially and continually, which by definition precludes passivism and acquiescence.
Righteousness is not just being right with, or true to, oneself. Nor is righteousness merely an objective work of Christ, performed forensically, judicially and legally in the heavenly courtroom, whereby an individual might be "declared righteous."
Rather, righteousness should be conceived as the character of God, manifested in Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, by whose indwelling spiritual presence one is "made righteous" in order to allow for the dynamic manifestation of God's righteous character in the "fruit of righteousness."
The Bible is not just a religious book with inspirational insights, platitudes of piety, and mandates of morality. Nor is the Bible a "holy" book that is to be equated with Jesus Himself in reverence and authority, confusing the Living Word with the written word.
Rather, the Bible is a collection of inspired scriptures that contain an accurate record of God's revelation in Jesus Christ, and the implications thereof for men's lives in every age.
The Church is not just a religious institution to facilitate moral and political change. Nor is the Church necessarily an organization of like-minded members who gain a sense of identity in belonging to such a mutually satisfying and purposeful group.
Rather, the Church is the collective expression of individuals who are receptive to the dynamic grace expression of God in Jesus Christ, and desirous of encouraging one another in the functionality of the saving life of Christ.
These are but a few of the possible redefinitions that might be employed to explain the gospel to the new generation. It must be made clear that the reality of Christianity is dynamic, and provides a contemporary basis for identity, meaning and purpose.
This new presentation of the gospel does not impinge upon the historical and theological foundations of Christianity. There is no denial or rejection of such, but merely a restatement of the vital and dynamic reality of the living Lord Jesus.
Neither should the emphasis on the present
implications of Christianity cause us to neglect the "not
yet" implications of hope and destiny. But it is imperative
that we point out that Jesus is the essence and reality of Christianity,
the sole basis of identity, security, meaning, purpose and fulfillment
for modern man, as well as for men of every age.
1 Donfried, Karl Paul, The Dynamic Word: New Testment Insights for Contemporary Christians. San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers. 1981. pg. 3.
2 Lewis, C.S.,
Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan Publishing. 1951.