The Church has a leadership problem. So argues Leonard Sweet in his new book, I Am a Follower. The problem, however, is not that we don’t have enough leaders, or that our leaders have lost their way. The problem is that we have become enamored with leadership culture, obsessed with leading, and supremely focused on raising up the next generation of leaders. The trouble is, Jesus never told us to lead. He told us to follow.

The evangelical church has bought into a brand of leadership that, since the economic crisis of 2008, has gone bankrupt. But the lonely, trailblazing, genius-coming-down-from-the-mountain model of leadership is not what Jesus had in mind for his bride. The picture of leadership in Jesus’ mind was himself, and the rest of us are called to follow him. “What the world defines as leadership is not the way God works through his people in the world. …Christians are called to live by faith in a world that lives by fame.” (28-9)117084166

Christians are not to be leaders, Sweet argues. They are to be followers. First followers. In other words, Christians should find where Jesus is going, discover where he is at work, and then take up their crosses and follow him there. “In posing the paradox of the ox with an easy yoke and a light burden, Jesus is inviting followers to ‘walk alongside me. Just be with me, and the doing will come naturally.’ …Leadership is a functional position of power and authority. Followership is a relational posture of love and trust.” (39-40)

I Am a Follower is a prophetic call to abandon the culture of leadership, with it’s cultic practices of celebrity-worship and the fruitless pursuit of power and fame. Instead, we must take up the position of a sheep, humbling ourselves, and permitting Jesus to be the Good Shepherd of us—yes, even us church “leaders”! Sweet’s call is one to return to a position of relationship to God in Jesus Christ, and to forsake our position of function within the institution of Church. “All too often these days, the church’s stories are about success, leadership, justice, happiness. When ministers become social workers, preachers become motivational speakers, and evangelism becomes marketing, the result is a gimcrack gospel that is tawdry, tacky, and cheap. Asked, ‘What story do you love to tell?’ a first follower’s first answer is, ‘I love to tell the story of…Jesus and his love.’” (144)

I Am a Follower is a necessary, if imperfect, book for our times. Evangelicalism is swimming deeper and deeper into the ocean of celebrity and leadership. But there are sharks here, and there is blood in the water! If our primary aim is to focus on leaders, then who will care for the flock? If the image of the ideal Christian is a leader, then what hope is there for followers? The truth is, we are all followers, and Christ will be more glorified when we learn to accept that reality and let him lead.

Scot McKnight’s latest book, The King Jesus Gospel, is a revolution for evangelicalism. It is an incredibly important and timely work, one which calls us to leave behind our “salvation-culture” and take up, once again, the “gospel-culture” set forth by the preaching of Jesus and the apostles.

I’ve worked through a little over half of the book on the blog already. My discussion of the first three chapters, which lays the groundwork by establishing the problem McKnight sets out to address, can be found here. The second post on the book, which dealt exclusively with chapter four, in which he lays out the book’s thesis and defines the apostolic Gospel, can be found here. The last post I wrote on the book covered chapter 5, where Scot discusses how salvation overtook the Gospel.

9780310492986-1Here is a brief sketch of the main points of the book:

We evangelicals have mistaken the Plan of Salvation for the Gospel.
We have traded in a gospel culture for a salvation culture.
Our evangelism focuses exclusively on bringing people to a point of decision.
As a result, we do a poor job of making genuine disciples of Jesus.
The biblical gospel is the Story of Jesus, found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5

In that last post I promised to cover the final two chapters of the book in a future post. So without further ado, I shall keep my promise.

Chapter 9: Gospeling Today

The way that we “gospel”, or evangelize, today is different from the way the early believers, including the apostles, evangelized. (Scot likes to use the word “gospel” as a verb, so I’ll put it that way from now on.) He sees several points of comparison, the first of which is what gospeling seeks to accomplish. “The gospeling of Acts, because it declares the saving significance of Jesus, Messiah and Lord, summons listeners to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord, while our gospeling seeks to persuade sinners to admit their sin and find Jesus as their Savior.” (133) He goes on to say, “the gospeling of the apostles in the book of Acts is bold declaration that leads to a summons while much of evangelism today is crafty persuasion.” (134) Ouch!

I’ll skip to the fourth point of comparison between the gospeling of the first Christians and our own evangelism–the problem gospeling resolves. What is the problem that the Gospel solves? Without minimizing sin and the need for forgiveness and reconciliation, Scot frames the solution this way: “The fundamental solution in the gospel is that Jesus is Messiah and Lord; this means there was a fundamental need for a ruler, a king, and a lord.” (137) He says much more on this point, and I want to tempt you to get the book and read it for yourself with this quote:

Gospeling declares that Jesus is [the] rightful Lord, gospeling summons people to turn from their idols to worship and live under that Lord who saves, and gospeling actually puts us in the co-mediating and co-ruling tasks under our Lord Jesus. (142)

Chapter 10: Creating a Gospel Culture

So now what? How do we go about creating this gospel culture that we so desperately need? The first thing we must do is become people of the story. “To become a gospel culture we’ve got to begin with becoming people of the Book, but not just as a Book but as the story that shapes us.” (153) Too many of us are functionally biblically illiterate. We are more profoundly shaped by the doctrines and dogmas that we extract from the Scriptures than by the overarching story God is telling within them; and while there are many dogmas, there is only one Story.

We must also become people of the story of Jesus. “We need to immerse ourselves even more into the Story of Jesus. The gospel is that the Story of Israel comes to its definitive completeness in the Story of Jesus, and this means we have to become People of the Story-that-is-complete-in-Jesus.” (153) We must return to the four Gospels!

Thirdly, we must become people of the church’s story. “We need to see how the apostles’ writings take the Story of Israel and the Story of Jesus into the next generation and into a different culture, and how this generation led all the way to our generation.” (155) Christianity was not invented in 1865; it has come down to us through nearly 100 generations of believers. There is much we can learn from them. “We have no right to ignore what God has been doing in the community of Jesus since the day he sent the Spirit to empower it, ennoble it, and guide it.” (156)

There is more to say on these points, and Scot presents two other important points to create a gospel culture, but this is a book review, not a book report. Here is my review: Read this book!

Now I want to say one thing that Scot doesn’t about how to create a gospel culture, and I say this to my fellow preachers out there. Preach the Gospel! Stop participating in the damnable story of American Consumerism & Pragmatism. Stop trying to draw a crowd. Stop preaching the no-Gospel of Success & Self-Improvement. That is not your task. That is not your calling. You are a minister of the Gospel, so preach it!

Your sermons shape your congregation and define its culture, and too many of you are creating a culture that is nothing more than a slightly more moral version of the wider American culture. You’re telling the wrong story. You cannot create a gospel-culture unless and until you preach the Gospel. This will most likely take you down a new path, one that you probably won’t like. You will have to say goodbye to the Story of Success and Fame and Power. But you’ll discover that the Gospel is worth it.

May the Church’s preachers become gospelers, that we all might learn to live out the Gospel, boldly proclaiming that Jesus Christ is King-over-All.

I’ve been working my way through Scot McKnight’s book, The King Jesus Gospel, here on the blog for the past couple of days. I want to recap what I’ve learned in the first four chapters.

[list]
  • We evangelicals have mistaken the Plan of Salvation for the Gospel.
  • We have traded in a gospel culture for a salvation culture.
  • Our evangelism focuses exclusively on bringing people to a point of decision.
  • As a result, we do a poor job of making genuine disciples of Jesus.
  • The biblical gospel is the Story of Jesus, found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5
[/list]

What is most impressive about this book is how clearly and concisely Scot paint the American evangelical landscape. His putting his finger on some things that have been brooding beneath the surface for a long time. So how did we get here?

Chapter 5: How Did Salvation Take Over the Gospel?

The early creeds were the Church’s attempt to work out the Story of Jesus, the Gospel. They served to create a gospel culture that survived, though didn’t always thrive, until the Reformation. “The singular contribution of the Reformation…was that the gravity of the gospel was shifted toward human response and personal responsibility. …The Reformation said, in effect, that the ‘gospel’ must lead to personal salvation.” (71)

The Reformation did not create this salvation culture immediately, but it set into action processes by which the old gospel culture was discarded, and the new salvation culture was embraced. “The Story of…Jesus became the System of Salvation.” (72) Now we have a Christian culture that is obsessed with salvation, which is merely one of the many benefits of the gospel. The fact that we can go to heaven when we die is good news, but it is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather, it comes to those who believe the gospel, and in that belief, order their lives by it.

My next post on the book will cover the final two chapters, with a particular emphasis on how we create a gospel culture today. I’m skipping the intervening chapters, not because they aren’t any good, but because I feel as though I ought to leave something for you to discover when you read the book.

Yesterday I began writing about Scot McKnight’s excellent new book, The King Jesus Gospel. I covered the prologue and first 3 chapters, and I’ve written his basic thesis this way: The Plan of Salvation is not the Gospel, and by mistaking the former for the latter we have created a salvation culture that misses the deep truths of the gospel, emphasizes decision over discipleship, and, as a result, fails to make true disciples of Jesus. This insight is crucial for us to understand, and we evangelicals need to make the switch from a salvation culture to a gospel culture if we want to fulfill the Great Commission, which was to “make disciples”, not “make converts”. Because of the way we (mis)understand the gospel, and the methods we use to present it, we are doing an excellent job of making converts, but we are no better than the Catholic Church at making disciples.

Before I get into the content of the next chapter, I’d like to give some of my own reflections on his book thus far. I believe that we evangelicals have created a salvation culture because we undervalue (or even disdain) life on earth. The temporal pales in significance to the eternal, we say, as though the two were pitted against one another. But this life and the life to come are intimately bound up together within the life of God, which is both infinite and eternal. The life we live on earth is a small but significant part of eternity. The temporal is within the eternal. Salvation is not merely for then; salvation is for now.

We are also simultaneously terrified of and fascinated by hell. Though the most common biblical command is, “Fear not”, we use fear as a motivator to get people saved. So much of our evangelistic strategies are built on the motivation to escape hell, and we certainly prey on people’s fears of eternal damnation. There may be a time when that is appropriate, but the fear of hell is not what drives the Gospel.

Perhaps both of these lines of thinking could be fleshed out more, but this post is supposed to be about Scot McKnight’s book. So on to chapter 4 and a definition of the Gospel.

Chapter 4: The Apostolic Gospel of Paul

If the Plan of Salvation is not the Gospel, then what is? How do we define it? The natural place to begin would be in the Bible. But where do we look? The answer might surprise you. We don’t start in Matthew, or Mark, or Luke or John. We start with Paul, and we go to 1 Corinthians 15.

1 Corinthians was probably written before any of the Gospels were written–sometime around 53 AD or so. What we find at the beginning of chapter 15 is “the oral tradition about the gospel that every New Testament apostle received and then passed on. …This passage is the apostolic gospel tradition.” (46) Scot breaks the relevant portions of chapter 15 into three parts: v. 1-2; v. 3-5; v. 20-28. The fundamental gospel, though, is found in the second part:

3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.

This is the Gospel. “If we begin here, we take the first step in creating a gospel culture.” (48) This was the Gospel that drove the early church, but we have forgotten it.

The authentic apostolic gospel, the gospel Paul received and passed on…concerns these events in the life of Jesus:
     that Christ died,
that Christ was buried,
that Christ was raised,
and that Christ appeared.

The gospel is the story of the crucial events in the life of Jesus Christ. Instead of “four spiritual laws,” which for many holds up our salvation culture, the earliest gospel concerned four “events”…in the life of Jesus Christ. (49)

The Gospel is not, first and foremost, about getting to heaven (or escaping hell). It’s not driven by fear. In fact, it’s not even a proposition that can be driven by anything. It’s the Story of Jesus–his death (for our sins), his burial, his resurrection, and his appearances. The Gospel is not the Plan of Salvation. “Salvation–the robust salvation of God–is the intended result of the gospel story about Jesus Christ that completes the Story of Israel in the Old Testament.” (51)

So what? What’s the big deal? Isn’t it more important that people go to heaven when they die than that we understand what the Gospel is or isn’t? No, it’s not. Jesus didn’t die so you could go to heaven when you die. He died for your sins–the ones that plague you in the here and now and turn your world, at times, into a living hell for yourself and those around you. Here’s the warning:

When the plan gets separated from the story, the plan almost always becomes abstract, propositional, logical, rational, and philosophical and, most importantly, de-storified and unbiblical. When we separate the Plan of Salvation from the story, we cut ourselves off [from] the story that identifies us and tells our past and tells our future. We separate ourselves from Jesus and turn the Christian faith into a System of Salvation. (62)

We are not saved by a plan. We are not saved within a system. We are saved by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

How have we gotten where we are? How have we replaced the gospel culture with our salvation culture? More on that tomorrow…

I’ve worked my way through the first three chapters of Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel, and I am both challenged and impressed. This is the “wrecking ball” that Rob Bell thought he was writing in Love Wins. Scot is deconstructing the nature of the gospel within evangelicalism, and calling us to a more faithful, more biblical reading of the gospel. Because the chapters of the book are so short, and so dense, I’d like to interact with this book on a chapter-by-chapter basis, rather than write a general review after I’ve read it.

Prologue: 1971

Scot begins with the story of his first encounter with personal evangelism–it’s a story that many young evangelicals can resonate with. The extreme discomfort. The awkwardness. The insecure silence. Evangelism is a horrible and terrifying experience for so many because we can’t help but feel as though we’re on a high-pressure sales call, and we’re the ones making the pitch! Evangelism, in evangelicalism, is about bringing people to the point of decision. This, Scot argues, represents a break from historical Christianity. “Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples.” (18)

There are dire consequences for our decision-oriented evangelism. “Evangelism that focuses on decisions short circuits and…aborts the design of the gospel, while evangelism that aims at discipleship slows down to offer the full gospel of Jesus and the apostles.” (18) We are “distorting spiritual formation” through our decision-aimed evangelism because we are diminishing the importance of discipleship. Scot has strong words for us: “There is a minimal difference in correlation between evangelical children and teenagers who make a decision for Christ and who later become genuine disciples, and Roman Catholics who are baptized as infants and who as adults become faithful and devout Catholic disciples.” (20) In other words, we’re no better than the Catholic Church at making true and faithful disciples, and much of the blame for our failure can be laid at the feet of our perception of the Gospel and our aims in evangelism.

Chapter 1: The Big Question

The big question facing evangelicalism is this: What is the gospel? Scot claims that we are in a fog regarding the gospel, and I think he’s right. For most evangelicals, the gospel is vague. We can’t define it concretely, much less biblically. To demonstrate this, Scot offers three exhibits.

Exhibit A is from an emailer who asked the question, “What is good news about the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the descendant of David?” Exhibit B is John Piper’s assumption that justification is the gospel. Exhibit C is a pastor who shared Piper’s view and flatly asserted that Jesus did not preach the gospel because “no one could understand the gospel until after the cross and the resurrection and Pentecost.” (26) Scot concludes “the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about ‘personal salvation,’ and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making ‘decisions.'” (26)

I think he’s absolutely right about this, and I think the view that justification is the gospel is very prevalent due, in large part, to the popularity of the neo-reformed preaching of John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Francis Chan, David Platt, and others. What is more, pastors like Steven Furtick have taken the gospel as “personal salvation mediated through a decision” to its logical extreme, with more than 10,000 “salvations” in the short life of his church. And now we get to the key distinction Scot is making in his book.

Chapter 2: Gospel Culture or Salvation Culture?

Have you ever considered that there might be a difference between the two?

Evangelicalism is known for at least two words: gospel and (personal) salvation. Behind the word gospel is the Greek word euangelion and evangel, from which words we get evangelicalism and evangelism. Now to our second word. Behind salvation is the Greek word soteria. I want now to make a stinging accusation. In this book I will be contending firmly that we evangelicals (as a whole) are not really “evangelical” in the sense of the apostolic gospel, but instead we are soterians. Here’s why I say we are more soterian than evangelical: we evangelicals (mistakenly) equate the word gospel with the word salvation. …When we evangelicals see the word gospel, our instinct is to think (personal) “salvation.” We are wired this way. But these two words don’t mean the same thing. (29)

We have replaced the gospel with personal salvation. Maybe it’s because we’re so pragmatic, but all that seems to matter to us evangelicals is where one spends eternity. Salvation is our number one priority, and the only way to be certain of one’s salvation is if one has made a personal decision to accept Jesus. “When did you get saved?”

But a salvation culture is not a gospel culture. Think about it. Do you need to be a disciple in order to be saved? How do you answer that question? How might Jesus answer it? The fundamental problem of the salvation culture is that it doesn’t require discipleship, and so discipleship doesn’t happen. And this is why so many people live nominally Christian existences, blindly ignorant of the Scriptures and the primary tenets of their faith, and ultimately trusting, not in Jesus, but in the decision they made at Christian Summer Camp between 6th and 7th grade–a decision from which they have failed to progress or build upon in the decades following. But “the gospel of Jesus…which created a gospel culture and not simply a salvation culture, was a gospel that carried within it the power, the capacity, and the requirement to summon people who wanted to be ‘in’ to be The Discipled.” (33)

Chapter 3: From Story to Salvation

Before he can define the term gospel, Scot lays out four important categories for understanding the gospel: 1) The Story of Israel / the Bible; 2) The Story of Jesus; 3) Plan of Salvation; 4) Method of Persuasion. To fully understand the gospel, he argues, we must begin with the Story of Israel, which finds it’s natural fulfillment in the Story of Jesus, from which we derive the Plan of Salvation. Then, understanding our own context well enough, we create Methods of Persuasion. This is the proper orientation of a gospel culture.

However, in our salvation culture, we have flipped the order. The first question we ask is: “How can we get people saved?”

Our Method of Persuasion is shaped by a salvation culture and is designed from first to last to get people to make a decision so they can come safely inside the boundary lines of The Decided. (43)

So we begin with the Method of Persuasion (4 Spiritual Laws, Alpha, Evangelism Explosion), incorporate the Plan of Salvation, and take bits from the Story of Jesus–mostly about his atoning death. The Story of Israel gets lopped off completely. In fact, I would be willing to bet that most evangelicals don’t think you need the Old Testament to share the gospel. “One reason why so many Christians today don’t know the Old Testament is because their ‘gospel’ doesn’t even need it!” (44)

Now for the most important point of the book thus far. The Plan of Salvation is, essentially, this: God created humans to be perfect, but we rebelled against him and brought sin and death into the world. We are separated from him, forever. But because he loves us so much, he sent his Son to die on a cross for our sins, as the ultimate atoning sacrifice. Now we can be saved if we believe in Jesus! This is all true, wonderful, and great in every way. But it is not the gospel.

Here’s the point: The Plan of Salvation is not the Gospel, and by mistaking the former for the latter we have created a salvation culture that misses the deep truths of the gospel, emphasizes decision over discipleship, and, as a result, fails to make true disciples of Jesus. Upon closer examination, we see that the situation is dire. We must get back to the biblical gospel. But what is that? And where do we find it?

More to come…

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