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There are many people who believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. They know that the story of Christ can be found in the Gospels of the New Testament. They know that belief in that Jesus can get you to heaven and out of hell. They know where to find that message preached. They may even “attend” a church, repeat the catchwords of grace, but have very little understanding of the gospel of grace. They have become too familiar with the gospel.
The Familiar Gospel
In his masterful work, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, Richard Lovelace reveals why this familiarity is so dangerous:
Since their understanding of justification is marginal or unreal—anchored not to Christ, but to some conversion experience in the past or to an imagined present state of goodness in their lives—they know little of the dynamic of justification. Their understanding of sin focuses upon behavioral externals which they can eliminate from their lives by a little will power and ignores the great submerged continents of pride, covetousness and hostility beneath the surface.
Gospel familiarity is dangerous. Being able to say the right words and espouse the right beliefs can bring us false comfort. Our comfort should not spring from knowing what is “right”. Nor should is arise from the sense that we have done right. This is “imagined goodness” before a very real and holy God. When our understanding of sin focuses on external beliefs or behaviors, we betray a very shallow understanding of the gospel. In fact, the gospel tells us that we are much more bent than we can imagine. The gospel is honest; it shows us who we are, unrighteous, imperfect, selfish sinners.
Fortunately it does not stop there. It moves us, by grace, into righteousness and love through constant faith in Christ, our righteousness. If this is the gospel, then we need reminding of it every day. We need the people of the gospel, the Church, around us giving us constant reminders of grace, verbal and non-verbal. If this gospel is this great and deep, then we must share it, tell it, and show it to others. I recently returned from Uganda, where I was frequently greeted by Christians who would say: “The Lord is good.” and the responder would say: “The Lord is good all the time.” I shared this with our church during a sermon a few weeks ago. Last week I was meeting with one of our City Group leaders and shared a challenge I was facing. Before saying much at all he said: “All the time.” I had to think a second. Oh, he was reminding me that the Lord is good all the time (Rom 8:28), even amidst my challenges. The Lord is good all the time for us in Jesus. He was giving me a gospel reminder over lunch. I was strengthened to trust the Lord no matter what happened.
Scorn of Missional Church
But if we are merely familiar with the gospel, with its facts and not through constant faith, we won’t remind one another of its depth. It looses it’s urgency. The gospel is not urgent, our moral acts are. Grace is not necessary, our beliefs are.If we simply add the gospel to our own behavioral improvements, then we will have very little need for the church or for her mission. When we are too familiar with the gospel, we scorn the church and her mission. If we don’t need the gospel every day, then why spend time with the church or attempt to advance the good news through mission? Lovelace writes:
Thus their pharisaism defends them both against full involvement in the church’s mission and against full subjection of their inner lives to the authority of Christ.
Familiarity with the gospel breeds missional contempt. If we know the gospel as a set of spiritual facts and a code of morality, then we have very little use for the Church and her mission, the community and evangelism. But if the Gospel is deeper and more honest than we have imagined, then we must be desperate for more. More gospel talk from our friends, more gospel community from church, more gospel songs with fellow saints, and more gospel news for our neighbors. If the gospel is this great, then is must be shared. What we need is not gospel familiarity but gospel depth. This kind of depth remakes us into outwardly focused people, people who love their neighbors and their city. Press into the gospel of grace. Gospel depth will produce missional drive. If it doesn’t, then something is wrong with your gospel. Perhaps you are too familiar with it?
Some people seem to think that house churches or missional communities are the purest expression of the church. As a result, they downplay weekend gatherings that require a lot of energy or attention. The logic goes something like: you can’t be the church for just two hours a Sunday.
Are Small Gatherings Purer that Big Gatherings?
I’ve used this very logic; there’s a lot of truth to it. But surely it is possible to cultivate gospel-centered community in larger gatherings. I think it depends on how the Sunday gathering is structured, what forms the primary focus, and how we interact with one another. I, for one, don’t think that missional communities are the purer expression of the church. We see both private and public, small and large gatherings of the church in Scripture, from house churches to city churches, bands of martyrs to billions of people from every tribe and tongue bowed low in white-hot worship. Instead of writing off big gatherings, what would happen if we rewrote the script? What if the community participated in big gatherings beyond acts of service like children’s ministry, setup, security, and hospitality?
Let the Community Speak on Sundays
Every other Sunday someone from one of our missional communities gets up and shares something that God is doing in their life, in their community. We simply ask that it relate to one of our three core values—Gospel, Community, and Mission. Very often they touch on all three.
This Sunday Sam shared how a recent missional experience in the projects provoked confusion and some deep soul-searching. He began asking questions like “Do I really believe the gospel?” Should I sell all my clothes and give the money away? Tearing through the clothing in his closet, his wife arrested him by asking: Sam are you trying to impress God?” Mission as idolatry, as identity, subverts Jesus’ rightful and satisfying place in our lives. Sam went on to share how ashamed he was, but ended up realizing that Jesus was sufficient for his failure to believe, to treasure Christ. Then he charged us with something like: “If you feel ashamed, if you feel like you don’t measure up to God, if you feel like you aren’t good enough, don’t believe it. Jesus is big enough to handle your sin. Come to him.“
Gospel-centered Community on Sundays (and for sermons)
Sam’s exhortation lodged grace in my soul. As it turned out, I had been battling indifference towards Christ all morning. My sermon rehearsal had felt flat. My religious affections were a flickering flame, shifting from blue to white, at times even invisible. God strengthened me on the spot with Sam’s exhortation that Jesus is sufficient for my indifference. I repented for my lack of affection for our infinitely desirable God, received His forgiveness which jolted me into worship. This story from the community reminded me what kind of Savior we serve. I emerged from my sinful indifference into hopeful expectation, prepared to preach from a place of deeper gospel conviction.
Sunday after Sunday my church preaches to me before I preach to them. Sometimes through songs, other times through stories, but they serve as a constant reminder that God has not called me to professionalism but to Jesus-centered missional community. I hear them telling me the very same things I tell them: “Jesus is sufficient for our failures and strong for our successes.” “We are an imperfect people clinging to a perfect Christ.”
Sometimes I slowly mound up pressure on myself for a stunning homiletic performance. When I do, I displace the power of the gospel and replace it with the weakness of words. To be sure, our words can carry gospel power, but they can also carry death and deceit. We all need the “holiness of truth”—to hear the words that are right and true, which produce a holy happiness in the face of false and fleeting promises like: “If I exegete the culture well, if I provide a unique theological insight, then the sermon will impress, will impact, will change people.” God’s faithfulness to his Word, the sanctifying power of simple truth, and the presence of a gracious people who point me through sermons, away from performances, and to our Savior all underscore that the Christ alone is our hope, that God in Christ through the Spirit is faithfully working in us according to his good pleasure.
What better way to finish off a Sunday than by spending time in community?. Tonight we dropped by a friend’s house where folks showed up to have an impromptu breakfast-for-dinner and just hang out. Conversation after conversation reminded me of the faith-strengthening power of an imperfect, gospel-centered community, one that happens in a steady state, including Sundays. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else.
Last night Steve Timmis taught on Gospel Communities at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. After establishing a solid biblical theology of the centrality of Jesus for missional communities, Steve shared some key training points for MCs. Below are my summaries of his teaching. I have placed Steve’s direct words in quotes.
- Community is not for girls. Don’t here what Steve is not saying. Very often community is percieved as a feminine practice. Its where you get in touch with your emotions, where you go around affirming one another, touchy-feely. But this is not biblical community. True community is a response to the Jesus who is Lord. The true Jesus is neither anemic nor hypermasculine, atrophying in weakness or bulging in strength. He is the Lord who “lived our life, died our death and rose as the first fruits of the new creation” and is gathering a community of grace that is to be a foretaste of eternity. As that community of grace, we need to look to Jesus as the center of community, who lives in us and reigns over us, compelling us to be a community that speaks the truth in love, not merely swaps emotions or confessions. Community is for Jesus.
- Just because we have communities that are honest and open about their sin doesnt mean we have gospel-centered communities. We may very well have communities that mistake confessing sin for living in the gospel. Confessing our sin in community is only part of the task of living in the gospel together. We mustnt linger there but complete the process through repentance and faith in Jesus. Confession must lead to repentance and faith, not under the weight of legalistic demands but as a response to how ravishing Jesus us. We need to lead our communities into seeing the beauty and glory of Jesus and allowing that to motivate true change, true repentance, such that we say: “Oh, brothers and sisters I see how sweet and ravishing Jesus is and I want you to pray for me in ______, hold me accountable and prod me to live in the gospel not in _____.
Look for the forthcoming video and audio on this Total Church Community Training on Resurgence and Acts 29 blog.
I recently received God’s New Community by Graham Beynon (left) from my aunt in England. My friend, John Hindley of The Plant recommended it. If you can get a copy of this theologically grounded, gospel-centered, practically rich book, buy it immediately. Don’t let’s size deceive you. God’s New Community is dense with practical theology of the church. Commenting on the absence of mission in Acts 2:42-47, Beynon writes:
I think there is a strong hint that it wasn’t so much specific evangelistic efforts that brought people into the church, but the attractiveness of this new community’s life. People around were drawn to the church by the believers care for each other, their unity, their desire to learn, their joy in the Lord. God’s New Community, 135
Beynon is a pastor in England who occasionally writes for Beginning with Moses, which if you haven’t subscribed, go ahead and do that now. Click BT Briefings at the top and then Join our Mailing List.