American Evangelicalism’s Non-Gospel Message

evangometerToday I was made aware of a most-interesting interview with Tullian Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham. He discusses the problem of how evangelicals have greatly veered off-track in what they hold most dear and worthy of proclamation: a political ideology rather than the gospel.

Read some of the interview below:

Over the last 30 years, the Religious Right has replaced Christianity’s foremost message of the Gospel with that of a political movement, argued the current pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church.

“We’re well known for saying things, ‘We exist to reclaim America for Jesus,’ and stuff like that and in the process what has been lost, is the message which I trumpet in [my book] One Way Love, which is God’s inexhaustible grace for exhausted sinners like you and me,” said Tchividjian.

Tchividjian’s claims came in response to a new Pew Research study poll which suggests that only 30 percent of non-Evangelical Americans feel warmly about this religious group. The survey, which measures the country’s religious groups’ feelings towards one another, also showed that 42 percent of non-Evangelical Americans gave responses in the “middle” towards this group, while the sentiments of 27 percent could be described as cold.

“Specifically the reason why Evangelicals in America are unliked by non-Evangelicals is because we’ve branded ourselves as a political movement. It’s not like Christians don’t have opinions about what’s going in our world and what’s happening in our culture; I think that we do, I do, we all do, but when the primary message that the world hears from us is, “We need to fix the world…We need to stamp out all of the bad stuff,” they don’t hear the message that Jesus has entrusted in us,” continued Tchividjian.

HT: Scot McKnight

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29 thoughts on “American Evangelicalism’s Non-Gospel Message

  1. I recently listened in to a discussion between a group of 25-35 in age , whoa are involved in a broadly evangelical church. The subject was ‘what is the gospel’ without dispute, or difference the assumed position was automatically and undisputedly summed up by them in two words ‘social justice’. I went away sad.

    • Yes, the 2 pitfalls is the idea that a) the gospel is about saving America, that is, American ideology and b) the gospel is simply social justice. Both are wrong.

  2. I just finished reading Reggie McNeal’s book Missional Renaissance. In the book he states that churches need to change what they track to show success. (Which I agree with) However, he maintains that the church is called to be a blessing – care for the poor, tutor kids, care for the sick etc. McNeal states that churches should track their members community service hours. – Sadly he give no importance to people actually coming to salvation. – I got the impression that Jesus is nothing more than our “fix it” man.

  3. I think it’s certainly wrong to confuse the gospel with American political ideology (though, there is probably *some* overlap). But that is different than saying the Gospel is not political (which was the track Evangelicals took for a long time.

    The proclamation that Jesus is Lord (and therefore Caesar is not) is political to the core. The bifurcation of political/theological is a modern bifurcation. So the question for me is not whether the gospel is political – it is – but HOW it is political and how that politic should be presented.

    • Tom –

      Yes, the gospel is very political – it’s for the people/polis and it proclaims Jesus as Lord over all. We must remember that! But it definitely isn’t connected to a particular ideology around elephants and donkeys. 🙂

    • Yes, the gospel is about becoming a member of a new “nation” on earth — the Kingdom of Heaven.

      However, how that looks/feels/works for people I believe is an individual thing. Part of “working out your salvation”. I think the problem is that churches try to tell people how that HAS to look for you to appear “correct” in your Christian life. But the truth is that it’s going to mean different things for different people, and going to be expressed in different ways. Politics and faith cannot be expressed by a “cookie-cutter” approach. To do so turns churches and denominations into political parties.

      • I think one thing we need to remember is that, at least from a biblical standpoint, things start in community & move to the individual. We usually start the other way around, which I think can be problematic. Now, I’m not advocating a certain type of sin-management preaching. But God is normally speaking to the community as a whole, and then that calls for individuals to live that out.

      • Well, I have to completely disagree with you on that point, Scott.

        The Spirit speaks to HEARTS. Individual hearts. Preachers (and in the OT, prophets) PREACH to communities/congregations, but it’s the SPIRIT who works any actual change, and that’s an individual process. And it’s that individual process at work within the members of that community that compels them to affect their community/congregation for the good. People don’t REALLY change just because their community changes (and/or tells them to change). They simply pretend and conform for comfort. That’s not real change. Change ONLY occurs individually in the heart, affected through the power of the Spirit. That kind of change can then effect many as the Spirit works within them outward into the community at large.

        God proved that trying to change people in large groups from the outside (ie. the law and the prophets) didn’t/doesn’t WORK. So Jesus came to individuals (for the most part – he usually AVOIDED crowds) and then sent the Spirit to narrow the message down even FURTHER to one heart at a time. Only inward change is real change.

      • Ken –

        This is a very modernist, post-Enlightenment perspective. And it’s very western/American. Check out the book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes.

        If you look at Scripture – even the NT – every writing/charge is written to a community of people. The perspective wasn’t: “I’m writing to 2,000 individuals.” It was more around the idea of, “I’m writing to a community of Jesus followers.” Almost every use of the word “you” in Scripture is a plural, not singular. The letters of Paul are to the “church” at Corinth, Rome, Philippi, etc. There are a few individual writings (Philemon, Timothy, Titus), but it’s limited. Of course we, individuals, respond personally. But we respond within actual community, not as privatized recluses.

        This is the biblical perspective: Community –> Individuals. We’ve just been conditioned for 200 years in the west that it should be Individuals –> Community (if we want to tag community on). This is why I think a balanced postmodern thought is helpful, since it recognizes communal living much more.

      • Sorry, still don’t agree. Simply because the writings that we have included in the NT are mostly addressed to large groups doesn’t make the gospel primarily a GROUP experience. It’s a heart experience between God and each individual man — something only God can truly judge.

        Men with their eyes focused on the right goal — experiencing and sharing more of God’s love — then come together to form communities called local churches, who collectively, in the process of loving their neighbors as themselves, might work toward “social justice”. That work is a “byproduct” of the event happening within their hearts, not the primary goal.

      • Ken –

        This is the paradigm that began to unroll in the 1800’s following the great “win” of modernism, capped off by the Enlightenment. We moved from a communal focus to an individual, personally privatized focus of Christianity. That’s what happened. For all the positives of pietism and certain 19th & 20th century evangelical movements, they swung the pendulum so far to a personalized narrative within Scripture. It became all about individuals “accepting Jesus into their heart.” It became about Scripture be written to millions of individuals, rather than the community of faith as a whole.

        So, we must remember well that the overall sweeping focus of Scripture is one of a people, a community. Well, you could say it is about a specific individual – the Messiah Jesus – who was the faithful one to which the community of faith was to look to, believe in and follow. But the call is to the community. And it’s not to say there aren’t accounts of individuals within Scripture. No doubt there are. However, those individual accounts are within the communal sweep of Scripture. The account of Abraham is not told for the sake of showing what an individual can do if they just individually believe God and follow him. The author is shaping the narrative to teach the community of God’s people – Israel – what they together are to live and walk out together.

        Also, the new covenant community in Jesus are always described holistically & communally: the body of Christ, the temple of God (one temple, not millions of individuals temples), a priesthood, the family, and ekklesia is by nature a plural word. That’s the underlining emphasis of Scripture. Again, just about every single exhortation of “you” in NT is to a community. It’s not that individuals don’t respond and live this out. But that response flows out of the communal reality. Matter of fact, we’ve tricked ourselves to believe that we respond to God out of our own personal concepts & beliefs without any input from a communal church setting. Even believing & making such a claim shows that we’ve accepted a particular view within a particular sector of the church. And that’s why you have all these “independent” or “non-denominational” settings. It’s all part of an actual larger church communal perspective, not some individual Jesus-enlightened perspective.

        However, the ekklesia (which is the gathering of the saints) is a communal experience, worship is a communal experience, the proclamation of the word is a communal experience, the eucharist-communion is a communal experience (hence, it’s named “communion”). The cloud of witnesses is a community of saints past, not so much privatized individuals. Again, we respond as individuals – but we are exhorted to do this in light of the call to the community. Even those who want to stay at home and do their own “church” thing, though it’s absolutely counter-cultural to the Scriptural idea of church, these folk are joining in with the thousands, if not millions, of others who hold to this perspective. A individualized & privatized church has formed, all to the detriment of what God is actually doing on earth.

        One last interesting note – one way we privatize Christians being “temples of the Holy Spirit” is the misreading of 1 Cor 6:19. As Richards and O’Brien remind us in their book: “In the original Greek, the you is plural and temple is singular. Paul is saying, “All of you together are a singular temple for the Holy Spirit.” God doesn’t have millions of little temples scattered around. Together we make the dwelling for the Spirit.” There is actually no precedent in Scripture that individuals are “temples of the Holy Spirit”. There is only one temple, and it’s a plural/communal temple of the Spirit, again emphasized in Eph 2:19-22.

        We’ve taken up this individualized perspective with just about every Scripture passage we can. It is harmful to what I believe is healthy (and biblical) Christianity.

      • Well, I see scripture as chock FULL of individuals meeting God personally and having Him work in their hearts and lives.

        Just because many of those people were or became part of a bigger group doesn’t negate that it still comes down to each individual heart in the end, and what God can accomplish in and through those people to affect the world.

        Just as the Jews were not “righteous” because they were “children of Abraham” or “followers of the Law” as a group, so we will not be saved for being part of the “right” community (and good luck trying to find THAT anyway). All we can know; all we can be assured of is our OWN salvation, based on our own personal encounter with the Spirit. We may choose to express that communally, but it is still individual. “One has a song. One has a word. Another, a tongue, another an interpretation.” But those all come from the Spirit working within each individual heart to BRING those things to be body. The BODY itself doesn’t edify or teach, the individuals within it do what the Spirit has personally led THEM to do to bless the other members of the “community”, both those who have personally met their Savior and those who have yet to.

        To demand that the COMMUNITY of faith comes first leads to an “us” and “them” mentality, even within the true church. “We have the more correct doctrine.”, “We do music/worship/teaching/discipleship/missions right.” It goes on and on. If the focus is on the individual, and where the SPIRIT has brought that individual to in their life at that point, then they can feel free to choose the congregation that “fits” them rather than trying to fit THEMSELVES into a community that they think or are told they SHOULD attend to be in the “correcter” group. A group mentality leads to conformity for conformity’s sake, driven by fear of being “different”, rather than a group of like-minded individuals sharing their Spirit-given gifts and teachings with each other in freedom. Every congregation can feel free to be different without having to be “right”. The Colossians were not expected to act like the Galatians or the Thessalonians. None of them was more “right” in the details of their church life. Every body of believers is unique, just as every believer is unique, as long as they are like-minded (by way the Spirit) in their particular beliefs/focus/mission.

        Another issue that congregational focus promotes is the dangers inherent in group leadership. When you have a GROUP focus, somebody has to be “in charge” of that group. It can’t be helped. That’s how humans naturally align. And you know all the problems that come with leader focus/worship. There are many current examples I could cite, but I’m sure you know.

        When you have an individual focus, nobody is the leader, because the group is led by the Spirit, not by a list of “right” doctrines/mission statements/leaders/what have you. There may be those gifted in teaching or administration that APPEAR to lead, but they are not “in charge” of the group, but merely blessing the body according to their individual giftedness. It probably sounds like a fairy-tale, but I believe it’s possible.

        And your argument that you’re part of a group even if you choose not to be in a group because then you’re in a group of people who chose not to be in a group, is pretty circular logic, don’t you think?

        I came to the place I am spiritually today not by the influence of any particular group, but by listening to MANY different voices (one of them being yourself) and asking the Spirit to guide me to the truth. In fact I’ve never felt so free spiritually as I have since I stopped trying to conform to a particular congregation. Even the local “non-denominational” group seemed too confining and stifling in their beliefs and leadership views. I grew tired of trying to conform to their box, so I broke out of it, and (after a time of initial guilt and fear for “forsaking” the body) I feel more alive than I EVER have in my spiritual journey.

        I still have hope and have asked God to help me find a place where I will “fit” in a local community of saints. But for now, I am quite content to NOT be in a group.

      • Ken –

        Well, I see scripture as chock FULL of individuals meeting God personally and having Him work in their hearts and lives.

        I acknowledged that. And those flow all within the communal. Even the stories are recounted to evoke the community to respond in faith.

  4. I agree that balance is called for. While I don’t believe social justice should be our priority (making disciples should be), it seems to me that there are movements that demand our support as followers of Christ. One of these movements is the right to life. Should we sit on the sidelines or vote for candidates who desire to uphold our values with regard to the right to life?

    The problem, as I see it, is getting sidetracked from fulfilling the Great Commission, which is to make disciples. If we aren’t sharing the gospel and discipling those who receive our message, we aren’t being obedient to Christ, no matter how much effort we put into promoting social justice. The same can be said for “defending the faith” from heresy–if we spend our time defending our particular brand of Christianity with other professing Christians, while neglecting to share the gospel with the lost, we’re not obeying Christ, at least not to the extent that He would have us to.

    • John –

      Thanks for the comment. Perhaps we could say that making disciples will call for us to help other disciples know that we are to care deeply for the poor, broken-hearted and oppressed. We are to look to bring justice to – or make things right for – the hurting. This would be important to Christ, no?

      • No, it is not OUR job to “make things right”. God tells us that’s HIS job. Our job is to love and comfort those who may be going through things that aren’t “right”, and show them how His love can make the difference in those dark days.

        This is why Jesus never preached against slavery, but had quite a bit to say to both servants and masters that would improve that relationship. The world “created” that relationship, but God can still provide comfort and counsel within it.

        That’s not to say that abolitionist were wrong in what they accomplished, but it wasn’t any mandate from GOD that they were following. It was their own personal sense of justice that they felt was violated by the act of slavery. Did God give them the strength to see the struggle for freedom through? Of course. He gives us the desires of our hearts if they are not against His will. His will being the spreading of His love and the news of salvation and kingdom life here on earth. Abolishing slavery (or other social ills) neither necessarily promotes nor hinders that goal. Social activism is something set squarely in our hands, to do as our conscience sees fit. But we should always remember the ULTIMATE goal of sharing God’s love and grace with man, whether he be free from or still be chained by social injustice.

      • It is our job under the purview of God to live out Matt 5 and Luke. 4:18f. We are a people who care for the poor & hurting – that is practically bringing rightness to their lives.

  5. Scott, you asked, Can you give an example in Scripture where the gospel is about a heart experience between an individual and God?

    Unless I am totally missing what you are getting at in this article, I can think of several examples of just such instances.

    What about Cornelius? Granted His family was involved, but Peter was sent directly to him, an individual, to tell him what he must do to be saved.

    Then there is the Philippian jailer that came and begged Paul and Silas to tell him what he needed to do to be saved. Again, his family was involved, but this was still very much about individuals coming to salvation and did not happen in a Christian community setting.

    And there is the Ethiopian eunuch. Phillip was sent by God directly be him to speak to him so that He could come to saving faith in Jesus.

    Perhaps there are others. Those are the ones that come to mind at this time.

    • Cheryl –

      See also my newest (longer) comment to Ken above. I think I hit on some of this. But to emphasize it again – it’s not that their aren’t personal accounts told in Scripture. But it folds in to the communal focus. You brought up 3 passages in Acts. Ask this – what is the purpose of Acts? Is it about personal individuals “accepting Jesus into their heart”? Or is it about the forming of a communal ekklesia following in the ways of Jesus? These folk – Cornelius & household, Philippian jailer & household, Ethiopian eunuch – were all being drawn into a community of faith that was now beginning to stretch the 4 corners of the earth. They were baptized into a community of Jesus, one that were called to live in faithfulness together in the ways of Jesus, all the while as God judged both the Jewish people and the pagan nations.

      Another example where we do this in Scripture is with the prodigal son parable of Luke 15. The 2 sons represent 2 people groups (Jewish leaders & it’s apostate people; Gentiles), not 2 individuals.

      • Scott, of course Christians are called into community. Into the body of Christ. However, if they are not called individually first by God into that body as is spoken of in John 6, if they do not have His new life abiding in them, they have no actual place in that body of Christ.

        If community is emphasized and personal regeneration and commitment to the Lord is not emphasized, you can very easily end up with a group of people who believe they are the body of Christ but are in reality just a group of people with no real connection to the life of Christ. |

        That is my concern.

      • Cheryl –

        I’m not saying that we don’t personally respond. Of course we do. But the response is not: “Cheryl, accept Jesus personally into your heart and THAT’S all.” It’s: “Cheryl, respond to the work of Christ by joining, or as you join, the community of faith.” That’s why it is sealed through baptism into the body, celebrated regularly through communion. Not baptism on your own and taking communion on your own.

        And to your concern: The community of faith is, by nature, expected to be a community of just that, faith. It doesn’t mean a) there won’t be people in the midst of that community that are not truly of faith or that b) you’re not called to personally respond in faith to the work of the Spirit of Christ. But the call is not: “Hey, you, individual. Believe and accept Jesus.” – period, full stop. But we’ve continually told people – it’s all about “me, Jesus & my Bible.” Just accept Jesus and that’s all it really is about. That’s about a 10% slice of the pie.

      • Scott, both are needed here for sure.

        What you are calling a 10% slice of the pie is the foundation for all of the rest however. Without that 10%, the rest does not exist in reality.

        Maybe you are seeing community neglected.

        I seem to often be seeing the Gospel call to repentance and faith with real discipleship neglected.

      • Cheryl –

        The gospel call to repentance and faith with real discipleship is a communal activity. Can’t be anything else. It isn’t about 2 people walking lone-ranger for their entire lives. It is not about Scott calling Bob to repentance, faith & discipleship. That’s dangerous. Of course, practically, that aspect could be involved – one person mentoring another. But repentance, faith & discipleship is done within community – at least if it’s to be done in accordance with Scripture. You wouldn’t have any idea of what faith, repentance & discipleship are if you weren’t connected to a community that has a particular perspective on those matters. And even for one who says they can get it solely from reading the Bible, they’ve been duped to believe they somehow alone came to the conclusion that they can personally & privately come to such a conclusion through an individual reading of Scripture. It’s circular reasoning that this is mainly or primarily about an individual approach.

        Again, this is how we function:

        Individual –> Community

        But Scripture teaches:

        Community –> Individual

        We’ve just taken the bait of modernist, consumer, western perspectives on faith. Again, we are engaged as personal individuals. But things are primarily communal. Always have been and always will be – even for those who think it isn’t.

      • Scott, I think you are perhaps missing my point.

        What I am talking about is a large group of people, or even a small one, that is meeting together. Believing they are the body of Christ because in some way they are using His name or calling themselves a church. But people that have not ever been reborn by His Spirit, people that are not putting off the old man and putting on the new man created in His image. People that believe they are His because they are part of a body that somehow uses His name.

        But people that do not really belong to Him because the call to individual faith and repentance has been neglected in that body in favor of a “social gospel.”

        It seems to me that kind of “church” body is all too prevalent in today’s world. A community with no true life of Christ imparted to it’s individual members. That is my concern.

        And obviously that call to life in Him can come in either a group setting or one to one as the examples I gave from scripture earlier this morning show.

        Of course individuals need to be “plugged in” to a local body if they are in a place where that is physically possible. I am not arguing against that at all.

      • I’m not speaking of a “social gospel”. Of course people might think they belong to Christ and his community, but it not really be true. But let’s throw out that scenario and talk about the true church – of which you and I belong. The true community of Christ followers who have heeded the call to faith & repentance. We are inherently already part of something – whether we practice such or not, whether we think we are or not. It just is reality. We just end up primarily, if not solely, emphasizing our “personal, individualized” acceptance. And when we do end up talking about church, it’s about the individual’s choice and preference, all at the expense of true biblical community.

    • You know Scott, I actually agree with much of what you say there. 🙂

      So long as there are umpteen “churches” in any given area with every imaginable shade of doctrine and practice though, folks are going to have to make up their own minds which one they prefer to attend.

      Hopefully that will be done because the one they pick is one that they believe is preaching and practicing biblical truth closely and one that they believe the Lord is leading them to attend and not for some other totally irrelevant reason for preferring it.

      There is something else that I really struggle with in many of today’s churches about which I think you may very well agree with me100%. That is the fact that real community or family often seems to be lacking even when folks gather together under the same roof and call themselves part of the church. There is little real caring for each other, reaching out to meet each others needs, or including of each other in a way that each one knows he/she is actually a part of the body. People can be left in the middle of a group, either large of small, and feel very marginalized and not included. I do not believe that is not the way the body of Christ is meant to function either.

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