'Preach the gospel'. The phrase itself indicates something of my dilemma. It sounds, well – religious. Rather last century. Heck, it sounds rather last millennium. With the exception of the definite article, old faithful the (sorry, lapsing into churchy phraseology again there), the expression preach the gospel smells of musty religiosity...
In today’s parlance, this word is generally used to connote walloping someone over the bonce with a moralistic diatribe. ('Don’t preach at me, man!’) Then again, at least it has a use in today’s language. What about gospel? Just what does that mean, apart from being a religious word with something to do with Billy Graham?
Of course, some people know that the word gospel means ‘good news’. (For any word freaks out there, it’s from the Old English godspell – god, good, and spell, message). But knowing the etymology doesn’t really help. Because most people in the UK assume that there’s nothing very newsy about Christianity. ‘News? What news? What’s news about something that’s been public domain for two thousand years? Everyone knows what Christianity’s all about, don’t they?’
And here lies my real dilemma. Because people think they know what the Christian message is. After all, on Sunday night I probably won't stand up and say ‘Now I’m going to preach the gospel’ (cue reaching for your crash helmet and switching off because you know what’s coming). But, even stepping foot into ‘a church’, people will think they know what they’re going to get.
Not many people on the streets of the UK would say they have no idea what Christianity is all about. ‘It’s belief in God, innit?’ ‘It’s do unto others – something’. Or, more sophisticated, ‘Jesus died for us so we can be forgiven and go to heaven when we die. (Not sure quite how that works, but it’s a nice idea, so I’ll dust it off every Christmas and Easter and put it back in storage in between)’.
You might think I’m being simplistic; surely people have got more idea what Christianity is about than that. But the truth of the matter is that very often people haven’t even got that far. When I talk to people on the streets about ‘the gospel’, the standard view seems to be that Christians believe in a god that’s a bit like a cross between Zeus and Father Christmas and that he has a nice but slightly wet son called Jesus who said some nice things, but that it’s all a bit irrelevant because science has disproved it anyway. Or something like that.
Sadly, even the more sophisticated approach (‘Jesus died for me’ and so on) – usually indicating some church in the upbringing – is very often pretty limited. At its worst it will have more than a dash of something like ‘God was angry but Jesus changed his mind’. This is a development of the Zeus- Father Christmas thing: God was like Zeus, then Jesus calmed him down and now he’s like Father Christmas. (Then science disproved him.)
I have to say, I think we Christians have to shoulder some of the blame for this muddle. All too often, the Christian presentation of the gospel has been a rather two-dimensional afterlife insurance policy: ‘believe in Jesus and you’ll go to heaven when you die.’
There’s a very great problem here. If ‘the gospel’ is just about something ‘up there’ (whether Zeus mythology or ‘going to heaven’), then the gospel is automatically made irrelevant to just about everyone. Unless you’re on your deathbed or unusually introspective and morbid – forget it. (This is where atheist bus posters come in: ‘There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. Quite frankly, applied to this emaciated version of the gospel, they have a point.)
So my dilemma is not just how to find upbeat, funky language in order to ‘preach the gospel’ (i.e. the same old thing). The challenge I face is to get beyond the stereotypes that so many people assume is the message of Christianity and to actually communicate some life-arresting, stop-dead-in-your-tracks, what-was-that-you-said news.
It’s simply not just about ‘pie in the sky when you die’. Tom Wright, the bishop of Durham put it like this recently:
I don't see the [life after death] as the primary thing to talk about in evangelism. The primary thing is Jesus himself, and the vision of the loving, rescuing creator God we get when we focus on him. However, the vision of new heavens and new earth, and of God's project, already begun in Jesus, to flood the whole creation with his restorative justice, does indeed generate a powerful evangelistic message: not just 'you're sinful, here's how to escape the consequences', but 'your sinful life means you're failing to be a genuine human being, contributing to God's project of justice and beauty – here's how the project got back on track, and here's how you can be part of it, both in your own life being set right and made 'something beautiful for God' and in what you do through your life, bringing justice, hope, joy and beauty to God's world as we look forward to the final day'.
Right on, right reverend! The gospel is a call. ‘Come and be transformed and get on board an awesome project – renewing and healing a tired, sick world. Come to Jesus – he’s got a job for you to do. God’s kingdom is coming – get on board!’
So, I won’t stand up on Sunday night and say ‘Now I will vouchsafe to preach the gospel unto you’. But I will preach the gospel. And it won’t be any tired message about going to heaven when you die. It’ll be the revolutionary call we find in the pages of the New Testament. Jesus shows us God. Jesus announces God’s kingdom. Jesus dies to take away our crimes so that we can be included. Jesus rises from the dead to initiate the project. Come and join in.