This post is a part of a series on what it looks like to be a Slow Church that Pastor Joe has begun on his personal blog which can be found at www.noggingrande.com. Many of the thoughts from the Slow Church blog, book, and conference have informed the conversations we’ve begun here at New Hope, and it seemed like a good idea to share these thoughts here where folks from New Hope could consider them as well.
None of us are experiencing salvation, until the whole cosmos is redeemed.
– Carol Johnston, Slow Church Conference
The Big Gospel Journey
About five years ago I went on a journey for a bigger gospel. I’d reached a point in my life where the tiny gospel, boiled down to “Jesus died on the cross for your sins, so say a prayer and you can go to heaven,” had come up lacking. Do I believe that Jesus’s death on the cross paid the price for my sins, and that it brings about forgiveness, and that by faith I might receive eternal life in the presence of God?
But I felt then, and I believe now, that this is only a small part of what the Gospel is all about. Over the course of these five years I have found that there are more and more people who are trading the tiny gospel of personal salvation for what I’ve termed the “Big Gospel.” The Big Gospel is the good news that salvation is not only for me to experience (and then invite others too) so that I can leave this world at my death and spend eternity in heaven, but it is the way that God has been at work since the Garden to restore everything that sin has destroyed in all of creation. At the Slow Church conference, Carol Johnston spoke about God’s work to reconcile all of creation in Christ, and much of what she said could be summarized in the statement, “None of us are experiencing salvation, until the whole cosmos is redeemed.”
It is out of the soil of the Big Gospel, that Slow Church grows. Smith and Pattison make no bones about this reality. The first chapter of the book lays out their theological convictions, and as a summary of the Big Gospel it is worth the entire price of the book. Not only that, but if you bought the book, read the first chapter, never picked it up again, and spent the rest of your life studying the theology that undergirds the chapter’s premise, I believe you would get to something like Slow Church in the end. The same cannot be said for the tiny gospel.
The Tiny Gospel Lived Out
In fact, the more I have reflected on the effects of believing the tiny gospel by itself, apart from a broader understanding of its implication for the cosmos, the more I believe it to be the genesis of the franchise church bent on conversions alone. When one considers the tiny gospel as it plays out through time, it falls short of embracing the breadth of what scripture calls us to as the church. If the whole of the gospel is about individuals believing that Jesus died for their sins so that they can go to heaven when they die, then the primary concern of the church at any point in history is to get individuals to confess they believe that, and everything beyond that is at best cake, and at worst a bait and switch. It compels the church to do whatever it takes to get an audience. How do we gather the most people right now? How do we gain a critical mass of people to hear this news and make a decision?
Not only that, but there is an imperative to only consider the conversion that takes place right now, in this moment, and the rest of God’s work through history is relatively unimportant. A tiny gospel leads people toward an understanding of themselves and the life they live as being (1) entirely centered on the individual and (2) completely disconnected from the centuries that have passed and whatever time is left ahead.
The Big Gospel that Grows
The Big Gospel, in contrast, believes that God has been working throughout all of history toward this one goal of reconciling all things to himself in Jesus Christ. All things, heaven, earth, people, creation. The Big Gospel sees God at work to make all things new, and that there is a future for all of God’s creation, because a redeemed people, standing in the midst of a renewed creation is a true victory over death, sin, and the devil.
When we think about the church in terms of centuries, or millennia, we have space in which to believe that God is at work, slowly, over the long march of history. As such, we can begin to ask, “How is Jesus enabling this congregation to work for the reconciliation of this neighborhood over the next thirty, fifty, or one hundred years?” Certainly we want to see the gospel change lives along the way, and there will be moments of celebration as individuals receive the hope that God’s love in Christ means life abundantly now and forever, but we can begin to imagine our work as more than conversion harvesting. We can till the earth, we can sow the seed, we can water, and over generations prayerfully watch as God brings the growth.
What would it look like to dream about a neighborhood transformed over the course of generations into something of new creation? What would it take for a congregation to put its hands to the plow and work for fruit we’ll never see, but for which we can trust God to bring? When we begin to see the Gospel, as God’s long, slow work to reconcile all of creation through Christ, we begin to realize that what has come before us impacts our ministry, and what we do will have a lasting impact on into the future of God’s creation. It is then that we are freed to slow down, and be faithful.
Are You Hungry?
The Big Gospel at Dinner
I jokingly said a year or so ago that I was going to write a book and call it Slow Youth Ministry. After nine and a half years of working with teens, eight of which were with the same youth group, I had developed some patterns of teaching and working with teens that were more in line with this bigger gospel. One of the practices that existed when I arrived at New Life was that of youth dinners. Every Sunday night we would meet for our normal youth service, and as a part of the night we would gather around a table and share a meal together. At one point we planned on canceling the dinner for cost purposes, and we couldn’t. Without even an announcement to the congregation, people were moved to provide our meals. It was central to our DNA as a group.
So much so, that we built our identity around it. When I arrived, the group was already called 2:42 (I just added curly brackets), in reference to the description of the church in Acts 2:42. Eventually we decided to have shirts printed and one set of shirts read on the back, “Are you hungry?” Based on our reading of Act 2, we were asking people a question that was bigger than a question about a meal. As I consider the Big Gospel and the way Slow Church grows out of it, I see in this question the seeds of what I have come to believe about the church as a whole.
We wanted to ask kids, “Are you hungry?” because we believed that the Gospel offered the solution for any one, no matter the hunger. Are you physically hungry? In God’s new creation, everyone eats enough. Are you spiritually hungry? In God’s reconciled creation, you can experience God Almighty through Jesus. Are you emotionally hungry? Jesus’ work to renew creation means that one day he will wipe away all your tears. Are you relationally hungry? God is forming a new people, in which you will be loved and accepted and know the ultimate love of the one who created you in the first place. It was a holistic understanding of what God was doing through Jesus, and it was the beginnings of my working out what the church should look like because of the Big Gospel.
Setting the Table Up Outside
Our biggest downfall, though was that too often we kept this question in house, due in part to a fast church mentality. We never saw ourselves as being a part of the community long-term, building relationships over time, sowing seeds for the people who needed to be asked this question. We did not, as David Fitch pointed out at the Slow Church conference, set up the table out in the street. We kept the community around the table closed, even as we welcomed guests, we were solely convinced that what we needed to do was to have people come to us and share a meal around out table, in our dining space, at our place.
Going forward though, the church needs to ask, if God has been at work in all the world, how can we set up a table in the neighborhood where people are welcome and can find the reconciling work of Christ to feed them where they are hungry? What might it take to set up a table in the neighborhood that will be available for years to come, and that will see the neighborhood transformed by the witness of that community proclaiming that Jesus is Lord, and he’s already making all things new?
These are the questions for a church that wants to be a Slow Church grown out of the Big Gospel soil.