By Vicki Brown
“Go Tell It on the Mountain” and other popular Christmas songs encourage Christians to share the gospel with joy, but theologians say that in a society increasingly unfamiliar with the Bible, clarity is key.
“We need greater clarity about what exactly we mean by the gospel, or what we think the Christian message actually is,” said David Gushee, director of the Center for Theology and Public Life and professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University.
Gushee said the Christian message today is muddled, caught “between the personal salvation message of the Billy Graham era and the Kingdom of God message” that he and others have been writing about during the last 20 years.
“Then, of course, there are all kinds of less-satisfying variants, mainly therapeutic and self-esteem oriented,” he added.
Terry Rosell, a professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan., said the gospel message takes on a different complexion based on varied interpretations of human history and “individual or corporate experiences of God in Jesus Christ — or Christ in God,” he said.
While the message differs to some degree across varied Christian traditions and in different times, Rosell said some aspects remain unchanging. Particularly, he cited descriptions of “Jesus and his love for God and people, especially people relatively unloved by other people.”
Gushee agreed the core gospel message is “God’s saving love for fallen humanity and creation in the incarnation, cross and resurrection of Christ.” It starts with people, he said, “eventually extending to the whole of God’s loved, broken world.”
Judson University Chancellor Jerry Cain said the basic message can be boiled down to two four-word sentences based on a subject-verb-object pattern from John 3:16: “God loved the world. God gave his Son,” Cain said.
Cain believes the message has to begin at that simple level, both for the individual believer and for the church. “If I were a denomination czar, I would for 10 years hone in on those two phrases, and then flesh out that message,” he said.
After an individual, congregation or a denomination understands the message of Christ to portray to their world comes the question of how to share it. Cain suggests taking a lesson from business: Why does a for-profit company exist?
“People know that Papa John’s exists to make a profit,” he explained. Likewise, the church must craft a message to its audience that: “We exist for your welfare. We exist for you.… The services we provide, the teachings we espouse, are for you.”
Gushee said church leaders must communicate clearly and in understandable language, regardless of the platform they use. Using a “biblical” communication style is less effective than in the past, he said, because Bible knowledge “among the general public has faded … and has also weakened considerably among churchgoers.”
But Gushee said that weakness also could be used to advantage.
“Our presentation of the gospel must assume less background knowledge,” he said. “We have to explain things that we would not have had to explain before. But this presents a fresh opportunity, as well, because there is perhaps less underbrush, or bad theology, to clear out before we get to the presentation of the gospel.”
Experts say churches can also move beyond traditional communication tools into new outlets like the Internet and social media.
Cain said congregations should use every delivery system that is available to secular industry. “Redeem the media,” he said. “It’s a neutral force, and we choose whether to use it for good or to use it for evil.”
“Use it for good,” he urged. “Use every aspect to tell the redeeming story.”
Religion News Service Executive Director Debra Mason said Christians should join the broader social conversation in part because they have some power to influence it.
“More important than the technology flavor of the day is the need for faith communities to be part of the social and cultural secular conversations across the globe,” she said. “It is tempting to be myopic and to focus only on one message in one medium among one audience.”
Mason said churches are instead challenged to “engage the broader community wherever they are and to do so in ways that are constructive and civil.”
Civility, although “the least visible quality” today, is the one area in which churches “can model leadership and best practices,” she added.
“Churches are often afraid to engage secular culture because of the vitriol and argumentative tone of online communication, especially around religious issues,” Mason said. “But Jesus’ message of love and redemption has a place even there.”
For Gushee, the Bible itself packs a lot of power. “I still believe in the power of God’s word — read, preached, sung, taught — to reach people with the gospel,” he said.
“I still see the power of skillful preaching — even verse-by-verse expository preaching … without a lot of bells and whistles,” Gushee said. “Leading people to see what the text said and what it now says to us … is still a fine art, but it does not require Madison Avenue’s help.”
The problem, Gushee added, is that many “have lost confidence or interest in verbal communication of the gospel message. Evangelism has faded dramatically.”
Gushee pointed out his own experiences generally stem from his work as an advocate on specific issues such as torture and human rights. “When I say why I care about these issues, I go directly to the gospel as I understand it,” he said.
Rosell said living the gospel — “following Jesus in the ways of love” — is key.
“We know human examples of such not so much by what they preached or published or posted — though some do/did some of those things well, also — but by how they lived and loved,” he said.
“Mother Teresa comes immediately to mind. But there are many saints out there, less known to the multitudes, though in smaller circles known well for their good works and humility — for their Jesus-like love.”
Cain said the power of media lies in making sure God gets the glory for the church’s story. “That’s where I would call on Google or the Associated Press. It’s a form of worship to let those good works be seen by the public,” Cain emphasized.