Some years ago I had the privilege of presenting a brief devotional session in a Catholic institute where I was undertaking some language study. The chosen theme was the Parousia: the resurrected King coming in power. The descriptions that were used came primarily from Revelation and contrasted rather markedly with the iconography surrounding us in the chapel. Walking towards home after the session, I was joined by a young Irish priest who, with tears in his eyes, thanked me, saying, “I have never seen Jesus like that.”
I have wondered since, just how people see Jesus and, consequently, how they view the various, necessarily abbreviated, “Gospel” messages that are proclaimed. It would seem that perhaps many make the same mistake as the thief on the “third cross” and just do not see the reality of the King of Kings.
Matthew Bates has reminded us that when the term “Gospel” is mentioned in Scripture, it refers to the specific “Good News” that Jesus is King and rules His Kingdom. The salvific emphasis of most “Gospel presentations,” however, merely refers to the potential consequences for us of our response to that “Good News.”1
As an Australian, now living in the South of the USA, I am constantly struck by the “Jesus,” “Jesus loves you,” et cetera, signs on power poles or businesses. This is not something one usually sees in Australia. But, as I think of the signs and what they may mean to an increasingly biblically illiterate population, I wonder what their impact might be. Certainly, the Holy Spirit is able to use word triggers to engage with a person, but might we be able to consider different triggers that might be used?
At one time, during the opening meeting of a conference for missionaries and indigenous church leaders from collectivist and communalist contexts, we were asked if there might be topics that could be added to the agenda. It was proposed that we might consider the formulation of a Gospel message specifically for one of the indigenous groups. This suggestion was met immediately by a strong rejection by a senior missionary who claimed, “No! The Gospel, is the Gospel, is the Gospel!” But just what is Good News to different peoples and cultures?
In my PhD research, years ago, I considered the origins and prioritizations of three particular affective domain pairs: guilt-innocence, shame-honor, and fear-power, in collectivist and communalist (village/tribal) cultural contexts. One conclusion that became evident was that relationality was a key driver of the prioritization of the pairs. Very briefly, those with a personal relationship with a supreme, holy, omniscient Being tended to be concerned with limiting guilt feelings; those with strong, in-group and family bonding, with limiting shame before others; and those who related strongly with the cosmos (including the spirit world), with limiting fear. I began to wonder how this might relate to “Gospel proclamations.”
Some missiologists have suggested that the affective domain pairs mentioned above, which are all very evident in the early chapters of Genesis, through the Old Testament, in the Gospels, in the Epistles, and in Revelation, should be considered when thinking of presenting the good news cross-culturally. One missionary from West Africa, for example, wrote of the desire of the tribal people to receive Christ as Lord, without understanding anything of substitutionary atonement or forgiveness of sin. For them, these issues were irrelevant . . . at least initially. A Lord, one who had the power to relieve their fearfulness, yes, they could accept Him.
Traditionally in the Western Church, and due to a particular, Western perspective on the Scriptures, the prioritization of guilt and innocence has been of prime importance and has provided the core of Gospel presentations. And when all we have had is a sin and guilt hammer, it seems that everything appears to us to be a sin and guilt nail.
However, when considering the Good News for today’s society, including staff and students in our institutions, perhaps it might be suggested that links may be seen with the other affective domain pairs.
First, the Church, at least from its Constantinization, has tended to emphasize the Gospel as referring almost exclusively to sin and guilt. This may have arisen from a particular reading of Scripture, or as a means of control, with the Church playing a significant role as the means to salvation. An omniscient Being is taught and when relating to Him, our postlapsarian condition, and quotidian, willful sinning, therefore must be seen as being revealed to Him. In this context, a soteriology founded on forgiveness of sin, being “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” and so forth, has been seen to be appropriate, and God certainly has used these messages for His Kingdom purposes.
Regarding the second pair, the reduction of shame as a personal goal is still present in our societies, but has been diminished significantly as tight relationships within family in-groups have loosened, and demonstrations of shamelessness have invaded our media. The “worship,” or attributed worthiness, of in-group core individuals (for example, parents in families or Church leaders where a church has positioned itself as an in-group), has lessened also. For much of our society, then, a “Jesus came to take away your shame” message, which may be a part of a Good News presentation, may appear to be irrelevant.
Returning to the third, fear and power pair, and its prioritization often by many living in tribal or communal cultures. At first glance, this pair may appear inappropriate for our society today. I wonder. We now inhabit the so-called global village, and have the possibility of being connected, or relating, more intensely than ever before—even if not face-to-face. Through the sciences, we are related strongly also to the cosmos. The recounted experience of friends who have worked in village contexts, indicates how often villagers evidence substantial levels of fear: environmental disasters, disease, malevolent spirits, the spirits of disgruntled ancestors, and so forth.
Yet, looking at today’s societies in the West, we see a considerable level of fear also. Daily news announces fear-inducing disasters: COVID, terrorism, mass shootings, murders, forest fires, flooding, hurricanes, political turmoil, and so forth. In addition to the news, there has been the proliferation of fictional accounts that are intended to induce fear: horror stories in books, movies, and TV series, for example. The spiritual setting for all of this may consist also of the “giving worth to” the material possessions that constitute our lifeworld environment and, on a larger scale, a perhaps worshipful-ideological stance viz-a-viz the Earth and the environment.
If, and this is only conjecture on my part, this third pair is significant for a significant portion of the population, including many of our students, then perhaps an appropriate presentation of the Good News may be one that primarily promotes the absolute omnipotence, and absolute Lordship, of the King of the Colossians 1: 15–20 over “all things.” An adequate response to that would then include a commitment of allegiance to the King (c.f., Bates again) which is only possible through the King’s sacrifice on our behalf. Of course, an over emphasis on the absolute alterity, or “otherness,” of a Lord and King, to the exclusion of His role in redemption and indwelling, can lead to deism. The trinitarian balance must be right.
Surveys that indicate a decline in church attendance may be indicative of an increasingly perverse generation, and that may be the case, or they may be indicative of the Church proclaiming a Gospel message that is limited—one that is limited not by constraints imposed by the Scriptures themselves, but by the historical roots of Church cultures.
The question may then be asked as to whether a reconfiguring of “Gospel presentations” might be undertaken to align them with the fear-power orientation of a society, or perhaps a broader approach that considers all three options. Certainly, the traditional Gospel message of the Church is so dominant, particularly in Evangelical circles, that it is assumed as normal. I wonder, therefore, as this has been incorporated into our pretheoretical essentiality, and therefore dominates considerations of normativity, if perhaps such a Kuhnian paradigm shift may be bridge too far for many.
This is so relevant. I would say, having spent years in a highly evangelical church, that the sin-guilt card has been overplayed to a dangerous degree because of a narrow focus on the Great Commission and John 3:16. There was Lordship preached in that church, but it was not a fear-based Lordship. Yes we see great fear on the part of the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sanai, and we find fear on the part of King David after the Lord had struck dead one of the ark bearers who had touched it to keep it from falling. We also see fear in the church after Ananias and Sapphira were both struck dead for conspiring to lie about a the price of a piece of land that they had sold. It seems the Lord is very interested in fear, reverent fear, that prevents an escalation of sin.
Reverence towards God is the basis of godly fear. It is also, I think, a prerequisite for a genuine guilt or shame with regards to personal sin; if we have no reverent fear of Him, how can we be expected to feel shame or guilt with respect to our sin. For the gospel to take root in a person’s heart, is not the most important prerequisite a reverent fear of God that will bring conviction of one’s sin and of an absolute need for repentance to gain a right standing with God? We live in an increasingly secularized culture in the west where God is at best irrelevant and at worst despised. Any spiritual revival is going to require a work of the Spirit that stirs people’s hearts with reverent fear, even terror, that will result in ready repentance and refocus of personal aims to serve His kingdom purposes rather than our personal, self-centred agendas. We can only be reborn from above, and that requires to Spirit to work to regenerate and then to renew and “rewire” people’s hearts and minds.
Thanks Geoff. There is so much going through my mind after reading this. I remember speaking with a family who converted to the Christian faith from Islam simply on a dream or vision of an angelic being telling the father to go to the local church instead of the local mosque. No concept of guilt or even fear, but a new supernatural revelation.
In recent days I have appreciated the view of the gospel presented by Ratzenberger (the previous Pope) who helpfully looked at the Roman nature of “gospel” as good news. At its core, the good news was carried by a messenger who returned from a military conflict in which the Caesar was involved (and was triumphant) to proclaim the victory and the consequent immanent return of the all conquering and powerful Caesar. To those in the early Church, the news was that Jesus was the triumphant, soon returning King, not Caesar.
In a sense, this view of what is meant by the Good News was deeply impactful because it spoke to their current context. I think it speaks into your suggestion that understanding the cultural context that shapes their reality is a good starting point to frame which facet of the Gospel will best shine a light in their context. Perhaps that is why post the war emphasis on warfare imagery in songs and gospel presentations struck a chord in western post war communities (remember those now quaint, but now a bit corny tracts?). With things like Covid and climate change dominating conversations, at least in our western context, a different facet of the Gospel might be better used.
Thanks Geoff. A great way to re-think how we reach secular people today. I think covid has highlighted the great fear of death and disease that dominates so many people’s lives. A good news message that fear can be assuaged, seems relevant.