Riffs: 05:13:09: Scot Mcknight on the Individualized “gospel”

From Scot Mcknight’s Kingdom Gospel series at Jesus Creed. I did a bit of creative editing.

I wonder what John would think of the gospel I sketched at the beginning of this chapter:

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
But you have a sin problem that separates you from God.
The good news is that Jesus came to die for your sins.
If you accept Jesus’ death, you can be reconnected to God.
Those who are reconnected to God will live in heaven with God.

Every line of that statement is more or less true. It is the sequencing of those lines, the “story” of that gospel if you will, that concerns me and that turns Jesus’ message of the kingdom into a blue parakeet. And it is not only the sequencing, it is the omitting of major themes in the Bible that concerns me. What most shocks the one who reads the Bible as Story, where the focus is overwhelmingly on God forming a covenant community, is that this outline of the gospel above does two things: it eliminates community and it turns the entire gospel into a “me and God” or “God and me” gospel. Who needs a church if this is the gospel? (Answer: no one.) What becomes of the church for this gospel? (Answer: an organization for those who want to do that sort of thing.) While every line in this gospel is more or less true, what concerns many of us today is that this gospel makes the church unimportant.

I believe this gospel can deconstruct, is deconstructing, and will deconstruct the church if we don’t change it now. Our churches are filled with Christians who don’t give a rip about church life and we have a young generation who, in some cases, care so much about the Church they can’t attend a local church because too many local churches are shaped too much by the gospel I outlined above.

Scot Mcknight has increasingly become a lightning rod in evangelicalism as he does his work as a New Testament scholar teaching the church to understand and apply the Bible. The “lightning” is the reaction of many conservatives to Mcknight’s views on Biblical interpretation, women in ministry and the Gospel of the Kingdom.

In the past few days, Mcknight has been asking some pointed questions and making powerfully honest applications regarding the “gospel” that has developed in recent evangelicalism. That Gospel, which he summarizes in the quote above, is the familiar Four Spiritual Laws/Billy Graham/Evangelism training version of bringing a person to have a relationship with God through affirming certain beliefs in a prayer or other. He points out that this “Gospel” is so individualistic that it not only makes the purpose of the church largely irrelevant, it also creates believers who have little or no concept of the entire Biblical story’s focus on the “people of God.”

It is a “gospel” that deconstructs the church and, in my opinion, largely deconstructs discipleship down to the components of individualism as interpreted through society, personality and personal experience.

It is a “gospel” that needs a minimum of “spiritual formation” or “Jesus shaped community” because its primary pattern is that God wants YOU to be YOU and YOU are the primary interpreter of Jesus for YOU.

At some time we are going to have to get around to talking about this, and Mcknight has opened the door.

Since I do a lot of evangelistic work and evangelistic counseling with new believers, I can give you a report from the lab.

Here’s what happens: right at the moment the student “gets it,” the whole movie needs to stop, and right there the student needs to look at me and say….

“OK. If that’s it, I want you to honestly know something. I can say I believe this because I do. I can pray the prayer. I can get baptized. I can call myself a Christian. But this little moment we are having here…this moment where I cross the line? It’s not going to change my life. It’s not going to change me. It’s going to take more than saying yes to a set of belief statements. I need some help. A lot of help from God and people. I’m only barely getting started and I know I can’t make it on my own.”

But I won’t hear that. What I’ll hear and what most of us will say is something along the line of how the “gospel” above is life-changing, and now that person has a life-changing relationship with God.

They should now, we’ll say, read their Bible on their own every day, pray on their own every day, witness on their own, find a good church on their own, and go there at least an hour a week.

And give their money.

And listen to Christian music. And buy Christian products.

And live up to the following 48 page, small print list of behavior rules, most of which wouldn’t make sense to the aliens ruling this galaxy, much less a new Christian.

Left with the “gospel” Scot has outlined, that new believer stands a better than average chance of getting nowhere permanent in a church. They will become convinced that their own views on things like sexuality and money are totally normal and can’t be changed. They will see their faith as highly individual, personal and private.

If they make it into some form of Christian community, it will likely be one that affirms them in this individual path by teaching them that Jesus is a life coach who wants them to experience lots of personal fulfillment and have a great dating experience.

Whatever steps they take in the Christian life will come down to “I got so much out of that.” The primary flaw with Christianity will be that it’s boring. The great quest will be relevance and good feelings. The church will either facilitate the authority and fulfillment of the individual and his/her version of the “gospel” or it will become optional.

Over time, expect most churches to fail the test. Chances are that this new Christian will be a church drop-out pursuing their own “walk with the Lord” outside of church before too long.

Welcome to the evangelical wilderness. Anyone else recognize that individualized gospel Scot is describing and what it has done to you, your church community and your family?

Anyone else sick of it?

Thank you, Scot. I love you for writing this because it inspires me to see how it has all worked its way into the heart and soul of lifelong evangelicals like me.

We need to talk about this some more. (Clue: Churches that surrender to this are destroying themselves. Your own message will deconstruct the purpose for which you exist. HA!)

86 thoughts on “Riffs: 05:13:09: Scot Mcknight on the Individualized “gospel”

  1. I think this post connects with some earlier posts about discipline and discipleship. Roger Williams started the Rhode Island colony based upon the individual deciding for himself what type of church leadership one should be under. There was a sense of oppression. Luther felt the same oppression, as did Wycliff, Jon Hus, Athanasius, and so many others. The reason that sola scriptora is so important is because it is possible and likely that men who are not believers are able to get power in the church. I don’t have an answer other than to say it is war. Love your brother in the foxhole you are in, and know who the enemy is. Love and Truth side by side.
    Jesus did not say it would be easy, so stay in touch with headquarters as often as possible. (that means prayer by the way, not Rome or Constantinople).


  2. It seems obvious the problem is NOT the Gospel but the culture people are bringing into the church.
    Is it so difficult to admit that there are many elements of American culture which are worth losing?


  3. Some clarification is in order: I do not disagree that an authoritative body is a cure-all. iMonk is correct in stating that there is enough in Catholicism to let it become an individualistic pursuit.

    Prior to Vat II, it wasn’t uncommon for those assisting at Mass to pray other devotions such as the Rosary apart from the Liturgy, as the priest and ministers prayed the Mass. However, it was always expected that the faithful unite their prayers to those of the priest. What occurred in practice varied, ranging from those who followed along in hand missals to gentlemen who read the Sunday paper. But the problem, in orthodox Catholic thinking, wasn’t poor intent but poor catechesis, or at least lack of uniform good catechesis.

    That uniform and correct catechesis wasn’t accomplished–and has yet to, in this poster’s understanding–isn’t a defect of institutional structures, as when said structures are properly functioning, they should be capable of serving that function. (Example of it working (or at least at work): the uniform vocal opposition by 70+ US RC Bishops to Obama’s being awarded a PhD in Law by UND this Sunday) On the other hand, an objective assessment of unstructured religious bodies would, in my humble opinion, show a natural tendency toward doctrinal entropy, as everyone is his own authority regarding biblical interpretation.

    In light of this, I don’t believe the Lord intended for us to be left without an earthly head. We can argue until the cows come home about rocks, stones, and pebbles, Greek and Aramaic, feeding sheep and feeding lambs, but it’s all academic when there’s no unified, universal organization, however it’s organized and led or how strong or loose the ties, that can be the honest broker that calls BS when something goes rotten in Denmark.

    Yeah, I know, go ahead and say it: the “Catholic” is suggesting we all bow and kiss the Pope’s ring, and submit to his authority. That’s not what I’m saying to my fellow posters, although it would be a perfect world, IMHO, if that were to happen. Of course I’m not deluded to think that’s soon to happen. What I’m saying to all here is we need to on some level, speak with one voice (“Una Voce”) whenever and wherever we can. We’re surrounded by a veritable cacophony of bad teaching throughout the Christian milieu, independent of disagreements between denominations we already deal with, across the spectrum, from the EV to the RCC to even the Orthodox. I’m talking about stuff that all have always believed.

    The problem in doing this seems to be the fact that there is so much doctrinal diversity, that it compounds the problem in an almost logarithmic manner in dealing with any given issue.


  4. WRT the topic at hand, I submit humbly that the problem, though certainly not exclusive to Evangelicalism, is certainly going to remain a big problem in Evangelicalism, and to a degree in mainline Protestantism due to the very LACK of authoritative bodies in EV that exist in greater or lesser degrees in the RCC, Ortho, Lutheran, Anglican, etc.


  5. OK….we’re at another one of those impasses that makes me regret having comments.

    I do not provide the opportunity to comment here in order to make it impossible to discuss the topic at hand.

    The topic, as addressed by Scott and myself is clear. If someone wants to challenge the whole premise, wonderful. Scot’s blog is right around the corner 🙂

    We aren’t going to launder all the stupid things done by churches. We aren’t going to make Paul equal to Jesus. We aren’t going to decide that the community question is meaningless because without the scriptures- produced by the church- we don’t have a discussion.

    I’m shutting down comments for a while. It’s quite unfortunate that this kind of discussion has to be subject to blog comment anarchy.


  6. I’m simply repeating the gospel as I’ve heard it over and over again down here in the Bible Belt: salvation by faith alone. We’re all sinners, etc. etc.

    (Except for gay people. Even faith ain’t enough to save them, seems like. They also must be celibate.)

    (Re: works: Scott is doing an excellent job exploring James over on his blog).

    Is it not universal practice to place the words of Paul on the same level as the words of Christ? Then we finesse that minor point by invoking the Holy Spirit.

    Paul even gets more space than Jesus — and who questions that? I have friends who attend a Bible-based mega-church who won’t even speak to my pastor because she’s a woman. They shun her, based on scripture. Where’s the Christian community there?

    Sure, church is a work. What else is it? Going to church is an action. Is attending the Bible church I mentioned above a work?

    Frankly, I felt like stirring things up a bit and injecting reality into the violent agreement that yes, community is good.

    Reality is that anyone can stand firmly on scripture with the belief that faith in Jesus is a get-out-of-jail-free card.

    Do I agree? Nope. But there is more scripture against me than for me.


  7. ..SORRY if i offended you imonk…i apologize..im not jerking anyones chain here..my view of God may not be what it should be but until HE shows me different i must press on in Faith. sincerely, mike logue


  8. Joesph,
    If community is a Work, and Family is a work, then why does Paul write his letters?
    I believe they are all views on working out the Gospel in everyday life for individuals who comprise Church communities and ultimately the Body of Christ.



  9. Austin, there is no “model” of Christian community, as if by some method we could create it. There are churches made up of people. The only way to “find” Christian community is to become part of a group of Christians. And every group is flawed, most badly. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have a New Testament, because that’s the only kind of congregations you see there also, and the NT was written mostly to address problem after problem in them. Remember, even the brand-spanking new, Spirit-filled church right after Pentecost had Ananias and Sapphira!

    Read Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together. There is no ideal community, only communities of sinners. Too many of us have “wish-dreams” of some utopian fellowship that meets all our requirements and desires. On the other hand, if I truly relate to my brother through Christ alone, I can thank God even for my brother’s sins against me, for they remind me that our relationship is built solely upon the Cross and God’s gracious forgiveness which made us brothers in the first place.


  10. Also, people are lonely. Really lonely. If we offer genuine community, it is appealing. I heard a testimony of someone who walked into a store front church’s prayer meeting because he saw people holding hands. He missed human touch, and even though he had no idea what was going on, he walked in, joined hands, and just stood there with them while they prayed. That’s how he met Jesus.


    Treating others as brothers and sisters in Christ whether or not they are Christian or not, Jew or Gentile, male or female, rich or poor, black or white, etc… …giving ourselves, engaging in sacrificial love, doing the stuff Jesus (and what he instructed his followers) did…


  11. OK, Joseph, tell me this, if you have faith, but do not do works, do you really have faith? How does that correspond to Jesus’ saying “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers…”?

    It’s not either/or, but both/and. Of course, no amount of works will get you into heaven. Kreeft says that Catholics and Protestants aren’t really saying anything different as far as what we mean, it’s just that what we mean by “faith” tends to differ. If we can get past that, we’re that much closer to unity in whatever sense.


  12. “Paul the second son of God”–this is obviously the Doctrine of the Quadrilateral!



  13. The church is a “work?”

    You’ve obviously been part of some of the same churches I’ve attended.

    Community for Jesus was the embodiment of the Gospel, not the law.

    God is saving a community. That’s Mcknight’s entire point about the Biblical narrative.

    People who can’t “find” community can’t be saved? No one said that.

    Paul is the “second son of God?” What?


  14. Not to be a smart-aleck, but if I have faith in Jesus Christ, what more do I need?

    Community is a work. Family is a work.

    Isn’t that the beauty of Christianity? You don’t really need to DO anything.

    [Mod edit]

    You can debate the impact of faith v. works on evangelicals until the world is flat, but at the end of the day, scripture (meaning Paul, the second son of God in all practicality) tells us faith is all we need.

    Or are we saying that aside from faith, we must have some kind of community before we are saved? How does that play with those poor folks who can’t find community?


  15. Great Post–and Scott McKnight’s too.
    In some respects this same argument has been played out in Theology too with Paul’s doctrine of Justification by Faith. N.T. Wright and the NPP have been advocating a covenant people of God approach, a narrative approach which subsumes the more traditional,reductionist How I get saved approach.

    Also Ed makes some excellent points about Church Life, that is why more and more Christians are joining iMonk, Scott McKnight, etc in the online Evangelical wilderness. We’re all just beggars looking for Bread and finding it here online and not in the Local Church. Our conline communities offer us the chance to discuss the Gospel and Our Faith in a liberating environment–or as Paul would put to work out our own Salvation in Public, in a loving Community of Saints.


  16. Sue:

    Community as Jesus created it during his earthly ministry.

    Cross cultural, counter cultural, inclusive, Kingdom based, sacrificial, mission focused, spiritually confrontative, prayerful.

    The Jesus movement as described in the Gospels and as practiced- in a flawed way- by his followers.



  17. iMonk,

    Please explain what you mean by:”community as Jesus exemplified it”. Thanks


  18. mike:

    No. One option, but God never commanded anything like monasteries.

    I think Benedict’s Rule is a great piece of work on living together, but it doesn’t define community in the sense of the church as Jesus exemplified it.




  19. …are not monasteries the purest form of TRUE “christian community”…communal living..communal living..commune..There..I said it…


  20. I wonder what John would think of the gospel I sketched at the beginning of this chapter… — Scot McKnight, at the start of all this

    Probably “You Lose a LOT in the condensation.”

    It seems to me that Catholicism has plenty of ammo to turn Christianity into a highly individualistic pursuit. — IMonk

    Just look at contemplatives and hermits (and those who attempt the same and go overboard). I think the reason St Benedict formulated his rule was to maintain community in the monasteries and prevent individualistic flakeouts. If somebody starting getting flaky, the others would provide a reality check.


  21. ..”A community isn’t a group of people sitting together. It’s people living, walking, working, talking, failing, loving, forgiving together.” …Is this about to “get real” as they say….


  22. It seems to me that Catholicism has plenty of ammo to turn Christianity into a highly individualistic pursuit.

    And whoever said that Protestants/Evangelicals do the routine minus the sacrament….I think we are just as sacramental about many things. Some good, some not so much.

    A community isn’t a group of people sitting together. It’s people living, walking, working, talking, failing, loving, forgiving together.


  23. Boethius:

    That sounds more like how your parents treated their faith, which is not to say it’s rare. Far from it. But it’s not been my experience. Of course, my background was in a small country parish where everyone knew everyone, and most were related, at least distantly, as most of the parishioners families were up to sixth generation. I’m in a larger Traditional Latin Mass community, and while I don’t have a complete grasp for everyone in the parish, which has a Sat PM and two Sun AM Masses, I know quite a few, at least from the Latin Mass, and the local parishioners (it’s the Italian parish) are pretty friendly.

    I’m of the Catholic “both/and” persuasion. Based on the Bible, the Church is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth.” I don’t know how a non-physical “church” can be the “pillar and bulwark” of anything. From my perspective, it certainly hasn’t worked well. Not saying the institutional church is perfect. Far from it.


  24. Imonk,

    I’ll dig for those. Thanks,

    I was just thinking more in line on how you transistion a church to that mindset.



  25. Austin,

    My alternatives have been posted here many times. How about the community of strugglers I posted about just the other day?




  26. This post, like many others, I agree with wholeheartedly – the American Evangelical church is in a mess. The many commenters mostly agree, and often help expand on the many variations of the problems, and some of how we got here. The problem currently under discussion, lack of genuine, organic, Christ-centered community, almost sounds hopeless. Consumer driven American society sabatoges every step of the process, from understanding the problem to getting a vision for a biblically sound solution that doesn’t involve large success-driven institutions. It seems to doom us to failure. Like travel in some parts of the south – “you can’t get there from here”. I would say it IS hopeless but for my faith that Christ is building his church, and that he can bring the dead back to life.

    Not to turn around and try to do what only he can, but does anyone know of resources and examples of Christian communities that work in our current culture? Or is ‘finding a solution that works’ part of the American mindset that holds us back? Lord, have mercy and rescue us from ourselves.


  27. “You may actually do this, I don’t know, but from what I have seen this is not reality (Christians not wanting to get involved in the “formal programs” of church, but still living in vibrant, real community with one another in their homes)”

    I haven’t figured out how to make Christian friends on an ongoing and individual basis. This is because I have this feeling that when you go to a church and make a friend, that friend is like a package deal that is contingent on your involvement with that particular church, and then I wonder to myself if we are really friends or are we just church acquaintances.

    I need to figure out how to make christian friends who I can remain friends with whether or not we attend the same church or any church at all. People change jobs, move on, etc.


  28. Update from McKnight, a summarizing quote from yesterday’s post on Jesus Creed…

    “Any kind of gospel living that is not first and foremost church-based is simply not the biblical gospel living.”


  29. Boethius:

    My family would file in, sit in the pew, participate in the repetitive-cooperate prayers, receive the sacrament and then file out without saying a word to anyone.

    Funny! Omit “receive the sacrament” and this pretty much describes my experience growing up in the SBC. Now I’m in the RCC and have found spiritual growth and discipleship I never thought possible.

    If a person claims to have “accepted” Christ and then does not have any interest in finding out more about Him, then ….

    Absolutely true, on both sides of the Tiber. We all need to do better.


  30. Real Christian community is incredibly attractive. Seekers and unbelievers are often drawn to it because it has a quality they can’t quite define but that they want more of.

    But creating Christian community is a messy and organic process compared to most evangelical church schemes, programs and structures. It’s also not naturally subject to imposition or control by a hierarchy. And, unlike the individualized brand of faith and culture in evangelical churches, there are no brashly confident self-help 5-step books to guide you to community. It’s not a product in that sense (thank God).

    As a result of all this, current consumerist institutional evangelical Christiantiy by and large really doesn’t know how to develop community; it’s too far outside the current mold and would require fundamental change on on their part.


  31. Okay, I may be throwing a wrench into this.

    My RC upbringing showed me that church was all about sacrament. Only the priest could turn the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ and therefore, it was necessary, to go wherever the priest was, if I wanted to have Christ. Now, I went to Mass faithfully each and every week. I would be amongst many people. My family would file in, sit in the pew, participate in the repetitive-cooperate prayers, receive the sacrament and then file out without saying a word to anyone. Unless one got involved in some sort of ministry (i.e. music, altar boys, etc.) one never need speak to a fellow RC.

    When I converted, (a very personal, individual conversion) I began attending prayer meetings, theology classes, pot lucks, Sunday School, Harvest Parties, Christmas caroling, etc., etc. I began to read the Bible and could not get enough of it. I started asking questions of the Christians whom I knew were older and wiser than I. I sought them out. I wanted to know stuff. The fellowship, the “iron sharpening iron” occurs in the midst of the serving. We rub against each other. We realize there are many fellow believers we do not like. We then realize eternity with these people will happen and therefore, we better find a way to love them. We turn to Christ for that. We live; we grow.

    If a person claims to have “accepted” Christ and then does not have any interest in finding out more about Him, then ….


  32. Whats sad too, is that if we actually lived in Christian community, people would be attracted. I was talking to an atheist about my church’s commitment to racial reconciliation and he wants to visit my church because he sees what a problem the race issue is, and was really surprised that the church was doing anything about it.

    Read Acts 2:42-47. The end result of the church being the church is that people came to believe in Jesus.

    Also, people are lonely. Really lonely. If we offer genuine community, it is appealing. I heard a testimony of someone who walked into a store front church’s prayer meeting because he saw people holding hands. He missed human touch, and even though he had no idea what was going on, he walked in, joined hands, and just stood there with them while they prayed. That’s how he met Jesus.

    Remember folks, Jesus didn’t leave a book, but he left a people. That fact alone should make us rethink some priorities…


  33. …I printed out this blog page and went to my prayer closet seeking wisdom from God so that i might submit an impressive entry on the subject…The voice i heard back unmistakenly God….HE WAS LAUGHING……..


  34. Something about this “individualized gospel”:
    You’d think when these atomistic Christians actually do clump together, they’d be pretty anarchistic. After all, it’s “Christ and Me and nothing else”.

    Instead, in my experience “Christian Fellowships (TM)” accreted from these atomistic Christians go full-honk in the direction of suffocating Total Conformity. Total Conformity, Christ as Party Line, Comrades. Doubleplusgoodthink, doubleplusduckspeak.

    I found more community when I discovered Dungeons & Dragons than I’d ever gotten among Born-Again Bible-Believing Christian Fellowships (TM) before that. It was like going over the Berlin Wall to the West.

    About 30 years ago, I sat in disbelief as two young women (both advocates of the type of experience mentioned here) stood before a congregation and sang that “classic” “Me and Jesus Got a Good Thing Going.” — Pastor M

    “30 years ago” would map out as the Late Seventies.

    I vaguely remember “Got a Good Thing Going” as a jingle from a Late Sixties cigarette ad. Timing’s a little off, but I wonder… Weirder things have happened…

    No one is denying individual faith. We’re denying that the gospel as summarized by Scot is the Biblical message, primarily because of its abuse by individualism and its lack of community. — IMonk

    In other words, they got badly out-of-balance in the Individual Faith direction until there was no more community or commonality between any two of them.

    I also wonder whether this type of minimalist thinking finds its roots or mindset in The Fundamentals of the early 20th century. “What’s the absolute least I have to believe and still get by?” — Dave N

    Dave, this is also a VERY understandable reaction with someone who’s been stifled by a totalitarian Christianity. You’re pulled towards Christ (Who else has the words of eternal life?) but you don’t want to get drowned and stifled again, and you KNOW you will if you ever go too far in.

    You want to stay out of Hell, but at the same time you don’t want to become a Heavenly Worship Bot, a Cosmic North Korean Dancing Joyfully With Great Praise Before Dear Leader — forever.

    (The last time I used that image on a blog thread, somebody answered that “Only that kind of Christian could take a Father’s party for a returning son and turn it into a Fascist rally.”)

    I think it is an interesting thing, and I again have to think about Bouyer’s critique of Protestantism, which he said is embedded with the principle of decontructing everything down to the individual and God. — IMonk

    Well, the theoretical ultimate “down to the individual and God” Protestantism IS millions of One True Christian Faiths, each with only one member, each denouncing all the others ex cathedra as Heretics and Apostates…

    As Eugene Peterson said: Modern American Christianity is a combination of John Calvin’s dictum that each person’s heart is an idol-factory with Henry Ford’s introduction of efficient technology. — Chaplain Mike

    Why does that start me thinking of the Cult of Ford in Huxley’s Brave New World?


  35. I think we tend to confuse the religious institution with the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ. Religious institutions are needed to provide corporate worship, Christian education and reception of the Sacraments. Don’t try to make more out of it. Maybe some Christian fellowship and friends thrown in the mix.

    Hermits don’t start as hermits. They come out of Christian community. It is a special call. One most of us don’t have. We do have, however, our individual struggles with God alone.

    Small group ministry can be connected with an individual church or congregation or a wider group of Christian fellows(also meaning women). They can be social, service, educational or spiritual. They often serve as Christian community for those involved. While the larger church serves the above mentioned needs.


  36. Chaplain Mike, is it an issue of “total sell-out to the culture” or, rather, the ‘community’ not being extensive enough in spacetime to avoid being swallowed whole by the State/culture?


  37. Justin, what’s really under discussion here is an inadequate “Gospel” message that creates “Christians” who view “the Christian life” as a (primarily) individualistic matter, with the option of becoming part of a congregation.

    IMHO, institutionalism is a side issue. The faults of institutional Christianity may have contributed to people embracing the now oft-repeated mantra, “It’s not religion, it’s a relationship with Jesus,” but in my view, this truncated “Gospel” has emerged from evangelicalism’s total sell-out to the culture.

    As Eugene Peterson said: Modern American Christianity is a combination of John Calvin’s dictum that each person’s heart is an idol-factory with Henry Ford’s introduction of efficient technology.


  38. Scott Eaton,

    I think you’re right. It’s about having a new understanding of what the Gospel is that the Gospel is bigger than just my salvation.

    I like how N.T. Wright talked about the Gospel. He sees the Gospel as the coming (already here and future completion) of the Kingdom of God. God’s restoration of His creation. The coming of the new perfected creation. Yes, my personal salvation is part of that, but the Gospel is so much more. And he sees our purpose in ‘helping’ God bring about his Kingdom.

    If we think about the Gospel like that, then it HAS to be done in community.


  39. A couple of observations:

    What is under discussion here? It is the institutionalization of the church or is it the individualization of the sheep? ISTM that these are really two separate issues, each blaming the other for being the cause.

    Also, it seems that those who staunchly defend one manifestation of church over the other are those who stand to gain the most from what they defend. And the respective arguments all ring hollow when the biblically-based and true gospel mantras start to fly. Everyone claims that.

    What is missing here is “submitting to one-another”; rather the parties are demanding submission to their position.


  40. Saying “church is optional for a Christian” is equivalent to saying that “family is optional for a newborn baby.”

    It’s not a volunteer organization, folks.


  41. ….can anyone show me IN THE SCRIPTURES an EXAMPLE of someone praying OR asking Jesus to “come in to their heart” as a means of Salvation…Please anyone…


  42. Scripture equates the church with the Body of Christ, so I believe church is essential to our relationship with Christ.

    For examples of church community, one could look at Hutterites or Amish, though those would be hard for us to emulate. The Apostolic Christian Church of America makes a stab in this direction.

    I would note that all of these churches have individual decisions by adults to be followers of Jesus, and all stress strong church communities, so a personal commitment and community life can be seen as intertwined rather than mutually exclusive.


  43. Maybe I’ve got this wrong, but I don’t think Michael or Scot are defining the exact nature of the church here. And I think questions of church relevance or style or whatever largely miss the point here.

    Scot said, “What most shocks the one who reads the Bible as Story, where the focus is overwhelmingly on God forming a covenant community, is that this outline of the gospel above does two things: it eliminates community and it turns the entire gospel into a “me and God” or “God and me” gospel.” Yes, he then talks about the church, but what is essential in his mind (I think) is a covenant community formed by God.

    This doesn’t have to be your typical mega-church, liturgical church, or “three services a week” Baptist church. Its not necessarily even found in a “house church” or “organic church” or other non-institutional form of “the church.” This covenant community can occur in any or all of the above. I think the point isn’t whether or not my church has or has not been relevant to me, but whether or not I am embracing a gospel that makes it essential for me to be part of a covenant community that, as Bonhoeffer has put it, does “life together.”

    Where you find this covenant community isn’t really the point. The point (I think) is that you have a gospel that requires you to find it.


  44. Frank Gantz wrote:

    So we have an issue on both sides of the divide: what is the gospel and what is community?

    condier my mind blown…I’m starting to ‘get it’ and connect the dots: weird quasi-gospel= nothing resimbling the biblical community

    maybe not quite that direct a relationship, but OMG I thing we’re on to something here..

    this stuff is explosive

    thanks iMONK


  45. In the business world, we’re constantly hearing about “flattening” organizational structures, meaning less layers of management. It’s interesting that the ones that think this is a good idea are generally one-level above the so-called “excess” layers.

    The same kind of debate seems to exist when defining church community. Everyone feels that their particular denomination meets the acceptable criteria and any break-away or sub-division has crossed the line toward individualism and is therefore disorganized, uncommitted, and incapable of proper theological thought since they lack the tradition and / or well-organized central office of “our” denomination

    I guess I subscribe to the “two or more” school of thought.


  46. cermak –

    The function of the hermits and the anchorites is similar to that of a lone sniper far forward of his army’s lines awaiting signs of enemy activity.

    It is significant that the first question St Mary of Egypt made after 40 years in the desert of Judea was “How is the Church? How is the Empire?”, and her first request was for the Holy Mysteries.


  47. My take is that the desert fathers/hermits did not have as their purpose individual salvation and getting to heaven, but rather trying to still the internal voices that keep us from listening to God.

    Perhaps you can be alone and still in community, just as you can be in community and still be alone.

    I’ve heard the Methodist “you cannot be a Christian except in community” many times. At first I didn’t agree, but then I came to see that it is the love of my church family that is the ultimate reward.

    (Although it can be a little over the top, like when I got a get-well card after my vasectomy after my wife let it slip that’s why I wasn’t helping at food pantry.)

    I hear God better when I’m in the ‘desert’ on a silent retreat away from people, but I experience the love of Christ more when I am with humanity.

    If the only reason one is a Christian is to avoid hell by gaining individual salvation, that’s a very base and selfish rationale. It fits right in with our culture, though.


  48. I don’t see how this discussion can lead to anywhere helpful. Protestantism (not just Evangelicalism) is reaching its logical and inevitable end…a descent into chaos. How can a discussion about community lead to anything but individuals grouping themselves together according their individual preferences. There is no-one or no-thing to set the standards for community. It seems that no one is willing to submit to any authority but themselves. And please do not say that the Bible is your authority…everyone in the Protestant world says that. The problem with Sola Scriptura is that the Bible must be interpreted. And, once again, we are back to the individual deciding whose interpretation to believe.

    So, with ourselves as the ultimate measuring rod, I would be with Rob Lofland. But I do not think that is where God has left us…

    My heart goes out to all who are so broken and shattered by their church experiences. I’m praying that the Lord will have mercy on all of us and lead us to true community. Please pray with me.


  49. It’s kind of ironic seeing Kierkegaard mentioned here as if he would revolt against the highly individualized American Christianity Scott McKnight and Monk inveigh against here. As I see it, Kierkegaard was pushing for just this very individualization of Christianity over against the Constantinian state church of Denmark. In other words, Kierkegaard is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    I understand the tension. I grew up in an ethnic [Dutch] enclave that where the “official” Church was as every bit as established as the Orthodox Church in Cyprus. You were born into this church -actually, it had split into modernist and traditionalist groups, but it was the same church – how they hated each other, though – you grew up and married and were buried in this church.

    Of course, the level of Christian discipleship was about what you’d expect from any non-volitional church. There were saints, rogues, theologues, crazies, religiopaths, pious, and reprobates. But, generally, the level of visible Christianity was about the same as any comparable group of Irish Catholics, Scots Presbyterian, or Danish Lutheran.

    Of course, the Baptists and Pentecostals gleefully started fishing in this pond. The members of the ethnic church “weren’t real Christians” to them as they had never “made a personal decision for Jesus”. Of course, when I “made a personal decision for Jesus” I went to one of the volitional groups and not back to the ethnic church.

    the problem with the volitional groups is that after about twenty years, they start getting as staid and as hidebound as the Constantinian churches they criticize, so ANOTHER volitional group arises and the dance continues.

    But it does seem odd to me to enlist Kierkegaard in a fight against an individualized gospel. After all, he practically invented it.


  50. How do you square Wesley’s ”there is no such thing as a solitary Christian” with the existence of the hermits in the early days of Christianity. Clearly these men (and later, in Ireland, women) had the ability to be Christians and yet lead their days in solitude.


  51. Here’s the deal.

    Some of us, myself included, have to grow up and realize that we have passed the stage of being receivers and should now be givers in our local churches. We should be progressing in our maturity and taking on the responsibility of forming the next group. Unfortunately…many of us seem to be stuck in the “what am I getting out of it” mentality.

    I struggle with that also. Our family has decided to stick it out in a United Methodist congregation which is far from perfect. The sermons aren’t great. The depth of spirituality is a little shallow at times. Worship is a little mediocre. But there are treasure there too.

    It’s not fair of us to throw up our hands in disgust and walk away. In fact, there is much to be learned in surrendering our image of the perfect church and working with the one we have. All of those frustrating people who annoy us probably find us equally frustrating and annoying.


  52. Imonk,

    I’d love to hear some of your alternatives, and how you think we as pastors can help to form a real Christian community in our congregations.

    This may seem a little off topic, but one poster above said that after 35 years of putting on the “i’m getting better everyday mask” he just couldn’t do it anymore.

    I think that is exactly why we can’t have community. There is too much “putting on face.” The only place we can interact with other believers is in a church building setting b/c we are not really honest about who we are.

    We can’t hang out on the weekend, b/c somebody might come to my house and see my collection of “vintage horror films” (my own bizarre personal weakness).

    I can’t invite folks over with my “world or work friends” because one of them might order a beer. We can’t go to a baseball game together because there might be drunk folks there.

    We can’t take a canoe trip b/c some folks bathing suits might not be up to snuff. And if they ride with me to the trip they might find out all my presets on my radio are not southern gospel stations.

    I think we have totally misinterpreted what personal holiness is, relegating it to all things otuward and visable and by doing so and by laying on men restrictions that should not exist, we have made the only safe place to do community inside the church.


  53. in response to Michael with regards to Nicodemus..notice in the greek that when Jesus says “you must be born again” that the “you” is plural. where there more than one person with Jesus and Nicodemus?? probably not…this is probably a literary device used by John but to the first century hearers it would speak of community. Paul does a similar thing in Philippians…”you work out your salvation with fear trembling” once again the “you” is plural. i think that both verses are examples of ultimate salvation being worked out in community…as Wesley (i think) onces said ” there is no such thing as a solitary Christian.”



  54. IMonk,

    Your comment, that “we are going to have to get around to talking about this”, is an indication of your faith journey.

    Who among us has not felt the spiritual vacuum at the conclusion of yet another choreographed performance of the “worship leader” and the “worship” team as they model on stage all those pained expressions of shallow repetitious “me focused” music idioms?

    Stripped of entertainment value and visual appeal of the praise babes, few of us find anything of interest, challenge, or God, in much of the evangelical formatted worship styles of today.

    It seems the greater manifestation of true worship is evidenced by acts of individual devotion and contrition carried forth in the Name of Christ to a hurting lost humanity.

    Christian community is founded in Christ and evidenced by like minded individuals who seek to carry forth His commmission in every manner of life whether public or private.

    Christian community is not a nexus of concentrated ecclesiastical authority, fed by bloated budgets and personal grandeur, but a distributed network of fellow believers called to a sacred journey in this world.

    I, for one, am very humbled to experience the manifestation of God at work in “community” through lives of very diverse sisters and brothers who are each living for Christ everyday everywhere.

    These dear fellow “Christ called members of the community” feed my soul, challenge, and point me toward the Creator, in ways never experienced in the air conditioned comfort of Christian entertainment venues.


  55. I agree with Ed and to a large extent with Frank Viola. Frank may overstate things at times but the state that the Western church finds itself requires overstatement. While I agree that the community is an inextricable part of one’s spiritual formation, that community is going to have to take on a different model if is to survive.
    Mellitus, First Bishop of London, said this in 624.
    “The Church has always found it easier to fulfill her priestly than her prophetic role. The temptation to institutionalism is always with us, and who will profess himself guiltless? We reduce Christianity to the service of an institution, the Church, for this enables us to be active in what is fondly called “the work of the Lord,” while at the same time failing to grapple with the fundamental problem for all Christians, that of winning our generation for Christ. In our little circle of like-minded people we condemn outsiders because they do not come in. Perhaps we even make half-hearted attempts to get them to come in. And then we snuggle down again in the warmth of our fellowship, comforted that we have done all that might reasonably be expected of men in our situation. Fortified with this consolation we concentrate on keeping the institution, the Church, running as it should.”


  56. cey,
    That’s a fair question. These kind of “off the reservation” meetings take place about once, maybe twice per week and yes, there is no schedule so I’ll also admit that there isn’t any real commitment either. I should probably add that the folks that come over are all regular attenders at the SBC that I left, including my wife and one of the ministerial staff, so maybe I’m the odd ball. My point is this; in those two to three hours, we are more open with each other than seems possible AT the church.

    I used to think that small groups (in my case, Sunday school) were the place for honest confession and helping each other, but my experience was that it was more about knowing and reciting the right answers, and confession rarely got beyond “I’m struggling with my daily devotions.”


  57. Rob,

    Brilliantly said. I think the issue is not that church is irrelevant in and of itself. It’s that, as imonk as stated, we’re afraid to be the people that we are at church in a way that we’re not at work, at sports, in a bar,etc. (and i’ve got some great “christian” stories about a dive in san francisco that i’d like to share someday). In the last week, I’ve talked to two people going through really rough divorces, with the whole kid custody battle thing. One was one the outfield of a little league game and one was at work, near the big printer. One person specifically said it was a comfort to be able to speak to folks at work, because her church had kind of shunned her since the “talk” of her divorce had gotten around. Christians suck at being Christian.


  58. I’m with Ed.
    The big problem is that church is irrelevant.
    It is way less relevant than my job, my family, sports, money, reading, friends and on and on.
    And you literalistic don’t read anything into the list I made or the order. That’s not the point.
    I yearn for fellowship.
    Nothing has to be perfect just real. And real as a community not just for me and my arm waving hysteria during the 28Th chorus.
    I put in my 30+ years of being churchy and am sick of the whole thing and can no longer pretend that it’s OK.
    It’s not OK.
    The millions of books, the thousands of stupid songs, the thousands of institutions that exist as little more than a social club. I’m out. Goodbye.
    I don’t know who Frank Viola is but he believes that Christ did not come to form institutions then he is right.


  59. Thank heavens you have the sense and courage to criticize such a simplistic caricature of the Gospel. We see it all the time on TV and hear it on the radio. “It’s just that simple. Repeat after me….” No, it isn’t that simple, and the complexity of the faith of most serious Christians we know speaks to this fact. God’s love is simple, but not the ongoing process of conversion that must occur in each of us.


  60. I’ve had a rough time with a different part of this. I was a member of a small, intimate, congregation (mainstream sort). We had Bible study, outreach, food pantry collections, youth group, long coffee hours, prayer trees… all of that. But I noticed that if someone stopped coming regularly, for any reason – questions of faith, got too old to travel, car broke down, divorce, kids on drugs, whatever… the relationship immediately stopped. as in, “haven’t seen Richard for a while, wondered what happened. oh well, who else can volunteer for his committee position?” if our faith community of Christians is truly a relationship built on the love of God, and of each other, then why aren’t we continuing that relationship when our friends aren’t necessarily in the pew next to us on Sunday. Isn’t the relationship supposed to be more than that? I don’t know what it says about “Christian community,” but it really disturbs me. I’m still really pondering the whole thing WAY deep in my heart.


  61. It is interesting that in your post, you deal with an individualistic gospel AND with entering a community with a 48 page list of behavioral rules. So we have an issue on both sides of the divide: what is the gospel and what is community? I look forward to some more discussion on merging the gospel and community with the result being a gospel community.


  62. This is also happening with parents. They want to have contracts with God about their children.
    example: If I teach my kids all of the Bible stories, and teach my kids that they are sinners, and teach my kids that need Jesus because they are sinners. Then God, you have to make sure they become Christians. Then I can feel great about myself as a parent and my children will love me and everything will work out.

    I could write pages about all of this & how off-base it is. But I won’t.


  63. Dave N:

    I think it is an interesting thing, and I again have to think about Bouyer’s critique of Protestantism, which he said is embedded with the principle of decontructing everything down to the individual and God. I don’t agree that it must be that way, but it usually is that way, and more so in certain reformation extremes.

    I think when the essentials are embattled there is tendency toward reductionism.




  64. I was just thinking that this “gospel” would be the type of thing that would make Kierkegaard blow a gasket.

    I also wonder whether this type of minimalist thinking finds its roots or mindset in The Fundamentals of the early 20th century. “What’s the absolute least I have to believe and still get by?”


  65. Ed,
    I am not accusing you of anything so please hear me on this, but I am asking you, and everyone, exactly how much time do you actually spend with fellow church members on your back porch discussing the struggles and trials of the Christian life?

    You may actually do this, I don’t know, but from what I have seen this is not reality (Christians not wanting to get involved in the “formal programs” of church, but still living in vibrant, real community with one another in their homes)

    From what I have seen in most of the Evangelical Culture of the state where my wife and I live, people are too “busy” with other things like their kid’s sporting events, or work, or college football games or whatever and they simply don’t make the time to get together with people in their churches very much, in informal or formal settings.

    It takes time and sacrifice to be in, and participate in, a genuine community, and quite honestly I don’t see a whole lot of people making the sacrifice that is needed to build a real, true, Biblical community.

    There is blame to lay at the feet of the program-saturated churches, but there is also much blame to lay at the feet of those who are not willing to invest the time in the community of believers.

    God bless


  66. Great post and comments. I agree with teenage mutant ninja tertillan(whatever that is). Pastors and church employees need to spend more time sitting in the pews.

    There is a big difference between Spiritual Formation and ‘church work’. Did anyone say anything about prayer. Not the kind where you are trusting Jesus for a Lexis but the kind you spend in communion with the almighty.

    God expects our worship. But is what passes for worship about Him or about us? Is it corperate or individual? Is our worship service centered in what we are doing or what He is doing, has done and will continue to do with or without ME!

    We will have a Jesus shaped community when the parishoner are internally shaped like Jesus. Until then we will have a human shaped community doing the best we can. Being formed into Christ takes time,prayer,the will of the Spirit and lots of love for our very human community.


  67. No one is denying individual faith. We’re denying that the gospel as summarized by Scot is the Biblical message, primarily because of its abuse by individualism and its lack of community.


  68. When Nicodemus visited Jesus in the night in the third chapter of John, I believe he went alone. I believe, in the greater context of John 3:16, all must come to Jesus alone and ask: “How can these things be?” Sure, there may be witnesses, direct and indirect, and prayers to lead the unbeliever to Jesus. But the unbeliever comes to Him alone, even if I lead the unbeliever in the prayer where he or she asks Jesus to be Savior. Without individual decisions for Christ, there is no community.


  69. I kinda see Eds point. To me the Nazarene church is a shambles because of some of the things that Ed touches on. I grew up in that church and my Dad devoted his live to that church that I believe now is a vacuous (that can’t be spelled right) social club and not anything I would consider a church. Of course it could all be me, but when I visit my parents, I will go to church with them and sing ridiculus verses over and over again and then listen to a very superfical message that is barely spoken from scripture at all, and I am left wondering what the point is and what good it’s doing for anyone.


  70. Just exactly what do we mean when we say “church life”, and what level of personal participation constitutes “caring about church life”? Is it meeting with fellow believers at some prearranged time and place, and if so, how often? Does Sunday morning worship count or do we need to be there Sunday night, Wednesday night, Sunday school, etc, etc? In the nursery, at the annual Valentines Day banquet raising money for the youth trip fund, in the choir, at the men’s retreat?

    If I meet regularly with fellow believers in my home, over meals and evenings on the porch, and we discuss our struggles with raising our children, our health, our finances and our spiritual life, does that constitute church life or do I need to have a paid, seminary-trained staff member present?

    My opinion is that much of this discussion is driven by dwindling participation in scheduled church activities and in order to defend the established order, we are told that those who choose not to be a part cannot call their walk “church” since it doesn’t involve a brick-and-mortar edifice with a cross on the roof.

    I don’t consider myself a new Christian that won’t drink the kool-aid and sign up for the nursery committee. I spent 35 years in SBC churches after I accepted the gospel message. I taught Sunday school, sang in the choir, served as an ordained deacon, and on I-don’t-know how many committees. Doors open? I was there with the family in tow.

    I gave up this life when I realized that I couldn’t repeat the same line of some inane chorus 15 times when it had about as much biblical truth as a Barry White song, when I couldn’t make myself believe preaching that insisted that all our physical ails are God spanking us for our sins, and when I realized that after 35 years of wearing the “I’m getting better each day mask” that I wasn’t really getting any better (and no one wanted to hear it or talk about it).

    No doubt some of you think that God will one day tell me that I missed out and let my own opinions overcome his teaching. I accept that I may be wrong, but I will say this; I used to come home on Sundays full of anger, doubt, confusion and sometimes hurt, but not any more.

    The gospel is not boring – but it sure can be disguised in a lot of boring useless activity. In engineering we like to say; “just because heat is being generated does not mean work is occurring”.


  71. Thanks for highlighting Scot’s post, Michael. I thought he made excellent points. And you know I really loved his: “It is like taking five stars from the sky, knocking them out of their orbits and solar location, and lining them up like ducks in a row and then saying, ‘Here’s our starry sky!'” Wonderful.


  72. I think my Christian experience was decent and a bit better and more informed than the one Scot talks about, but I still wish I would have read this 8 years ago.

    I mean, we at least tried to do Christianity as community at my first church. In fact, we were very much a Christian community. But the part I think we failed at was spiritual formation as community. I mean, outside of Bible studies and maybe group service.

    I wish someone had sat me down at some point and discipled me on what it means to pray and have a prayer life, what it means to be in service to others, what it means to read and study the scripture, etc as part of my spiritual formation and becoming more like Christ. That becoming like Christ was not by osmosis — that the Holy Spirit wasn’t going to transform me without any participation from me…

    And that all that could have been put into context of the church and doing this together to build each other up, train each other, support each other, serve each other, and love one another. And then go out from the church (together) and do the same…


  73. I see this as just an expression of the basic conflict of interest between churches as institutions (and those who work for them), and their customers / believers. Each wants certain things from the other, even if they are not always able to articulate what these are. Religious service providers realize that it is a “buyer’s market” and that in this postmodern age, people know they can always patronize their competitors instead.


  74. Is this me’ism in some new Christians a result of a four laws booklet or the culture in which we live. Perhaps this type of me’ism appealed to the rookie because it struck a chord with their culture,


  75. Another incredible post about a deeply troubling tendency in the modern evangelical church … the big problem isn’t the Biblical support for a more robust view of the church and Christ-exalting community. The big problem is a dearth of practical examples of how this works and looks … any ideas?


  76. Once you reduce the gospel to basic tenets, you turn the glorious relationship with God into a contract with Him. That’s why so many folks are hung up on the “promises” of God. God “promised” that if you confess that Jesus is Lord, you’ll be saved. So confess… be saved… and ignore that bit where Jesus says not everyone who calls Him Lord will be saved.

    This contractual-versus-relational mindset works great when you’re trying to reduce Christianity to four spiritual laws in order to introduce it to newbies. But it fails to teach them how (and why) their whole life is gonna change. It’s no wonder they think it won’t. It’s no wonder it doesn’t. It is a wonder why they stick with it when all these “promises” never come true, instead of ask, “Did I understand this correctly?”


  77. I respect Frank and love much of his work, but I am most definitely not in agreement with the view that there are no legit institutional manifestations of the Jesus shaped community. I’ve been in one for 17 years supported by many others. Imperfect, but real.

    I think Scot would agree. He’s now or has been a member of Willow Creek.


  78. 2 words: Frank Viola. Viola rejects the whole institution of “church”, period, but he is big on community as an essential part of being a Christian.


  79. Are you and Scot honestly saying that it really isn’t all about me? Yes, thank the Lord, you are, and it’s way overdue. Both of you seem right to me on discipleship and the need for the church or community of followers of Jesus.

    About 30 years ago, I sat in disbelief as two young women (both advocates of the type of experience mentioned here) stood before a congregation and sang that “classic” “Me and Jesus Got a Good Thing Going.” *According to another song, so did “Me and Mrs. Jones.”–but that’s another story.)

    “I’m saved and I’m going to heaven. That’s all that matters.” Of course, we all want that. This is one reason as a UM I like John Wesley’s emphasis on sanctifying grace. The Holy Spirit has a lot of work to do in the lives and churches of us all to transform us. Praying the so-called “sinner’s prayer” really doesn’t get that far; and we need to follow Jesus on the journey/pilgrimage for life.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: