For the next few weeks, I would like to do a series over one of the best books I read last year. It is an odd series to do because it is about a book that I first heard about on here, through Scot reviewing it.
But I wanted to write about this book, because I thought it might be helpful to talk about the book in conversation with ministry at the local church level.
The book is Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church by John Nugent and I found it convicting, disturbing, and challenging in equal measure.
Nugent begins by pointing out that while all Christians agree that the world is broken, we have had different ideas about what the people of God are called to do about that brokenness. Speaking in broad generalities, Nugent says that Christians have largely divided into two different theologies about the way to address the evil/sin/injustice in the world.
If you’re familiar with Scot’s skinny jeans pastor/pleated pants pastor you already know where this is headed, but Nugent says that the great divide in Christianity over the past few decades has been between Christians who care a lot about getting souls into Heaven, and Christians who care a lot about partnering with God in bringing Heaven to earth.
Both sides can marshal a lot of Scripture and Christian history to argue their vision of what the people of Jesus are called to do, and as someone who has co-written a book literally titled “Bringing Heaven to Earth” I obviously have a lot of sympathy for one particular side of this. But Nugent points out rightly that both sides are missing two crucial points in Scripture.
The first point Nugent makes is one that I have never considered before. It is what he calls “The Powers”.
Consider this, the way that the normal Christian story is told is that sin enters the world through disobedience, then God calls Abraham in order to form a “holy nation” a community that will be a part of setting the world right.
We are, after all, blessed to be a blessing. But God is very active between Genesis 3 and Genesis 12. Nugent points out that God responds to human evil in a variety of ways. God shortens the human lifespan. Hitler won’t live to be 500. God creates competing and counter-balancing powers (Genesis 11) that hold each other in check.
So God will use pagan nations to defeat each other and carry out His will to limit the amount of evil that they can inflict upon the world. Nugent makes a compelling point here, especially in the bitter and divisive political season like the one we just went through.
When the people of God, try to outsource the Kingdom of God to the Kingdoms of the world, when we try to “Make America a ‘Christian Nation’ again” or try to legislate morality to people who do not believe what we believe we aren’t just fighting a losing battle, but we are fighting the wrong one.
My point is this: The tasks of keeping sin in check, meeting basic needs, and making the world a better place are crucial for human thriving, but they are tasks that God has assigned to ordinary human power structures. Most people assume that the powers hold world history in their hands. The powers are the movers and shakers. What they do has potential to make life better for all people. This is why everyone gets so excited around election seasons and regime changes. What rulers do appears to be most important. God’s people have always been tempted to be like these powers. We often assume that because they are fallen and often leave their work undone, it must be our job to pick up the slack. Who better to fix this world than those who are intimately familiar with God’s will? Israel was tempted to think this way…[But] God can always find wealthy benefactors and worldly rulers to meet needs and organize the masses. There will always be prosperous pagans, high-profile humanitarians, middle-class do-gooders, and upwardly mobile politicians who want to secure a lasting name by making this world a slightly better place. It appears to be God’s will to use such people to do this very thing, whatever their intentions may be. What God wants from his set-apart people, however, is much more important according to Scripture. Only we can do it. According to Isaiah, that important task involves being a light to the nations that will reach the ends of the earth. “It is too light a thing” for us to focus on anything else.
So what are we, the people of God, uniquely called to do then?
According to Nugent, and here is where his book really is great, we are actually called to do something that is much more difficult, more urgently needed, more important, and ultimately better for the world.
We are called to be the church. A counter-culture from the world, for the good of the world.
What Nugent has rightly noted is that both sides often have a poorly developed ecclesiology.
Some of us talk about the most important thing is to get as many people into the community of faith without really developing what it means to belong to Her. Some of us talk about the mission of God as if what Christians are doing together is a side note to what God is trying to do in the world.
Having read the book, I think both of those approaches fail to capture the robust vision for what God is trying to do through His people.
They helped to create adjective Christians…Jesus followers who identify themselves as “conservative Christians’ or “progressive Christians” or “American Christians” and everyone suspects that when we start doing that we are putting more weight on the adjective than the noun.
There is a better way, but it starts with recognizing that both of those are dangerous Gospels.