The trajectory was like the following. Christian churches were built on the gospel. Then two things happened. One, the world became more pagan and Christians more different. Two, churches started to shrink because people didn't like being different. Instead of getting smaller, the churches changed how they operated. The churches that capitulated were criticized by those who didn't. They came up with gospel-centered to explain their approach. They weren't going to talk about the cultural issues, because the gospel is what's important.
Question: What's the purpose of the gospel?
I now want to explore that briefly by considering 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 (I risk being gospel-centered by using the King James Version [don't try to figure that one out]):
Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. 18 And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. 20 Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God. 21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.
The purpose of the gospel is to reconcile man to God. Why does man need to be reconciled to God? So that he can glorify God. That's what man lost because of sin. How is man reconciled to God? Paul explains that in this passage. Reconciliation occurs through transformation. Transformation? Yes. That's what the passage says. Verse 17, "all things are become new." Next verse, "And all things are of God." What things? Becoming new is what reconciles us to God. How are we made new? We are made new through imputation of our sin to Christ and imputation of His righteousness to us. Yes. But it isn't imputation and justification without transformation. The point, again, is to reconcile us to God. To God. God doesn't keep putting up with the old life, the former life, the way we were -- that's not what reconciliation is.
Something gospel-centered is transformational, turning us into something of a divine nature. Our music and dress and entertainment become honoring to God. If it doesn't, it isn't the gospel.
So how do they claim gospel centered? They claim it. That's just it. They're not it. They just claim it and then pose like it's true. It's a gospel pose. The gospel changes your dress and your music, so that you are honoring to God in this world. The gospel doesn't excuse your dress and your music. The gospel reconciles you to God through transforming you. Not being transformed isn't gospel. It's a gospel pose -- that's it.
Here's what happened recently at Northland. Their numbers were shrinking. They were laying off faculty and staff. It's too bad. They look at the landscape, much like the overall trajectory I described in paragraph two. The numbers are bigger in evangelicalism by far. They're not bigger because of the gospel. They're bigger because people like the world. They're comfortable with it. And the evangelicals for awhile have been pushing a gospel that forgives all your sins without changing you. How you feel when you've been saved is relieved. You're not going to Hell anymore. What a great deal! And now you've got a whole new group of friends too in a new social club called the church. Math tells you that if you move that direction, you could get a whole new clientele. The kids like it better. They'd rather wear casual clothes. They like rock music. But you've got to somehow fit all that into your doctrinal statement. Gospel-centered is what works. You say that scripture doesn't say anything about whether it's right or wrong to play rock music. And you've never seen the kids "praise God" with such feeling as they do when they're doing their Joan Baez and Peter, Paul, and Mary impersonations. It seems so authentic, the euphoria, the ecstasy. And then you also explain that what was happening before was an immature look at the gospel, because it was all about making rules and regulations, lacking in freedom, attempting to put new wine in old bottles.
In a recent rant of someone who supports the changes at Northland, he said that the old Northland put the emphasis on form, like the Pharisees. If the old Northland was interested in form, the new Northland is obsessed with form. You're not gospel-centered unless you look just like a sixties rock band with the drummer, the guitarists, and a female folk singer, everybody on his microphone, looking authentic? Where is the harmonica, the saxophone, the jaws harp, and the washboard? If I want to dance with a mad frenzy, spinning like a bull fighter, why am I not free to do that? Why is freedom only looking just like almost everyone in evangelicalism today?
Everybody's free, so now they can burp out loud, smack their lips, show their half-chewed food to everyone else, forget the napkin, and toss the biscuits if someone asks. How do you know you're free? You can grow facial hair in all matter of designs. How do you know you're free? Two words: blue jeans. It is also possible that kids like rock music and casual clothes and it has nothing to do with what God likes. Is all of this the key to the gospel exploding to those who've never heard?
This isn't new care about the gospel and it isn't gospel centered. I've read that the churches that keep the "old form" are "dead." By "dead" you mean that they are smaller. Ya think? People have a choice to go to The Adventure with the band and the The Jungle for kids with a skate boarder park. The other place is reverent and serious. Which do you think will be bigger? Why do you think Joel Osteen is so big? The biggest?
It's really a matter of where actual saved people are, if you're going to be about numbers, about numbers like Jack Hyles and the Hyles movement. The "gospel centered" really are no different than Hyles. They're using a worldly strategy that will work. That's what Hyles did. And he called it the power of God. Hyles's strategy didn't work everywhere. If you keep tweaking it though, you can get to something like these new evangelical churches with their big screen TV, movie clips, and undulating bodies during "worship." They aren't held back by "form." That's the "freedom" of the "gospel." They are gospel-centered.
It's all just a posture. It's not gospel-centered to ignore or disparage cultural applications of scripture. Reconciliation is transformation unto God. The imputed righteousness changes your culture. It doesn't leave you the same. And if the crowd grows, it grows because of conversions, because of the gospel, which is a miracle of God that defies worldly methods.