Some friends of mine took their 3-year-old daughter to a Starbucks coffee shop for the first time. “Mommy,” she asked, “are we in church?” Given the way some of us love coffee I suppose one answer might have been, “Yes, dear, I guess we are in a place of worship.” But the larger question for me is, “have we so accommodated a culture of materialism and consumption that we have lost the heart of the gospel?”
The gospel ought to consume us; instead we have turned it into a consumable.
I believe the good news about the reign of Christ over the all creation, the invitation to love our enemies, the vision of communities beating their weapons into agricultural implements, has been turned into a product. For many the gospel has been reduced to a privatized salvific experience purchased through a ministry outlet mall – the church dressed up like a coffee shop selling cups of Pumpkin Spice Savior.
The original Great Commission was issued in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." In this was an invitation for the creatures that had been made in God’s image to steward all life. Instead of “fill the earth,” the King James Version says, “replenish the earth.” In fact the Hebrew word for fill, mala, is just as easily translated “fulfill” or even “satisfy.” There is something about our place in the cosmos that satisfies the earth like nothing else. As God’s vice regents, we were designed to govern ourselves and our planet with the wisdom, grace, and creativity of the Maker of All Things.
Not only are we called to fulfill the earth, we are called to subdue and have dominion. I do not consider these words to be invitations to exploit, but to govern with justice. As I have studied the use of these Hebrew words in the Hebrew Scriptures, I see a call for human beings to bring into alignment everything that is bent, to protect the vulnerable, and to contribute to flourishing.
Even after the fall of humanity in Genesis 3, there are numerous invitations for God’s people to be a blessing to all nations – doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Then, when the re-integrating center of the universe came to earth as a human being, Christ commissioned his students to be salt in the tasteless places, light in the dark places, and leaven in the flat and lifeless places (Matt. 5, Luke 13), and to do this even if it meant giving their lives as they strive first for God’s kingdom and it’s righteousness (Matt. 6:33).
When the gospel is reduced to a highly individualized and highly privatized experience, we lose the larger picture of God’s plan to make all things new. We see our part in God’s mission exclusively through the lens of producing a convert, not restoring the cosmos.
It’s not that we need to choose one and discard the other. The need for people to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” (Luke 9) is legitimate and represents an invitation to be placed before everybody. Christ’s students are instructed to teach the nations to obey everything he commanded (Matt. 28) – though obeying Christ is hard enough just for the students to do. But none of this proclaiming and teaching precludes our confrontation of evil in all its manifestations. Nor does it mean we should not actively support human flourishing in all its forms wherever we see it. The Good Samaritan did not attempt to convert the wounded man to Samaritan theology or to leave a track with him. In fact, we know Jesus did not agree with points of Samaritan theology (John 4). However, Jesus held up the theologically heretical Samaritan because of his obedience to the original Great Commission – his action of compassion, his righting of a wrong.
If the gospel were only about words, then I suppose it could be wrapped in packaging and sold at gospel outlet malls. But its nature is cosmic and its purveyors are organic. It defies the easy reduction to a sales pitch. If the mission of God is the renewal and reconciliation of all things – people, planet, and powers – then the people of God need to be about the activities of God.
”… whatever the Father does the Son also does.” John 5:19, and “… whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these,” John 14:12
Scott Bessenecker is Associate Director of Mission for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Each year he helps to mobilize thousands of students to domestic and international mission. He is author of various books including his new release Overturning Tables: Freeing Missions from the Christian-Industrial Complex.
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