No, this is not about the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It isn’t even about the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Mary Magdalene, or Judas Iscariot.
Rather, it is about how I perceive churches in America operating in today’s society. This is not any sort of scientific study but perhaps anecdotal in nature. But in a world and a society where how Christianity is perceived, it might help if we consider what it is we do as a church and how it reflects on Christianity and on us.
This critique is not about the style of worship but the meaning of worship. There is an argument in churches today that music must be modern in nature, to appeal to those outside the walls of the church. But if the message that the people hear when they come is not a true message, then being hip or cool will not keep them there. Nor is this an issue of the use of technology in today’s church. You may use the newest and best technology but, again, if the message is old, out-dated, or limiting, all that new technology does is highlight how wrong it might be.
The “Four Gospels of American Christianity” are:
- The Corporate Gospel
- The Prosperity Gospel
- The Old Testament Gospel
- The True Gospel
The Corporate Gospel
For me, churches who believe in the “corporate gospel” are driven by the bottom line. The bills must be paid first and the building must be in excellent condition. Members of the congregation are more like customers who purchase time on Sunday. There is a set time for the service each week and members of the congregation are expected to be there at that time and in their proper seats. There are no deviations from the time or style of worship. The message given each Sunday by the pastor is very easy and never demanding, almost to the point of having no meaning at all; for to do so would drive away the customers. If churches operating on the corporate gospel have one redeeming value, it is that the coffee is good and the snacks served during the post-service fellowship hour are fresh.
The building and the operation of the building is the primary ministry of these churches. Help for the community around the church or in the world is secondary.
The Prosperity Gospel
Churches utilizing the prosperity gospel are churches filled with glitz and glamour. Pastors leading the service are among the most well-dressed individuals you will ever find because God expects them to dress that way. But suits and outfits which cost on the order of one thousand dollars require money and money is the driving force of these churches. The members of these churches give their money to support the communications ministries of the church (which are some of the best ministries in the business) but the money goes to support the minister and the life-style of the church.
Often times, it is very hard to discern where the focus of the message and the mission of the church lie because the traditional symbols of the church are missing or secondary in nature.
The Old Testament Gospel Church
If anything, churches that focus on the Old Testament as their gospel shouldn’t be even be considered Christian in nature. If the meaning of the word “gospel” is “the good news”, then it essentially applies to the New Testament. Churches who use the Old Testament as their gospel may be considered fundamentalist in nature. They have a fundamental understanding of the message of Christ but it has gotten lost in legalistic nature of their structure, much like the church establishment did in the time when Jesus began His ministry in the Galilee.
The gospel of the Old Testament is a very legalistic gospel but without much love or understanding. It is very much in tune with the written laws and regulations of the Old Testament but has no understanding of why those laws and regulations were even considered two thousand years ago, let alone today.
Christ told those who questioned his attitude towards the laws and regulations that He came to fulfill the law the following:
“Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working. (Matthew 5:17-18, The Message)
Clarence Jordan, translating Matthew from the original Greek, wrote it this way:
Don’t ever think that I’m trying to destroy the moral and religious principles of our way of life. My purpose is not to destroy them but to establish them. For I truthfully tell you that as long as he)aven and earth remain, not one dotting of an “i” or crossing of a “t” will be eliminated from our highest and noblest ideals until every one of them becomes a reality. So then, if anyone disregards one of the least of these God-given principles, and encourages others to do so, he shall be considered unimportant in God’s new order of the Spirit. But whoever lives by them and upholds them shall be considered vital to God’s new order of the Spirit. (Matthew 5: 17 – 19, The Cotton Patch Gospel of Matthew)
Now, same may argue that Jesus’ words, as given in Matthew, allow for the legalistic view espoused in the Old Testament and the imposition of a strict code of behavior. But we also have to realize that that approach limits life, not encourages life. And that is what Jesus did, he came to bring life and meaning to the people, which in turn required a breaking of the legalistic framework that had been opposed on the people by the church.
Without the love of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, all the laws do is imprison people, not free them.
It should be noted that in each of these three church models, power in the church is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals.
Another distinction is that the ministries of these churches are often considered missions, to which one gives but does not take part. The attitude is that there are others who can do the Lord’s “dirty work.”
The True Gospel
There are churches today in which the true Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, is heard and seen. But one must seek them because they are not very evident. But when you find this place, you will know it.
The building may not be shiny and new as other churches but there is a warmth in the building that doesn’t come from the heating system. Extra monies that could be spent on the building and properties are often directed to ministries in the community and the world.
Such churches are clearly in tune with the needs of the community outside the building and their outreach programs and ministries seek to involve those in that community. The people of the church are involved in this programs and they are more than just an afterthought.
It is clear that the goal of such “True Gospel” churches is understanding how to make Christ part of the process rather than to simply teaching others about Christ
It is perhaps an axiom that there is something of all four churches in each church but that would force the question of which one dominates? A church was never meant to be a building but rather the people inside the building. A church was never meant to be enclosed inside a building but to be a part of the community in which the building served as a meeting place.
And in today’s world, any place can be a meeting place if the meeting is to bring the Gospel message to the world. The question then is, “What Gospel message does your church bring to the world?”