The way forward will be found as we find new ways to do theology that are historic, living, communal, conversational, contextual, creative, and unfolding, trusting that uncommon collaboration will help us imagine the theology we have yet to do.
—Kingdom Evangelicals, Missio Alliance
I’ve got a confession to make: I rarely feel the need to confess.
This is not because I’m sinless, but because my sins don’t usually get mentioned in calls for confession. As a teenager, I felt left out of conversations about sin—I wasn’t doing all the juicy things that youth pastors like to talk about to get kids’ attention. It took work for me to hear the traditional presentation of the gospel in a way that was meaningful to me. I eventually came to say yes to God, but not out of the usual feeling of guilt that pastors try to drum up in young hearts.
All this makes me wonder how our presentation of the gospel is meaningful to people who don’t walk around conscious of their distance from God. When we get stuck on just one way of sharing the gospel, we have to begin with bad news before we can get to the good: “Did you know you’re a terrible sinner?” But what if there are ways the gospel would be received as actual good news to address the pains people already experience? We may have to expand our vocabulary to speak it in those ways.
In the theology we’ve inherited we often describe a need for salvation through an awareness that we have missed a moral ideal. The sense of need comes from our own guilt—we have done wrong, displeased God, fallen short of the glory of God. We feel a void between ourselves and God, a space created as we follow our appetites and run from God’s rules. So we’ve described a cross-shaped bridge that allows humans access to God again.
Our traditional presentation of the cross as a bridge has a scriptural background, but it assumes an acknowledgment of God and of his ideals. According to this presentation of our need for God, belief in God is already assumed! Tim Keller describes the paradox:
Past evangelistic strategies assumed that nearly everyone held this shared set of beliefs about a sacred order—that there was a God, an afterlife, a standard of moral truth, and a sense of sin. . . .Today’s culture believes the thing we need salvation from is the idea that we need salvation. How, then, do you evangelize people who lack any sense of sin or transcendence, or who lack the traditional basic religious infrastructure such as belief in a Supreme Being or the afterlife?1
This cross-shaped bridge is only good news to someone who already feels the void in their ability to live up to God’s moral standards.
What a strange, ridiculous problem this leaves us with: we’re surprised that we can’t explain our worldview to folks who don’t already have it, that people who don’t know God don’t know God! In a culture where those moral standards are no longer assumed and that kind of moral void is rarely felt, our old ways of describing our need for the gospel are becoming less and less meaningful. Maybe the problem is that we ourselves haven’t experienced the gospel as good news. The gospel as we’ve been taught doesn’t connect with actual needs we feel. We haven’t experienced Jesus as an answer to our deepest longings. So how can we tell others how it connects to their felt needs, that they’re already longing for what Jesus actually offers?
For Western Christians, it seems risky to begin with human experience and trust that the gospel meets us there. But there are places outside of Western Christianity that trust that God designed this salvation specifically for complicated humans like us. As David Benner describes it:
Eastern Orthodox and Celtic Christians have . . . never held a theology of the essential sinfulness of humans as part of their beliefs. Other Christian traditions, however, consider belief in the depravity of humans to be a cornerstone of orthodoxy. Unfortunately, this has led many to mistrust their bodies, emotions, sexuality, intuitions, and much more. This basic mistrust then easily spills over onto others—even onto the natural world. In short, it leaves people cut off from their deepest selves and misaligned with the flow of life.2
Maybe instead of beginning with bad news—“You know how you’re a terrible sinner?”—we can begin with the bad news humans already experience in the dehumanizing system of Western culture and offer good news as a response.
It feels like a lot of work to reimagine our whole way of understanding and communicating the good news, until we remember that there are folks outside of traditional theology who are already living and proclaiming this news in meaningful ways. People on the margins—whether because of their life circumstances (such as physical and socio-economic factors), race, culture, gender or age—have, by the very nature of their circumstances, come to God in ways that may not fit our expectations. They, by their place outside of power, understand Scripture in a way that may be more true to its heart. We need their voices to help us expand our vocabulary of God’s good news. We need to understand the whole good news so that we can share it with a world yearning for it in more ways than the cross-shaped bridge can communicate.
In a moment when the good news rarely feels like real, good news (sadly, often, even to Christians), I hunger to hear stories of how it actually saves people, how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus brings actual hope and transformation to daily life for real people. I long to learn new-to-me ways of recognizing hunger for the gospel in those around me and meeting people in those places, trusting that Scripture actually already speaks all those languages.
I long to learn new-to-me ways of recognizing hunger for the gospel in those around me and meeting people in those places, trusting that Scripture actually already speaks all those languages. Click To Tweet
So on August 5th, I’m gathering some friends and asking them to share their stories. I’m asking them, “What is the problem and how does God save? How do you interpret the Bible’s description of the gospel? What metaphors help you understand salvation? How is the gospel actually good news? How can we share it?” There will be space for theological study and tradition alongside bodily experience and emotion, for academic rigor and the rigor of lessons won through struggle. I can’t wait to see how these very personal stories intersect. I know that as we hear these presentations of good news, they will resonate with something deep in each of us. May we come to know The Whole Good News and may it be so good we just can’t keep it to ourselves!
As I’m having conversations with our presenters, I’m getting to see a glimpse of what’s in store for August 5th. I’m watching how the experience of disability intersects with the experience of women. I’m noticing which questions about God light up something in the faces of both an Orthodox woman and a Native American. I can only imagine what might be possible when we gather Vince Bantu, Lenore Three Stars, Nina Balmaceda, James Choung, Daniel Harris and others to hear how their cultural, embodied, human experiences teach them to need Jesus.
This won’t just be one more Zoom call. We’re planning an immersive, transformative experience, a conversation where we’ll each have a chance to both listen and respond, trusting that the Gospel meets us as we are, where we are, in these human lives. Join us!
Portions of this article have been adapted from Mandy’s new book, Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith Beyond the Baggage of Western Culture (Brazos).
 Timothy Keller, How to Reach the West Again, Six Essential Elements of a Missionary Encounter (New York: Redeemer City to City, 2020), iBooks edition.
 David Benner, Human Being and Becoming: Living the Adventure of Life and Love (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016), 7.