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Is the Gospel good news?

By James Beck
From on a talk given at Te Raranga Leaders Lunch in Ōtautahi Christchurch in November 2022.

The majority of young people don’t believe that “the gospel” as embodied by the Church is good news for our world. The understanding of the gospel they have observed is not good news for our planet. It’s not good news for minority groups. It’s not good news for women. It’s not good news for diverse communities. And if it’s not good news for those people, then young people don’t see any way, shape or form that it could be good news for them.

If it’s not good news for everyone, is it good news at all?

I do believe that the local church, as the body of Jesus, can be an embodiment of Jesus and his hope for our world. But we are not doing a particularly good job of it for our young people. And we are not particularly honest about it; we tend to cherry-pick the stories we tell, and so we become uncredible. Often Christians say “yes, we screwed up, but let me justify the bad that we did with all the good we’re doing.” We have to own up to the ways we have screwed up. The truth is that some of the stuff that young people are rejecting needs to be rejected.

Here is how Kenda Creasy Dean puts it in her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church:

“The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe: namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people…

If churches practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the name of Christianity, then getting teenagers to church more often is not the solution (conceivably it could make things worse). A more faithful church is the solution.”

Tom Wright’s book The New Testament in its World is fantastic; a compilation of Tom Wright’s work across the eras, tied in to a cohesive piece of work about how the New Testament engages with its context and what it might mean for us.[1] Here is a quote which is significant for me:

“In Israel’s Scriptures, God promises to put the whole world to right. The early Christians believed that God had decisively launched this project through Jesus, and that by the Spirit, they were charged with implementing and modelling this ‘putting to right project’, against the day when Jesus would return to complete the task. So new Testament theology is explaining and expounding the many varied emphasis and insights of the early Christians in such a way as to inform, undergird and direct this mission”

I am passionate about trying to lead my church community into this; to model and implement ‘putting to right’ across four key relationships. The putting to right of your relationship with God. The putting to right of your relationship with yourself. The putting to right of your relationship with others. And the putting to right of your relationship with whenua. When you are working towards modelling and implementing ways of putting those four relationships to right, that is when the gospel flourishes. Then it becomes good news for everyone including young people. When young people can see the gospel embodied they can respond, “I actually want to get caught up in that, because that is offering something better than what our culture is offering.”

At our church The River Ōpāwaho, we have gone after this in some slightly radical ways. It has been a difficult journey but also wonderful. For almost three years there has been a reasonable crew of us who, one Sunday a month, haven’t done the traditional gathering thing, but have instead gone and done stuff that has genuinely served the community. There are all sorts of different projects: there’s community gardens, there’s people going around picking up rubbish, there’s people breaking down pallets and repurposing them into good things.

The project that I have looked after is called Te Ringatini – The Many Hands. In partnership with a local kindergarten, two local schools, the community, the Council and our church, we’ve been leading a stream regeneration project. We have planted 3,000 trees, moved 40 cubic meters of mulch and pulled out a whole bunch of noxious weeds. It’s small stuff in terms of ecological impact but there is something about the modelling and implementing of the gospel in action that has done something powerful for our community internally. The connections that exist now as a result of having hands in the dirt, pulling out weeds, planting things, are phenomenal! And the connections with the wider community are phenomenal.

Church becomes action that is bookended by prayer and where we name why we are doing this. But my favourite piece – to hone in on young people again – is that projects like that provide equal participation across the generations. My four year old’s best friend at church is now a 70-year-old Māori man. They became good friends because of the relationship that they developed planting stuff in the ground. My daughter has the significant role which she has named for herself: “Dad, I hang out with the small kids and make sure that they’re safe, so that everyone can do stuff. And that’s my contribution.” It’s superb. Across all of these projects there is cross generation relationships, tangibly doing good that models and implements a way to be in a world that brings wholeness. The gospel is actually good news. The gospel is incarnated and the gospel is something that young people want to get caught up in.

I’m not saying we’ve figured it out, because we haven’t. We have done nowhere near as much as we would like to do. And there are many challenges. But I am deeply committed to living out Christianity tangibly rather than conceptually, in such a way where it is obviously good news to people who don’t already know the good news.

I had a fantastic experience a couple of months ago. We have built a good relationship with a City Council worker over the last three years. She’s awesome. We know her family now and they’ve been around to our house lots of times; it’s community. After years of working shoulder to shoulder she said, “Okay, then James, tell me about this biblical imperative to creation care.” Because of relationships, she listened to me talk for 10 minutes about why I feel so compelled because of my faith in Jesus to take caring for creation seriously. It was awesome. She had heard my short talks at the start of planting sessions. We do karakia. She’s been caught up in this. And then she opened the door to hear more. It was beautiful.

So it is cross-generational, it is doing something tangible and building all these relationships. But the other thing I have loved the most is that these projects have reconnected people back to place in profound and tangible ways. In our society we are disconnected from creation; there are all these walls and barriers that separate us. Being connected to place is central to healing the relationship between people and whenua. It is really significant. Māori understand this; they understand this more deeply than I think I’ll ever understand.

My observation has been that as you take on – not conceptually but genuinely and collectively – caring for creation, you reconnect people to place. And what happens is a reconnecting to identity in a profound and tangible and life-giving way. Young people see, “This is unlike anything that I’ve been exposed to”, and they want to be a part of it.

I would like to wrap up with my favourite biblical imperative for Christians to take seriously their role to care for creation, which is Psalm 8 and its call to us.

Psalm 8

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the Elohim and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

It is a meditation on Genesis 1 and 2.

Here is my summary of what is going on here. When I look at how massive the heavens are, and how glorious you are, God – how is it that you have put human beings among the created beings, as the ones with the vocation to be responsible for the health and the biodiversity and the life of the livestock, of all wild animals that live on the land, of the birds, of the air, of the fish of the sea? How outrageous is it, God, that you have entrusted such a vocation to us human beings?!

But, when we actually think about how we are caring for the livestock; how are we doing? This is a Christian vocation. How are we doing? It’s pretty bad. When we think of the animals of the wild, how are we doing at this God-given vocation? Terribly. When we think of the birds of the air, how are we doing? Horrifically. When we think of the fish of the sea, how are we doing? There is something about this Christian vocation to stewardship which we have missed. We are late to the party now. But just because we’re late to the party doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show up.

There are different thoughts about the whakapapa of how Christianity ended up holding hands with the Western enlightenment and the impact that type of thinking has had on our world. Did we take the term ‘dominion’ too seriously? You can read all you like about it, but that is not necessarily helpful. What is most helpful is that we show up to the party now. We must take seriously the call of Psalm 8, and Genesis 1:26-28.

We need to step into the vocation which God-image-bearing humans have been given from the start. And when we do, we experience our vocation in and through the restoration and the reconciliation of us to God, of us to ourselves, of us to each other and us to the whenua. My observation is that young people want to be a part of something like that.

[1] N.T. Wright and Michael Bird, The New Testament in its Context: An introduction to the history, literature and theology of the first Christians, 2019.

James Beck is the Eco Church Regional Coordinator for the South Island, the associate pastor at The River Ōpāwaho Church in Ōtautahi Christchurch, and the Environment Advisor at Wilberforce Foundation. He is also the host of the Ngā Here: The Many Connections podcast: https://www.buzzsprout.com/2021350