ENDANGERED GOSPEL: How Fixing the World Is Killing the Church. By John C. Nugent. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016. X + 220 pages.
Surveys have suggested that people are turned off to Christianity because churches and church people are too political. At the same time churches are criticized for being too concerned about themselves and not about their communities. There is also that growing trend of people, even within Christian circles, of people distancing themselves from the church. Many say they are "spiritual but not religious," while others continue to claim the Christian mantle but don’t seem to believe that the church is necessary to the task of planting and expanding God’s realm. These are not easy days for those of us in the church business!
There are, of course, counter arguments that seek to claim a space for the church. Indeed, there are numerous voices suggesting that God has chosen the church to be the vanguard of God’s kingdom work. Thus, outside the church there is no salvation! Among those voices is that of John Nugent, professor of Old Testament at Great Lakes Christian College in Lansing Michigan. Nugent has become an important interpreter of the works of John Howard Yoder, and in this book he follows a path that seems rather counterintuitive. He argues in this book against the missional vision that suggests that God is already at work in the world and the church should get on board. In contrast to that vision, which is quite popular today, John argues that God is creating in the church an alternative community that is called to exhibit God’s vision of a better place. He affirms the principle espoused by missional folks that people are seeking a better place, he just doesn’t believe that there is any hope of making this world a better place. Only God can do that, so in the meantime the church is a beacon. It’s primary message to the world isn’t a social justice one, it is an evangelistic one. By trying to make this world a better place those who embrace a “world-centered” vision of the kingdom are killing the church.
I should note that I know John and I like him. He's a serious scholar who loves Jesus and the church. However, I struggled mightily with this book. In many ways the critique I have of Endangered Gospel is the same critique I had of Scot McKnight's Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. Scot, it should come as no surprise, loves the book and has endorsed it. Like him, John connects church and kingdom in such a way that engagement in work outside the church as the church is not kingdom work. We can't change the world, but according to John we can, as Christians, become outposts and beacons of God's realm. While God loves the world, we're not necessarily supposed to love the world, for to love the world is to get entangled with it, and John doesn't believe that this what Jesus has commanded us to do. To get entangled with the world will endanger the Gospel.
In this book Nugent lays out four ways of understanding the Christian’s role in the world. There are "heaven-centered" Christians who envision their calling as converting people so they can go to heaven. To use the title of an old gospel song, they are "rescuing the perishing." Nugent doesn't embrace this vision, largely because it has little use for the church. There is the "human-centered" vision, which also has little use for the church and really has little need for Jesus. That leaves us with two other possibilities -- "world-centered" and "kingdom-centered." "World-centered" Christians believe that it is our mandate to make the world a better place. Social justice stands at the heart of this vision. Nugent understands it's attraction, but he believes that it is not biblical, and thus endangers the gospel. In contrast, he offers "kingdom-centered" Christianity, which he believes is more biblical and faithful to God's vision. As John describes the two visions, I find myself more comfortable with the former than the latter, though I also believe that much of John says about community is important. I’m just not sold on his belief that the church has no responsibility for the neighborhood outside the church. Nor do I affirm his premise that change always happens from top down. If we look at just the civil rights movement, political leaders didn’t act until pressured by grassroots efforts, including those led by Martin Luther King, Jr.
How one chooses between the two visions may depend on your reading of scripture. John believes he's correct in his reading. I'm not so sure. Even if John is correct in his reading of scripture, I'm wondering if he's evading context. How Jesus and Paul interact with the powers and principalities of their day should be different from how we might today, especially we who live in a modern democracy where at least in principle the people are the government. Romans 13 has to be read differently today than during the Roman era. More than his reading of scripture, I’m troubled by his vision of God. I'm not sure I can buy the idea that God doesn't want me to be concerned with the welfare of creation or my non-believing neighbor. Even if we start with our immediate Christian community, and even if we affirm (rightly so) that how we live together as Christians influences the impact of the gospel, I find it difficult to read Matthew 25 as speaking only of our responsibility to fellow Christians. I do agree that if we as a community do not love one another and care for one another, then it will be difficult for God’s love to flow outward to the rest of the world, but I found off-putting what seemed to me to be a rather callous view of the needs of the "non-believer." Simply to say they’re God's concern not ours, is troubling.
When it comes to our engagement with the public square, as Christians, I agree that our ultimate allegiance is due to God and not country, but John's insistence on reading our mission solely in terms of scripture lacks a contextual vision. It seems to evade the reality that living in the United States is different from living in the Roman Empire. I’m not so sure we can easily disentangle ourselves from the political context.
Let me briefly lay out the format of John's book. He starts in Part One building case "for a Better Place." He recognizes our desire for something better, and notes incomplete visions of that place, and then points us toward his kingdom vision. Then in Part Two, in the course of ten chapters, he lays out his reading of the biblical story and his interpretation of the biblical vision of this better place, with an emphasis on the role of the church in God's vision. God will, he believes, make the world a better place, but God will do so without us. The church should be a community that exhibits what it means to be the kingdom. There is much value in the way emphasizes community, but I'm not sure it's feasible. John gives few real examples as to how this works -- the one exception is the Englewood Church in Indianapolis.
Then in Part Three, he offers up his vision of a "Better Place in Action." In his vision, the better place is not something we create or rule. It's something we receive. As Christians we should attend to this gift, while the powers and principalities do their thing in trying to keep order. So, our focus should be, rightly so, on discipleship, developing leaders, sharing fellowship (life together), family, friendship. He makes clear that the church is central, even more central than family. From there he moves to vocation, missions, and finally witness to the powers. As for witnessing, that's largely in the form of example, not engagement. We do long for a better place, and the church can be a beacon but I'm not sure that it needs to be the only place we're at work. I think we need to be more intentional than John is willing to allow. I think this is especially true in our context here in the United States.
That's where I simply can't go along with John. He leaves little room for serious engagement with the world. I don't think we're called to rule, but I do think we're called to serve. Without Christian involvement where would the abolitionist movement have been, and we know that the civil rights movement has its roots in the religious community. John commends Martin Luther King, but doesn't believe this is central to the work of the kingdom. I would disagree.
John offers a detailed vision of how, in his estimation, the church and the kingdom are connected. He does so almost completely in conversation with scripture, and predominantly with the New Testament. As with my critique of Scot McKnight’s vision, John's vision falls flat in my estimation. I'm not sure it makes sense of the world in which we live. So, instead I'll hitch my wagon to William Barber and Jim Wallis. Nonetheless, I do think that John has written a book that can open an important conversation about what it means to be church and what it means to participate in God’s realm. John understands that his vision can lead it an overly inward-looking church that can become isolated from the community. He understands the danger, but I’m not sure he has an answer for it. In the meantime, I will continue to be a world-centered Christian, seeking to pursue the work of God in a way that hopefully does not endanger the Gospel.