By John Bowen
Last time I checked, self-advertisement was not among the nine-fold fruit of the Holy Spirit. Love, joy, peace—all that good stuff—yes. Self-advertisement, not so much. But maybe I can share something within the Niagara Anglican family that I feel pretty good about: a new book.
The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else was published by Fortress Press in July last year. It had actually been incubating for some years, taking shape little by little, like an unborn chick, but COVID-19 finally allowed it to hatch and spread its wings.
The back-story is that way back in 2002 I published my first book, Evangelism for ‘Normal’ People. It really summarised what I had learned and taught about evangelism over the years to that point. Yet, in the time that followed, teaching at Wycliffe College and in churches and conferences, I began to feel I had started in the wrong place.
In spite of my best efforts, the word evangelism offended and scared people. Indeed, it still does! I remember one respected church leader in Ottawa saying vehemently, “I have no intention of ever sharing the Gospel with anyone!” And I found myself thinking (though not until it was too late to say it!), “So tell me about this Gospel that you’re not willing to share. What exactly is it?”
As a result, time after time, I found myself being driven back to ask: What is the Gospel? After all, the Greek word for Gospel, is evangel—literally good news—and so to evangelise is simply “to good news,” to tell the Good News. Unless we know what the evangel is, there is no point in even discussing the hows and whys of evangelism.
Time after time, I found that Anglicans in particular had no idea in what way the Christian Gospel was good news, for them or for anyone else. One lifelong church member told me: “What is the Gospel? That’s easy. Love your neighbour as yourself.” I had to say, as gently as I could, “That’s really not good news for anyone—not for me and (sadly) not for my neighbour either.” It sets a standard impossible for me to live up to. Frankly, if that’s all Jesus has to say to me, then it’s actually pretty bad news.
But no. To summarise what I think is the key first chapter of the book, the Good News is that God has done something—and continues to do something—to put right all that we have put wrong in the world—to do away with sin and suffering. And, as Christians understand it, somehow the focus of that Good News is Jesus Christ, his life, death and resurrection, his ascension, and the sending of the Spirit.
Then I had a second revelation. It was difficult to talk about Jesus’ announcement of the Gospel without talking about his call to repentance and faith. So what was that about? Of course: repentance and faith were simply the doorway to discipleship—to becoming apprentices of Jesus, learning to live his life in his world.
From there, it was a small step to rethink what church is: the church is at its heart the community of disciples of Jesus. And why are they disciples? Because they believe he has brought the very Good News the world needs to hear—that God is on our side, and working in love to renew, redeem, and restore everything that is broken. As Tolkien has Sam Gamgee ask Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” And the answer, gloriously, is “Absolutely yes.”
I have come to the conviction that, once we have grasped this, a lot of things fall into place. If we grasp the heart of Jesus’ Good News, then we will understand what discipleship is, and what the church is. We will also understand that slippery word mission. It is simply shorthand for this work of God to restore all things—the mission of God which we are invited to join in.
But there is more: the Good News which is Jesus is the key to understanding all sorts of other things: Why are the sacraments so central to the church’s life? What does leadership look like? How may traditional churches be revived? How and why should we start new churches? How do we relate to the culture around us? Understanding the Gospel even sheds a new light on the thorny topic we began with—evangelism.
The blurbs on the back cover include some generous words from our Primate, Linda Nicholls. But I should stop. That’s quite enough self-advertisement for one day.
The Unfolding Gospel can be ordered from the Canadian distributor, Parasource of Paris, Ontario, for $26.22 plus postage at www.parasource.com.