I have served in churches in Texas, New York, West Virginia and Ohio. In every state I have encountered church leaders who could not define the Gospel of Jesus Christ as it has been defined by protestant churches since the reformation nearly five hundred years ago. R.C. Sproul claims to have helped survey Christian leaders at one conference and found roughly 1 in 100 definition to be Biblical. I attended a pastors conference where a the associate minister of a large church responded to my question of what he would say Christianity is to a person unacquainted with the faith with, “I guess I would tell them we are about being different.”
The late anthropologist Paul Hiebert argued that churches tend to follow a three generation swing–they preach the Gospel in one generation, they assume everyone knows it in the next and they forget it by the third generation. I would argue that both Gen-X and Gen-Y are largely ignorant of what Christianity is really about. I believe this is one of the reasons why so many people forty and under have or are leaving the church.
Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith argued in his book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers that Gen-X and Gen-Y have so rarely had true doctrinal training that they have defined the faith themselves as “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD). Smith defines MTD as:
1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.” 2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.” 3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” 4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.” 5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”
It doesn’t take a theologian to see that such a definition is wholly unbiblical and would evoke a lot of yawns from a lot of young people who don’t think they need God or the church for any of this. Such weak tea is also an easy straw man for the new atheists to burn in college classrooms.
On the other hand, the Ministry of 9Marks defines the Gospel as follows:
- The one and only God, who is holy, made us in his image to know him (Gen. 1:26-28).
- But we sinned and cut ourselves off from him (Gen. 3; Rom. 3:23).
- In his great love, God sent his Son Jesus to come as king and rescue his people from their enemies—most significantly their own sin (Ps. 2; Luke 1:67-79).
- Jesus established his kingdom by acting as both a mediating priest and a priestly sacrifice—he lived a perfect life and died on the cross, thus fulfilling the law himself and taking on himself the punishment for the sins of many (Mark 10:45; John 1:14; Heb. 7:26; Rom. 3:21-26, 5:12-21); then he rose again from the dead, showing that God accepted his sacrifice and that God’s wrath against us had been exhausted (Acts 2:24, Rom. 4:25).
- He now calls us to repent of our sins and trust in Christ alone for our forgiveness (Acts 17:30, John 1:12). If we repent of our sins and trust in Christ, we are born again into a new life, an eternal life with God (John 3:16).
This is a Biblical definition that can be defended as rational, consistent and relevant. I have worked primarily with people under thirty for the last six years and have often seen eyes widen in amazement as the penny dropped and the faith suddenly made sense to them.
Many will, of course, follow-up quickly with questions such as how to square Genesis 1-2 with the age of the earth, what about those born into other religions or never hear the Gospel and why would God allow evil, etc. So, apologetics is a necessary tool but first we must make sure people understand the faith we are defending or otherwise they may come to see Christianity is rational but still boring and irrelevant to their lives.
Please define the Gospel while you are defending it. By the way, I heartily recommend Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense to further demonstrate the relevance of Christianity even if I strongly differ with Spufford on a number of issues.