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Christianity as Country Club

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Christianity sometimes presents itself as a country club. It presents itself this way even when it doesn't want to, and sometimes it doesn't even know it. I grew up loving to play golf but I played on the public course. I had friends who played at the local country club. When I visited the country club I felt like a visitor even though the members were wonderfully hospitable. Members felt like members and visitors felt like visitors, and knowing that you could "visit" only by invitation made the difference clear.

Many experience the church this way. Members know they belong, and visitors know they don't. Well, after all, we might reason, the Christian faith is a religion of salvation, and Stephen Prothero's recent book, "God is Not One," depicted Christianity as a faith concerned with the "way of salvation." And if you are saved, you are a member; if you are not saved, you are not. You might visit, but until you get saved you will know you are not in the club.

Christianity has been powerfully effective at creating what might be called a "salvation culture." Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Protestant mainliners, Protestant evangelicals and other families in the church like Pentecostals only offer slight variations on this salvation culture. This message of salvation is that God loves us but God is holy so sin must be dealt with; Jesus Christ died for us and through his death salvation can be found, but to find that salvation one must trust in Jesus Christ and his death. Those who do are both "in the club" and will spend eternity with the club members with God in heaven. In essence, this is Christianity's salvation culture. It is a good message, but it is not the whole message.

I want to suggest that the country club image for the Christian faith, its salvation culture, no matter how historic and vital to the Christian church's identity, inadequately frames what might be called its true "gospel culture." If a salvation culture builds a country club, a gospel culture creates a story -- one with a beginning in God's shalom and one that aims at God's shalom. And a gospel culture is not identical to a salvation culture.

What is a gospel culture? The gospel of Jesus and of the apostles cannot be reduced to the plan of salvation or to its effect: a salvation culture. The gospel, instead, is more robust and it is to tell the Story of Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel's Story, of God's design to build an Eden shaped by shalom. Notice how the apostle Paul defined gospel because he told a story and did not simply tell the facts of salvation: in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul tells us that the gospel is four events in the life of Jesus (not four spiritual laws) -- the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That Story, which only makes sense if we tie it to Israel's Story, is the gospel that united the earliest Christians. It was the same gospel we find in the gospel sermons in the Book of Acts. And, now we get to Jesus. It is popular today to say Jesus' gospel was "kingdom," and by kingdom many people think "justice." So, in essence, many today think the gospel of Jesus was justice and the church messed it up with its salvation culture. But this flattens the Story in a way not unlike the way a salvation culture flattens that same Story.

To be sure, Jesus preached the ideal society in the word "kingdom" but the biggest claim Jesus made was that the kingdom "was here" or "was arriving." In other words, Jesus was telling us that the Story had moved to a new chapter -- and he thought it was occurring in his day and through his vision. Here's my claim: the gospel Jesus preached was that the Story of Israel had come to a new chapter in himself, in his day, and that it was a liberating, redeeming, and transforming Story.

A gospel culture focuses on the Jesus Story, the Story that God is at work among us -- the incarnation. In other words, the essence of a gospel culture is a Jesus-shaped and Jesus-centered Story of God at work among us. It is not just a country club, but the Story of life-giving, self-sacrifice and hope that God can take ruins and create monuments of love, peace, justice and joy -- and Jesus told us that Story is now taking place among us.

Christians need to recommit themselves all over again to a gospel culture. It's not as natural to us as a salvation culture.