If you’ve been reading through the Triune Gospel series and you’ve made it this far, congratulations! This has been quite the journey and has hopefully stretched and inspired you. Starting from the observations the Christianity is a relational walk of faith and examining how that plays out with our Triune God has led to some fascinating and important conclusions. As we follow this framework through, we’ve seen it leads to some (possibly) important breakthroughs in how to approach evangelism and discipleship. As we conclude this series, I believe it’s worth looking forwards to what it would mean for this to become the primary way that we think about the gospel.
What does it mean to Rethink the Gospel?
I believe that when we begin to rethink what the gospel itself means, we should be aware that there are potentially massive consequences at hand. This is a big part of why we should be embarking on such a quest only with great care and a sense of leading of the Spirit. The reason why is that we can’t really rethink the shape of the gospel without rethinking the shape of the church as well. The two go hand-in-hand, because the church is the community of faith, and what we expect the church to do has everything to do with what we understand the gospel to be.
For example, consider the last time a major renovation to our understanding of the gospel happened: the reformation. In the midst of a church context where the gospel was framed along the lines of needing to constantly receive the grace of God to stay saved (as mediated by the authority of the church), Martin Luther and the rest of the reformers drop an understanding that the gospel is different than that; by faith in Jesus Christ, we have direct access to God, unmediated by anyone else. This shift in understanding the gospel necessitated a shift in the function of the church. The basis of faith shifted, so the basis of the function of the church had to shift as well. Protestant churches then begin to look very different than Catholic ones. While a Catholic church service is designed to culminate around the mess (mediating God’s grace to the participants), in many Protestant services the sacraments aren’t present at all and the main focus is on preaching (training the participants to walk in their own relationship with God). I’m not sure whether Martin Luther knew it at the time, but once he started preaching sola fide, a completely different expression of church was essentially inevitable.
To a lesser extent, I think the history of the Vineyard movement in the 1980s and beyond is another potential example for us. After John Wimber heard George Eldon Ladd’steaching on the Kingdom of God, he began to work to build an expression of Christianity that would start with this paradigm as a theological root (you can see this was Wimber’s intent in the well-known Vineyard person diagram). This shift in understanding what the gospel is (Jesus’ introduction and continued extension of the Kingdom of God) shifted the focus of a church experience on the whole away from preaching and towards worship and ministry prayer. The form of church fleshes out the understood point of the gospel. In brief, what history shows us:
Understanding of Gospel → Expression of Church
The immediate consequence is that if we are suggesting our understanding of the gospel needs to shift to the particular triune shape we’ve explored in this article series, we ought to expect the expression of the church to change as well. The million-dollar question to that is to what?? While I don’t have precise answers, I do have a few guesses.
Our Need for a New Shape of Church
Before we get to my predictions, I think it’s worth mentioning that a large number of leaders are identifying the need for new expressions of the church. Even before COVID, many leaders have been sounding the alarms that the future of the church in the West is going to have to look very different from the past, and I can’t imagine that COVID has done anything but serve to accelerate that change process. The church of the 21st century in the west is not going to look like the church of the 20th century. While there is quite a bit of angst in the Christian west about the church’s decreasing ability to reach millennials and onwards, I believe this is just a pressure that God is using to reveal that the shape of the church no longer matches the shape of the world around us.
It’s certainly not that the gospel has lost its transformative power: it’s that the church feels irrelevant because it’s built on a picture of the world from the 20th century and the picture of the world in the 21st century is going to be very different. (In honesty, the church was actually built in the 16th century, but not a lot in the pattern of society changed a whole lot in between those timeframes). The issue is that the world is starting to speak a different sociological language than the church, leaving the church to feel outdated. Linguistically we may not be, but sociologically we are speaking Latin to a society that needs church in its common language. The decentralized shape that our ever prevalent technology is constantly wiring our mind to anticipate a certain experience of the world. As our experience of the decentralized internet wraps its way into nearly every experience of our lives, it is impossible for us not to begin to bring that paradigm of how the world works into our expectations of experiencing church.
To me, the confluence of these two observations is incredibly interesting! Not only should we expect the Triune Gospel to force a reshaping of the experience of church, but we need a new pattern of the church to match the developing “shape” of the 21st century anyways! Could it be that God is bringing these together? I pray so; time will tell.
So where is the Shape of Church Headed?
So back to our million-dollar question: what will the shape of the church move towards? What should we expect in the future? It turns out that exploring the answer to this question will require an article series of its own! (Hopefully coming soon.) Haha, you may hate that answer, but it turns out that just like one summary article wouldn’t do justice to exploring the depths of the Triune Gospel, I don’t believe a summary article of the Triune Church is going to be very meaningful or helpful. What I can do is kick open the fundamental idea that leads us down that road, and write another series as I have the bandwidth to.
The beginning of the conversation of the Triune Church begins with the observation that the key pivot of the Triune Gospel is to shift the framing emphasis from ourselves to the Triune God. Rather than framing the gospel as the answer to the question, “How does God fix what is broken in my life?” (however we define that brokenness), we ask the question, “In what way is the triune God walking in redemptive relationship with me, and what does that result in?” By starting to think about the gospel with God’s activity rather than my problem, we’ve found a wealth of insight and understanding. When we put it that way it kind of sounds obvious, right? The gospel probably should be more about God than me.
The question as it comes to the question of the shape of the church then, is the natural analog: what is the triune God doing with us? I know what he is doing with me, but what is God doing with us as the collection of believers, and how do we partner with that?
When we ask this question, my experience is that most of us have a drawing-a-blank moment. Most of us haven’t thought much about what God is doing with groups of people: indeed most of us have personalized the gospel so much that the idea that God has value and is working within not just individuals, but groups as well seems like a foreign and odd thought. Without a framework of understanding, we usually reduce the group to the sum of the parts and make what God is doing in us equivalent to the sum of what God is doing in us each added together.
I would propose this reduction misses something significant in the heart of God. There are concepts that the scriptures point to which are collective attributes that God is deeply vested in. (Justice comes to mind for one). We see God’s desire to bless each and every people group (ethnos in greek – usually translated “nations”, but more literally every ethnic group). There are cities that God expresses relationship with and redemptive plans for. (Think of Jerusalem or even Nineveh.) God is invested in the us-ness we have as humans as well as our individuality, and to understand how that works, we have to develop a whole new framework for thinking about how God interacts with not just me and you, but us. Fleshing that framework out and understanding God’s triune activity within us as a community of faith I call the Triune Church. More on this to come.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Putty Putman