For years, Kerry (not his real name) coasted in his Christian belief. Burned out by the legalistic culture of his Christian college experience, his post-grad years were a combination of disillusionment and disengagement with church. Church attendance was infrequent. Instead of investing in spiritual things, he decided to pursue his career, start a family, and carve out a spot in the good life.
He climbed the career ladder pretty quickly. Before he knew it, he was living in a half a million dollar home in a nice neighborhood, father to two, and enjoying a new community among fellow cyclists.
What could be better?
After a while, though, his good life seemed flat. He tried a few things to jump start it, including increased church attendance, but nothing seemed to work.
One day Don (not his real name either), an ex-rockstar buddy turned Jesus freak, shared with Kerry how God was changing his life through community. Skeptical but interested, Kerry began to ask more questions and even invited Don’s pastor over to his daughter’s birthday party.
The more Kerry learned, the more he was intrigued. Something was different about this church. Not only did they care about one another, but also cared about their city. Kerry joined them in social service projects and even showed up at some house church meetings.
Deep down, he knew this was something he had been longing for, something much better than the so-called good life. He began asking God if he should sell his house and become a missionary. Little did he know he was already becoming a missionary. Kerry was beginning to understand the gospel in a new way.
Apologetic Power of a Gospel-Centered Missional Community
It wasn’t until he started sharing his struggles with others that Kerry really sensed significant change. As he and his family integrated into the church, Kerry joined a small group. He began meeting with other Christians who were serious about fighting sin, enjoying God, living in community, and serving the city. He began living by the power of the gospel, in the community of the church, on the mission of Jesus.
It was through these relationships, through being the church, that Kerry rediscovered the power of the gospel. He came to understand that the gospel of grace wasn’t just something that makes you a Christian. It is something that keeps you Christian. Not only that, it compels us to live outwardly focused lives extending the hope of the gospel in all of life.
In time, Kerry’s family hosted members classes, small groups, and they eventually became deacons in the church.
What changed Kerry’s view of faith and the church? A gospel-centered community. A group of people that made grace, not law, central to their discipleship. Instead of emphasizing legalistic rules, they focused on the grace of God in the promises of Christ. His small group meets regularly to pray together, share life together, and fight sin, and serve the city together. Through these relationships, Kerry rediscovered the power of the gospel and the preciousness of Christ.
America’s One-Third Gospel
Unfortunately, Kerry’s story is the exception and not the rule. The American landscape is dotted with churchless Christianity. Church has been reduced to a weekly or bi-weekly event. Instead of being the church, we have fallen into merely doing church, and far too often our doing is disconnected from being.
We have devolved from being a Jesus-centered community into a loose collection of spiritually-minded individuals.
Too many churches have too much in common with shopping malls, fortresses, and cemeteries. Too many of them have become consumerist, doctrinaire, lifeless institutions rather than Jesus-centered missional communities. Why this radical devolution? There are far too many reasons to discuss here, but one fundamental reason that Christianity in America is both churchless and in decline is that it is characterized by a one-third gospel.
This one-third gospel is hardly a gospel at all. It focuses on Jesus’ death and resurrection as a doctrine to be believed, not the way forward into a Person to be trusted and obeyed. It is a personal and private gospel reduced to the status of a ticket that gets us to glory. But the biblical gospel is much more than personal conversion or a heavenly reservation. The gospel has two more “thirds.” The gospel calls us into community and onto mission in Jesus.
The Three Conversions
When we are converted, we are not converted to Christ alone. It was Martin Luther who first spoke of three conversions: conversion of the heart, conversion of the mind, and conversion of the purse. He focused on what needs to be converted in man.
However, it is also important to consider what man needs to be converted to. Not only does the gospel convert our heart, mind and money, but it also converts us to some thing. Three things to be specific. When we are converted, we are not converted to Christ alone. The gospel converts us to Christ, to church and to mission.
In the New Testament, Jesus, Paul and Peter repeatedly use metaphors for the church that reveal the need for three conversions, conversion to Christ, community, and mission. These three dimensions of the gospel are not presented as three options, but as three essentials that constitute biblical faith.
Our primary conversion, of course, is to Jesus Christ as Lord (Col 2:6). To Him alone belongs all the glory, honor and obedience. To make church or mission our primary conversion would be an act of idolatry. Jesus alone is Lord; however, the lordship of Jesus does not stand alone. As Lord of all, Jesus calls us into His kingdom, His family, His church.
The metaphors of Jesus as Lord of the Harvest, Head of the Body, and Cornerstone to the Temple all underscore the inextricable connection between conversion and community. When we are converted to Jesus, we are converted into His church.
The saving work of Christ through the cross was not to gather a loose collection of souls for glory, but rather a costly sacrifice to create a new community as the proof of the gospel to the world. This community is the church, and the church is naturally a gospel-centered missional community. The problem is that we contaminate it with unnatural thinking and behavior. We jettison the conversions of community and mission. As a result, our view of the gospel is considerably undernourished. When we think of the gospel, we think individual conversion but the Bible typically presents conversion into a community.
Consider the metaphor of a human body. We receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Head (Col 2:6) but are immediately knit into His Body (Col 1:18; 2:2). The body is then knit together with the ligaments and sinews of love and truth producing a unified, whole body (Eph 4; Col 3).
The gospel calls us to live together by speaking the truth in love to one another (Eph 4:15, 25), forbearing and forgiving one another (Col 3:13), and teaching and admonishing one another in wisdom (Col 3:16). It is through this one-anothering that we grow as a community.
However, this growth is not limited to believers. Our growth into the “full stature of Christ” is a missional growth. In Ephesians, Paul makes it clear that the Body is to grow by conversion (4:12-16). New disciples joining the family of faith by belief in Jesus.
Interestingly, when the church embraces the second conversion of community, very often the third conversion follows. A Jesus-centered community is an attractive community, a community that encourages, forgives, serves, and loves. When the church is rooted in a whole gospel, her growth is both inward and outward, in strength and in height, in community and in mission.
A second metaphor is that of a field or harvest. Jesus is Lord of the Harvest (Luk 10) and we are his field (1 Cor 3). As a field, the church grows through the planting, sowing, fertilizing, weed pulling, and watering in community. We need encouragement, correction, rebuke, empathy, prayer, truth-telling, and promise reminding.
Although our growth is ultimately caused by God, God has chosen the community to facilitate that growth! Jesus is Lord not merely of the individual wheat stalks, but also of the self-nurturing field. We grow together.
Our conversion to mission is expressed in the missional identity of the harvest as it becomes a field of future laborers (Luk 10:2). We pray to the Lord of the Harvest (Christ), grow together as a field (church), and multiply through our labors (mission). There are three conversions — Christ, church, and mission — but only one gospel.
The final metaphor is that of a temple or building. In 1 Peter 2 we see Jesus as the Cornerstone of the temple or building of God. The cornerstone is the most important stone in the whole building. The entire building depends on it for structural integrity.
However, the cornerstone alone does not constitute the building. As Peter points out, the temple is composed of other “living stones” that together comprise a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet 2:9).
Switching metaphors, Peter turns stones into sojourners in order to emphasize their corporate responsibility to “abstain from the indulgences of the flesh” and to love and encourage one another: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (2:17). As living stones in a holy temple, we have been called to display the holiness of God and proclaim the excellencies of Christ (2:9). The gospel compels us to work together as stones that make up the temple of God’s glory.
We are inward and outward focused. We love the brotherhood and honor everyone. The kind of church that Jesus died to build is a community that builds itself up in love. As the temple grows, it adds layer upon layer on newly converted stones, moving towards the completion of the mission of the church and the glorious return of Christ. The temple metaphor reminds us that the gospel calls for a conversion to Christ, the church, and to mission.
When we receive the gospel, we are converted three times. Failure to convert to either the church or to mission is a failure to grasp the whole gospel. Refusal to convert to the church and to mission is an act of disobedience.
The three conversions are designed by God for our good and His glory. He designed the gospel to restore true humanity, to make us a community of Spirit-led missionaries on the mission of Christ. This is our grand design, a design planned for our everlasting good. To refuse it is to deny our own joy and purpose.
The gospel converts us to Jesus as our Head and to the church His Body, to the Cornerstone and to the Temple, to His lordship and to His field. Each metaphor is missional — pointing us to our purpose in the mission of God. Drawing disciples from all nations, we are to grow into the full stature of Christ, expand the temple of God, and reap the harvest of God’s field.
Apart from the gospel, we will fail, but in the gospel, we will succeed, by God’s grace, in making disciples and being disciples of three conversions — Christ, church and mission.
Copyright 2009 Jonathan Dodson. All rights reserved.