What is the central message of the church (and your class)?

I work full time promoting church growth in a world where church growth is a multi-million dollar industry and the church is not growing. Millions are spend every year on books, CDs, conferences, DVDs, web pages, research and consulting and the church is not growing.

I don't want to be too hard on those of us in the church growth industry/ministry. (I often feel I wear two hats: business man and minister.) The church might be doing even worse without us.

But, I can't help but contrast this world with the world of the early church where, best I can tell, there was no church growth industry. They didn't have any church growth seminars or church growth books or church growth consultants, and the church was growing and growing rapidly. Not just one church. Not just a few churches. Overall, there was a movement of church growth that was rapidly advancing. (As it is in much of the world, outside of the USA, today.)

Not only did they not have a church growth industry, the whole thought of it seems out of place. Imagine you were reading in the book of Acts and came across a passage that said something like, "Then the elders of the Ephesian church noticed that the growth rate had suddenly dropped. They contacted Paul to do a church growth consultation to see what was at the root of the problem and what new programs might be implemented to address the issue." Does that sound a little not-New Testament to you?

I have been thinking about this a long time and have come to this conclusion: the central message of the gospel that is preached today is fundamentally different than the central message of the gospel back in the day.

I realize this is a dangerous thing to say, because the Bible says, "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 
As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!" Galatians 1:8-9 (NIV) 

It is a serious thing to tinker with the central message of the gospel. But, that warning slices both ways. It is a serious thing to question the central message of the gospel if what we preach is what Jesus and the early church taught. But, it is also a serious thing NOT to question what the central message of the gospel is if what we preach is not what Jesus and the early church taught.

In theology, they have a word for the central message of the gospel: Kerygma. It means, "the act of preaching," or, "the content of the preaching." It is that second sense that we have in mind here. When we say that Jesus preached the gospel, what did He say? What did He preach? What was the content of the preaching? When Paul and the other apostles preached the gospel, what was the gospel?

What is our Kerygma?

Before we look at what the New Testament Kerygma was, let's see if we can establish a base line of what the Kerygma of the modern church is. One way of saying this is in the form of a question: the central question of one of the most popular evangelism training tools of the modern era, Evangelism Explosion. The presentation starts with a question:

Have you come to the place in your spiritual life where you know for certain that if you died tonight you would go to Heaven?

The follow up question goes like this:

If God were to ask you, “Why should I let you into My Heaven?” what would you say?

From there, the Evangelism Explosion presentation of the kerygma (gospel) goes like what follows. (condensed fromhttp://www.eeinternational.org) Note how many times, "How to go to heaven when you die" comes up.

Grace

No amount of personal effort, good works, or religious deeds can earn a place in Heaven for you.

“For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9).

WHY is it that no one can earn his way to Heaven? Because . . .

MAN

Man is a sinner. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Sin is transgressing God’s law and includes such things as lying, lust, cheating, deceit, evil thoughts, immoral behavior, and more.

And because of this, man cannot save himself. If you wanted to save yourself by good deeds, do you know how good you would have to be?

However, in spite of our sin . . .

GOD

God is merciful, and therefore doesn’t want to punish us.

We have a problem. God solved this problem for us in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Christ

Jesus Christ bore our sin in His body on the cross and now offers you eternal life (Heaven) as a free gift.

This gift is received by faith.

FAITH

Saving faith is trusting in Jesus Christ alone for eternal life. It means resting upon Christ alone and what He has done rather than in what you or I have done to get us into Heaven.

The question that God is asking you now is would you like to receive the gift of eternal life?

COMMITMENT

It means that you need to:

  • Transfer your trust
  • Accept Christ as Savior
  • Repent

Now, please read this next sentence carefully. I am not suggesting that these things are not true; I am suggesting that these truths were not the central message of the early church. These things are true, and can be supported scripturally. But, they are not the things the early church spent most of their time talking about. The central question for the early church was not, "How can you know for certain that you can go to heaven when you die?" In short: right answer; wrong question.

They did not spend most of their time talking about how to go to heaven when you die. The sermons were about something else.

The Kerygma of Jesus and the Early Church

What was the central message of the gospel as Jesus and the early church preached it? Let's look at what the Bible says:

  • After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:14-15 [NIV]
  • After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Luke 8:1 [NIV]
  • Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom. Matthew 4:23 (NIV)
  • When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. Luke 9:1-2 [NIV]
  • After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. Acts 1:3 [NIV]
  • Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. Acts 28:31 [NIV]

What would you say was the central message of Jesus and the early church?

If you said, "The Kingdom of God" you are getting warm.

I remember noticing this difference when I first starting reading the Bible on my own. Churches today seem to talk about the kingdom a little more than they did back in the day. I remember reading the Bible and thinking, "Is this the same book we read at church?" It didn't seem to be talking about the same thing. Even as a Junior high student I sensed that they church was always talking about how to go to heaven when you die and the New Testament was always talking about this thing called the kingdom. "What in the world is the kingdom of God?" I pondered.

Next week, we will talk about that.