Why We Liberals Need to Stop Doing Ministry and Believe the Gospel
by Doug Lee
I have a confession to make: I am a liberal.
I am not a liberal in the same way that the ACLU or my city of San Francisco is known for being liberal. I am a liberal in the broader and deeper way that
every red-blooded American who believes in the individual's freedom to think and choose rationally is a liberal. I stand in a long line of liberals beginning with those who drafted the Declaration of Independence and asserted the individual's unalienable right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit
of happiness." I believe in the goodness of an individual's self-determination. I believe in me.
Such liberalism does not outright deny the existence of God. Rather, it presupposes a world in which I stand at the center, and God is exiled to the periphery. Liberalism asserts a world in which God's action has effectively ceased and human action is what ultimately matters.
Ordinarily, we would swiftly and unhesitatingly refute such thinking as anti-gospel. But I am increasingly convinced that while we would never consciously assert such human-centered doctrine in our teaching, our ministry is often fully governed by a liberal worldview.
Let me give you an example of how this works itself out in us. On Ascension Sunday or Pentecost, we are accustomed to hearing the following words from Jesus to his disciples:
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).
Rather than hearing in Jesus' words the promise of God's action (the coming of the Holy Spirit), what we hear primarily is that Jesus gives us a job to do ("be my witnesses"). So we get busy with figuring out all the ways we need to apply this text. We are responsible to be Jesus' witnesses in the world, thus the following questions abound: Who can we be witnesses to? How can we witness to them? What can we say? What can we do?
So while our message may be about God's gracious action, what our response communicates is that it is our (human) action that matters. We can tell ourselves – or if we are teaching or raising kids, we can tell our kids – that what matters most is getting out there and doing things or making them happen. Or we judge others for not fulfilling the actions that we have determined as essential. We end up pushing others and ourselves to action because, as thorough liberals, we believe in the goodness of human self-determination – both ours and those who receive our ministry. In our desire to be "serious" about the gospel, we end up mistaking activity with faith.
But can we see how futile this way of ministering is? Can we see that any sort of ministry that relies on human effort or change that we can bring about is as meaningful as rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic? We can look very busy and productive, but in the end it does not change anything. Paul tells the Galatians that "neither circumcision or uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!" (6:15). Similarly, social activism – even if it seeks justice for the poor – is not radical enough. It only aims at what is humanly possible to change. Counseling can enable people to understand the weaknesses in their psyche and prove effective in helping them cope, but it does not offer transformation. When we do ministry out of a liberal mindset and put our hope in what is humanly achievable, we leave behind the gospel and engage in meaningless activity.
So how can we leave behind our liberalism and approach ministry differently? This is a question that I think we will need to work on continually. Repentance is a continual process for us. A partial answer is to take the important first step of asking, "What is the gospel?" without assuming that we already know the answer and only need to apply it.
We get some help in answering this question in one of the very first instances in Scripture where the idea of "Good News" first appears is in Isaiah 52:7:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger
who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."
The picture that Isaiah paints for us is of a messenger running home to give news from the battlefield. Those who are watching his approach from the walls of the city can tell what sort of news he is bringing by how he runs. Because he is bringing good news, he runs swiftly and joyfully. And when he arrives at the gates of the city, he is finally able to blurt out: "Good news! Your God has won the victory! Your enemies have been utterly defeated! Your God reigns!" Isaiah thus captures the essence of the gospel: It is about God's action, God's decisive victory, the establishment of God's reign in our midst. As Galatians tells us, the gospel is not foremost our individual sins being forgiven and our guilt being relieved, but it is about God's victory over the present evil age and the inbreaking of new creation.
The understanding of the gospel as the message of God's decisive victory can in turn help us understand the role of a witness. A witness is not someone who does something but someone who reports what has already been done. A witness gives a report of someone else's action. We can therefore understand the messenger of Isaiah 52 as a model of witness and draw some conclusions:
* The role of the messenger is not to convince his hearers to achieve victory. The messenger announces that God has already won the victory – and on a decisive level that only God could achieve.
* The messenger does not aim at getting his hearers to apply the message like some sort of tip on how to get ahead while living under the old regime. The messenger instead announces that because God's reign has penetrated their midst, everything has changed and the old rules no longer apply.
* The messenger does not attempt to convince people to believe that they are saved in the privacy of their hearts and to show this by making a difference in the lives of their neighbors, while they continue to live under the rule of their enemies. The messenger announces that those enemies have been defeated and must no longer be obeyed.
The bottom line is that our ministry can never be the Good News; it can never replace what only God can accomplish and has already accomplished. But our ministry is to point beyond itself to God's action and to find its hope in new creation and not in getting people (including our kids and people in our accountability groups) to change their behavior. Our ministry embodies the Good News when it not only speaks the message of God's action but is also carried out with God's action as its hope and power.
Jesus proclaimed, "Repent and believe the good news" (Mark 1:15). This is a message that we liberals need not only to announce but to believe as we do ministry.
Reprinted with permission from the JOURNAL OF GRACE FELLOWSHIP COMMUNITY CHURCH in San Francisco, CA, where Doug Lee is on the pastoral staff – firstname.lastname@example.org .