How was the gospel presented to you? Most Evangelical Christians received Christ through a presentation something like this: God loves you (John 3:16), but your sin separates you from God (Romans 3:23). Sin leads to death, but Jesus died on the cross to bring forgiveness (Romans 6:23). If you confess your sins and put your faith in Christ, you will be saved (Romans 10:9-10, 13).
This “Romans Road” gospel has been the doorway of faith for thousands upon thousands of faithful and fruitful Christians for decades, spoken from the pulpit, door to door, at Vacation Bible Schools, youth rallies, and revivals. Particularly in the Bible Belt, it’s something most people have heard, believe they understand, and about which they have made some sort of decision.
Some time back, I wrote about the small town phenomenon where “everyone is saved but no one goes to church.” People can give the right answers to the gospel questions, but they remain unconnected and their lives remain unchanged. The gospel presentation that has been so powerful for so many people is unfruitful for others, particularly working class people and those in poverty. Could it be that we need to change the way that we understand, present, teach, and proclaim the gospel?
As I looked into the question, I asked myself what characteristics of poor and working class people might cause the “Romans Road” gospel to miss its mark so often. I have found four characteristics for us to consider.
1 – Rejection of authority
When ‘the system’ does not seem to be working for you, it’s easy to conclude that the people in charge are not on your side. For that reason, people in lower socioeconomic classes often view institutions like schools, the police, and the court system with suspicion. Authority is not legitimate, because the people in authority are adversaries.
This belief can be a problem for the gospel. The idea of sin is based on the authority of God to judge and to justly condemn certain behaviors and attitudes. The Bible must also be accepted as an authority that can define sin. If life teaches someone to mistrust and question authority, then judgment and guilt are called into question as well. Without legitimate authority, you can’t be truly guilty of anything, and the way to deal with authority is to learn the rules and work the system to your benefit.
2 – Failure to operate from a guilt/forgiveness paradigm
The gospel as presented in the “Romans Road” has a courtroom as its backdrop. We are the defendants, guilty as charged, but then Jesus substitutes and takes the death sentence in our place, and we are pardoned. We are guilty and yet we are forgiven through the work of Jesus on the cross.
But when authority is not legitimate, the courtroom picture loses its power. The studies by Ruby Payne and others teach us that, among the working class and the poor, legal facts don’t matter as much as relationships, which is why people will often rally around one of their own regardless of the facts of the situation. Guilt is not the main concern; it is inclusion that matters.
So the gospel we teach–based on guilt and forgiveness–does not resonate in the hearts of people who are more concerned with being excluded and rejected than whether they are guilty. To compound the problem, forgiveness is presented as an impersonal, one-time transaction, given in return for faith, which is expressed through a prayer or perhaps baptism. If forgiveness is the point of the gospel and I am already forgiven, isn’t everything else optional?
3 – Inability to take a long-term perspective
Middle-class people talk about the “tyranny of the urgent,” where less important things that are time-sensitive crowd out more important things that do not seem as urgent. For a person in poverty, the tyranny is literal and the needs truly urgent. The focus is on survival, the scramble to scrounge up enough resources to provide the next meal or make the next payment. Any long-term thinking is shouted down by the concerns of the present.
Where does the gospel fit in for people who have a hard time thinking in terms of next week, much less eternity? If a preacher told you that when you walked the aisle at the revival or prayed the prayer when he came to your door or raised your hand at VBS, it took care of getting into heaven when you die, what purpose is there in adding church and religion to your life? Especially when you feel like your life will never be as put-together and neat as the people you see in that building?
4 – Desire to transcend present circumstances
In America, it seems the churches that reach out to the poor most are those who teach some form of the prosperity gospel. The reason this type of gospel appeals to the poor is that it offers the power to transcend the present circumstances. It speaks (with false promises) to the everyday needs of people. Our gospel, one the other hand, seems to offer little beyond forgiveness of sins, a seat at the church on Sundays, and a place in heaven when you die, with little to say about the everyday concerns of people struggling to make it.
So for those people who don’t embrace the health-and-wealth message, they hear (and often receive superficially) a gospel that seems ineffective, so they are “saved” but never go to church and never experience the blessings of a relationship with God or his church.
Of course, this caricature of the gospel does not present the whole of what Evangelical churches teach from the pulpit and in their discipleship groups. I am talking about the short-hand, “elevator pitch” that we often think of as “sharing the gospel” and which usually drives the message of evangelistic efforts like Vacation Bible School, personal witnessing, and Easter sermons. This is often the only message unchurched people ever hear.
Truly the gospel has good news for all people. For a person who feels shamed and excluded, Jesus bears our shame, reconciling us to God and making us part of his great family and a vital member in the body of Christ. For someone who lives in fear and desires power in a world out of control, Jesus is the one who has freed us from the fear of death by rising from the grave, seating us in the heavenly realm as a child of God, with authority over everything that causes sin as we live in the present kingdom of God. And for the one who realizes his guilt before God, Jesus is our atoning sacrifice, and we have forgiveness through faith in his blood. The gospel is multidimensional and speaks to all people in every circumstance (all of this is presented powerfully in the short book by Jayson Georges, The 3-D Gospel).
It seems that the people who flocked to Jesus the most–the poor and the marginalized–are the ones most absent from our Evangelical churches in America. How can we faithfully preach the gospel in a way that makes disciples among these groups? What changes need to be made?
Next time, I will offer a few suggestions. In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts. Have you had success in making disciples among the working class and the poor? What obstacles have you seen? What have you done to overcome them?