That both the Gospel at the heart of Christian mission and the family of words related to evangelism derive from the New Testament phrase “good news” is a commonplace. Yet what is known to every Sunday school student and confirmand in our congregations seems to be all but forgotten in our reflections on mission. More precisely we seem to have forgotten the real meaning and power behind these two words. Uncomfortable with the imperialism and paternalism of missionary activities in the past (and, it must be admitted, the present), we lose confidence in the goodness of the message, and apologize for it or hide it; or else, complacent with the conventions and values of our society, we forget just how new it is, and repeat the same well-established teachings about, say, love or forgiveness. It is my belief that, were we to recover the notion of the Christian message as fundamentally good news, with all that that entails, mission and evangelism would be not only indispensable to the life of the church, but a cause for celebration and joy. I begin by considering the ways in which this notion has been lost to us, followed by examples of the proclamation of this genuinely good news through the missionary church in today’s world.
As noted above, one quite legitimate reason we forget the goodness of the Gospel is the evil that has been — and still is — done in the interest of its propagation. Simply put, the Gospel has indeed been bad news for countless cultures and individuals throughout history. It continues to be bad news in the hands of those who would use it as a weapon against those whose beliefs or values differ from their own. These charges are valid reasons for circumspection in mission, and they are only slightly mitigated, if at all, by the argument that these abuses are distortions of the good news. And so we often respond by burying our evangelism in the (arguably) less controversial activities of “development” or “charity.” Rather than express confidence in the goodness of the message, we apologize for it.
On the other hand, we may lose sight of the newness of the gospel, presenting it in unchallenging and comfortable ways. This, too, is understandable: few people are ready to hear, and fewer still to embrace, a message that, for all its goodness, is nonetheless unsettling and challenging. And, after all, confidence in the challenge the Gospel poses to society has inspired messages of alienation and exclusion as well as transformation and empowerment. The sense of newness and urgency that impels the vitriol of a Fred Phelps may not be that different from that which drives more compassionate evangelism, however different their messages. Thus we avoid the risk, and opt instead for uplifting generalities about God’s love for us and our love for one another — generalities that smooth the rough edges of much of the Gospel message. Believing that no news is good news, we seek variations on a theme rather than a new and renewing truth.
What should be good news has too often been delivered as bad, and its newness is alienating when misrepresented and unsettling at its best; the church need not, and should not, ignore these challenges when we affirm that the Christian message is nonetheless good news. Yet neither should we allow them to obscure this fact. We must, as missionary and writer Roland Allen expressed it, trust the message itself, and trust the power of the Spirit behind the message. We must trust that the message — that the God who created everything loves us and wills the best for us, including a relationship with God1 — that this message is always truly good news. However it has been misused or represented, it really is good, and sorely needed in our world; and however familiar it may seem, it really is news, and needs to be shared and reexamined and grappled with. If we begin with this trust, that the message is good news because scripture assures us that it is, we can then begin to seek and to find the ways in which the Gospel can speak to and transform and renew the world — the concrete and particular ways in which it is good news.
As a missionary of the Episcopal Church, I worked in Sitio de los Nejapa, a poor community in rural El Salvador. It is a place of great need, and its residents have been grateful recipients of a small number of charity and development programs. Yet when the few community leaders try to mobilize support for their own efforts, or to encourage new leaders, they are met with indifference. Many community members, particularly women with little formal education, attribute this apparent indifference to, among other things, feelings of inadequacy or lack of ability. They do not advocate on their own behalf, they say, because they are looked down on or ignored by local officials; they cannot be leaders because they lack the skills.
In weekly Bible studies, however, these women are able to encourage one another to value their own voices. In reflecting on passages such as Matthew 11:25 (“I thank you, Father…because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants”) they begin to overcome their self-doubt and recognize their ability to speak for themselves. This new self-awareness, in turn, empowers them to collaborate with leaders of the church and community to develop other programs, such as a weekly sewing class.2
In this rural mission in El Salvador, the Gospel is genuinely good news: its message brings new energy and confidence to the women of the community. Seeking this newness of the Gospel in new contexts is, I believe, the heart of Christian mission, and it begins with Allen’s trust in the message itself. We confidently believe the Gospel is truly good news because we are told that it is; we then seek to discern how it is good news in each new context, and to proclaim it as such.
This discernment is likely to be more challenging and less dramatic in situations more familiar than Sitio de los Nejapa. I think of the parish I attend in Connecticut, a multicultural and bilingual (Spanish and English) congregation in the middle of the city. The church is strongly committed to its unity across several cultural backgrounds, with members proudly reaffirming that they are indeed one congregation, one family. This is a powerful witness in a society where cultural and ethnic clashes abound, and specifically in a city where cultural division is pervasive and usually taken for granted; yet I am not sure the congregation sees it this way. The good news in this context, then, may be of the unity of God’s kingdom and God’s reconciling intention for all creation. While the congregation clearly has a strong sense of the goodness of this message, greater confidence in its newness — the radical, challenging witness it presents to a culturally divided world — might lead us to share our experience more readily, and proclaim this message of unity with greater conviction.
Because, after all, the most salient fact about good news is that it begs to be shared. Nearly every mention of “good news” in the New Testament refers to it being proclaimed, told, brought, or received. When we trust that our message is, indeed, very good news, and discern what that good news might mean in our particular context, we cannot help but proclaim it with energy. Again, this does not preclude circumspection or compunction about how this message is and has been shared. To the extent that Christian mission calls for our participation in the spread of the message, it has fallen short of the Gospel in the past, and will always continue to do so. Yet to the extent that the Spirit propels and propagates the Gospel, we can have faith that its goodness and newness will transform our world, in spite of and even through our misguided and incomplete efforts.
It is good. It is news. And the world desperately needs to hear it.
Ph.D. Student in Religious Ethics
Obviously I intend this as a suggestive, rather than exhaustive, description of the Gospel message. The expressions of good news in our world will be many and diverse; this statement, or something like it, seems an acceptable place to start. Of course, more compelling statements abound, including one that I find especially poignant in both its comprehensiveness and brevity: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares / I have already come: / ‘twas Grace that brought me safe thus far, / and Grace shall lead me home.”
The mission in Sitio de los Nejapa is still relatively young, too young to point to more dramatic outcomes. The sewing class has, at the time of this writing, come to an end, and the community members are working with the new missionary (a Salvadoran) to discern new possibilities for community engagement.