Defining a Gospel Movement
It is common for Christian ministries, indeed for human organizations, to claim to be a movement. It has a very positive ring to contemporary ears. When Christians use the term, they often mean, “God is blessing our efforts.” But when Redeemer City to City (CTC) employs the phrase, we have something much more specific in mind, and it is important to us. We help leaders build gospel movements in their cities. That’s why we exist.
I've been thinking about gospel movements most of my adult life. I became a Christian sometime around January 1970. I attended a small InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter on a college campus in central Pennsylvania. We were only about 10 or 15 people. America was then involved in the Vietnam War, and in May of 1970, U.S. forces invaded Cambodia. A student protest broke out on many campuses across the country, including mine. Students boycotted classes and, instead, set up an open mike on the central university quadrangle where anyone could speak about anything. In the midst of the anti-war sentiments, a few students from InterVarsity talked about Jesus Christ. One went to the mike and said he believed that Christ was the answer to our human problems. We put up a sign that said, “The resurrection of Christ is intellectually credible and existentially satisfying,” and we just sat under it, out where people could come by, read it and engage with us. Christians became a lot bolder about being public with their faith. When we came back to school in September, our little group of 10 was surprised to see over 100 students show up to our first meeting of the year. Over the next year, we saw dozens and dozens of people come to Christ. It was not a result of any planned campaign. It was not a result of a planned program of any kind. And it was an example of a lesson we must learn from both the Bible and church history. That is—you can steward a gospel movement, but you can’t really make one start.
During the Fulton Street Revival in 1857, it is believed that up to 80,000 people came to faith in Christ and joined churches of New York City within a two-year period. Given the estimated population at the time, that was 10% of the population. In the early 18th century, the Great Awakenings in North America and the United Kingdom were even more extensive. From 1904-06, Wales and Korea each experienced a spiritual awakening—a gospel movement—of similar form. When Kathy and I first moved to NYC, for about a year and a half, scores of people came into the church and were converted. It was a time of unusual fruitfulness and spiritual power. CTC probably would not be here today if that had not happened. So—what is a gospel movement?
There is both an individual and a corporate aspect to a gospel movement.
On the one hand, a gospel movement is when the gospel itself is rediscovered, lifted up, understood and becomes a dynamic power in lives. What do I mean by “understood”? Well, usually people understand the gospel in vague terms of Jesus dying for us, so we should live for him. That’s a true but insufficient formulation because it equates Christianity with merely getting forgiven and trying hard to follow Jesus’ example. The gospel begins to have power in our lives when we grasp how radically different it is from both the moralism of religion and traditionalism and the relativism of modern culture.
Take a look at these three statements:
Faith = Justification + Good Works
Faith + Good Works = Justification
Faith = Justification - Works
The top one is the gospel. The second is legalism or moralism. And the third is antinomianism or relativism. Almost always, people will naturally fall into the second or third categories. Moralism, which tells us we can save ourselves by living up to moral values, either crushes us with guilt (when we fail) or makes us smug, self-important bigots and Pharisees (if we think we are succeeding). Antinomianism forces us to create our own values and achieve our own self-worth by living up to our dreams and aspirations. Ironically, this can be just as crushing and alienating. However, the gospel is neither. It has a far more pessimistic view of our sin than moralism and a far higher assessment of our value in the eyes of God than antinomianism. It gives us a love from God that is uniquely solid, sustained and unconditional because it’s not based on the ups and downs of our performance. Yet, at the same time, it humbles us at the realization of our sin and of Jesus’ costly love for us in spite of it all. This unleashes a power within us unlike any other. It liberates us from the need to prove ourselves, from any guilt over the past, from an addicting over-dependence on things in the present, and it gives us infallible hope for the future. We no longer dread death, as both secular persons will (who think it’s the end of love) or the moralists will (who know judgment is coming and can’t be sure if their lives were good enough). So as the church preaches the gospel to individuals, three things happen. Nominal Christians (people who think of themselves as Christians but have not been spiritually born again) get converted. Sleepy Christians (people who are believers but their lives show little of the power and fruit of the Spirit) wake up. And non-Christians—lots of them—start getting attracted and converted, because Christians are more willing and able to engage them and show them the beauty of Christ.
Historically, churches that have seen many individuals’ lives changed by the gospel have a great balance of emphases. They stress:
• Solid teaching and preaching of the Word
• Anointed worship and extraordinary prayer
• Loving fellowship and thick community
• Outward-facing and bold evangelism
• Compassionate, vigorous social justice
Ordinarily, churches tend to major on only one of these things, and so do denominations. But when a gospel movement is happening, the churches develop this balance and, in addition, tend to work together across denominations, so that each kind of ministry is tapped and strengthened, and the body of Christ grows. The corporate and individual aspects of revival are symbiotically related to one another. The more churches work at this integrative ministry balance, the more individual gospel renewal happens, and vice versa.
The greater the number of individuals changed, the greater the gospel movement. There is a great variety. Gospel movements can be in a single church or across a whole continent or continents. They can be very intense or rather mild; they can last months, years or one night. When an intimidated Billy Graham spoke to Cambridge University students in 1955, 400 students came to Christ in one night. So can we start gospel movements? Not really. They are too supernatural. But we can build or steward a gospel movement. A good metaphor is Elijah’s building of an altar in 1 Kings 18. We can build the altar, but God has to send the fire. And when the fire comes, we can throw wood on it, but we still don’t ignite it. Only God can ignite it. When Redeemer Presbyterian Church was only a couple of years old, people saw that it was growing, and they asked us, “What’s your model?” They thought it might be wearing suits, singing hymns, playing jazz in the evening services or quoting philosophers. That’s not a model. That was our contextualization of our ministry to the gifts and capacities of our people and community. For gospel movements, there is no single model. Gospel movements are built through the movement dynamics we have talked about—the application of the gospel to hearts, integrative ministry, extraordinary prayer. They both invite God to use us and build movements that he starts. CTC teaches these gospel movement dynamics. The gospel of Jesus Christ must transform our own lives—each leader’s life—and then it moves out through the city and transforms others. This is gospel renewal. Not a model. And it leads to a movement.
CTC is not a franchise. We have no model to teach. We only have the gospel. But that’s the most powerful thing. We help national leaders build gospel movements. We are stewarding a movement in the great cities of the world.
This article originally appeared in the CTC Snapshot. For more on gospel movements, visit redeemercitytocity.com or check out the book Center Church: Doing Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City by Timothy Keller (Zondervan 2012).
Thank you for subscribing to the Redeemer Report. If you would like to support the work of Redeemer in NYC, please use the button below to make a gift.
Articles in this Issue
A twenty-year-old commitment fulfilledMai Hariu-Powell
The Redeemer Lincoln Square ReportJoe and Connie Ricci
Formation: In Christ, With Community, For the CityLyn Cook
The problem with our “Me-ology”Peter Ong
Looking for Beta Group leaders and hosts