Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the ChurchWritten by John C. Nugent Reviewed By Jackson Wu
One mark of a timely book is that it evokes extreme and opposite reactions in readers. If so, John Nugent’s Endangered Gospel will certainly be considered “timely.” No matter your theological or denominational perspective, his reflections on the church will force a response. At the same time, he does not provoke for provocation’s sake. In fact, Nugent’s rigorous treatment of the biblical text, coupled with a winsome tone, compels serious reflection.
In Part One, Nugent compares three common but incomplete views concerning God’s vision for creating a “better place.” Although a “heaven-centered view,” “human-centered view,” and a “world-centered view” each have commendable aspects, Nugent argues they have a faulty assumption: they “presume that because God will ultimately restore all things, it is the church’s job to begin restoring all things” (p. 15). By contrast, his thesis claims, “God’s people are not responsible for making this world a better place. They are called to be the better place that Christ has already made and that the wider world will not be until Christ returns” (p. 20).
Part Two contains the heart of Nugent’s argument. He presents the grand biblical story in a way that highlights God’s intention for his people amid a fallen world culture. Nugent questions popular readings of the Cultural Mandate (Genesis 1:26–28) that give responsibility to the church to oversee creation in a post-fall world.
His contention here is nuanced. Whereas Christians often think God calls the church to make the world a better place, God’s people “simply live how God calls them to live. They don’t try to make the world a better place. They humbly accept that God is making them into a better place” (p. 54, italics original). Nugent, a professor of Old Testament at Great Lakes College, argues that the entire Bible reflects the same pattern whereby God calls his people to become a better people. Thus, he says, “The local body of believers is God’s kingdom work. We don’t do that work; we are that work!” (p. 63; italics original).
I suspect many readers will be too quick to dismiss Nugent’s most provocative claim. He writes, “This statement is strong, but true. Scripture teaches us to love fellow believers—not all humans in general. The evidence is so clear and overwhelming that it is hard to believe it is not common knowledge” (p. 90). At face value, some people will misunderstand and contort his statement. Nugent will surely test the mettle of many evangelicals. He does not shy away from passages that make people uncomfortable. His extensive look at relevant biblical texts deserves careful reflection.
In Part Three, Nugent shows the practical significance of this vision. This section is rich with applications that are relevant for churches anywhere in the world. He addresses a range of issues, such as discipleship, leadership, family relationships, friendship, vocation, missions among others. All the while, his discussion never veers far from Scripture.
One can predict a criticism people will level against the book. Some might accuse him of withdrawing from culture. On the other hand, Nugent’s presentation is far more practical, balanced and biblically argued than others who have proposed a Hauerwasian vision of the church. He advances rather than regurgitates the ideas of others, such as Joseph Hellerman in When the Church Was Family (Nashville: B&H, 2009) and Scot McKnight in Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016).
How might Nugent improve or expand his presentation? His book does not engage many of the hot button issues facing the contemporary church. For instance, how might this way of being the church affect how believers respond to LGBT-related controversies or use political means to protect religious liberty? Nugent’s comments spur other questions not answered in the book. How might this vision of the church influence the way local churches spend money, their relationship with para-church ministries, and potential strategies for building bridges between local churches. Though he does not address the issue directly, Nugent’s proposal certainly casts a critical shadow over popular methods of church planting.
To be fair, one book cannot adequately answer all these and other questions. These comments do not mark out problematic deficiencies as much as limitations inherent to any book. Nugent’s writing is impressively efficient. Not a page is wasted. I offer these comments simply to help prospective readers have proper expectations about what they will (or will not) find in this text.
Where does Endangered Gospel fit within the spectrum of related books? As a biblical scholar, Nugent presents the carefully crafted argument of an exegete. Because he incorporates critical New Testament passages, his proposal is more robust and cohesive than specialized works like Christopher Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004). From another angle, it will remind readers of other books that cast a vision for how the church should interact with culture and the political sphere. Nugent is gracious yet sober minded about the role of political powers within the world. One might argue his book could partially serve as the implicit groundwork for some points made in Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017).
In my reading, Nugent could affirm ideas found in Andy Crouch’s Culture Making (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013) with certain qualifications. Where should we make culture? For Nugent, it seems the church itself is that culture. He does not advocate an escapist mentality. “This world will become a better place, but God’s people must first become the better place that God called them to be on behalf of this world” (p. 58). Yet, he warns, “If we’re not careful, we may gain the world and lose the church— and then, ultimately, we’ll lose the world, too” (p. 7).
Nugent argues convincingly that we must take the church far more seriously. This begins by seeing its essential, not tangential, relationship to the gospel. The church does not merely participate in God’s mission; it is God’s mission in the world. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to develop a more gospel-centered ecclesiology. Regardless of one’s theological convictions, this book will challenge readers to construct a more holistic and practical vision of the church and its mission.
Jackson Wu teaches in a Chinese seminary in East Asia, serves as Mission and Culture book reviews editor for Themelios, and regularly blogs at jacksonwu.org.
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