July 3, 2008

A "New" Way to Share the Gospel: The 4 Spiritual... Circles?

The illustration on the left is probably very familiar to you if you are an evangelical Christian in America. The famous bridge diagram showing how the cross of Christ bridges the infinite gap between God and humanity has been used millions of times in recent decades as a concise way to explain the essentials of the Christian faith concerning salvation. It would be interesting to find out the percentage of "born again" Christians who would identify this diagram (or something like it) as an important part of their journey of faith. It is estimated that over 2.5 billion copies have been printed of The Four Spiritual Laws tract since it was first created in 1965 by Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. In terms of evangelistic preaching and outreach in the 20th century, the bridge diagram is right up there with the "Sinner's Prayer" and the The Four Spiritual Laws as one of the most commonly used tools to communicate the gospel to modern audiences.

But what about
post-modern audiences? To what extent should we care how they perceive our communication of the gospel message? Are we allowed to change the diagram to "contextualize" it better for the 21st century or would this just be a relativistic accommodation to the surrounding culture? What if we wanted to create a diagram that was more about transformational discipleship and less about a one-time decision? How would such a diagram be expanded to include more about the Christian life on earth and not just life after death? If both Christian community and individual conversion are central to the gospel, how could this be illustrated in napkin-sketch form? Should we throw out the bridge diagram altogether? And replace it with what? As you might imagine, there are a variety of opinions on the merits and shortcomings of the beloved bridge diagram.

Napkin sketches aren't always a bad way to communicate complex truths. I recently read
an interview in Christianity Today about an innovative but simple gospel presentation that is called "The Big Story" by James Choung, a 30-something who ministers to postmodern college students with InterVarsity in San Diego. Choung says he wanted to communicate "a gospel that describes something more than just about getting to heaven. It's a gospel that's more transformational, communal and missional- something closer to what Jesus taught." And so he came up with a postmodern/missional version of the traditional bridge diagram, but instead of the 4 spiritual laws, it's a diagram with 4 circles, with each "world" following the Biblical narrative of creation (designed for good), fall (damaged by evil), redemption (restored for better) and mission (sent together to heal).

So what does this "4 circles" diagram look like and how does it explain the gospel? What you see on the right is the finished illustration. I thought about trying to explain all the steps myself, but it's always much better to go back to the original source. Click here to watch a video of James doing a 3-minute version of "The Big Story" and here's a link to his write-up if you would like a more detailed reading of the presentation. I can't emphasize enough that you have to see the presentation or read the write-up before you draw any conclusions about the diagram.

For what it's worth, here's my take on it. Although it's difficult to be 100% systematic theology-proof in a 3-minute gospel presentation, I like James' diagram just as much as the bridge illustration because it gets at the purpose of being transformed participants in the Kingdom of God, a journey that begins (rather than ends) with the decision to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. Like any diagram, "The Big Story" is imperfect and does not fully address the realities of heaven & hell or grace vs. works as clearly as the classic bridge diagram does. Still, I love the way
Choung's napkin sketch presents the larger story of how sin pervades the world at all levels (personal, relational and systemic) and thus Christ came to bring about redemption at each of these levels.

I am reluctant to bring categories, labels and denominations into this, but it's not hard to guess which evangelicals will like this presentation of the gospel and which ones won't. It's safe to say that my Calvinist and Reformed friends who enjoy reading John Piper, D. A. Carson and R.C.
Sproul will take issue with the focus of the diagram is not on penal substitution, the imputation of righteousness or the bearing of God's wrath. At the same time, my "missional" and social justice-emphasizing friends who read N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard and Shane Claiborne will probably totally dig this "new" presentation of the gospel and actually start evangelizing for the first time in years! (If you didn't catch that, it was joke referring to the stereotype of emergent/postmodern Christians who tend to downplay evangelism. Never mind.)

The tension between evangelism and discipleship has always been a delicate balance of emphasis for the Christian church. To be clear, I don't want to be guilty of an
either-or dichotomy when it comes to gospel diagrams. One of the criticisms I have of the missional movement (which is not the same as the emergent movement, but there is significant overlap) are the either-or labels that can sometimes be just as divisive and exclusionary as some of the older categories they like to deconstruct. Journey vs. destination, orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy and questions vs. answers are examples of these dichotomies that are false choices. Some missional / emerging writers and teachers make it seem like you have to reject one in order to embrace the other.

In the end, I think both diagrams are helpful ways to explain different aspects of the timeless gospel story at the center of orthodox Christianity. Like the differing theories of the atonement, both diagrams have their strengths and I'm reluctant to abandon the 4 spiritual laws just because "The Big Story" illustration may be more innovative, fresh and relevant to postmodern cultures. The bridge diagram remains one of the most simple and memorable ways to explain salvation by grace through faith alone. I think we still need it. However, the bridge diagram misses some of the biblical fullness of the the good news. Although my Reformed and Calvinist friends might disagree with me, I believe there is more to the gospel and more to the Kingdom than Christ's substitutionary atonement. I believe the gospel is a call to follow Jesus in this life in addition to trusting in his full payment for sin. The gospel is a message of good news to the poor as well as grace for the sinner. The gospel calls us to embody the mission of Jesus as we act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

As Shane Claiborne said, "Much of pop-Christianity is obsessed with the self-centered goal of finding our life, forgetting that Christ’s call is to lose our life for others in order to find it." This is why I appreciate
Choung's "Big Story"diagram with its four circles. It doesn't really add anything "new" the gospel, but I believe it will help us recover a more complete picture of the old, old story of Jesus and his love.


KBCAP said...

I read your blog and I thoroughly examined the Big story Gospel presentation. First of all the bridge diagram is something that is very personal to me because that is how I understood what Christ did for me and the necessity for entering into a relationship with Him. I know that the big criticism is that the bridge illustration only calls for a one time commitment and that is not enough. But I also believe that each person needs to make that decision to enter into a relationship with Christ. See I along with many other people received Christ because we wanted to go to heaven. I agree the bridge illustration lacks the follow up but, I still think that it is necessary to explain that we in ourself cannot live with God for eternity without Christ's death because our sin separates us from God. I struggled with the way James illustrated and down played the separation of man with God. Maybe the big story can be used as a follow up tool, but I don't think it is something that can replace the bridge. I know people out there criticize the bridge illustration but I believe it still communicates the Gospel in a easy clear concise way. James says that the bridge diagram is irrelevant for today, but my response to that is why do many young people still respond and give their lives to Jesus when we use the bridge diagram. The big story was very complex and very difficult for me to understand and follow. Although I will say that maybe this big story will work better for people who have a desire for a better world and not just for them to be reconciled with Christ. This will be very appealing to people who want to bring justice and peace but just don't know how too. I think there are a few people who feel this way but I know that me personally when I was younger and before Christ the only thing I was concerned about was me. I think people are the same way today in fact the slogan of our world is still "it's all about me". Many people don't enter into a relationship with Jesus because they want it continue to be all about them. Also, there are many people who enter into a relationship with Jesus but only last a short time because of the desire to fulfill their own desires is stronger than there desire to please Jesus. I also believe that what we do after we enter into a relationship with Christ needs to be explained in the context of an ongoing relationship and not just a one time explanation of what we are to do once we become "Christians". Maybe there is a way to combine both of these and still keep it simple. Both diagrams in my opinion have positives and negatives. Well, I know I said a lot and I don't mean to just be stubborn and not change and maybe I could understand this better as I continue to mull it over in my mind.

The Common Loon said...

Those are some terrific comments, kbcap. Thanks for posting.

The bridge diagram is certainly very personal to many of us (myself included). I think you're right to say that each diagram has its flaws and I think the key is to somehow emphasize both eternal life after death and eternal life that begins on earth. It seems like the bridge diagram comes mainly out of Paul's epistles (especially Romans) whereas the The Big Story is based more on the teachings of Jesus in the gospels. The full picture is when you put them together.

It's also true that many people probably become Christians initially because they are afraid of going to hell (again, myself included). However, this might also explain why Christians don't live very differently than the rest of the world- we haven't focused enough on learning how to live like Jesus, beyond merely accepting him as Savior. We have a lot of converts, but very few who live the life of a disciple.

I would agree that The Big Story is certainly more complex and difficult to present than the bridge diagram. For our particular church context, the bridge diagram has worked well because it's so simple, memorable and gives people hope beyond this life. For the many latchkey & neglected kids in our blue-collar neighborhood, they might not be in a place yet where they desire to see a better world of justice and peace. It's hard to see the bigger picture of society if your own parents don't even take proper care of you!

The Big Story might work better as a follow-up discussion or for those postmodern skeptics that have already seen the bridge diagram and thought it was a scare tactic to make them afraid of hell. I think James Choung's college student ministry in San Diego is probably geared toward a more educated, art-after-dark type of crowd that wants to change the world and is interested in Jesus, but cynical about the institutional church's hypocrisy. They've already heard judgmental preaching on TV and they want to see if Christianity is more than just "fire insurance" against the flames of hell or the prosperity gospel that seeks after comfort and wealth.

One thing that neither diagram fully develops is the ongoing personal relationship with Christ. I think that's because napkin sketch diagrams can explain concepts and ideas well, but a relationship is something alive and unpredictable. Who knows where your spiritual journey with Christ will take you- you can't diagram that out!

Thanks again for your comments. It's an important discussion because in terms of the core tenets of our faith, there are few things more central than evangelism and mission.

luckypopo said...

I liked the circle diagram--it's a more holistic picture of the gospel. However, like kbcap said, the bridge diagram is good because it shows the chasm between God and man. The problem is, it doesn't say enough about going on w/ Jesus as a disciple. There is a limit to how much you can put on a napkin! Thanks for sharing.

SunnyC said...

Simply stated, the bridge diagram is exactly that, simple. If you were speaking to a group of people gathered at an outreach event, then I believe the ideal diagram to use would be the bridge one. In the spirit of events the bridge diagram would capture the attention of that particular audience. On the other end of the board we have the 4 circles diagram. It is in fact a more descriptive and in depth explanation concerning salvation. I for one do like the 4 circles diagram, but overall it depends on the person. I see the 4 circles diagram as more for the intellectual rather than the simple minded. So I agree that both diagrams work well in explanation, yet are imperfect.

Another topic that does pop into my mind from reading your article is, Who is the post-modern audience? Are they more on the intellectual side? the simple side? Is there any sign of possibly one day, before heaven, everyone will be on the same page in the way they perceive things?

Also Is there a difference between the depth of understanding between believers and non believers? By this I mean, Is it possible that believers have the tendency to think and perceive more complexly because we are given the Holy Spirit to help us to understand things. Whereas non-believers simply think in worldly ways? Just some things to think about. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! =)

Eman said...

I was intrigued by this post first because it was the 4SL tool that was used by a CCC staffer in 1982 that introduced me to a relationship with Christ. But, I realize that some transformation of the tool may be necessary to communicate with a new generation. I had a course in evangelism a few years ago where we analyzed numerous tools and examined the theological relevance with them. TOols, though some may communicate better than others, are just that... tools. The reality of a relationship with Christ is something that we enter into through the power of the Holy Spirit. For some, it may be that "moment" while for others, it may be a metamorphical period. I have used numerous tools - LIFT, GOSPEL, 4 laws, one verse, Peace with God, ... and I have come to realize that 1) the tool is a tool not the majic potion and 2) my presentation will be used as God would use it (I've got stories that would horrify and hillarify you)... but God still works. I haven't but will check out the circle diagrams.

Richard said...

Excellent page. I'm English and been a Cristian for 5 years, and have never seen the bridge, 4 circles or heard of the 4 Spiritual Laws until this year. Good summary. Thanks