Young adult mission journal 1: De-churching the gospel
Young adult mission journal 1: De-churching the gospel

justin gabbard


Part II can be found here

When I was in seminary, a professor once told me that every priest should be able to offer a concise account of the Christian faith in the length of the average elevator ride. You will spend your career being asked, he warned—and lengthy, complex, or attenuated responses won’t, as they say, preach.

Can you articulate the gospel message in two or three sentences? Try it.

It’s harder than it sounds and perhaps harder still if you have theological training. I’ll give you a hint: if your answer strays too far from Jesus and love, then you’ve probably exceeded the time allotted.

As well as encouraging sheepish seminarians to become more articulate street-corner evangelists, this exercise can also help us separate the pure, unadulterated gospel message from the 2,000 years of interpretive theology and European culture in which that message is generally couched. This distinction has become extremely important to me as I work to develop a new emerging church/Fresh Expressions-style ministry in Kentucky.

Though the term “emerging church”means different things to different people, at its root certainly is an attempt to spread the gospel message to people located beyond the cloister of the institutional church.

It is an acknowledgement that the business, politics, culture, and historical baggage of the established church have become insurmountable barriers for many people who might otherwise be open to Christ’s calling. Reaching those people requires liberating Christ from Christendom. De-churching the gospel, so that it can be heard afresh by a new generation, is the mission of my fledgling emerging-church ministry.

A moving account of this process can be found Christianity Rediscovered, the memoirs of Catholic missionary Vincent Donovan. In the early 1960s, a strident Donovan traveled to Tanzania to minister to the Masai people. He soon discovered, however, that the traditional missionary model not only had a poor success rate but also did terrible violence in the local culture.

Disillusioned with the institutional church, Donovan abandoned the mission house and school he had founded and became an itinerant preacher, moving from village to village, engaging the Masai in open discussions about the nature of God. Instead of pressuring them to adopt the cultural trappings of modernity and western Christianity, he simply shared the story and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Though he had lost faith in the importance of the institution, he maintained an unfailing belief in the underlying value of the gospel to transform lives. And so it did.

As I move forward with this new emerging-church ministry, I am motivated and inspired by the example of Vincent Donovan and others who believe in the power of the gospel, and the gospel alone, to transform lives. With no brick-and-mortar building, no staff, and no programs, I have no institution to offer.

I have only the promise of new life in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

At this early stage it is impossible to know what shape this ministry will take. Donovan recalls how the Masai reimagined Baptism by spitting on one another. “When the gospel reaches a people where they are,” he explains, “their response to that gospel is the church in a new place, and the song that they will sing is that new, unsung song, that unwritten melody that haunts us all.”

Part II can be found here

Justin Gabbard is the Canon Missioner for Young Adults in the Diocese of Lexington. He will periodically write about his journey within the Diocese of Lexington to start a new young adult ministry from scratch. He can be reached at his home in Covington, KY, at

Image: Justin Gabbard volunteering at the camp store during The Cathedral Domain‘s senior conference.

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