In Center Church Tim Keller discerns a difference between theological foundations, philosophy of ministry and practice. Three important things that aren't the same thing. There is a journey to make so that these things sync up.
An organisation, ministry, church or individual isn't faithful merely by holding to the right theological foundations. They have to be worked out in practice.
As much as I can discern this was one of the key critiques made by the first generation of Newfrontiers leaders forty years ago. They were Baptists who saw the theological foundations of their churches having no impact. Dusty irrelevant documents. I think they slightly mistepped by then not wanting to write stuff down... though by the strength of their own unwritten convictions and relationships By the grace of God I think they built a good house in which I enjoy living.
What was needed was to take those gospel convictions and lead them through to the right gospel implications leading to the right gospel practice.
So, I work for an evangelical ministry and belong to an evangelical church. We're evangelicals. We want everyone to hear of Jesus and respond to what he has done for us through his death and resurrection. We want everyone to join him in the renewal of all things.
But have we build an evangelical house on our evangelical foundations and are we populating it with evangelical life? It's a question I want to be asking myself. A gospel-shape means that this probably should be built from the ground up, but the reality is that life is messy and change happens in different ways, at differing pace... and lots of genuine life happens and is then undergirded with theology.
The gospel tells me that people are either Christian or they're not. But the implications of the gospel are invitational. A gospel shaped approach considers more journey and next steps, whilst holding to tight underlying categories. The conviction manifests not with fixed categories but with the intention to see people move. Because I'm persuaded of the importance of people coming to know Jesus I should be more inclined to treat people as people, first and foremost as my fellow human beings, people just like me. I can't, but Christ does, and so in him I can begin to.
And, the depth of confidence we might hold in the gospel shouldn't express in fence-building but more like gathering to a campfire... our confidence in the life-changing power of the gospel means we need not be defensive or insecure but generous and welcoming.
The gospel answers our fundamental problem of being whole-hearted members of Adam's helpless race rather than being in Christ. Gospel faithfulness is often pitted against felt needs. But, properly communicated the gospel is the conclusion of the story that our felt needs, sometimes distorted, are searching for. Why shouldn't the gospel of the God who seeks us and finds us where we are should be addressed to our felt needs?
The gospel of Jesus is described in the Bible with military metaphors but in 21st Century Britain that carries connotations of crusades and jihads and violence.... the very opposite of the gospel. Amazing encouragements about the defeat of evil by the love of Christ are heard as aggression and antagonism. Perhaps, to use them would be to run against the grain of the gospel?
The same probably applies to the tone of preaching. Many British evangelicals lean heavily on the ministry of confrontational American preachers (and I've done that, and benefited from them)... but to communicate so confrontationally in Britain makes your message repellent rather than persuasive.
The gospel gives boldness but that should express in tenderness.
The gospel tells me that divine judgement is real and frightening and good. The implications of that however should shape a ministry to be anguished and weeping and full of love. On the one hand wrath isn't the opposite of love but the expression of it against those who are harmed. The seriousness of the human race facing judgement doesn't outwork in a fire and brimstone denouncement of people, but in broken-hearted movement towards people, to be with them, to contend for justice and bring them to see the love of God for themselves.
A gospel-shaped approach wont just talk about these kinds of difficult subjects in off hand, tick-box ways... they're too weighty for passing comments. The shape of the gospel means I want to be understood, communication matters and I take responsibility for communicating... I don't blame the listener if they misread me even if sometimes it might be their fault.
The self-knowledge I've gained from knowing Jesus points me to exceeding generosity with others, to assume the best of others. A Christian is objectively the most secure of people. Nothing can separate a follower of Jesus from his love. Nothing. Because of this a Christian is free to be vulnerable, and weak. Without Jesus I would hide, but in him I don't have to be plastic and pretend that everything is fine.
Those who are deepest rooted in the gospel should be most like Jesus, most generous, most affected. And when I'm not like that I need to be asking myself whether I really know Jesus all that well. A terrible dislocation has happened when those things that I hold to be true aren't shaping me, when the way I am looks like I don't believe what I'm saying.
Sometimes I catch myself in that, other times someone else helps me see it, and I need that. And the more I grow, the more I know my need for help. Something 'gospel-shaped' about that, though constantly using that word without defining exactly what I mean by it is probably counter-productive, but hopefully you're catching something of what it means from its implications.