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Review: Gospel Fluency, by Jeff Vanderstelt

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I was recently inspired to learn a new language. So I downloaded the app everybody raves about, Duolingo. Based on the list of languages available, I decided Portuguese would be the most fun/interesting (though perhaps not the most useful!). As I began my language journey, the app cheerfully informed me that I’m currently 0% fluent in Portuguese. 

As this was a language I knew literally nothing about, this was to be expected. However I remember wondering what would happen if I had chosen to learn English, my native tongue. Would I be 100% fluent? I hope so!

Speaking Gospel

Jeff Vanderstelt’s argument in Gospel Fluency is that for most Christians the Gospel is not their native tongue. It is more like a second, third or even fourth language. Most Christians are simply not fluent enough in the Gospel.

Vanderstelt is the lead teaching pastor of Doxa Church in Bellevue, Seattle, and additionally serves as the leader of the SOMA family of churches. He is largely known for his convictions about the ‘missional community’ model of church – a way of being the church through deep community and corporate mission. Gospel Fluency is his second book, a follow up to Saturate: Being Disciples of Jesus in the Everyday Stuff of Life.

In Gospel Fluency, Vanderstelt argues that becoming a mature Christian requires the ability to ‘believe and speak the truths of the Gospel…in and into the everyday stuff of life.’ (23) The Gospel is not something to be merely understood propositionally. For it to be truly transformational it must be applied, ‘spoken’, directly into life experience. His observation is that, even within the church, personal problems are often given solutions that have no gospel content, such as relationship issues being met simply with training in better communication. When this happens the ultimate heart problem will remain untouched unless people are told how Jesus is specifically a ‘better answer’ to the problem.

Language Lessons

Parts 1-4 of Gospel Fluency serve to flesh out this concept. Vanderstelt uses various ‘language lessons’ to train the reader how to better formulate Gospel truth in their own minds, before applying it directly to their own lives and the lives of others. In chapter 4 he outlines how seeing the Bible as a cohesive narrative of four acts (creation, fall, redemption, and restoration) is particularly useful in making these connections.  He writes ‘…how do we become a gospel-centered culture full of gospel-fluent people? We need gospel language that is correctly shaped by the gospel story.’ (51)

Of course, like language learning, Gospel fluency involves far more than just memorising a few neat formulae. Gospel fluent people ‘think, feel and perceive’ everything differently, because first and foremost they are aware of just how much they have been transformed by the Holy Spirit.

Flowing from this is a vision of a Christian community that is constantly engaged with each other in mutual discipleship. Average Christians are equipped to disciple others with precision. The potential fruit of this would be a church where the community itself does much of the pastoral care, rather than it being solely the work of the ordained leadership.

Much of Vanderstelt’s thinking can be traced back to Tim Keller’s work on ‘grace dynamics’, which he freely admits. The belief they share is that no change is real change unless the heart changes. What Vanderstelt adds to the discussion is a practical model for how this can be lived out by the average Christian.

Vanderstelt’s ‘folksy’ style may frustrate those accustomed to more technical writing, but it will hit the target for the much larger group of those who are not. Yet his simple writing should not be confused with simplistic. Gospel Fluency offers a unique and useful addition to the ongoing conversation about how best to do discipleship.

Gospels and The Gospel

For me the best gold comes in the last section, “The Gospel To Others.” Gospel fluency is not only about growing Christians, it’s also an incredible mission strategy! Using various stories and examples, Vanderstelt shows how effective evangelism comes from loving deeply and listening carefully to a non-believer. He writes, 'Everyone has a gospel story he or she believes. It may not be the gospel of the kingdom of God— the good news of Jesus Christ— but it is a gospel narrative nonetheless.’ (187) The key is to listen, understand and then to show how the ‘gospel’ they’ve believed for their salvation is actually no gospel at all. The only Gospel that is really ‘good news’ for the brokenness of their lives is the one about Jesus Christ.

I thoroughly enjoyed Gospel Fluency, and found it very useful even though I have been familiar with the SOMA model for a while now. My main criticism is that some sociological research to match the anecdotes might make the argument even stronger. Also it can be quite culturally American, which might be a barrier for some Aussie readers.

I also imagine some readers may have concerns that Vanderstelt’s vision sets the bar too high for the average Christian. But I wonder if it really is too high, or if we have actually set our expectations for Christian life far too low?

Gospel Fluency needs to be read for what it is. It may not be ground-breaking in thought, but it describes the essential ingredient in forming a community that reflects Paul’s vision in Ephesians: one that ’speaks the truth in love’ to each other so as to ‘grow to become in every respect the mature body of…Christ.’ (Ephesians 4:15)

Hours after just finishing this book, I found myself in the bank looking to replace my broken keycard. As the line was long, another employee ushered me into an office. As she put through my request, she asked me what I did for a living. “I’m a pastor,” I replied. “Oh that’s interesting! What led you to decide to do that?” If I’m honest, too often I’ve responded to that question by muttering something about growing up in church. But this time I had Gospel fluency in my head. So I told her my own story of believing a fake gospel. How I searched for redemption in all sorts of things that ultimately let me down. Then I told her how Jesus became the hero of my story and how he saved me from destruction. We didn’t get far enough for me to find out much of her story, except to hear that she is searching for meaning, and that she hasn’t found it yet. I pray she finds Jesus soon.

Gospel Fluency shows me that I’m still not 100% Gospel fluent, and perhaps it’s still only my second language, but I’m excited to grow as I practice with others. I am beginning to pray intentionally for opportunities to hear the stories of unbelievers, and to share with them news that is truly good. I hope many others buy and read Vanderstelt’s book and come to the same conclusion. 

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