Why we need “thick” Gospel narratives

I’m going to be honest here. If I hear one more person talk about the ABCs of the Gospel, the Four Points of the Gospel, the One Minute Gospel, or the Twitter Gospel, I think I’ll have to go home and vent my frustration on one of the two cats who seem to think they live at my house. (Unfortunately, my wife and daughters agree with them.) And, why do I find this so frustrating? Because there is simply too much in the Gospel to unpack in such short Gospel summaries.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with summarizing the Gospel, the NT authors do it all the time (of course, they assume we know the story they’re summarizing). And, a good summary of the Gospel can be very helpful at times. The problem comes when that’s all we do.

This is where I find the idea of “thick” vs. “thin” narratives helpful. (Does anyone know who first developed this language? I know Brueggemann used it quite a bit, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t the first.) Our typical Gospel presentations are thin narratives. Such thin narratives provide just enough detail to make it a coherent story, but they leave out most of the detail that makes it a really compelling story. That would be somewhat akin to summarizing Les Miserables as a story about a guy who fell, experienced grace, and sought personal redemption through serving others. That’s technically correct, but you’ve lost all the power that’s in the story. A “thick” narrative, on the other hand, tries to unpack the story in all its rich detail. That way, when you get to the climax of the story, you really know what’s going on. Why it’s good news.

We need to spend much more time telling “thick” Gospel narratives. I don’t know about your church, but we hear about the Gospel quite often in mine. Unfortunately, it’s usually summarized in 5-10 minutes. Occasionally we’ll get a whole sermon on it (especially on Easter). But, I don’t think anyone at my church has ever tried to present a truly “thick” Gospel narrative that helps people understand how it all fits together.

I’ve been doing this recently with the high school group at my church. I’m working through the story of the Gospel in eight weeks. By the time we’re done, I’ll have spent around five hours telling them the story of the Gospel. And, we really don’t have anywhere near enough time to get it all in. But, when we’re done, they’ll have a much thicker narrative for the Gospel. They certainly won’t have the whole story. So, I hope they’re coming to appreciate that they could spend a lifetime filling in more details. But, they’ll have more of the narrative than they did before.

In case your curious, I’m presenting it around the standard Creation/Fall/Redemption narrative (after, that is how the Bible tells the story). But, I think we need to be careful here as well. A Creation/Fall/Redemption approach could easily be a “thin” narrative as well. It’s easy to assume people understand all three parts of this story and how they fit together. I actually find that that is generally not the case. Many Christians know the creation story, but don’t really know what it has to do with the Gospel. And, the same is true with other parts of the story (especially the history of Israel).  So, I’m trying to provide a thicker narrative all the way through. (You’re probably getting a sense now for why 5 hours is not enough time.)

Here’s the outline:

  • Week 1: Introduction and explanation of why everyone (non-Christians, new Christians, and old Christians) need to understand the Gospel more than they do.
  • Week 2: Genesis 1:1-25 and God’s plan to manifest his glory throughout creation as an expression of grace.
  • Week 3: Genesis 1:26-2:25 and God’s plan to create human persons through whom in particular he would manifest his glorious presence in creation.
  • Week 4: Genesis 3 and the fall of Adam and Eve as well as the horrible consequences that resulted for all of creation.
  • Week 5: The rest of the Old Testament (seriously, I only have eight weeks) and God’s faithfulness to his people, plans, and promises in the Garden and throughout the history of Israel.
  • Week 6: The Messiah as the fulfillment of God’s plans and promises for his people and for all of creation.
  • Week 7: How we should respond as individuals and as the people of God.
  • Week 8: How this Gospel transforms the way that we see everything.

So, that’s what I’m doing to try and give the students a thicker narrative for the Gospel. What are you seeing in your churches and ministries? Has your church/ministry done a better job providing thick narratives for the Gospel? If so, what have you been doing?

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on May 10, 2010, in Biblical Theology, Gospel, Spiritual Formation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Antony Billington

    Nice post. Thanks. Kevin Vanhoozer’ also uses the language of ‘thick description’ a fair bit, especially in his _Is There a Meaning in This Text?_, but elsewhere too. He gets it, as do others, from the work of Clifford Geertz, who in turn got it from Gilbert Ryle. You could track this in the opening essay of Geertz’’s _The Interpretation of Cultures_. As you will no doubt know, it’s also been influential on the postliberal guys.

    • That makes perfect sense. (I probably picked up the language from Vanhoozer originally myself.) Thanks for the heads up.

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