A lot of time is spent discussing of the mission and purpose of the church in the world. What should it look like? What makes it unique? Does it still matter? The answers are incredibly varied and nuanced, but usually they tend to focus on a couple of elements: doctrine and practice. We need to develop a sound theology to undergird our understanding of the church and our practice ought to flow from this. For the most part, most books I’ve read all agree on this point (even if the particulars of these vary drastically).
But there’s something else that’s missing in the discussion—the culture of your church. The church’s culture reveals what’s really at the heart of the congregation… and if we’re careful to look closely, we might find a disconnect.
It’s why so many churches face the difficulty of saying they’re about the Bible, yet the congregation never opens it, or we value evangelism, but our event schedules are so booked with classes, lectures or pot-lucks that we don’t have time to actually get to know anyone who’s not a Christian.
So how do we develop a culture where we’re actually about the things we say or think we’re about? In their new book, Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church, authors Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and Eric Geiger offer their insights into creating a gospel-centered culture that fuels every aspect of the local church.
The gospel and community
The authors divide the book into two parts, first examining the unique attributes of the “creature of the Word” (that is, the Church)—how God brings together a people, forming a body for His purposes in the world, and how it is to behave, worshipping, multiplying and serving in community. While many might consider this a “yeah, I get it” point, the authors remind us that we must always start here:
For just as an individual must continually return to the grace of Jesus for satisfaction and sanctification, a local church must continually return to the gospel as well. Our churches must be fully centered on Jesus and His work, or else death and emptiness is certain, regardless of the worship style or sermon series. Without the gospel, everything in a church is meaningless. And dead. (Kindle location 201)
We cannot move too quickly past the need to honestly examine ourselves in light of the gospel, whether individually or corporately. If we fail to do the hard and necessary work of self-examination and repentance, we’ll fall flat on our faces. There won’t be anything to sustain a truly Jesus-centered culture within our communities.
This point is arguably one of the authors’ strongest as they explain there really isn’t such a thing as true Christian community without the gospel and all it entails, for, “The gospel is the deepest foundation for community.”
…any attempt to build community on something more than the grace of Christ becomes a subtle move away from grace, a move toward pseudo-community that only puffs up and fails to transform. If something other than the person and work of Jesus becomes the foundation for a group of believers, that “other thing,” whatever it is—economic level, social manners, music preferences, common life experiences—becomes what they use to differentiate themselves from others. And it immediately becomes a point of boasting, a way to feel justified. (Kindle location 933)
Consider this critique carefully. This isn’t meant only for the seeker church or the “progressive” church… it’s got those of us in theologically conservative churches in mind, too. Over the last few years, there’s been a renewal of concern over what it means to be a biblical church. And frequently you hear that a true church is “gospel-centered.” While this is unquestionably a good thing, there’s a danger in turning it into a new measuring stick; so it becomes about how many months our sermon series runs, how long the preacher speaks for, how many churches we’re planting… The things meant to serve the gospel wind up enslaving us.
Creating Jesus-centered culture
Part two of the book focuses heavily on the mechanics of fostering a Jesus-centered culture within your church. The authors remind us that, first and foremost, if we want to build a culture like this, it must be founded upon the clear teaching of the Word of God. From the pre-school to puberty to the pulpit, every member of the church must be taught the Scriptures.
“To form a church centered on the gospel, the church must strategically and seamlessly pass the message of the gospel on from generation to generation,” they write. “The church must be united from the preschool ministry to the pulpit around one central understanding: the gospel transforms” (Kindle location 2228).
Sadly, even in churches where the gospel is heralded as the essential message of the Christian faith from the pulpit, children and students are often pummeled with curriculum designed for behavioral modification rather than gospel transformation. It is foolish to feast on the life-giving gospel in one area of the church while using a placebo in another. Quite frankly, children and student ministries are often a wasteland for well-intentioned morality training. (Kindle location 2222)
Churches centered on the gospel aggressively go for the heart, not for behavior. Morality, or good behavior, is not the goal of godly parenting nor the goal of sound children’s ministry. A changed heart is. Obedience or morals may be the result, but a changed heart must be the goal. A change in behavior that does not stem from a change in heart is not commendable; it is condemnable. A church that goes after a child’s behavior and not the child’s heart is shepherding that child in opposition to the gospel. Children can be taught how to behave without hearts impacted by Jesus, but the “good behavior” that results will only last for a season because it lacks the power of inner transformation. (Kindle location 2290)
That’s really what we’re about, isn’t it? We want our churches to be places where people at any age are being transformed by the Holy Spirit as the Word is taught; we don’t need to be told to do better, try harder, or be nice for niceness’ sake. We need to be reminded constantly of the natural state of our hearts and our utter helplessness before God. Imagine what that would do to our children’s and student ministries; to our small groups and pulpit ministries.
The gospel-centered leader
Arguably the greatest challenge the authors make in the book even more than their cultural critique, is the one they level at leaders. “Culture and ethos is a reflection of leadership. Your church culture—over time, at least—is a reflection of the leadership of the church,” they write. “The kingly function of leadership is as vital to the health of a local church as is the prophetic function of teaching” (Kindle location 2522).
Leaders are frequently reminded that how they live and lead directly impacts the culture they create. What a leader believes is acceptable in practice, the followers pick up on and emulate. So when a pastor is concerned about how little the congregation reads the Bible, he may need to examine his own practices. When he is concerned about a lack of zeal for evangelism in the church, his own attitudes are necessarily called into question.
A gospel-centered church is infused with gospel-centered leadership. If a local church corporately bears the fruit of the Spirit, then you can be confident individuals who have been marked by the gospel of Jesus Christ lead it. There is a direct correlation between the personal impact of the gospel on a leader’s heart and the way he leads. The gospel is not good advice simply to be taken into consideration in certain situations; rather, the gospel is good news of sweeping transformation. A gospel-centered leader will lead differently. (Kindle location 2529)
The authors offer this reproof not harshly but as a brotherly word of concern for their fellow pastors. How we lead matters. What motivates us matters. The people following us serve as a mirror to the realities of our hearts. What are we seeing?
Creature of the Word is among the most helpful books on church ministry I’ve read in a long time, so much so that I rarely went more than a few paragraphs where I didn’t find myself equally encouraged and encouraged. Highly accessible and practical, this book offers a powerful blend of theology, philosophy, and methodology that’s sure be a benefit to church leaders and members alike.
Title: Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church
Authors: Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and Eric Geiger
Publisher: B&H Publishing (2012)