Not Just for Attractional-Model Churches: Why “The Gospel-Driven Church” is Needed for All Pastors & Leaders

A note from Tim to my regular readers: I have decided to do a book review from time to time, to point pastors and all believers to helpful resources for ministry and the Christian life.

Unlike Jared Wilson, I was not trained in the attractional-driven model of ministry. I am not trying to transition my church to a gospel-driven model because we are already a gospel-driven church and are trying to “excel still more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1). Yet, I desperately needed the message in The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace for my own soul and for my leadership as a pastor.

I enjoy reading, but it’s not often that I highlight something on almost every page of a book. There were so many solid points and wise nuances throughout the book that I found myself doing this but also often writing comments in the margin like “Wow! Yes. So true! Important.”

Here are three reasons that The Gospel-Driven Church is not just for pastors and leaders who are thinking of transitioning their church from being attractionally-driven to gospel-driven.

1. It is important to understand the differences between a church being attractionally-driven and gospel-driven.
Jared defines the attractional church as “a way of doing church ministry whose primary purpose is to make Christianity appealing.” He quickly explains that a growing church isn’t the problem. “It bears mentioning that people being attracted to church is not in itself a bad thing! But when attraction becomes the primary mission, you tend to use whatever works to attract them…the problem is that ‘doing whatever it takes to get people in the door’ can replace or undercut what we want them to be attracted to.” (25) We want them to be attracted to Jesus, who is perfectly displayed and believed in through the gospel!

Even churches and leaders who are striving to be gospel-driven can easily forget why, biblically, we do things the way we do. Wilson points out that the “operating system” of the attractional church is basically consumerism (drawing people to church primarily through what appeals to them rather than what they need), pragmatism (changing church to try to accomplish what “works” rather than what God has commanded), and legalism/moralism (“Legalism is what happens when you disconnect the Christian’s ‘do’ from Christ’s ‘done’ in the gospel.”). (28)

Wilson answers the question, “What is a gospel-driven church?” by explaining, “One that explicitly and intentionally connects its teaching, programs, ministry philosophy, and mission to the content of the gospel…A gospel-driven church knows that the gospel isn’t one feature of a church, one thing on a checklist, something useful in an evangelistic program. A gospel-driven church makes the gospel the unifying and motivating factor in everything they say and do.”

2. To not experience vision drift.
Just as a church can easily experience mission drift, forgetting why they ultimately exist, a church can also experience vision drift. It is easy to slowly but incrementally forget how the gospel shapes the way we view church, which will eventually play itself out in how we do church. As a pastor, I constantly have either well-meaning church attenders or advertisements on my browser, inbox, and mailbox that tell me, “This program will show us how to do church” or “This is what we need to help us grow.” While there are many things that churches should constantly be evaluating and growing in (such as how well they are ministering to children or married couples, or if there are factors unnecessarily driving away new visitors), it is so refreshing to read a book that reminds us that God’s Word and the gospel are enough.

“The Five Metrics That Matter Most,” Chapter 3, would be worth the price of the book just by itself. As a non-attractional church pastor, this was the chapter that I read the slowest and underlined the most. I will be returning to it to evaluate our church on a yearly basis, sharing it at our next Elder and Deacon meeting, and briefly discussing it at our next Member’s Meeting. It is that important because Wilson takes us out of the numbers game and points out that whether or not you are currently growing in numbers, the first question should be, “are we growing in grace?” He explains, “the more important a metric is the more difficult it is to quantify. This is one reason why Jesus appointed shepherds for his flock and not accountants.” (54)

In Chapter 3 Wilson basically takes Jonathan Edward’s “Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God,” and explains and applies them to churches today. The five characteristics of a genuine move of God’s Spirit that he considers are:  1) A growing esteem for Jesus Christ 2) A Discernible Spirit of Repentance 3) A Dogged Devotion to the Word of God 4) An Interest in Theology and Doctrine, and 5) An Evident Love for God and Neighbor. This chapter and others serve as a good check for how our church is doing in keeping the main things the main things.

3. To be encouraged and built up in how the gospel shapes church.
Jared Wilson has a gift for helping believers see how the gospel plays out in all of life. He also has a gift for helping pastors and church leaders see how the gospel plays out into church life. Wilson’s The Pastor’s Justification was a lifeline to me a couple of years ago. For two months, I would read a chapter on Sunday night before going to sleep peacefully, being reminded that as a pastor I need the gospel just as much as those I minister to. In Gospel-Driven Church, Jared now explains in a “textbook” but not too-technical way, how the gospel should shape how we view the church. I found the book to be deep enough to be read in seminary classes, but straight-forward enough for a church leadership team to read together.

Reading a book that is focused on helping pastors who are in attractional-model churches transition to a gospel-driven church model may seem that it has little to offer those who are already gospel-driven. However, I found the opposite to be true. As my heart rejoiced in how God has designed the church, chapter by chapter I was challenged and reminded of what is most important for my church and kept asking the question, “Are we really letting the gospel shape our church? Right now?”

I would actually love to see many church members who are not even in leadership positions read this book, because it will remind them of why the church exists and why we want the gospel to drive all we do, from preaching (Chapter 5), to how we plan our worship service (Chapter 6), to how we interact in church community (Chapter 7), to how we go and share the gospel in our communities and world (Chapter 8: Turning the corner from “Come and see” to “Go and tell.”).

If you are looking for a convicting, refreshing, biblical, practical book on what should drive our churches, I highly recommend The Gospel-Driven Church. No matter what your training and model has been, you will benefit from it. Marinating in the gospel always benefits us.

As Wilson explains, “Preach grace and grace alone–and don’t give up!–and then watch as the metrics of grace emerge to become the measurement of your church’s health over time. Preaching the gospel is the first and most important way to give your church the power it needs to bear fruit for Christ.”

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. But it’s so good, I would have bought it!

Do You Love the Word “Propitiation”? Why we should use, study, and explain the big words the Bible uses in our preaching and Bible study.

A shorter version of this blog post appeared at the Baptist Convention of New England blog.

Two months ago I was preaching a series on the gospel, and in one sermon I preached Romans 3:21-26 which includes this gold nugget, talking about Jesus: “…whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:25) Today, I preached 1 John 2:1-6 as part of our verse-by-verse study through the book of 1 John, which includes this jewel, talking about Jesus: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)

They were some of the most encouraging sermons I have preached for months, not only for me but also for the church family as we rejoiced in the gospel together.

I believe that in our preaching and Bible study, when we come across technical, “big” words that the Bible uses, we should use, study, and explain those words, rather than skirting around them or simply glossing over them with an alternative phrase.

We Use “New To Us” Language All the Time
When we moved to Vermont from the West Coast for me to pastor here, my family and I woke up the next morning and drove around town to familiarize ourselves with our surroundings. It was May, and we kept seeing signs that said “Tag Sale.” They often looked like Yard Sale or Garage Sale signs, and once we followed a few of those signs and saw a Yard Sale happening, we incorporated this new phrase into our thinking and speaking. We now don’t give it a second thought to say, “We should clean out the garage and have a Tag Sale this summer.” To function well in a new environment, you have to learn some of the new vocabulary that will help you to understand things you encounter.

When somebody becomes a Christian or begins to really study the Bible on their own, they need to learn some of the new vocabulary that they will come across in the Bible or they will always struggle with those passages. When we as pastors or Bible Study Leaders don’t take the time to slow down and explain what difficult doctrinal words and concepts mean as we encounter them, we risk doing unintentional damage. We stunt the spiritual growth of those we minister to, because they will flounder when they run across these words in their own Bible study, and we also unintentionally teach that the words God chose to put in the Bible are too hard for us to understand.

Why You Should Love the Word “Propitiation”
With less educational resources at their fingertips, the Bible writers of both the Old and New Testament did not flinch to use technical words when they taught about God. Although the same could be said for Bible words dripping with meaning like “justification,” “redemption,”and “regeneration,” let me give you an example using the word that recently made me pause and ask how to teach it, “propitiation.”

As I studied to preach Romans 3:25 and then 1 John 2:2, I was amazed to discover that the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) uses a form of the same word 6 times. It is often used to talk about the Day of Atonement, but one use made my jaw drop. In Psalm 130:4 the Psalmist rejoices: “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” Yes, it is forgiveness, but he didn’t use the word for “forgiveness,” he used the word for “propitiation.” Those who sang Psalm 130 understood that in order for forgiveness to happen, their sins needed to be paid for.

But we really begin to understand what Jesus did for us so he could be our propitiation when we look at how a form of the word is used in Hebrews 9:5. There the writer of Hebrews uses a form of the word “propitiation” to describe the mercy seat, the covering of the Ark of the Covenant (this form of the word is found 28 times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, 24 of which also refer to the mercy seat that was on top of the Ark of the Covenant).

The covering of the Ark of the Covenant is under the two golden cherubim and it represented God’s throne on earth. It was the place where God’s Shekinah Glory, his special presence on earth, resided. Only the High Priest could go into God’s presence there, and only once a year on the Day of Atonement. But when he went in there, he would sprinkle the blood of a sacrifice on the mercy seat; he sprinkled it, in other words, on the “propitiation.”

Inside of the Ark of the Covenant, in addition to Aaron’s budded staff and a pot of mannah, was God’s Law. The blood of the sacrifice went between God’s Law, which the people had broken, and God’s presence, which the people could not stand in without a worthy sacrifice.

This is where Jesus comes in. Jesus is not only our High Priest, Jesus IS our propitiation. Today. 1 John 2:1 explains that Jesus IS the propitiation for our sins. Present tense.

Have you broken God’s Law recently? What about the 10 commandments? Have you lied, coveted, lusted (Jesus pointed out that adultery happens not just with our bodies but also in our hearts), or not honored your parents recently, just to name a few of those 10 commandments? Jesus IS your propitiation! Jesus’ blood stands between you, the Law-breaker, and the holy God. Now that silences the accuser!

Let the people God has entrusted to you in your congregation or Bible Study glory in the gospel from the many different angles the Bible gives us, by not running away from the difficult words in the Bible. Explain them when you use them, but study and explain these technical and rich Bible words in such a way that they will want to sing hallelujah when they encounter them, whether it is in church or during their personal Bible study.

We want them to run TO propitiation, not away from it! Because when they run to propitiation, they are running to Jesus.

5 Reasons Every Pastor Should Be Involved in VBS or Camp Ministry

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Me with 185 campers at Camp Gilead for Junior Camp, July 2018 (www.campgilead.org)

This article was featured at For The Church.

I know, I know, I can already hear the objections and excuses. We pastors are often tired, overworked, and burdened men. That is exactly why I ask you to consider being involved in VBS and/or Christian camp ministry next summer, or this summer if it’s not too late. We need the joy these ministries offer.

I didn’t say that you or I should be directing VBS or Camp Ministry, but involved. I do believe in pastors equipping the saints for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12), and that churches are healthiest when all the members are serving and using their gifts.

Yet, the sheep are encouraged when they see their shepherd getting in the sheep pen with them. Here are five reasons you should climb in, although there are many more:

1. It will bring you joy.
I just came off of 2 weeks of summer youth outreach ministry. The first week was serving as the camp pastor for a Christian Junior Camp (3rd-5th Grade). The second week was simply assisting with the VBS at our church for 4-6 year olds, taking pictures at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes sports camp for older kids that we sponsored at the same time, and teaching 3 Bible studies during the week. I am tired. And full of joy.

It is good to step away from the day to day grind of the church office and admin, and even be outside a bit more. Spurgeon said so: “A day’s breathing of fresh air upon the hills, or a few hours ramble in the beech woods’ umbrageous calm, would sweep the cobwebs out of the brain of scores of our toiling ministers who are now but half alive…[It] would not give grace to the soul, but it would yield oxygen to the body, which is next best.” (Lectures to my Students)  

Take a vacation day–or week or two–and do what Spurgeon recommends. But during the week of Vacation Bible School, rearrange your ministry schedule and do what Spurgeon recommends by serving and interacting with kids. If you are only teaching during the Bible study time, step outside with them for game time too.

Hearing children laugh, being in the room with them when they sing and do motions, witnessing a child’s eyes light up when they first hear that Jesus rose from the dead, meeting parents in the community who didn’t even know your church existed before, and doing this all together with others in your church for the glory of Christ, will bring you a large dose of joy.

The complaining and disgruntled church member can wait a week. Seeing the joy of the gospel through children’s eyes can’t wait.

2. You get to share the gospel.
You get to share the gospel with some who have never heard the good news–ever. You get to share the gospel with children who are in your church week after week, but maybe never hear the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection for them from your lips. Church members get to see you in the trenches with them, explaining the gospel with both love and seriousness in your eyes and on your face. You get to share the gospel with kids at camp who have never stepped foot in a church, and “church kids” at camp who were in church before they came out of the womb. You get to share the gospel. Enough said.

3. You will appreciate your Children’s Ministry volunteers more.
The Children’s Ministry volunteers in your church probably get little recognition this side of Heaven, and seeing them work so closely with little ones will help you to appreciate them more, and shepherd them better. There is something about seeing them wipe little noses, and wipe glue off of tables, and help a Kindergartner glue a “Jesus Loves You” heart onto a craft stick, and hug a little kid who fell down on the playground, that binds your heart with their hearts. You are in this together, for Jesus’ fame.

Serving with them in Vacation Bible School, or seeing another youth or children’s ministry such as a Christian Camp, will also help give you new ministry ideas for your church and community.

I love VBSDon’t miss out on the fresh ministry ideas and opportunities to improve your ministry to families and the community because you think you need to keep your nose to the grindstone. Sometimes looking up from the grindstone and seeing what is happening around you in ministry through other believers is even more productive for Christ’s Kingdom.

4. It will sharpen your teaching to adults.
If you get an opportunity to teach children–whether it’s a week of chapels at a Christian camp, or even one Bible study during VBS–take it! Being forced to see the Scriptures through the eyes of a 5 year old or a 5th grader will help you to boil it down to the most basic truths. It will help you see the big picture. It will help you illustrate the Word better. It will help you pray for children more. It will help you think of fresh ideas for teaching adults.

5. What would Jesus do?
Think about it: WWJD? Do you really think Jesus would stay holed up in His office while a team of volunteers loved on kids and taught the good news about His death and resurrection to them? His disciples thought so.

But Jesus corrected them: “Now they were bringing even infants to Him that He might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to Him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.'” (Luke 18:15-16)

Brothers, for your own heart, and for your ministry, be involved in VBS and camp ministry!