It is the promises of God that make the church, and not the church that makes the promises of God.—Martin Luther
Pastor Barry pulls into his driveway at exactly 12:21 early Sunday afternoon, wondering, How is it that I always arrive home from church at the exact same time every single week?
His day thus far has occurred with the same clockwork precision as all his other Sundays. He rose early to look over his sermon notes. Kissed his kids good-bye shortly after they woke. Hustled off to church for his morning routine: a brief sound check, a walk around the facility, a time of customary prayer with a few men in the church before leading his “pastor’s class.”
And though he prayed with several more friends immediately before the worship service, he’d be embarrassed to admit he didn’t really expect anything special to happen that morning. Just preaching his usual sermon to the usual people—same as last week, same as every week—people who seem unmoved, a church that appears to be barren.
After the worship services, he stood in the back and shook the hands of people he loves and others he tolerates, receiving the same type of casual compliments he hears every week, along with the same few hugs and the same few suggestions.
The same. The same. Always the same.
Even sitting here in his driveway like this, staring at these same green numbers on the same dashboard clock, having plodded his way again through the same routine, everything’s playing out the same as every other Sunday. Everything except this ...
He would usually be out of the car and inside by now, if the pattern held true. But today, something’s different. The passage he’d just preached this morning is still resonating in his heart, lingering more powerfully than usual. Matthew 16—about Jesus’ promise to build His church, punctuated by the phrase: “the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (v. 18 NIV). That line, that thought, still messing with his mind.
When Jesus spoke of His Church withstanding the gates of Hades, surely this is not what He envisioned—a church without life.
Barry thinks back to his first encounters with Matthew 16 as a young pastor, back when he was convinced that the churches he’d be called to lead throughout his ministry would become unstoppable movements of grace, threatening the very gates of Hades. But today his youthful belief seems replaced by a sinking feeling in his gut, enough that he’s started to seriously consider doing something else with his life—not because his love for Jesus has waned, but just because this is not what he envisioned when he committed to pastoring.
He longs for life. And this, well ... this just feels dead. Like he’s no longer alive. Inspiring little passion for God among the people in his church, little hunger to worship, little compassion for those in the community. Just a continual cycle of the same lifeless motions.
Several hours later, across town in a newer neighborhood, Pastor Chase pulls into his driveway. He’s been running on adrenaline all day. Huge crowd at church this morning—a big response to the new teaching series his staff has been planning for weeks, one with an edgy title, a tightly produced sermon bumper video, and a crisp assortment of mass marketing packages. It’s been a full, bustling day already.
Yet he feels empty inside. Because if next week is anything like past history, the attendance for Part Two of his splashy new teaching series will be way down, and the staff will immediately want to start strategizing for another big launch. Probably on sex. He wonders if his church will set the record for the number of sex series in one year.
Why does it take that? he wonders. Why does everything have to be so forced, so fabricated, built on hype instead of substance? Why this emptiness inside after all the energy they’d generated in the past few hours?
As he sits in his driveway, looking down at his cell phone, friends from his networks are already texting to see how “the big day” went. He knows what they’re wanting to hear. Success in ministry still seems defined by Sunday attendance. And based on that scale, his is a growing ministry with attention from all around the country.
Why then does he feel so empty?
He thinks about some of his earlier teaching messages, ones where he knocked and rebuked empty religion and dead rituals. He wonders if his current ministry is just a newer, cooler version of what he once hated. Has he learned how to give the appearance of life without actually being alive? The outside looks so good. Lots of people. Lots of activity. But on the inside he senses minimal life change, minimal spiritual growth. And whatever little there is, it almost seems to happen accidentally amid all the buzz.
On the outside, Chase and Barry could not be any more different. One is wearing jeans with his shirt untucked; the other is still in his suit and tie. One is in an SUV with Coldplay blaring in the background; the other recently noticed the speakers have gone out in his old Camry. One enjoys sushi late at night; the other prefers meat and potatoes—at six, on the dot.
Yet they have much more in common than they realize.
Both men walk into their homes longing for more. One is tired of the deadness; the other is tired of the empty activity.
And what both men need, as well as both of their churches, is a return. They need to return to their first love. A simple, yet significant return to Jesus.
As God said to the church at Ephesus:
I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. You also possess endurance and have tolerated many things because of My name and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. (Rev. 2:2-5 HCSB)
Like the church at Ephesus, Barry and Chase are good men for the most part. Both are faithful to their wives. They invest in their children. They work hard and are morally above reproach. Both have continued in the ministry despite difficult days, criticism, and disappointment.
But both of these pastors have slowly lost their awe for Jesus and His finished work. Intellectually, of course, they still hold firmly to the gospel. Each could easily share a snapshot of its truths without thinking hard—a brief, biblical presentation of Jesus and His gracious gift of salvation. Yet they’ve both learned to rely on other things to form the center of their daily work, to motivate the life and activity of their churches. Their drift has not been one of overt rebellion but of an inner twisting of the heart, a loss of appreciation for the gospel and all its ramifications. Both could articulate the gospel well, but they don’t view the essence of the gospel as the foundation for all of ministry.
And that’s a huge difference—the difference between knowing the gospel and being consumed by the gospel, being defined by the gospel, being driven by the gospel. It’s one thing to see the gospel as an important facet of one’s ministry. It’s quite another to hold firmly to it as the centerpiece for all a church is and does, to completely orbit around it.
The gospel. Though such a glorious thing, it’s also such a simple thing—so simple we almost overlook it. Such a basic thing, we’re tempted to feel as if we’ve somehow graduated beyond it. And yet without this simple thing, this basic thing—without the life-giving gospel driving and defining both us and our churches—there really isn’t much of anything that makes us distinct and alive, nothing that other people, groups, and organizations aren’t already doing.
And that’s where our lives begin to intersect with these two men—where Barry and Chase’s names dissolve into the name that’s etched on the front of our own Bibles, the name of the guy who uses our deodorant every morning. Us. You. In your heart perhaps—if you’re being very honest—you sense a loss of awe for the gospel, a failure to connect its power to your entire ministry. You’d admit you’ve become distracted by other motivators, impressed by other ways of measuring success and discerning direction.
There is a solution to the death and emptiness. A way back to where we started. But only by returning to a fascination with Christ.
And that’s where we all can begin again.
“We were born,” Tertullian explained, “for nothing but repentance.” As Martin Luther said, “To progress is always to begin again.” So here at this place of recognition and regret, we meet together to start a fresh journey into the heart of the gospel, prepared to be newly amazed by it, resolved to let its principles begin shaping how our churches worship, serve, and operate. 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.
The 137-mile long Atchafalaya River is a distributary of the Mississippi River that meanders through south central Louisiana and empties into the Gulf of Mexico, serving as a significant source of income for the region because of the many industrial and commercial opportunities it offers. Yet as scenic, productive, and enriching as this river is, it owes all its strength—all of it—to the mighty Mississippi.
That’s because a distributary doesn’t have its own direct water source; it is an overflow of something else. So when the Mississippi is high, the Atchafalaya is high; and when the Mississippi is low, the Atchafalaya is low. What the Atchafalaya accomplishes depends wholly on something other than itself.
The Church is a lot like the Atchafalaya River. Anything of value she accomplishes is always tied to her source. So if she somehow loses connection with it—with her first love, the Living Word—she loses all power. She dries up and empties. If any church becomes fed by a less potent source, by some other supply system than the gospel of Christ, her level of transformative power is directly affected. It’s like trying to overflow the banks of a river with a twelve-ounce bottle of water. Impossible. Pointless.
The Bible, of course, gives us good and right teaching on everything from sex to parenting to money to morals. All good things. Wonderful things. God’s design and desire for all of life. But our ability to walk in these truths with freedom and joy—and our church’s ability to lead people into this ongoing, abundant-life experience for themselves—is dependent on something else: an accurate and deep understanding of the gospel. That is our Mississippi.
Without a proper understanding of the gospel, people will miss the big biblical picture and all the joyful freedom that comes from living it. They will run from God in shame at their failures instead of running toward Him because of His mercy and grace.
Just as the river forms distributaries, the gospel forms the Church. The distributaries do not form the river, just as the Church does not form the gospel. When a church confuses the order, she loses her true effectiveness. When a church chooses something other than the river of the gospel as the driving force behind her teaching, programming, staffing, and decisions, she empties herself of all power. Instead of becoming a distributor of life, she becomes a distributary of death. She doesn’t really have anything else to offer.
That’s why we’ve felt a significant amount of joy in watching what appears to be a resurgence in gospel thinking, writing, and preaching in recent days. When Michael Horton, Trevin Wax, J.D. Greear, Tullian Tchividjian, Greg Gilbert, and a host of others write books explicitly on the gospel, we’re encouraged to think we’re once again focusing on what is of “first importance.”
In addition to books like these, we’re seeing connections formed around initiatives like the Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, and endless blogs and banter about the gospel. In all of this, we do need to be careful not to see the term gospel as a sort of junk drawer that holds any and every piece of our theology. Although the gospel does impact everything, everything is not the gospel. If everything about Jesus and the Bible becomes “the gospel” to us, then we end up being gospel-confused rather than gospel-centered. That’s why we’ve chosen to use “The Jesus-Centered Church” instead of “The Gospel-Centered Church” as the subtitle of this book. The gospel centers us on Jesus’ person and work or it isn’t the gospel ... and it isn’t where our first love should be. Ultimately, the gospel is not a nebulous or ethereal concept, but Jesus Himself.
The gospel. What is it, really? In its simplest form, the gospel is God’s reconciling work in Christ—that through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, God is making all things new both personally for those who repent and believe, and cosmically as He redeems culture and creation from its subjection to futility.
And that’s what this book is about—the Church and the huge implications of this glorious gospel upon her.
Sadly, as in the case with Pastor Barry and Pastor Chase, a big gap exists between understanding the gospel and understanding what the gospel means for the Church. Perhaps this is largely because we tend to think of the gospel as an individual message that causes individual transformation—which is partially true. But the gospel is much more than that. The gospel also forms the church. Scripture says Jesus “gave himself up” for the Church (Eph. 5:25 ESV), buying the Church “with his own blood” (Acts 20:28 ESV), in order “to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14 ESV). The gospel needs to be seen in this total perspective.
The gospel is, of course, for individuals—yes—and it should and ultimately does cause transformation in the life of every person who believes on the Lord Jesus. However, that’s only part of what God is accomplishing in His plans to make all things new. And we cannot afford to forget it.