“Gospel-centered” Must Mean More Than the Preaching

“A gospel-centered church is not one where the preacher preaches the gospel, but where the people share the gospel.” ~John Meador

A couple of weeks ago, I commented on an article at Christianity Today by John Meador of First Baptist Euless, TX. Meador writes about his church’s return to evangelism as an every member ministry. It’s a great article, and if you did not read it then, I would suggest you do so now. I bring the article up again because that quote above stuck with me. I knew then I wanted to tease it out.

Cards on the table, I think Meador is correct.

Gospel-centered is one of those buzzwords today in evangelical Christianity. It, like so many others, has a great origin and a significant purpose. In a day when mission drift threatens to pull us away from our core purpose as Christian churches, terms like “gospel-centered”  (or “missional”) are calls back to our biblical foundations. However, when they stick, they soon become victims of their own popularity. In many ways, I fear this is happening to the idea of being gospel-centered as well. The term now falls into the foggy words category. Foggy words are those words we use in ministry circles that sound good but when pressed no one can really give you a clear definition. They often help more than they hurt for that reason. When it comes to gospel-centered, I think there are two ways that this term seems to shift in meaning.

We stretch the term to fit what we are already doing.

Who wants to claim they are not gospel-centered? This is one of those concepts that is so self-evident it necessarily describes everyone’s concept of what a church should be. However, terms like this are ripe for semantic overload. They get so stuffed with meaning that they soon mean nothing.  In other words, no one wants to say they are not missional or not gospel-centered. In most instances, it is easier to change the definition than to change your practice.

Instead of adjusting our practice to line up with the aspiration, we adjust the term’s aspirations to align with what we are already doing. It is subtle, but very easy for us to do. Before we know it, gospel-centered has little to do with the content coming from the pulpit or the hearts of the congregation. It has nothing to do with overlooking good things and ministries for an even more important priority found in the gospel and its proclamation. It overlooks the fact that the church’s worldview is still wrapped up in moralistic therapeutic deism and the message is to try harder to be a good person. Or before we know it, the gospel and the implications of the gospel are wound together and the “good news” devolves into “common good.”

We narrow the term’s application to the pastor or preaching.

Another option is to maintain the definition and merely apply it to a small subset of the church. Gospel-centered is only about the preaching, or the leadership team, or a Bible study curriculum, or whatever narrow focus one wants to apply. In this regard, the whole congregation is measured based on one aspect of the church. If the preacher is thorough in gospel-centered preaching, then the church is gospel-centered. If the church is using the right Sunday school or small group materials, then they are gospel-centered.

It is of course paramount that the leadership be gospel-centered, because the church will not be if the leadership is not. However, we cannot assume the reverse is also true. It does not follow that gospel-centered sermons automatically produce a gospel-centered church. Furthermore, this misstep reveals a misunderstanding of the church at a more fundamental level. The church is not the worship service. The church’s beliefs or convictions are not merely the stated convictions in public discourse. If the church is the group of Christians, covenanted together into community, then the beliefs of those members constitute the beliefs of the church. The same is true of their actions. The actions of the members actually constitute the actions of the church. A pastor can prophetically call his church to a new, gospel-centered vision, but their response to that call must be the true measure. Leadership is important, but it cannot be the measure.

Gospel-centered church: A clear definition with comprehensive application

Now we come back full circle to Meador’s claim: “A gospel-centered church is not one where the preacher preaches the gospel, but where the people share the gospel.”

For this concept of gospel-centrality to have any teeth, we must avoid the temptation to stretch its definition to apply to whatever we are currently doing, and we must not narrow our measurement down to the words coming out of the pastor’s mouth on Sunday morning. Instead, we need to capture an understanding of this term that has a clear definition and a comprehensive application.

Gospel-centrality is perhaps about more than a congregation whose members regularly share the gospel with unbelievers, but it certainly is not about anything less. Meador’s words provide us with a solid challenge, perhaps a first step in setting the course toward truly gospel-centered churches. Instead of measuring the content of that weekly sermon podcast, we should begin by measuring the content of member conversations during the week. We must not pride ourselves on polished podcasts when member’s mouths are shut throughout the week. After all, the beliefs and actions of the members actually constitute the beliefs and actions of the church.

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