Category Archives: church

The Danger of Gospel Osmosis

Cross-posted at For the Church

We find ourselves in an age of a great renaissance. The gospel of Jesus Christ has resurfaced as both a means of entrance into the kingdom of God and the key to our growth in the kingdom. Churches, small group ministries, sermons, and the like are finding an infusion of life, centered on the unchanging and active power of the gospel. But amidst the hopefulness of this resurgence, there remains an ever-present dilemma. It’s the danger of gospel osmosis. It’s the threat of being in the proximity of the gospel but not being truly in its grip.

It isn’t enough to just know about the gospel. It isn’t enough to just know the language of gospel-centeredness. It isn’t enough to read Tim Keller and Jerry Bridges and the Puritans. It’s not enough to just listen to Matt Chandler and John Piper and R.C. Sproul. It’s not enough to just go T4G or The Gospel Coalition or the Desiring God conferences. It’s not even enough to go to a church that claims it’s centered on the gospel. While these are great things worthy of praise to God, they are only good to the extent that those things are leading to lives being transformed by the gospel.

The apostle Paul once had this same concern. Paul prayed this for his friends in Colossians 1:9-10:

we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.

Paul’s prayer for the church in Colossae was in response to a promotion of a form of knowledge by the false teachers of his time that was fruitless. In fact, Paul believed that this kind of false teaching led to the wrong behavior because it was disconnected from the gospel.

Paul’s logic in his prayer for the Colossian church went like this. Knowledge of the gospel should lead to wisdom and understanding – or said another way, it should impact the way that you live. True knowledge in wisdom and understanding of the gospel bears fruit. Knowledge of the gospel is not enough. It must lead to wisdom – to practical living empowered by the gospel.

Ray Ortlund says it this way in the context of the church community:

Churches that do not exude humility, inclusion, peace, life, hope and honesty — even if they have gospel doctrine on paper…undercut their own doctrine at a functional level, where it should count in the lives of actual people.  Churches that are haughty, exclusivistic, contentious, exhausted, past-oriented and in denial are revealing a gospel deficit. The current rediscovery of the gospel as doctrine is good, very good.  But a further discovery of the gospel as culture — the gospel embodied in community — will be infinitely better, filled with a divine power such as we have not yet seen. [1]

The responsibility that we have living in this resurgence of the gospel in our times is this: what are we going to do with it? Will we be good stewards of it or will we squander it? Will our lives be marked by the life of Jesus – a life lived with a laser-focus on God’s mission and not sidetracked by lesser things? Will our lives be marked by the death of Jesus – dying to ourselves for the sake of others and to our own self-salvation projects? Will our lives be marked by the resurrection of Jesus – believing the same power that raised Jesus from the dead that now lives in us to help us resist sin? To be marked by the gospel means that we are known by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in our living – not just in our thinking.

In our time, there is a great temptation to be gospel-centered in name but not in deed. But to live out God’s will is to bear fruit through the gospel. It’s not enough for us to have gospel-centered doctrine on our websites and position papers and taught in it membership classes, it must be demonstrated. We mustn’t window-shop the gospel – we must enter and partake of its goods. It’s time to resist merely being puffed up with gospel awareness and instead, enter into the land of fruit bearing. We must desperately ask the Lord that he grace our church with not only gospel knowledge but with a gospel yield. With the Lord’s help and our humility, may we know the gospel deeply but also live out the gospel fully in our lives. Our lives and our churches depend on it.

[1] Ray Ortlund, “Gospel Doctrine, Gospel Culture,” https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/rayortlund/2015/09/17/gospel-doctrine-gospel-culture-2/, accessed April 25, 2017.

Limitless Grace for Limited Leaders: How Accepting Our Boundaries Frees us to Flourish as Pastors

cliffs edge

Cross-posted at For The Church

Since the day our church was planted, our pastors have fielded many questions on the topic of mission from the younger generations in our midst. “Do we have a plan to serve the poor?” “How are we going to plant missional communities in the most underserved parts of our city?” “How soon are we going to be able to bring the gospel to the unengaged peoples in the world?” Our standard (and honest) answer has been that we have a heart for any place where Jesus is not truly known. But we look at the work and our five fish and two loaves and know that the Great Commission is a God-sized task.

One the one hand, we love their ambition. It challenges and sharpens us. It’s easy, even as pastors of a church plant, to suffer from missional drift. On the other hand, the pastoral wisdom that comes with experience and age makes us cautious. We know that we can’t achieve everything that needs to be done missionally. We find ourselves speaking the truth in love that there are confines to what only one church can accomplish.

I recently was reflecting our church’s missional ambitions and I began to feel a deep sense of conviction about something. I began to see inconsistency in the way I shepherd others with their dreams of mission versus the way I shepherd my own heart in ministry. I warn others of the dangers of trying to do too many things missionally but struggle with warning my own heart of the hazards of not understanding the “perimeters” of my pastoral abilities. I remind others that God will clarify those few things we must do missionally but struggle with reminding my own heart that God has set boundaries of gifting for me in ministry to “move” within. I even preach to others that we should have faith that God will help us do a few things well but struggle to preach to myself that I’m only a small part of God’s eternal plan.

So why am I nervous to admit that I can’t do everything that needs to be done? I think it’s simple. I am afraid to to confess that I have limits. I’m afraid to admit that I have God-allotted periods and boundaries of my dwelling place (Acts 17:26). And I’m afraid that will render me unimportant.

In a 2012 New York Times article entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” Tim Kreider says:

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

Kreider is touching on something we would do well as pastors to hear. And there’s so much more. The clamor to be the smartest person in the room, the pressure to make everyone like us, the temptation to be the biggest church in our city – these are attempts to make our lives exceptional. But admitting that we have boundaries means that we have to accept that much of our ministry “busyness” is a veiled attempt to make much of ourselves and not Jesus.

Jesus didn’t seem to struggle with limits or boundaries like us. In Zack Eswine’s book, Sensing Jesus, he says:

“Limits repulse the driven. The driven therefore struggle with the sense of place that Jesus had…[But] the holy One of God became a man – and this incarnation included limiting himself and inhabiting a locality on the earth.”

This is the heart of Philippians 2. Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. This was a “limiting” act on the part of Jesus.

Why was Jesus willing to do this? Jesus was inclined to live within earthly boundaries because he had a white-hot focus on one thing: joyful obedience to his Father that would lead him to a cross for our sake. This should reorient us all. Eswine again, “The divine condescension to locality challenges my ambition that is restless to embrace various things at once.”

See, if the God-man Jesus was willing to live within human flesh and in a local place that would ultimately lead to him sacrificing his life for ours, we can joyfully accept our lesser limits too.

This is where limitless grace meets limited leaders. We can only rest in our limitedness when we see that Jesus limited himself by leaving the culture of the Trinity and entering the culture of man for our sake. His act of incarnation and redemption settles our need for significance on this side of eternity. Healthy leaders accept their limits because when we look to Jesus, we see the ultimate limitation – God becoming flesh and blood to bring us spiritual rescue. And as we rest in this truth, we can let the unlimited One and his limitless grace give us courage to be the limited leader that we are and in the end, flourish for the good of our churches and the gospel.

Quotable…
from The Prodigal Church  by Jared Wilson

I am posting some of the quotes that caught my attention from Jared Wilson’s new book, The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo, chapter by chapter. Wilson is the director of content strategy at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, and managing editor of the seminary’s website for gospel-centered resources, For the Church. He is a popular author and conference speaker and blogs regularly at The Gospel Driven Church, hosted by The Gospel Coalition.

prodigalchurch

Today, we look at Chapter 3 entitled – “What Works?”:

While we have great freedom in contextualization, we also face a great danger. That the Bible is somewhat vague about specific methodologies does not mean every methodology is fair game. Not every method is neutral. We have to go deeper and test our working assumptions. Beneath the exercise of liberty in methodology is always a functional ideology driving our decisions. (48-49)

 

Pragmatism reasons that God’s ability to use anything means our freedom to use everything. Pragmatism treats church methodology like a vending machine. (53)

 

The pragmatic approach to too many attractional churches aims for quantity in disciple making but suffers in quality. So as the pragmatic spirit drives our methodology, the kind of discipleship culture that results is shallow and frequently artificial…So the most effective way to turn your church into a collection of consumers and customers is to treat them like that’s what they are. (54)

 

In the attractional model, the center of worship is too often the preferences of the children and too rarely the proclamations of the Father. (60)

 

Pragmatism and consumerism also can taint a church’s numeric growth, because even as the place fills up with people, it may actually become less distinctively a church. (60)

 

Truer to the biblical portrait…is the church as a community that certainly values the worship gathering (and even the quality of the experience therein), but not as the central hope of evangelism or life change.(62)

 

What the Bible seems to express is that unbelievers in the service are best served not by having their tastes catered to but by witnessing the gathered church exalting God in the receiving of Christ-centered teaching, the singing of God-centered songs, and the observing of the sacraments. (66)

 

I fear that many evangelical church leaders have not adequately explored the relationship between the dominant youth ministry culture of yesteryear and the production-minded, casually relevant attractional church culture of today. (67)

 

What we do in church shapes us. It doesn’t just inform us or entertain us. It makes us who we are. The worship service, in other words, doesn’t just cater to certain tastes; it develops certain tastes…what we win them with is what we win them to. (67)

 

It is not in the best interest of the very unbelievers we’re trying to reach to appeal to consumerist tastes in the interest of offering them the living water of Christ. They’ve been drawn by the promise of lesser satisfactions. And when we make such a big production out of these lesser satisfactions, we communicate that in actuality they are what really satisfies. (67-68)

 

As the production values begin to dominate our worship, we relay that it is the production that we find really compelling, not so much Christ himself. When the invitation to trust Jesus comes, if it ever does, Jesus feels a little like an awkward guest at someone else’s party. (68)

 

The Bible’s ‘functional ideology’ – contrary to consumerism and pragmatism – is that ‘what works’ is the Holy Spirit through the message of the gospel of Jesus. And neither the Spirit nor the gospel needs help from our production values. (70)

Quotable…
from The Prodigal Church  by Jared Wilson

I am posting some of the quotes that caught my attention from Jared Wilson’s new book, The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo, chapter by chapter. Wilson is the director of content strategy at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, and managing editor of the seminary’s website for gospel-centered resources, For the Church. He is a popular author and conference speaker and blogs regularly at The Gospel Driven Church, hosted by The Gospel Coalition.

prodigalchurch

Today, we look at Chapter 2 entitled – “What If the System’s Broken?”:

There’s not really anything wrong with having or not having a cross on your church walls, but for many of us, in retrospect this removal became symbolic of what seemed to be taking place message-wise. (27)

 

A cognitive dissonance can result for those who hear a message all about what they should do to be more successful or victorious or happy…only to hear the proposition that Jesus died for our sins. To hear a lengthy appeal to our abilities, culminating in an appeal to our utter inability, can cause spiritual whiplash. (27)

 

…we may mistake the rising of something for the health or success of the thing. So it’s possible to look big, to look successful, and to not actually be big or successful in the ways that matter. The is not a strike against having a megachurch. It’s only a strike against the idolatry of the megachurch. It’s a strike against a church of any size that is trusting in growth, whether it’s actually experiencing it or not. (40)

 

Sometimes healthy things grow, but the growth continues on in a momentum of its own and ends up obscuring areas of concern or deeper need that are easy to ignore because of the easy justification and visibility of the growth. (41)

 

…the problem is not really one of size but of an unhealthy obsession of size, with a pitting of bigger against smaller, and with the failure of growing churches to compensate for their numeric growth with scalable efforts to maintain pastoral care, community, and discipleship. (43)

 

In too many attractional churches, committed Christians are put to work largely in service of the weekend worship experience…In the beginning of such ministry, enthusiasm is high. But when the lion’s share of one’s discipleship is occupied with weekly efforts toward the worship service, it is not too long before the volunteers begin to feel interchangeable, like cogs in a wheel…if they [weekly efforts] are the sum total of one’s connection to the church, they do not provide the nourishment that growing Christians need. (44)

 

…when it comes to proclaiming the gospel to the lost and feeding the sheep, we have to give great care to the means. And in fact, how we do church will have a direct impact on the quality of the results we get. (46)

Quotable…
from The Prodigal Church  by Jared Wilson

Over the next few weeks, I am going to be posting some of the quotes that caught my attention from Jared Wilson’s new book, The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo, chapter by chapter. Wilson is the director of content strategy at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, and managing editor of the seminary’s website for gospel-centered resources, For the Church. He is a popular author and conference speaker and blogs regularly at The Gospel Driven Church, hosted by The Gospel Coalition.

prodigalchurch

Today, we look at Chapter 1 entitled, “What This Book is Not”:

…when faced with critique, the contemporary church holds us the idea of traditional church as boring or fundamentalist or backward, it is the cheapest kind of defensiveness and self-justification. (17-18)

 

It is legalism when place a burden on another local church body to look more like our own than Christ’s. (19)

 

And while faithful Christians may disagree on church forms and the like-while we may, in love, differ on all manner of secondary matters-could it not be that some of these secondary things we differ on have implications for how people receive and believe primary things? How we ‘do church’ shapes the way people see God and his Son and his ways in the world. (21)

 

For all the evaluation we tend to inflict upon ourselves-from test marketing felt needs to measuring the participation of our churchgoers, from studying the demographics of our target mission fields, to critiquing the level of excellence of what takes place on our stages-I hope we have never ruled out asking, ‘What if what we’re doing isn’t really what we’re supposed to be doing?’ We should ask that. All of us. (24)