Every evangelical church will tell you they are a Gospel driven church… and yes, it probably comes from a genuine desire, except that it may not be true.
“What you win people with is what you with them to” (p. 25)
Wilson repeats this sentence or concept throughout his book The Gospel Driven Church. He means to call out consumerism. Church leaders spend a lot of time trying to figure out what works and what not, but their approach might be one that is actually driven by consumerism: How can we draw people in our church? What method delivers the best results? What can we offer better than other churches? And though people may attend services, they may not be drawn to Jesus.
“My goal in this book is to convince you that your church and its slate of programs and ministries […] should be centered on the good news of the finished work of Jesus Christ. The attraction model cannot be the foundation for your methods and programs. It must give way to the gospel because the gospel is where the power of God is manifest.” (p 81)
So what are the consumeristic/attractional and gospel driven models?
The Dilemma: attractional church vs gospel driven church
We must recognize that the Gospel can also be heard in attractional churches. They are not godless nor useless.
“The attractional church is built upon two functional ideologies: consumerism and pragmatism. In considering its reach, the attractional church is essentially asking: Who is our customer? What does our customer want?” (p. 25)
Being attractional means steering towards what the “target” people want. For example, for a younger crowd, a church may have a contemporary style, but it does not have to be contemporary. If the customers are an older crowd, then worship may have more hymns, less instruments, etc.
“Attractional is not a style. It’s a paradigm.” (p. 25)
“Whenever rightly implemented methods are said to guarantee quantifiable results, pragmatism is at work” (p. 26)
Pragmatism is the idea that if we do the right things, we will get results.
“If consumerism is a subset of pragmatism, then pragmatism itself is a subset of a far larger problem: legalism” (p. 27)
The attractional model rejected negative rules often used by churches in the past, to focus on what is positive. However, it still emphasizes laws that cannot change hearts. For example, the attractional worship can use inspiring and emotional songs that convey positive thoughts, but it may not preach the Gospel.
According to Wilson, this model does not work because:
- It is becoming more difficult to think of the attractional model as generationally sustainable (p. 30)
- The discipleship culture of the attractional church is ecclesiologically unsustainable (p. 31)
- The consumerism of the attractional church wins people not to the church but to consumerism (p. 33)
- The attractional church is growing culturally naive (p. 34)
- The attractional church is evangelistically unsuccessful (p. 35)
“The way a church wins its people shapes its people” (p. 37)
The Metrics: going deeper than the numbers
We often oppose fruitfulness and faithfulness as defined below, but they are not exclusive. It is possible to be both faithful and fruitful. It comes down to our definition of fruitfulness or in other words – success.
“Faithfulness has become shorthand for commitment to biblical model or ministry philosophy, regardless of attendance metrics or other visible results. Fruitfulness, on the other hand, has also been promoted as a biblical model, one that emphasizes the need for results – whether that is defined as spiritual growth, numerical attendance, giving trends, or some other metric.” (p. 42)
Success is measured by metrics. Just like businesses, churches tend to use numbers to measure success: attendance, giving, etc. Counting is not wrong, but it cannot be the heart of the Gospel metrics. Otherwise, pragmatism becomes rampant. We adapt and justify our methods by the results. If it was true, Jesus would not fit to our metrics. He would not be a good preacher. Crowds abandoned him!
“Jesus repelled just as many as he attracted” (p. 47)
Wilson warns us against using “marks of neutrality” (p. 44) to measure fruitfulness:
- Steady accumulation of decisions or responses during Sunday invitations
- Large attendance numbers
- People having emotional experiences
So how do we measure fruitfulness? No church leader can afford to ignore that question. What are the metrics of grace? What is important is not how many, but how healthy. Wilson gives five metrics based on Jonathan Edwards’ “distinguishing marks of a work of the Spirit of God:”
- A Growing Esteem for Jesus Christ. We cannot assess the health of church members by how they feel. We cannot say people are growing because they look emotional during services or retreats.
“Grace does not supply feelings. Grace supplies faith” (p. 56)
The better question is: Is Jesus the focus of our church? For example, do sermons proclaim the Gospel grace: what Jesus has done, rather than what we ought to do? Do our worship songs glorify God for Christ rather than “vague generalities about hope, peace and love without connecting them to Jesus as the embodiment of these virtues?” (p. 57). Do leaders demonstrate a high esteem of Jesus?
This is not a result driven metric. We do not assess how people are doing in function of what we do. Rather, it is a grace/faith driven metric: we know we cannot do what Jesus only can. So we want to let Jesus do His work, and make sure we yield to Him well. The results are hoped and obtained by faith in what Jesus does in people’s life.
“Leadership should be able to discern the reputation of Jesus in their church” (p. 56)
- A Discernible Spirit of Repentance. Nowadays, we tend to reject negative laws (“don’ts”) to emphasize those that are positive (“do’s”). We subtly imply that the issue of mankind is “unmet felt need.” So sermons can be about satisfying needs while avoiding God’s judgment on sin.
“The fundamental problem for every human being is not an unmet felt need but the unkept law of God” (p. 57)
The description of this metric felt uneasy to me when I read it for the first time. I have often heard that the Gospel is truly what changes us because it satisfies unmet needs. So we do not need to preach laws to follow (do’s and don’ts), only how the Gospel satisfies… But I believe this metric remind us that things need to be put in order: we have unmet needs because we have sinned against God and what God designed in us to be met by Him was broken… and we have continued to sin because we have unmet needs (idolatry). Only the Gospel breaks this vicious circle. It leads to repentance, and gives us a satisfying solution. One cannot go without the other unless it becomes legalism or licentiousness. Therefore, repentance is a metric that the Gospel is at work!
- A Dogged Devotion to the Word of God. This metric seems obvious, but churches professing to be “Bible-based” might not clearly understand what it means. They may proclaim the inerrancy of Scripture and put Bible verses everywhere, but the true mark is how the Word of God is valued. Is it preached plainly or used to justify ideas? Does it obviously shape people’s lives? Does it drive what is being done in the church?
“The Word of God is sufficient and powerful and authoritative” (p. 59)
“Affirming the Bible’s inerrancy is not the same as trusting its sufficiency” (p. 60)
- An Interest in Theology and Doctrine. It does not mean that everyone should be expert in theology, but there ought to be a desire for understanding the “things of God.” We sometimes avoid theology because we get tired of theological debates… and rightly so when it is merely a matter of speculation and/or of ego. However, what does it mean to grow if not loving God more, and therefore seeking to know Him more?
“Laypeople must not leave doctrine up to pastors and professors” (p. 63)
“Spiritual growth involves deep, fundamental changes to the heart and, consequently, our behavior, leading us to seek deeply after the things of God with our minds” (p. 64)
- An Evident Love for God and Neighbor. This metric is difficult to measure concretely, but we have to remember 1 Jn 3:18: “let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” Love is active. It is visible. If there is no deed, then there is no love.
“If a church exists for the sake of its own survival, for the sake of its own enterprise, or for the sake of creating wonderful experiences for people, it is not fruitful, no matter how big it gets.” (p. 65)
“If your church closed tomorrow, would the neighborhood care?” (p. 66)
“The fruit of faithfulness according to the Bible is deeper discipleship, maturing in Christ, and more loving reach outward in service to our neighbors” (p. 67)
The Gospel Drive or Centrality
“So how do we extricate ourselves and our churches from the spirit of consumerism and pragmatism that has infected the church and reclaim the essence of biblical Christianity? What we need is to repent of decades of relying upon pragmatic methodology and materialist theology and to reclaim the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the power of salvation for anybody, anywhere, anytime.” (p. 76)
Or in other words, we need to reconnect with the “supernaturality of Christianity.” We reject pragmatism as the way to transform people’s life. Instead, we recognize we need God to transform us, and we do so by faith through prayer, Scripture and the Gospel.
- The supernaturality of prayer
“Prayer is expressed helplessness. When we’re not engaged in prayer, it’s because we feel like ‘we got this.’ […] I know many churches have plans, strategies, vision, books, worships, consultants, and rely on their creativity. All those things are good things, but good things can also be barriers to God’s ways.” (p. 77)
- The supernaturality of Scripture
“If the Bible really is God’s Word, and God’s Word really is powerful, let’s treat it as more important than our words and our abilities” (p. 80)
- The supernaturality of the Gospel
“What really transform people is the glory of Jesus Christ” (p. 80)
“We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18)
Centering church on the Gospel means to root everything that is being done on what Jesus has done for us. Whether at an individual or collective level, following Christ is not a matter of what we should or we should not do, but reminding ourselves we can do it because of what Jesus has done for us.
“A Gospel-centered church is one that explicitly and intentionally connects its teaching, programs, ministry philosophy, and mission to the content of the gospel” (p. 82)
Why is it important?
- Because the Bible says the Gospel is central:
“Before Paul gets to the practical application and the instructions, he always reminds his Christian recipients of the centrality of the grace of God in Jesus for everything we do, personally and ecclesiologically.” (p. 83)
- Because the Bible says the Gospel is effectual:
“We want to make the gospel of Jesus Christ central in our ministry […] because only the gospel is power (Rom 1:16)” (p. 83)
- Because the Bible says the Gospel is versatile:
“The gospel cannot be boring. Its implications are multidimensional and cosmic. It speaks to our individual needs and presents a comprehensive understanding of reality.” (p. 86)
The Gospel Driven Preaching
“The message moves people. The pulpit is the prow of the church. Where it goes, the church will go.” (p. 96)
Before explaining what preaching is, Wilson lays out two issues that often drive preaching:
- What is the church for (I should add that “church” here is used loosely)? Church services are for believers to gather and worship God together. Though unbelievers may attend (ex: 1 Cor 14:23), “traditional” Sunday services (as opposed to evangelistic events) are meant to build up followers of Christ.
- What changes people? Contemplating the Lord’s glory (2 Cor 3:18).
Therefore, Wilson defines Gospel driven preaching as:
“[Preaching] is a conviction, a reliance, and a substantive message that connects the biblical text being preached to the meta narratives of God’s kingdom, God’s glory, and God’s saving work through Christ. Gospel-driven preaching is preaching that proclaims and exults in the revealing of God’s glory in Christ” (p. 97)
It is a loaded definition:
- A “conviction” because it ought to be a conviction of the Spirit transmitted to the congregation
- A “reliance” because it rests upon what God can do rather than our ability to explain, argue and defend.
- A “substantive message”
- “that connects the biblical text:” preaching relies on a biblical text (exegesis).
- “to the meta narratives:” And the text must be connected to the overall message of the Bible which are God’s kingdom, glory and saving work through Christ. A text without context can be used to say whatever we want, or it seems to be irrelevant. That is why biblical and systematic theologies are crucial for preaching.
- “proclaims:” preaching is not merely giving personal opinion, wisdom and applications, but it is first and foremost the proclamation of the truth.
- “exults:” preaching exults when the truth is proclaimed.
“Every sermon has to do some serious work in showing the glory of Christ from whatever text the preacher is preaching. Christ’s glory changes people” (p. 99)
“A ‘savor’ of Christ – that’s what our hearts are starving for.” (p. 101)
“Until we begin working to discover the glory of Christ in each passage of Scripture, we will fail to adequately preach what people actually need” (p. 102)
The Gospel Driven Service
Again, Wilson repeats:
“What you win people with is what you win them to” (p. 109)
Sunday service is usually the main event of what churches do. It is where you can taste what churches are about. A few characteristics of attractional services (ironically called “McWorship: Billions Served”) are:
- Emphasizing feelings before and instead of Doctrine. Emotions are not the problem, emotionalism is. A good service is not necessarily a service where people feel good after. Ex:
- Touchy-feely songs.
- Emotional images/videos used during service with little connections to the message.
- Lost people are given religious homework. Sermons giving applications are good, but they can quickly dismiss the power of the Gospel for the sake of “obedience” to commandments. How-Tos are not bad, but they have no power to transform. For unbelievers, it is again rules to perform.
“The commands of the Bible – whether they are of the “don’t commit adultery” variety (negative law) or the “love your neighbor” variety (positive law) – have no power to help us in themselves” (p. 114)
“The power for salvation and the sanctification that follows comes only from the gospel, not the law. In other words, the power for to-dos comes not from to-dos, but from the “was-done” of Jesus Christ” (p, 114)
- Gospel invitations are offered after a legal message or in other words: a “law message with a gospel postscript” (p. 115). A legal message focuses on how good or bad we are. It can be positive such as reminding us how loved we are by God because we are “beautiful” in His eyes. It can be correctional focusing on what needs to change. In that context, a Gospel invitation says “Come because you are good enough” or “Come and you will be a better person.”
There are four elements of the Gospel Driven worship:
- Preaching the Gospel (see previous paragraph)
- Praying confessing our need for Jesus and the assurance of salvation
- Singing to God and for one another. In “performance-oriented services, the congregation becomes utterly passive” (p. 119). Turning off lights and setting up a concert-like environment may not encourage singing for one another. There is no easy solution for this. There is also a culture factor that plays out. Ex: Asian cultures may not encourage public singing not to stand out, while singing is part of African cultures. It does not mean we should not challenge our cultures.
- Eating / Breaking bread – or communion to remember the gospel / “blood of the covenant.” Unfortunately, “fencing the communion table” based 1 Cor 11 has sometimes led communion to become performance-based ritual. Some Christians believe they ought to be good enough to take it unless we defile the body of Christ. It goes against what it is supposed to be: remembering we are not good enough, but that Christ has covered us with His blood.
The Gospel Driven Discipleship
The American culture pushes us to think in individualistic terms. It has influenced the church to adopt a consumeristic approach fed by pragmatism and legalism. Discipleship has not escaped that practice.
“I believe that one important reason why churches struggle to develop biblical community is because so much of what the church does enhances the congregation’s self-centeredness rather than challenging and confronting it” (p. 127)
The heart of discipleship relies on a biblical community shaped by the Gospel. Wilson actually defines discipleship simply:
“We must apply the gospel, and learn to do it well […]. This process is often called discipleship” (p. 129)
When a church is doing it together, a culture of grace develops and we see the results in Rom 15:1-7: harmony, spiritual growth, unified worship, and gracious community.
“The message of grace in the gospel develops a culture of grace when a church is centered on the gospel.” (p. 127)
“When community groups are centered on the gospel, they provoke us to know, confess to, receive, and even sharpen each other.” (p. 140)
“Sometimes people get in the way of the vision, until you realize the vision must include people. Even the messy ones. Especially the messy ones.” (p. 140)
Though the heart of discipleship cannot be framed as a program, it requires intentionality.
“Discipleship does not happen by osmosis. Nor does it happen ‘organically,’ at least not in the unintentional, accidental sense.” (p. 142)
“The key to this kind of discipleship is intentionality and relational proximity” (p. 142)
“You must have a process to recruit and then replicate disciple-makers. Your effort in discipling others strengthens the life of the church and helps the church experience the gospel. We are applying the gospel organizationally in order that we might delight in it more corporately.” (p. 143)
Being intentional may be meeting for breakfast once a week, reading Scripture together, or simply doing life together. Life-on-life discipleship is intentional though not always well organized and more spontaneous. It plans for times of prayer, confession, sharing joy and sadness, etc. rooted in the Gospel – up to each one to find how it works best in his/her own context.
The Gospel Driven Mission
Since services are mainly for believers, mission switches from “come and see” (attractional model) to “go and tell.” This table summarizes well the opposition of style (p. 153):
|Attractional Mission||Gospel-Driven Mission|
|Church as people in place||Church as people in place and people in places|
|Seeker-targeted gathering||Seeker-mindful gathering|
|Evangelism inside||Evangelism outside|
|Mission as program (event-driven)||Mission as purpose (missional)|
|Growth is numbers||Growth is health|
|Culturally relevant||Culturally engaged|
|Institutional and rigid||Adaptable and flexible|
|Worship as attraction||Worship as response|
|Preaching as application||Preaching as proclamation|
|Weekend as experience||Weekend as assembly|
|Gospel as feature||Gospel as center|
Mission is motivated by the preaching of God’s Word. I found the following principles useful:
- Put the Text in the Context of God’s mission
- Confront Idols: messages should be contextualize to confront the idols of the communities the church lives in.
- Give the motivation of grace, not guilt which has too often been the reason for people to evangelize:
“They are responsible for evangelistic faithfulness, not evangelistic success” (p. 157)
Mission requires training. Evangelizing is uncomfortable for many. Training helps people to articulate the gospel, to respond to questions, to become more hospitable and servant like. Training is useful not only to know what to do, but also to remind ourselves of the elementary principles that drive the mission.
“Evangelistic training in the church reminds us that the gospel is power for salvation and that no evangelist is responsible for someone’s conversion only for their having heard the gospel” (p. 158)
Mission is not a set of personal projects, but the demonstration of God’s love through the church community. We love, we invite, we welcome, we serve, etc. and not just on Sunday morning, but every day!
“We have more than just a personal faith to call people into with our evangelism; we have a redemptive family that has been made by the gospel we’re sharing.” (p. 159)
So we need to engage together, and leaders need to show the example
“Don’t just tell – show. What the leadership is, the church will become” (p. 160)
In conclusion, I have been tremendously encouraged by this book. The Gospel Driven Church fights against our cravings to make ourselves great. Indeed, there is something about pastoral ministry in the US (and surely other countries where Christianity is “dominant”) that wants church to be like a business whatever the targeted people are. Though some aspects are similar, I try to avoid the use of terms related to the business world to describe the church. Words do not simply make concepts explicit. They represent a worldview. I believe there is a fine line between using business terms and the attractional model. I have had this desire to see the Church become the Church God has designed it to be. I do not think Wilson has written anything revolutionary… or if it is, then we must confess we have used the Church for something else than what it is.
This said, pursuing a Gospel-driven model is difficult… Numbers are lower. Success does not look like what we necessarily want. People who join the church are not necessarily who we would like them to be (nice, gifted, etc.). And I believe Wilson is right when he says that we have added attractional activities to church events because we do not believe in the power of the Gospel… and indeed, results are slow. We’d rather get “results” quickly, but what I have recently realized is that I prefer to see a few people attending services because they have become true disciples of Christ, than filling a church building with many who enjoy the “niceness” of Christianity.
“What you win people with is what you with them to” (p. 25)
“Let’s make Christianity weird again” (p. 84)