This post is part 1 of 4 in a series explaining my vision to plant a church in the Stanwood-Camano community. Here are the other posts: part 2, part 3, and part 4.
It has always been easy for Christians to stray from what is central to what is secondary. The good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is known as the gospel and is the central message of Christianity. The unfathomable and mysterious greatness of God, the seriousness of our sin before this great God, and the good and necessary gift of a right relationship with God through the cross, THIS is the core of Christianity. When this is kept primary, everything else-moral living, right beliefs, traditions, religious experiences-is much more likely to be kept in its rightful place. However, the gospel often loses its position of prominence in one of two ways:
1) In some cases, it gets pushed aside for more practical and/or less offensive messages: “How to be happy,” “How to be a better spouse/parent/citizen/coworker,” “How to do great things for God.” None of these messages are wrong in and of themselves, but when they are not grounded in the gospel, when they are not presented as a response to the gospel, they confuse the Christian message. Many teachers and preachers speak as if the gospel is not very practical. People’s felt needs are idolized and thus become the subject matter of many sermons, blog posts, and books. The biblical message that our greatest need is to be made right with God is substituted with messages that, at best, focus on secondary needs, and at worst, are so man-centered they leave God entirely out of the picture.
2) A second way that the gospel loses its position of prominence is by being detached from all other aspects of Christianity. The gospel is presented only as the means of coming into a relationship with God, and then left out of all discussions of obedience, godly living, accountability, church life, etc. What God requires of believers is not presented as inextricably connected to what God has done for believers. Without the grace of God to us in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the call of God to think and act in a certain way is powerless, insufficient, and ultimately damning.
Interestingly, both conservative and liberal churches lose sight of the gospel in these ways. In liberal churches, the gospel gets replaced with social activism, community involvement, or vague mysticism. The church becomes little more than a community center and non-critical acceptance of the culture’s idolization of the individual means that sin is never confronted or dealt with. Hence, true life change rarely happens.
In conservative churches, the gospel either gets replaced by a call for personal holiness or personal happiness, or it gets presented as only the means into a relationship with God, and then left out of discussion of the rest of the Christian life. The emphasis on social goodness seen in liberal churches is replaced by an emphasis on personal goodness in conservative churches. This often merely comes down to emphasizing what TO do (liberal churches) and what NOT to do (conservative churches). In both cases, the commands of the Bible are detached from the central explanatory event of the Bible, Jesus’ death and resurrection. The work of man takes prominence over the work of God.
I provide this sketch of our tendency to stray from what is central because I see it currently causing lots of confusion and even harm across a broad spectrum of churches. In many churches, God and his work to secure our salvation are pushed to the side, and people and their actions or felt needs are given center stage. God becomes small and man becomes big.
Many cross-denominational trends can be partially blamed for turning churches away from a primary emphasis on the gospel: church-growth movement, seeker sensitive movement, me-and-my-feelings-centered worship songs, social gospels, political activism (in a way that outshines the gospel), relevancy, celebrity pastor/author/artist worship, uncritical acceptance of business models in the church, an overly-therapeutic view of God (where the main thing is me and my problems), and many others. Perhaps we get dissatisfied with the lack of “results”, perhaps we just don’t see the error in some of these trends; for whatever reason, many church leaders unknowingly push the gospel ever slightly to the side in favor of the latest “successful trend.”
In this situation, there is a great need for teachers and preachers to call people back to the centrality of the gospel. And there is a great need for churches where the gospel is not only preached, but evidenced in all other workings of the church and in the lives of its members. Churches where the gospel, over and above pragmatism, moralism, or a catering to felt needs, informs all of life, from song selection to church discipline to outreach.
This need for more gospel-centered churches is especially felt in the Stanwood-Camano community. In my observation, there is a great lack of both gospel preaching and gospel-informed ministry in this community. There is a lot of morality-focused ministry and preaching, which end up being more focused on man than on God. While Jesus and the cross may be spoken of, even frequently in some cases, they are not clearly and consistently explained as the grounds, reason, and motivation for worship, obedience, and church life. In other words, while some churches have gospel-centered preaching or teaching, the gospel does not seem to inform other areas in the life of the church such as discipleship, small groups, song lyrics, etc.
Stanwood does not need another church just to give people more options. For a community its size, Stanwood-Camano has lots of churches. There are many good things happening at these churches, things that I and people close to me have benefited from and still benefit from. Rather, Stanwood needs another church because, just as in many other communities, the message of the cross is often confused and overshadowed by secondary messages. Secondary messages that ought to flow out of the gospel are given prominence over or detached from the gospel message.
In such a community, planting a church is arguably the best way to support the gospel’s movement. The reasons that churches stray from a gospel focus are many, but most probably stem from a lack of trust in God and in the power and sufficiency of the message of the cross. If the gospel is not intentionally kept as the main thing, every aspect of ministry and church life will slowly find other focuses and motivations. The result is that changing an established church is not as simple as changing the content of the preaching, rewriting the bylaws, or hiring a new pastor. Established churches change slow and begrudgingly. Taking part in this slow and hard change is a valuable calling for many, and one that I have felt for most of my life (and it is still something I feel passionate about). Because of the ease with which we wander from what is central, church renovation is always necessary.
However, communities also need new church plants to assist in the gospel’s movement. Some of the long and uncomfortable (but necessary) change that existing churches attempt is accomplished with much more ease and fluidity at new church plants. Turning a cargo ship is much more difficult than turning a speed boat. Furthermore, new church plants often play a role in the revitalization and refocusing of existing churches. New church plants support the gospel both by establishing themselves with a gospel focus and by acting as a call or reminder to other churches of the centrality of the gospel.
By nature of their size and newness, church plants are able to accomplish many things that established churches find much harder to accomplish. Typically, the longer a church is around, the more inward focused it gets. This is understandable and not necessarily a bad thing: the needs of its congregants take time, energy, and resources. New church plants, on the other hand, are usually more outward focused, whether due to an intentional focus on the unchurched or simply because of a need (or desire) to grow.
Similarly, new church plants often spend more time trying to understand and engage the culture of their community. If only for one reason, church plants are valuable to a community because the area’s culture and people have changed and need to be spiritually reevaluated and reinterpreted. The process of church planting often leads those involved to ask helpful questions like “What aspects of this community can be affirmed, what can be redeemed, and what need to be rejected?” or “What demographics are not currently being reached with the gospel?” This process of interpreting a community’s culture and people leads to a more informed and sympathetic engagement with those outside the church.
(I’d love your feedback or questions regarding this. Post on here or message me on Facebook)