By: Tyler Sykora
Ray Ortlund states at the beginning of his book The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ, “The test of a gospel-centered church is its doctrine on paper plus its culture in practice." According to Ortlund, a gospel-centered church is not a church that merely believes or professes the gospel, but one that by believing the gospel is changed in its conduct and community.
On a practical level, what does that look like? If you were to dissect a gospel-centered church, what would you find? In their anatomy, gospel-centered churches preach the gospel, orchestrate gospel-shaped services, build a gospel-shaped community, and live missionally.
Gospel-Centered Churches Preach the Gospel
There is perhaps nothing more important than for churches to be centered upon the preached Word of God. Mark Dever says in The Church, “God’s people in Scripture are created by God’s revelation of himself. His Spirit accompanies his Word and brings life." If this is true, then the most important thing for churches to do is to proclaim the Word of life. We are told that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Receiving and growing in the faith, therefore, necessitates preaching the Word of God. Entertainment, church growth tactics, lasers, and light shows will not improve the health of a church, but the right and faithful preaching of the Word of God will. Additionally, it should go without saying, but preaching the Word entails clearly preaching the Gospel. Every sermon expounded from the Scriptures should find its terminus in the gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is by the gospel that nonbelievers are saved, and believers are sanctified. If we truly want our churches to be gospel-centered, then we must preach the gospel.
Gospel-Centered Churches have Gospel-Centered Services
Going a step further from preaching the gospel, gospel-centered churches also structure their weekly services to display the Gospel. When the body comes together, the order of service should not be haphazard. There is a way to structure the service that continually points the members of the body to the gospel. This way includes having intentional moments for confession of sin, assurance of pardon, and hearing the preached Word.
In addition to the service structure, the content of the service should be driven by the Bible. Ligon Duncan has helpfully pointed out that churches that follow the teaching of the New Testament “read the Bible, preach the Bible, pray the Bible, sing the Bible, and see the Bible.” If we have a gospel-centered church, then our service structure and content will readily reflect the Bible.
Gospel-Centered Churches have a Gospel-Shaped Community
This point is drawing upon the second aspect of Ray Ortlund’s test of a gospel-centered church, “The test of a gospel-centered church is its doctrine on paper plus its culture in practice.” The gospel changes people; it takes people who often have nothing in common and unites them under the banner of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. This affects the way they love, think, play, recreate, work, socialize, and much more. In short, the gospel not only saves individuals, but it unites saved individuals together to form a transformed community. In a gospel-centered church, this transformed community is a radiant beacon of light showing forth the glory of Christ as they love, welcome, worship, disciple, and live on mission.
Gospel-Centered Churches are Missional
Finally, gospel-centered churches display a desire for others to come to know the good news of Jesus Christ. While the weekly gathering is primarily for the corporate worship of God and the edification of the body, the members of a gospel-centered church are trained and conscious of sharing the gospel all throughout their week. As Bob Thune helpfully says, “A gospel-centered church will train people to live on mission in the practical rhythms of everyday life.”
Why Do We Need One?
If everything that has been stated so far is true, then the answer to the question “Why do we need a gospel-centered church” should not be that hard. First, the gospel is “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). Churches can be built upon gimmicks, personalities, entertainment, relationships and much more, but these things, in and of themselves, have no power. The power that creates a true church is the gospel.
Second, the gospel not only creates the church, but it also sustains the church. Often times, churches can look to everything but the gospel to sustain its people. They try a smorgasbord of options from the latest church growth technique to secular relationship advice. This stems from thinking that the gospel is elementary and that it is something from which you graduate. In reality, though, the gospel is what the church needs in a continual IV drip. As a sick patient is sustained with a constant flow of medicine, so the church is sustained with a constant flow of the gospel. As soon as the church begins to think that it can be sustained by anything but the gospel, that is the moment the church begins to die.
Third and finally, a church that is not centered upon the gospel is of no real use, humanly speaking. Sure, it may be temporally encouraging for people to gather once a week and associate with people of whom they are found, but if the gospel is absent, then there is not much separating them from the group of atheists gathering down the road for the same purposes. God, through the gospel, produces eternal change. If we want our churches to have eternal ramifications for both ourselves and our communities, then we must be centered upon the means by which God brings about this change, namely, the good news of his Son, Jesus Christ.