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The Gospel-Driven Church

Over the past few decades, evangelical churches have been shaped and reshaped by the church growth movement. This movement held out a model of local church ministry that some have labeled “attractional.” The idea was to make churches attractive to unbelievers so they would have compelling reasons to come to church where they could then hear the gospel message and be saved. Churches most commonly made themselves attractive by emphasizing contemporary music, integrating creative elements like illustrated sermons, focusing on inspirational messages, and adding programs or ministries designed to meet the felt needs of unbelievers. This model was essentially pragmatic in that it began with a desired result (conversions) and then measured what was good and useful by whether it helped achieve that result. This model was also consumeristic in that it approached unchurched people as customers whose needs the church could identify and meet. While this attractional model was widely accepted, it has since been found wanting in many ways. Ironically, it has failed most notably in its purpose of saving souls—studies have shown that attractional churches tend to attract disaffected Christians more than curious non-Christians. These churches shuffle sheep more than they save souls.

If the attractional model is ineffective and unbiblical, what is the better alternative? This is where Jared Wilson steps in with his well-timed critique of attractional and his description of gospel-driven: The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church-Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace. He does this through a combination of straight-up teaching and storytelling—as he teaches the principles, he illustrates through a fictional narrative that tells of one church grappling with the failure of the attractional model and the adoption of the gospel-driven alternative.

The first thing he has to do, after pointing out the weaknesses of the attractional model, is find a better metric of church health than simple numbers. We are accustomed to thinking that growth is a necessary indicator of health, but it is actually far more complicated than that. He advocates five “metrics of grace” that mean much more: a growing esteem for Jesus Christ, a discernible spirit of repentance, a dogged devotion to the Word of God, an interest in theology and doctrine, and an evident love for God and neighbor. These, he insists, are much more reliable indicators that a church is honoring God and faithfully carrying out his mission. Numbers may be a sign of God’s blessing, but they cannot be seen as a necessary sign.

A gospel-driven church makes the gospel the unifying and motivating factor in everything they say and do.

Wilson then tells how to put the gospel in the driver’s seat of a church, effectively making the gospel central in all the congregation is and does. This demands a trust in the supernaturalism of biblical Christianity—the firm belief that God’s ways are better than our ways and that we must do what God tells us to do. In other words, we must reject pragmatism and instead shape our churches according to God’s instructions in the Bible. “My goal in this book,” says Wilson, “is to convince you that your church and its slate of programs and ministries—no matter how successful they have been in attracting people—should be centered on the good news of the finished work of Jesus Christ. The attractional model cannot be the foundation for your methods or programs. It must give way to the gospel because the gospel is where the power of God is manifest.” What, then, is a gospel-centered church? “One that explicitly and intentionally connects its teaching, programs, ministry philosophy, and mission to the content of the gospel. … A gospel-driven church knows that the gospel isn’t one feature of a church, one thing on a checklist, something useful in an evangelistic program. A gospel-driven church makes the gospel the unifying and motivating factor in everything they say and do.”

The remainder of the book—just over half—is essentially an implementation guide for this gospel-centered model. Wilson teaches how pastors can steer from the stage as they lead their church in a new and better direction. He describes how worship services ought to be built around beholding the glory of Jesus Christ rather than entertaining unbelievers. He tells of the necessity of a culture of discipleship within the church rather than a culture of endless programs. He shows how a church can make mission primarily the responsibility of the members through the week rather than the responsibility of the pastors on Sunday morning. Crucially, he spends a whole chapter insisting that pastors need to make any such change in the most gracious ways so they don’t blow up their churches through thoughtlessness or haste. A helpful appendix answers a long series of questions that may arise.

Unfortunately, we remain a long way off from seeing the demise of the attractional church. There are still congregations in every town that are fully sold-out to the model despite its obvious shortcomings and despite its lack of biblical support. But I’m thrilled to see others looking for alternatives that are more effective at fostering true health and more faithful in their understanding and application of Scripture. Those eager to implement such a change would benefit immensely from reading The Gospel-Driven Church, then carefully, prayerfully implementing its principles.

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