Several years ago, I remember sitting with my wife at a new members' class at a church we were preparing to join. We listened to the senior pastor talk about the church's vision for evangelism and discipleship in the church. It was compelling. He had diagrams and charts that sorted out how Christians controlled by the love of Christ love the world by spreading the good news of the gospel.
In the years we attended that church, I don't think we ever heard again about that vision for evangelism and discipleship. It never showed up in the preaching or teaching of the church. That compelling vision of loving the world and our neighbors wasn't evident in the life of the church either.
Many churches preach the gospel from the pulpit and therefore identify themselves as "gospel-centered." But in some of them, staff relations, community, elder meetings, and the leadership dynamic are all based on fear, pride, and competition. The church may be a "gospel-preaching" church, but it is not a gospel-centered church.
How does this happen?
As Tim Keller has put it in the introduction to Center Church, something is missing between the "hardware" of a church (theological foundation) and the software (ministry practice). They need a "middleware." That "middleware" is what Keller calls a "theological vision for ministry." At The Gospel Coalition, Keller and others have formulated, as part of our governing documents, a Theological Vision for Ministry. Keller defines a theological vision for ministry as "faithful restatement of the gospel with rich implication for life, ministry, and mission in a type of culture at a moment in history." At The Gospel Coalition, the statement is "not an outline of our doctrinal beliefs (see the Confessional Statement), but a statement of how we intend to discharge Christian ministry and interact with our culture in biblical and theological faithfulness."
You can read Center Church for the "why" and the "how" of a theological vision for ministry. I want to talk about the surprising benefits of a theological vision for ministry.
When I was hired as lead pastor of All Souls Church in New York City, we adopted and adapted TGC's Theological Vision for Ministry. The church needed to see a closer relationship between its theological foundation and ministry practices. By adopting TGC's Theological Vision we found two surprising benefits: First, we found that a theological vision for ministry brings focus to the ministries of the church. Second, it brings what is inside, out.
1. It brings everything to a focus.
At our church, along with thousands of others, Matthew 28:18-20 defines our mission. We use the Great Commission as a lens to read the rest of the New Testament when we ask questions like, What should we be doing? What should we be good at? With the help of that lens, we see the five values of TGC's Theological Vision as strategic areas of focus for gospel ministry:
With the dynamic power of the gospel as the foundation of the church to confront skeptics and edify Christians, we were energized as these values focused our various tasks and ministries around making disciple-making disciples. And when every ministry---whether diaconate, children, worship, justice, or small groups---is energized by the same theological vision, they serve and complement each other, rather than compete against one another. In other words, a theological vision for ministry shapes the church into a body on mission---where the head cannot say to the eye, "I do not need you"---instead of a shopping mall of services. A theological vision for ministry does the hard work of weeding out the ministries and programs that dilute the mission.
The biblical gospel, however, must stay central in order to battle fear and pride in all areas of the life of the church. When the gospel is central, thankful Christians can work together for God's glory and the mission of the church, without undermining with selfish agendas and theological confusion. Also, the gospel gives us appropriate wisdom for contextualizing the message. TGC's Theological Vision for Ministry says,
- Empowered corporate worship
- Evangelistic effectiveness
- Counter-cultural community
- Integration of faith and work
- Doing justice and mercy
The gospel itself holds the key to appropriate contextualization. If we over-contextualize, it suggests that we want too much the approval of the receiving culture. This betrays a lack of confidence in the gospel. If we under-contextualize, it suggests that we want the trappings of our own sub-culture too much. This betrays a lack of gospel humility and a lack of love for our neighbor.
2. It brings what is inside out.
I was recently having coffee with a couple considering joining our church. They had been coming for a few months, had joined a small group, and now wanted some more details before they jumped in. The husband asked if I could explain a bit of "the vision" of the church. And so I began to explain certain elements of the theological vision for ministry. Almost immediately, they said that they have heard me or someone else say all this before, in a number of different ways and different times.
And it's true. A theological vision of ministry displays the inner workings of the church. You don't need to go to a new members' class or plumb the inner pages of a website to figure out what the church values. Theological vision for ministry brings what is inside out.
For example, we're preaching through the Gospel of Luke. We've titled the whole series of sermons "Good News for the World." But it could have been just as easily titled (as Peter Leithart does) "A Table for the Poor." Jesus is consistently sharing a table with the poor, with prostitutes and pimps, and with tax collectors. He's always touching, talking, and teaching the marginalized and outcasts of society.
This Gospel, then, becomes a natural platform to talk about how a church centered around the gospel will be a counter-cultural community (TGC's third value). If the world finds community based on socioeconomic status, race, gender, or even age, then these identities are often, in our society, levied by power and expressed by exclusion of certain types of people: rich over poor, white over black, men over women, young over old.
Christians, however, find community based on shared identity in Christ through the good news of the gospel. And because the gospel transcends socio-economic status, race, gender, and age, people should get along and share intimate fellowship together inside the church who could never naturally find fellowship with each other outside the church. The gospel says we were all, at one time, marginalized. But Christ went outside the camp for us in order to bring us in. That's our fundamental identity.
That same counter-cultural mentality informs how we talk about small groups and hospitality. The default mode of any community is to be like the Pharisees: looking to God to affirm who they are and gather in more people like them. But Jesus came, eating and drinking with dodgy people, going to uncomfortable places, and created settings for the most irreligious of people to come, sit at his feet, and ask questions. The gospel helps us fight against merely gathering in a certain kind of subculture of Christianity. Instead, we welcome disciples of all ages, ethnicities, blue collar and white collar.
A theological vision for ministry isn't the silver bullet for church growth or effective evangelism. But it has surprising power to unify and energize the people and various ministries of the church behind gospel ministry and disciple making.
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Tune in Friday, October 19, from 3 to 5 p.m. EDT to hear Tim Keller talk about doing balanced, gospel-centered ministry in your city. He'll be joined by Richard Lints, David Wells, and Stephen Um to discuss contextualization and theological vision. Submit your questions using #TGCNE12 and #CenterChurch.
John Starke is lead pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter.