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How Can You Tell if a Church Is Gospel-Centered? Start with the Pulpit.

Acts 29: Churches Planting Churches

The tagline “gospel-centered” has become commonplace in the church-planting world. In many ways, this is a good thing.

But we do well to ask: What exactly does the phrase mean? Does the planter have to be committed to mention Jesus in every sermon? Must there be a mandatory invitation to salvation in each service?

One of the best ways to “test” gospel-centrality in the life of a church plant is to look at the pulpit. A church may have “gospel-centered” peppered throughout their statement of beliefs and on their website, but one of clearest places to see whether gospel-centrality is a real value—or simply a buzzword—is when the pastor preaches God’s Word on Sunday.

The King Has Won

Before looking at the specifics of gospel-centered preaching, consider the following illustration.

Imagine a king departing his castle to battle an invading army. If the king loses, he sends his military advisers back to the castle with the bad news. They also inform the citizens of new strategies and techniques: “The enemy is approaching. We suggest you put marksmen here, chariots there, and so on.” All of this is done in an attempt to equip the people to defeat the enemy themselves. They feel incredible pressure, knowing that victory (or defeat) rests on their shoulders.

But if the king defeats the enemy, he sends his messengers back with the good news. They return to the castle square shouting: “The king has defeated the enemy! Enjoy the peace and blessings of the victory our lord has achieved for you!” With this joyous declaration, the people would not only experience freedom in their daily lives, but their love and gratitude would also be directed toward their king.

So what is a gospel-centered church? In a manner of speaking, a gospel-centered church labors to stress—in her messages, ministries, and mission—that, in Christ’s finished work on the cross, God has achieved victory. The King has truly won.

‘Good Advice’ Preaching

How does this approach affect preaching? Painting broadly, the typical contemporary church often markets the preaching as “relevant” and “practical.” Many will have something like the following on their websites: “Come see how what we say will meet your everyday needs with biblical principles that show God’s Word is true.” Further, many church planters are told (by church-growth “experts”) that this is the best way to gather a crowd large enough to gain sufficient momentum to get their fledging plants off the ground.

Consequently, congregants can be given an imbalanced rotation of topical sermons on money, family, marriage, and the like. Often the primary aim of such messages isn’t so much to exalt Christ and his cross work as it is to focus on practical applications. In short, what people can get is not the gospel, but a bunch of “good” advice.

In essence, much of the application sounds barely different from what you’d find in the latest self-help books or talk-show experts. The hope is that hearers leave with sermon notes packed with practical “to-dos” to employ at home, work, school, and in other spheres of life. This doesn’t mean these kinds of sermons never use the Bible or even talk about Jesus. On the contrary, it’s not uncommon to see “good advice” preachers insert Jesus at the conclusion of their sermons. They may even emphasize the fact that Christ wants to save people, and that they can receive salvation by saying a prayer, coming down an aisle, filling out a card, and so on.

Again, this kind of preaching strategy may seem effective for a young church plant. Attenders will likely compliment pastors on how insightful and practical they are. After all, sermon content has been focused squarely in their worlds of concern. They want “success” in life, and any tips to achieve that success are welcome.

Good-advice preaching makes the Bible about us instead of God. And that is precisely what makes it so grievous.

The potential problems with such preaching are numerous. But at its core, good-advice preaching makes the Bible about us instead of God. Jesus is relegated to being part of Scripture’s story, instead of the sum and substance of it all.

Consequently, this kind of preaching leads listeners to think that while salvation is about Jesus, the rest of their spiritual growth is, for all practical purposes, up to them. Therefore good-advice preaching, no matter how well-meaning, is actually untethered from the gospel because it grounds people in law, not grace.

This is problematic, for the true gospel insists that Jesus’s person and work not only enables my growth, but also empowers and sustains it. The gospel is not just a doorway we walk through into the Christian life, but the very room we live in. This ought to be the refrain of gospel-centered sermons: that Christian growth rests upon—and is enabled by—Christ’s finished work and the Spirit’s faithful power.

Paul’s Preaching

What might Paul say about “good advice” preaching? “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul frames his ministry—including his preaching—as being centered on Jesus. And not just any perspective on Jesus—he homes in on his work on the cross.

In other words, Paul preached on various “real-life” topics, but he did so in such a way that Jesus wasn’t seen as just another (albeit better) life coach, self-help expert, Mr. Fix It, or success guru. In Paul’s preaching, Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord. There is no other option, because there is no other Jesus.

In Paul’s preaching, Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord. There is no other option, because there is no other Jesus.

Similarly, it’s not that gospel-centered churches don’t talk about what followers of Jesus should do in the various circles of daily life. It’s just that they intentionally tie the doing to the being. That is, all our doing in the Christian life flows from the definitive “done” that was Christ’s work on the cross (John 19:30).

Thus, gospel-centered church plants have preaching in which the good news of the gospel not only shapes the sermon’s conclusion, but its body as well. We are, after all, more proclaimers than advisers.

The world doesn’t need more people who (merely) give good advice. The world needs churches fluent in the gospel, characterized by preaching that centers on Jesus Christ and him crucified. This is preaching where the congregants’ “dos” rest upon Christ’s “done.”

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