The Difference Between Attractional and Gospel-Centered Churches

The Difference Between Attractional and Gospel-Centered Churches

Collin Hansen interviews Jared Wilson


The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

Collin Hansen: What’s the reaction to salvation or hearing and believing the good news of Jesus’s death and resurrection for sinners? It’s worship, especially when gathered together with others who have been called from darkness into light. Once we were hostile to God, enslaved by our sin. Now, we know God intimately and delight in His character. We pray as those who know God is near. We read His word as written for us and for our salvation now with eyes enlightened by the Holy Spirit. This process I’ve just described doesn’t change from believer to believer, but how we express this transformation and truth looks quite different from place to place around the world and sometimes even within the same city.

So is there any right or wrong way to worship? Is any particular musical style more empowered than the other? Should churches seek to attract nonbelievers or to teach believers? I’ll ask these questions of Jared Wilson, my guest on today’s episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast. Jared is a professor at Spurgeon College in Kansas City, Author in Residence at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a blogger for The Gospel Coalition. He is also the writer and presenter of Gospel Shaped Worship, a small group video and book study published by TGC with The Good Book Company. It’s based on point one, empowered corporate worship, from TGC’s Five Points of Gospel-Centered Ministry. Jared, thanks for joining me on the podcast.

Jared Wilson: Collin, thanks so much for having me, brother.

Hansen: Let’s jump right in on worship and fervent prayer, which are called by TGC’s theological vision for ministry as the core dynamic of gospel-centered ministry. Why is it?

Wilson: Well, a few reasons I think, and the key word in your question and in the statement is really the word dynamic because I think it speaks to something going on in the biblical concept of worship, both generally and in the corporate gathering that we sometimes miss when we think about it today. Namely, that a beholding of the living God is a supernatural experience that changes things. So worship is not merely a passive experience of enjoying a church service, right, or enjoying a sermon, so to speak. It is a dynamic in which my life is responding to who God is and what God has done. And that dynamic is crucial to the concept of gospel centrality, or gospel-centered ministry that the gospel message itself or, you know, specifically the Holy Spirit working through the gospel message of Jesus Christ is the power to change people. And not just to convert them, but to sanctify them and to present them in the day of glory blameless before the father. So to come back to the question, why is worship and fervent prayer the core dynamic of gospel-centered ministry? It’s because those things speak to the real intimacy and communion that we are able to have with God. The quality of life that’s commensurate with the union with Christ that we have because of the gospel.

Hansen: So Jared, what does the church service look like when that dynamic is at play? When it’s characterized by intimacy and joy in God? Because it sure seems like we bring a lot of preconceived notions to style and to form of worship, especially as it relates to music.

Wilson: Yeah. You know what’s interesting is, you know, I’m a gen xer. I come from the generation that first began kind of rethinking kind of the baby boomer impact on the corporate worship gathering. And there was a huge push for what we used to call authenticity. And you still hear that, you know, sometimes today even the phrase “authentic worship,” where worship is modified by authentic. And what a lot of us came to see is really the word authentic itself became a kind of style or it was a reference to like a genre of music or a genre of worship, which is somewhat self-defeating in that sense that authentic would be a style of something. And so I think to kind of look at, you know, what it should look like, or what would a church service that is, you know, captured by the dynamic of gospel centrality, the real intimacy enjoying God, what would it look like, stylistically it could look a number of different ways. But I think generally what it entails is lots of God’s Word and lots of prayer. It entails lots of God’s Word whether it’s in scripture readings, or even in the songs, if the songs are kind of echoing or even quoting or alluding to portions of Scripture. But primarily of course in the preaching, which centers in the service, God’s revelation to us. It makes His revelation to us more important or the central importance around which our revelation to Him or our response to Him sort of orbits, right? So, you know, we can’t know someone intimately that we don’t listen too closely. So we center God’s revelation. But then it involves lots of prayer and a lot of worship songs can be forms of prayer as well because prayer is how we respond to God’s self-disclosure, His initiating revelation. And we do it with reverence and submission and Thanksgiving and exaltation. So I think style and form are important. But oftentimes we kind of go off the rails a bit when we elevate style and form over content. You know, the best style and form kind of adorns the content and doesn’t sort of replace it or substitute for it. And so when we are centering the Word of God, you know, it prevents us from kind of getting, you know, off on the distracting tangents of styles. And that’s true whether we have a…you know, whether you favor a traditional style or a contemporary style I think.

Hansen: Some people love singing in church. Some people just hate it. Some people just try to endure it. Okay. What is happening? Like, what is really happening when we sing together in church?

Wilson: Yeah. You know, probably a million different things. Most of which we have no clue about ourselves just in our individual experience of the corporate gathering. But for one thing, I think what is happening theologically and spiritually, we have to understand that worship and song is best thought of as a response to what God has done, not a summoning of him. So sometimes we come to sing and we even use, you know, tons of phrases or kinds of language that maybe reflects a kind of calling upon God and can give the impression of summoning God. And that’s all well and good, especially when it’s reflecting, you know, tons of phrases that are actually found in the scriptures. But we have to understand that the primary thing that’s, you know, “happening” is that we are exalting God in response to what He has done to intervene in our lives and in history and in a sense He has summoned us, you know. So we need to understand that we don’t summon God like one is summoning a genie or a butler or something like that. But that sometimes I think can get communicated in the way that we worship like God needs our song. So the first thing that ought to happen is that we understand we’re responding to His initiation and not the other way around. But secondly, I think we need to understand what’s happening. I mean, one of the million things is that our singing whatever quality of it there is, is pleasing to him, right? God is jealous for his own glory. And so when the church exalts him, he is pleased. He’s magnified, He’s honored rightly. So no matter how polished or unpolished the music, no matter how strong or weak the voices, whether they’re on key or not on key, when there are humble hearts, faithfully praising Him, that is a sweet sound in His ears. And that’s true whether you got, you know, eight people in a house church or several thousand in a mega church, when God is exalted, the sound is very sweet to Him. He’s not impressed by us, but he is blessed by us when we, you know, express his greatness that way. And then I think probably the last thing I’d say, the third thing I might say because it’s so frequently forgotten, is that when we sing together in church, we’re participating in the communion of saints in a way, and we’re actually encouraging each other, or at least we can be, right? So Ephesians 5:19 speaks to that concept that our hymns, songs, and spiritual songs are encouraging our brothers and sisters, or I think of Psalm 42 where the Psalmist is in the midst of a kind of depression, I think. And he’s thinking back to times of corporate worship really where he says, you know, I gathered with the throng of people and they were going to worship. And that was a means of encouragement to him then, and the memory of it as a means of grace to him now. So I think one of the things that’s happening that we often forget about is that when we sing together in church, one of the things that’s happened is that we’re actually in a way strengthening each other and encouraging each other. But that implies of course that we can hear each other when we’re doing it, right. Yeah.

Hansen: Well, let’s shift toward the preaching part. And this is a distinction that’s found in TGC’s Theological Vision for Ministry. What’s the difference, Jared, between preaching that is simply teaching and preaching that leads hearers to worship?

Wilson: Yeah. Well, so all preaching includes teaching. In a way, preaching is like a subset of teaching perhaps, or maybe it’s the other way around, but all preaching includes teaching, which is communicating information that either might be unknown or explaining information that might be unclear or misunderstood. And this includes things like applying that information to the minds or intentions of those who are listening. But biblically speaking, preaching seems to be a kind of teaching that really is different than merely an information transfer. Right. I think we see one of the best examples in the book of Nehemiah of what we might call expository preaching is, you know, as when the scribes are…they’ve recovered the law of God, they’re reading it to the people. So you have the scripture reading, then it says is they give the sense. So there, you know, there’s a kind of exposition on the text as they go. They’re explaining it as they go. And then the result is that the hearts of the hearers are cut and they begin to kind of weep from the burden of this word on their lives. And the next thing that Ezra and the scribes do is announce to them this sort of good news. They tell them, stop weeping, be glad, go celebrate, go feast, this…you know, consecrate this day to the Lord. Be full of joy. And so in that one passage we have a kind of exposition of the word of God with good news applied, that sort of, you know, as far as the Old Testament text goes, approximates a gospel-centered expositional sermon or expositional preaching. And so what preaching does that leads hearers to worship, that’s different than just simply teaching is aim at the heart as much as the mind. And Tim Keller’s chapter on preaching to the heart in his preaching book is really helpful here. Because we aren’t looking at the sermon purely as a means of disseminating information, but really as a means of exposing people to the glory of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ so that they can be changed. I love 2 Corinthians Chapter 3, where Paul is sort of delineating the contrasting glories of the law and the gospel. And he talks about how glorious the law is, but then how much the gospel exceeds the glory of the law. And he says in verse 18, in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that it’s by beholding the glory of Christ with an unveiled face, that we are transformed from one degree of glory into another, into the same lightness of Christ. So gospel-centered preaching holds up from the text of scripture, the glorious Christ as saving, sovereign, supreme. That people might not just become more informed intellectually or theologically, but that they might become from the heart worshipers of Jesus or more empowered worshipers of Jesus.

Hansen: Let’s assume just as you’ve been saying here and like the theological vision for ministry says that every sermon ought to be Christ-centered. But I’m wondering, it seems like Jared, a lot of people assume that when you’re saying that, that it means that every sermon will kind of sound the same and that also every application or maybe even only application will be to trust Christ. Explain how that’s presumably not the case.

Wilson: Yeah. Well, I mean, in a sense, every sermon does kind of sound the same, if you want to use that language, because we’re centering on the same person and the same person’s work each time, the person and work of Jesus Christ. But it’s not a one note thing because the gospel is so versatile and so robust. It would be like saying that Jesus is the same old thing. You know, he is unchanging. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And yet, because he is so glorious as John is saying in his gospel that if I were to write down everything he said and did, all the books in the world couldn’t contain them, that at least gives us an indication that we’re not going to exhaust the facets or the angles of his glory with a lifetime of sermons. And so I think, you know, approaching the centrality of the gospel in expository preaching doesn’t mean that you’re making the same kind of mechanical lurch into a Romans road type presentation from every text, right? So Charles Spurgeon talked about quite famously that every text in the scriptures has a road from it to Christ just like every village in England, you know, has a road that gets to London. And so, you know, you’re going to the same place, but each road is different. Each road has different sights and sounds, and so, it’s a little like that. You know, some of it is directed by the text that you’re in, the emphases, the genre even, the timing, the connection that you make, the turn that you make to showing the glory of Christ from that text is often directed by that. So it’s not this sort of arbitrary kind of superficial thing you just sort of throw onto there, although Spurgeon does talk about making a road if you can’t find one. So I suppose, you know, an artificial way to get to Christ is better than not getting to Christ at all. And yet it’s not a one note thing. It’s not, you know, sort of a one flavor sort of prospect I think.

Hansen: The famous pastor once likened expository preaching to cheating. I think you remember that Jared, our listeners will as well.

Wilson: I do.

Hansen: Does expository preaching work to build a church?

Wilson: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting because what that fellow meant by cheating was that you weren’t being creative enough, that you weren’t doing the hard work. And the question you just asked previously is really revelatory of those who have given themselves to Christ-centered exposition, which is, it ain’t easy. I mean, it’s…and you know, if you’re in John Chapter 3, it comes across perhaps a little more naturally than if you’re in Leviticus 3, or what have you. So the idea that it’s cheating, I think, you know, betrays the reality of someone who hasn’t really tried it. But the question of, is this really the way that we’re going to build a church today or is it really the way to grow a church today is to do this expository preaching thing, I think it does. I think it does work, if you think of building churches the way the Bible does.

So the way the Bible speaks of building a church is primarily about converting people to worship of Jesus and people growing in Christ likeness. But if you’re thinking primarily or purely about packing the room with an audience, to be honest, it might not always work. But that’s not really a biblical value anyway. You know, if you’re just trying to fill a room, there are some places, many places perhaps where expository preaching, you know, doesn’t “work.” But for the things the Bible calls us to actually do, it does work, spiritually speaking. But I should say just as sort of a caveat to that or perhaps, you know, in the spirit of contrariness to that, that I think today, it’s so innovative in this moment in time, expository preaching in a way is new again. And so in more places than you’d expect, there is an appeal to expository preaching that maybe wasn’t there 10 years ago. It feels new and different.

I remember when I was about to…this is before I planted a church in Nashville, I was leading a young adult ministry or was asked to, you know, become the primary teacher for this young adult ministry. And we were in the midst of an attractional megachurch. It’s the ministry that eventually would become the sort of seed of my church plant. But the fellow who had recruited me, was kinda hosting, you know, video Bible studies and those sorts of things. And, you know, he wanted someone to teach the Bible. And so he, you know, approached me. And I remember we were riding the car to dinner and he was explaining the kind of thing that, you know, he wanted to see happen. And he said “You know, have you ever heard of this verse by verse preaching?” And I said, “Yes, brother. I’ve heard of that.” But this was the guy. You know, he hadn’t grown up in church. And he was won to the Lord through the ministry of a church that did topical preaching and, you know, came to genuine saving faith through that kind of ministry. But when he was exposed to someone who was just going through a passage of scripture, it was fresh. It was different. It clicked for him in a way that he desired the word. It made him sense that he was going deeper into God’s word or hearing more of God’s word. So I just think in general, when people genuinely love God, they come to love His word, and expository preaching is favored and savored because people who love God wanna hear more of His word than anybody else’s.

Hansen: But does that then explain why it’s not appealing to some attractional churches? Because like I talked about in the introduction here, they’re not trying to build up Christians so much as they’re trying to appeal to people outside of the church, through the church.

Wilson: Yes, I think you’re right. And there’s sometimes an unspoken assumption made there, which is that the Bible is somewhat offensive or not understandable or needs to be made more relevant and therefore they…you know, the attractional kind of preaching uses the Bible differently. It tends to center on action points or practical points that are then hopefully supported by Bible verses rather than taking a passage or taking a Bible verse and making what we say sort of serve that or, you know, extrapolate from that. It’s somewhat backwards in that regard because there’s an assumption that, you know, outsiders don’t favor the word of God, so we have to either show them its relevance or we have to kind of give it in small doses because they’re not ready, you know, for the real thing or the big thing.

Hansen: It seems like Jared, wherever I’ve ministered it’s been in the shadow of a large attractional church. That’s been true of Chicago, has been true of Birmingham and elsewhere. And it seems like wherever I am, people will often come to our church from one of those attractional churches and it’s not necessarily with a negative impression. Usually people say the same thing. They’re like, I’m really grateful for that church because in many cases I came to know the Lord in that church, but then they’ll often come and say, but I was really wanting someplace where I could really learn and grow, and that’s why they left that church. And in some ways I wonder Jared, that in the grand scheme of things and the kingdom of God, that might not be the end of the world with how God is working in those different ways. I’m not really sure. But to ask a kind of loaded question here, do you think that those kind of attractional churches are doing a better job of evangelism compared to gospel-centered churches?

Wilson: Yeah, that’s a really good question. And I think some probably are, yeah. If we’re being honest and if we’re just talking about, you know, the paradigm of an attractional church versus a gospel-centered church as opposed to the affections, someone who is gospel-centered in theory or paradigm will not be as motivated to share the gospel as someone who is gospel-centered in their affections. But I think for the attractional churches that prioritize reaching seekers, even if it’s on the organizational or institutional level or the programmatic level, I think they probably are, you know, doing a better job.

But by and large, the attractional church hasn’t really succeeded in what it set out to do. And in fact, some of the expression from the beginning stages of what we used to call like the seeker churches, seeker sensitive church, some of it has somewhat shifted both programmatically and philosophically. In fact, the…you know, I think the terminology and the aims are not near as emphasized as they used to be, right? So what used to be very self-consciously about reaching the unbeliever has been more about kind of creating a culturally relevant version of the faith that hopefully has an implicit invitation to anyone who’s interested, including seekers. But as it turns out, most of the people that have been interested in the attractional church offerings tend to be either disaffected or disillusioned evangelicals. So, you know, people who used to go to church or who grew up in church or had some connection to church and yet either, you know, dropped out or just felt like it was outdated or it didn’t match their aspirations and aims in life or their stage of life, and somehow the attractional church has pitched a better version of what they had rejected previously or drifted away from, that has animated them or excited them back into participation. And I think this is part of like we’ve developed this language like dechurched, you know, we didn’t used to hear anything about dechurched people. I mean the dechurched category has always been around and yet the emphasis of the seeker church was purely on the answers. Like, we are trying to reach people who have no church background. They’re clearly unbelievers. And that has morphed if not explicitly, at least just in the expression. That has morphed now to include trying to reach the dechurched. And I think that comes as a result of realizing that most of what these churches are reaching are not, you know, previously unchurched people, but dechurched people.

Hansen: I had not picked up on that, Jared. I don’t think I realized that. Now, that makes a lot of sense because generally unchurched people today, especially the younger they are, they’re not looking for a church.

Wilson: Yeah. And that’s what I was going to say next is, I mean, statistically speaking, most lost people will never darken the door of a church building. So I mean, a lot of them will say, you know, if you look at certain surveys and polls and what have you, that if somebody invited them, they would go. But it’s just reality that the best way to reach the lost is for Christians to be witnesses on mission, so to speak in their everyday lives at work, in their neighborhood, and the like. So the attractional church by paradigm kinda de-incentivizes that by saying, “Hey, just get them in the room. In a way, like, let the experts handle it. You get them here and we’ll walk them through what they need to hear.” But gospel-centered churches by celebrating the gospel so often are just as well implicitly equipping their people as explicitly equipping their people with this familiarity of grace. And the beauty of gospel centrality is if a lost person is president, they’re going to hear the message by which they can be saved, but understanding that the worship gathering is primarily aimed at those who are part of the body of Christ. They’re gathering for corporate worship. The gospel is the means by which they are strengthened in their faith and grow into greater Christ likeness. So really it’s the gospel-centered paradigm that has, you know, the most efficacy, biblically speaking, for insider and outsider alike.

Hansen: One of the things that the attractional church has admitted at least in some cases that they’ve not done well is equip people for spiritual growth on their own. That came out in the Willow Creek REVEAL study years ago. And I’m wondering then, Jared, how can a pastor and what can a pastor do on Sunday to help a congregation grow in their desire to read and obey God’s word on their own throughout the week? And I’ll just put it this way, whether you preach for 30 minutes or 45 minutes or 60 minutes, whether you have a Bible study mid-week or you have a home group mid-week, or a small group that does application and fellowship and things like that, it’s likely that given the levels of biblical illiteracy and just religious illiteracy in our culture, it’s probably not going to be enough for people to be able to depend on. You’re going to have to create in that language I think at the REVEAL study, the self-feeders, which was such a funny way of thinking about it. But obviously just people who are motivated themselves to be able to learn more and just know God, you know, outside of the context of a worship service. What can we do in the worship service to help that happen as a lifestyle all the time?

Wilson: Yeah. Well, you know, the first thing is that we need to make sure that our worship gatherings are, you know, properly saturated with the Word of God in such a way that we’re communicating that this is a treasure. When we open this book, God is speaking to us. Therefore, we don’t wanna minimize the amount of time we hear from God’s Word. We don’t wanna sort of cherry pick what we hear from God’s Word. We wanna consult the whole of God’s Word. We want to communicate even just by our practice, you know, not just explicitly, but with how we incorporate the word of God into the other elements of our service apart from the pulpit preaching that we don’t live without this word from God, that it is food to the Christian soul. So the way we center God’s self-disclosure through His word is over time shaping the church to see the Bible differently. And so, you know, this is especially clear in the preaching time. So if in my preaching, I’m treating the Bible like a kind of Bartlett’s book of quotations or, you know, this sort of reference book that I would consult for different things but not as, you know, God’s very self-disclosure to me, or I’m sort of going topical with it and not just sort of taking book by book to show where Christ is. I mean, all of that just shapes how people receive the Word and come to understand the Word. You’re giving people when you preach over time, you’re training them in hermeneutics, you’re training them in sort of a theology of Scripture. So, you know, how you use it is as important as that you use it. But then the other thing I would say is just that, you know, appropriate passion or affection for the gospel in the text and, you know, for the text in general, but for the grace of God and the glory of God in Christ.

I remember I’m pretty sure it comes from Don Carson saying that it’s, people don’t get excited about what you tell them to be excited about. They get excited about what you’re excited about. So that’s communicating. So as you preach, as you teach, as you sing, even, what you are adorning your content with is communicating almost as much, if not as much as what the content is. So if all of your passion is for the imperatives, you can be talking gospel centrality ’till the cows come home, but they’re picking up on your affection is for your obedience. And if our affections or our passions are channeled more towards just how exhilaratingly wonderful it is that God has sent His son to die in our place and to rise again for the gift of eternal life over time, people are being shaped to read the Bible differently, to look for Christ in it and also for their own hearts to be kind of inflamed similarly.

Hansen: My guest on The Gospel Coalition podcast today has been Jared Wilson. He’s a professor at Spurgeon College in Kansas City, author in residence at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a blogger for The Gospel Coalition. Check out what he has written and taught, video and book format in Gospel Shaped Worship. Thank you, Jared.

Wilson: Thank you, brother.

What’s the reaction to salvation, to believing the good news of Jesus’s death and resurrection for sinners? Worship! Especially when gathered together with others who have been transferred from darkness into light. Once we were hostile to God, enslaved by our sin. Now we know God intimately and delight in his character! We pray as those who know God is near. We read his Word as written for us and for our salvation, now with eyes enlightened by the Holy Spirit.

This process I’ve just described doesn’t change from believer to believer. But how we express this transformation and truth looks quite different from place to place around the world and sometimes within the same city. So is there any right or wrong way to worship? Is any particular musical style more empowered than the other? Should churches mainly seek to attract nonbelievers or to teach believers?

Continuing our series on The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision for Ministry, I asked these question of Jared Wilson, my guest on today’s episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast. Wilson is a professor at Spurgeon College in Kansas City, author in residence at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a blogger for The Gospel Coalition. He is also the writer and presenter of Gospel Shaped Worship, a small-group video and book study published by TGC with The Good Book Company. It’s based on point one—empowered corporate worship—from TGC’s five points of gospel-centered ministry.

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast and check out other episodes in the series Why We Need Theological Vision.

Editors’ note: 

The Good Book Company is currently running an exclusive offer on the Gospel Shaped Church curriculum. Get 50 percent off any leader’s kit until November 30. Just go to and use the code ‘GSC50’ at the checkout.