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Collin Hansen: You can probably identify churches known for their deep teaching. And maybe you know other churches known for their dynamic music. And maybe another church in your town has the best mercy ministry, or youth group, or outreach program. You get the point. Well, no church is perfect and no church is going to excel in every area. But The Gospel Coalition’s theological vision for ministry calls for churches that bring together what’s often separated. We call for churches that engage the arts and emphasize repentance. We call for churches with winsome and theologically substantial preaching that also make room for the poor and marginalized. Is such a movement of gospel-centered churches possible? When the statement was written in 2017, TGC’s council admitted such churches are relatively rare. Are they still rare today? That’s what I’m going to ask today on “The Gospel Coalition Podcast” as I’m joined by Kevin DeYoung, TGC’s board chairman, and longtime blogger. We’ll discuss holiness, history, hopefulness, and much more. Thank you for joining me, Kevin.
Kevin DeYoung: Great to be with you, Collin Hansen.
Hansen: So, often, Kevin, the personality of a church takes on the personality of the pastor. I know that’s especially true of church plans. Is that a problem for churches? If it is a problem, can it be avoided?
DeYoung: Probably not and probably not. I will start with, can it be avoided? I don’t think it can be avoided entirely. I’ve certainly seen it in the churches that I’ve served. I’ve seen it both when I leave a church, how much looking back it came to reflect the things I was good at, maybe it had some of the weaknesses that I had reflected, my personality even. And then going to other churches have seen how much it comes to reflect the previous minister. So, I think it’s inevitable because the pulpit has such a shaping influence on a congregation. So, is the man always serious? Is there humor in how he leads? Is it top-down? Is it relational? Is it consensus? All of these things, part of a man’s personality and gift mix and skill set, do end up shaping a congregation.
Now, it doesn’t mean that the pastor is going to alter everyone’s personality in the congregation, probably doesn’t do much of that. But collectively, there will be a sense because he’s giving such shape to what the corporate worship feels like and the sort of the mood and the attitude. So, I don’t think it is entirely avoidable. Is it bad? Well, not entirely, but that’s where I think in both cases, the answer to both of your questions is probably not avoidable. Probably not always bad, but to be mitigated in both situations as much as we can. And part of that means the pastor has to have enough self-awareness to know what he’s like. One of the things I’m always reminding myself and telling my students in pastoral ministry is you have to preach, not just the meaning of the text, but the mood of the text, if we’re not paying attention to the mood of the text then we’ll default to our own personality.
And so, every sermon will be, grab you by the scruff of your neck, challenge you or put a finger in your chest, or it will be give me a big hug because we all feel beaten up in life. And inevitably, it will be preaching to our own issues, our own perceived needs, and our own sort of residence. So, it can be ameliorated somewhat by paying careful attention to the text, by being self-aware, and by giving platforms to others in the church. So, you’re not the only one preaching, you’re not the only one leading. So, yes, it will happen. And if it is happening from top to bottom, that’s probably a sign that the pastor is not self-aware, that he’s not employing others in significant areas of leadership. But it’s gonna happen. And hopefully, that’s another reminder why we need to have healthy men leading our church.
Hansen: Yeah. So, I think this is part of the mix where churches will incline with certain strengths and other weaknesses, that also speaks to the need for plurality of leadership, even if there is a senior pastor among that eldership. One way as we often see this and maybe this isn’t a fair way to be able to put it, but I think, at least in our minds, we seem to associate… I’ll put it this way. Why don’t we seem to associate churches that have strong concern for doctrinal rigor and purity, as at the same time, like TGC’s theological vision for ministry talks about, at the same time sharing a radical commitment to the poor and the marginalized? And I should also say, I think that’s often true with the reverse. We don’t associate one church with…you know, that is really great with supporting the marginalized with having a lot of doctrinal rigor. That could just be a mistaken caricature, Kevin. And you can correct that because I do think it’s not entirely fair, but I think that’s how a lot of people perceive things. And I wonder, is there a reason it’s hard to do both or is it not hard to do both? We just need to do a better job or maybe I’m just off base altogether. What do you think?
DeYoung: Well, there’s a lot in that question. But you’re certainly right that, in terms of what churches are known for, you know, you say, “I wanna go to that church.” Why? Because they’re really strong in preaching the Bible and on doctrine. Usually, it’s not the next thing out of your mouth that, “Oh, that church is equally good at…” some of the things that you just laid out. Some of that may be just perception. Some of it is self-selection and what people look for in the church. Some of it is that we have…once there’s a stereotype in place, it tends to reinforce itself. And so, if a church gives too many signals of, you know…if they say justice too many times in the wrong context, some people say, “Wait a second. This is one of those churches. This is not the church I wanted.” And maybe another kind of church, if you start using words like truth or gospel even, maybe it sends up the wrong sort of signal. So, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Here’s where I push back on it just a little is, you know, in the TGC foundational documents, that conclusion, which you pointed out, uses the words like poor and marginalized. And a lot of it depends on what do we mean by that? I think, actually, churches across the board tend to be quite good at caring for the poor, but here’s my important qualifications for that within their own midst, that is, I think churches are usually quite good at providing immediate acts of love and charity for people in their fellowship. When someone has a baby, meal sign up, shower the mom with meals and care. Somebody has a crisis, they’re there for babysitters. Somebody has a fire in their house, you know, lots of people are ready to step up. I think the church actually does do a good job at trying to care for people in its immediate congregation who are having immediate problems of those sort of just life events or crises. What we often mean by the poor or the marginalized, however, are a subset of the larger population outside of the walls of the church, which is a much more difficult ministry and which… You know, Greg and I wrote the book on What Is the Mission of the Church?
So, it’s not a surprise to people that I would argue that the mission of the church is discipleship and the great Commission, and that Galatians 6:10 is an important verse, “Do good to all people as you have opportunity, especially to those of the household of faith.” I think there is a priority. And I think the passages in Acts about having all things in common is specifically about the covenant community, why the church is a reflection of the heavenly kingdom, where there is no want, where there is no need, because within our local church, we’re supposed to be demonstrating that sort of care and compassion for one another. So, that’s where I think the priority is.
Does that mean that then we are indifferent towards suffering around us? No, that’s Galatians 6:10, “As you have opportunity,” but that’s a much harder ministry that is going to require much more tricky, careful sort of engagement. It’s relatively simple to provide meals or come around people in a moment of crisis. It’s quite a bit more difficult to say, “Okay. We have unemployment running rampant,” or, “this part of town is overrun with drugs. What do we do?” And is it the mission of the church to solve this problem in the community? I would argue that that’s not the mission of the church, but it is going to be part of what individual Christians being salt and light show in reflecting that love for Christ. And some will be called in different ways to be more or less engaged, depending on gifts, calling, and where they may live in their proximity.
So, it’s not to say that none of these things ever happen, but maybe to just reframe the debate, just a bit to say, I do think that there are a lot of doctrinally minded churches that actually do care. And when they have to pass around the plate for the deacons offering or the mercy ministry offering, people do give. And if they said, “We have a family in our church with a great need,” that people would probably step forward quite quickly. Now, that’s a different sort of ministry than orphans and widows in society at large, but it’s not to be neglected. And so, yes, the stereotype isn’t there for no reason. And yet, I think that when you look at it in biblical categories, in particular, in the household of faith, that we’re not failing quite as much as people might think.
Hansen: Here’s something that I’ve thought about quite a bit but I don’t have any answers to it. I don’t have any solutions to it. Let’s maybe rephrase it a little bit, in terms of maybe not some of the practical delivery of goods and services or things like that to the poor and the marginalized outside of the church. But let’s maybe just say, a welcoming church where those people may want to join and to worship. And I’m wondering, that does seem to be kind of difficult for some of us reformed people who really value doctrine. But I don’t really know… And is that really anything that we can actually change? Because, I mean, we’re gonna be pushing people with some of our preaching. And some of that is going to be challenging people that don’t have some of the educational history to be able to grasp. I don’t know how to think about that. Kevin, have you thought about that, in terms of how you’re preaching, how you’re leading?
DeYoung: Well, I have thought about it a lot. Have I come up with great answers to it? Not as much. But you’re absolutely right, Collin. That’s a very good way to frame the issue. We were just having a pastor’s meeting here. And we were talking about some of these things. There’s a couple of things at play. So, I’m Presbyterian. And even if you’re Baptist, most of the people listening to this, probably high on doctrine, which means they want their pastors to be well-trained and go to seminary, and I support that wholeheartedly. Whilst think about a Presbyterian pastor is going to be relatively highly educated.
So, there’s going to be a high degree of doctrinal precision. There’s gonna be a certain intellectual rigor to many of the servants. We don’t apologize for any of that. And at the same time, that is going to tend to attract a middle-class to upper-middle-class to upper-class sort of congregation who are themselves well-educated, who are themselves able to listen and follow, and in fact, appreciate the precision and the doctrinal carefulness. Now, we don’t wanna be guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations that says, “Well, poor people don’t care about truth or can’t follow good teaching.” No, they certainly can and perhaps more so than we think. So, I don’t actually think the stumbling block is the preaching or the service per se, but rather all of the cultural trappings. And that sounds like a negative word, but I just mean it neutrally, all of the cultural trappings that go into.
We were just talking, just this morning here in our church, that if you come into to congregation that I serve, and you, you know, work at one of the banks downtown, and you’re married, and you have kids, and you live in a nice house, and you come to our church, you already feel like whether you like Jesus or not, yeah, these people seem like me. But that leaves out a whole lot of people who would walk in and think, “I may want to know about Jesus, but I’m not sure I wanna know any of these people or they wanna know me.” And I actually think the class barriers can be even harder than the racial barriers or the ethnic barriers. So, have we…? No, we haven’t figured it out. I mean, the two baby steps I can say is one, self-awareness matters for something to say, “We do have barriers that are invisible to us but aren’t invisible to others.”
And then the second thing is church planting. So we’re bringing on someone to plant a church aimed at second-generation Hispanics in a different part of town. And we don’t wanna absolve ourselves of engaging, you know, that part of town just because our congregation is almost entirely white and lives in a different part of town. And yet, we want to have enough awareness and honesty to say, there’s probably a lot of barriers to reaching people. Now, the gospel can overcome them for sure. But perhaps the best way for us to make gospel inroads there is to raise up a more indigenous sort of ministry that would be an easier on-ramp, not with the gospel, not with truth, but with the sort of trappings that might be there.
Hansen: Let me shift gears a little bit. Kevin, you’ve written… In addition to what you’ve talked about there with mission of the church, you’ve written a lot about the need for holiness among Christians and in our churches. And this also relates to this conclusion of TGC’s theological vision for ministry. Do you think it’s possible for a church to be known, at the same time, for its holy living and also for its cultural engagement?
DeYoung: Yes, it is. And it is difficult. And in any of these things, we have to say that with the Holy Spirit, yes, it is. If we’re talking about Christian virtues and what we’re commanded of in Scripture, the answer must be, “Yes, the Holy Spirit can do that.” Is it difficult? Yes. We tend to have a truncated set of virtues. We often have a cartoon sort of Christ as I’ve heard Tim Keller put it, or a God who is lopsided, absent of what Jonathan Edwards called Christ diverse excellencies. And when we don’t have the God that we worship, possessing all of these diverse excellencies, we can’t expect our churches to reflect the same things. I’d use the phrase often in ministry that I want our congregation to be filled with hugging theologians, which is a bit of an awkward construction, but that’s the point.
We are not embarrassed by the life of the mind and thinking as carefully as we can about our theology. And yet, we like people, and we are happy about it, and we will give you a hug in an inappropriate, you know, Dutch reserve sort of way, of course. You know, a very lovely passionate side hug. But yes, we have to be and even…here’s what I say, you know, to use the cliché, “Don’t let, you know, the failure to reach perfection be the enemy of the good. Just because we can’t be the best doesn’t mean that we can’t get better.” And so, yes, you know, I think it’s very likely that the church I serve and most Presbyterian reformed, reformed Baptist churches that are in upper-middle-class parts of town, most of them will struggle to be culturally engaged and Winstanley evangelistic.
I don’t know that that’s ever going to be our greatest strength as a church. Hey, that’s the church that is amazing at personal evangelism. Just because we might not get there, doesn’t mean we can’t get somewhere and we can’t continually put it before our people, put models before our people, put testimonies before our people to say, “You can do this. You can share your faith. We can talk about holiness and we can talk about evangelism.” And this is where it’s incumbent upon us as leaders and any pastors, especially any preachers listening to this. If we preach these kind of sermons and we know how to do this, where we preach them, and the only response is to absolutely be abject failures at it, then, of course, we’re not gonna make progress.
Everyone knows, they hear those sermon series, “Oh, evangelism, good. I’ll feel bad for five weeks. Only this, I’ll feel miserable for a month. Prayer, I’m always failing. I’ll get to my deathbed. And I’ll say, ‘I wish I had prayed more.'” Well, if that’s all we’re trying to do, then, yeah, you’ll succeed in making people feel miserable for a Sunday and they may, you know, sort of gin up some enthusiasm to do something, but they won’t actually grow in it, they won’t actually make progress. So, I’m giving you a short version of part of my holiness book that we need to let people see that it is possible to grow, and improve, and be faithful, even if we’re not perfect, or even the examples that we might want to be.
Hansen: This theological vision for ministry, as we’re concluding it, is so varied in the vision for the church and all the different ways that TGC wants to encourage Christians to live out our faith. And I thought about this, Kevin, I think your position, specifically at your last church, was perhaps unique, a college town adjacent to a state capital. Now, there are other places like that we could even identify in the Midwest, but as I thought about this, you know, just think about all the different ways people are engaged, especially, you know, at a state school like the one where you had served near Michigan State, all the different types of professors and practitioners you had there as well as government. So, I’m wondering, what did you learn in that context about how a church supports its members in ministry outside the church in so many different varied vocations and ventures?
DeYoung: The first response is the simplest, maybe the least satisfying, but it still is the most important. And this was reinforced over and over again. Preach the Bible, teach people the Bible, that’s what you expect on the TGC Podcast, but it was true. I mean, I remember talking to…when I was their first African American elder, he’s a friend, a godly man, only a handful of African Americans in our mostly white congregation. And there was a cost to that for him, but he worked for state government in one of the departments downtown. I remember asking, “Why are you at the church? I know there’s a cost for you to be here.” And he said, “We’re here because we wanna learn the Bible. We’re here because the gospel is preached, the Bible is taught. It’s as simple as that. Yeah, there’s other places that might feel more comfortable, but that’s why we’re here. That’s what we’re looking for.”
As much as we can have unity and diversity, which is what everyone wants, it really does start with that and don’t end with that. I mean, that’s not all we need to think about. But it really does start with that. So, I hope that’s some note of encouragement, because I don’t think God expects pastors to be fabulous cultural exegetes to know what all the movies are about, what The New York Times or The New Yorker or to be able to understand even Michigan State University or whatever is next to you. But God does call us to be faithful in teaching His word, and to love people. And people can really tell. I mean, one of lines I’ve used before, “Love covers over a multitude of cultural hindrances.”
And it really does. Now, having said that, it’s not as if we were trying to be as, you know, blind as we could ministering in those contexts. So, you know, I’m sure as I was preaching my sermons, would think about apologetic angles, what sort of challenges do people need to know as they go back into their workplaces? So, it’s much more important to know our people than it is to know culture. I mean, culture is such a big thing. And most of us, probably, we intuit whatever culture we’re around, whatever we’re reading, so we do need to expose ourselves to other things, but much more important than culture broadly conceived is our people.
So, that’s what I know. Oh, this is what it’s like… So I remember, you know, one time one of our parishioners who’s a lawyer, both the husband and wife were, and they worked downtown with the AG’s office. He says, “Would you come and would you have lunch with us and some of the other lawyers here.?Some are Christian, some aren’t. Just get to know us here what we do.” But that was a pretty easy sell because that’s all interesting to me anyways. So, I did that. And it was. And it opens your eyes to, oh, this is what your life is like, you know, 8:00 to 7:00 during the week as you’re ministering here and sincerely trying to do it, as ministry even as they’re trying to do their jobs in a secular environment. So, there’s no substitute to really getting to know our people and letting that inform our prayers, and our understanding in our application.
Hansen: I wanna get a little bit perspective here about TGC and maybe some of the difference that TGC has made. You’ve been there to see pretty much everything that TGC has done since this statement was adopted 12 years ago, as a blogger, then as a council member, then as board chairman. Just think of how many blog posts, Kevin, you’ve written in the last 12 years. Just think of how many children you’ve added to your family in the last 12 years.
DeYoung: Thankfully, not as many as the blog posts.
Hansen: That’s true. That’s an excellent point. So, let’s just say it’s been a busy 12 years for TGC and a busy 12 years for you, Kevin. Do you see any difference? Like, do you see that the gospel-centered ministry is spreading in some ways? Are there things that make you hopeful or things that make you hopeful maybe at least toward the future? What do you think about that?
DeYoung: Yeah. Well, certainly, you know, the first two notes to sound are humility and gratitude, humility, understanding that God is the one in charge, Christ is the one building his church. TGC is not a church. We all know that. We should know that TGC is a ministry informed and led by church leaders, hoping to come alongside and support the ministry of the local church. So, whatever good may have been done is by God’s grace alone. And we can recognize mistakes, and failures, and inadequacies along the way. The degree to which I think TGC has been helpful is I think in resetting what a new normal looks like, not a new normal for the culture, not that we’ve reset that.
But, you know, that the language used often was to shape or reshape the center of evangelicalism, and to be a center bounded set, not a boundary bounded set, and some of those phrases that were often used at the beginning of TGC. And I do think, by God’s grace, there has been something to celebrate there, not just in the churches that I’ve been involved with, but many other churches, even outside of our immediate circles. There’s a sense of TGC does represent mainstream conservative, evangelical Christianity. And not every article is, you know, home run. Like, not every one of my sermons is a home run. But by and large, I mean, it’s a faithful, insightful voice. And, Collin, I mean, you’ve been used mightily to get all these amazing editors, and commission articles and writers. And so, so much of the credit goes to what the Lord’s been able to do through you. I wanna thank you for that.
But I do think that the website, people continue to go to it. It continues to shape conversation. And, you know, often we can be…you know, especially those of us who live in this all the time can be drawn to the, you know, that article that shows up every two or three weeks that seems controversial or gets a lot of attention, good or bad. And yet, miss the fact that this a steady stream of articles on the website, helping people think through life issues from a Christian perspective, how to respond to the cultural issues from a gospel-centered lens, how to think about pastoral ministry, reading good book reviews, good interviews. And all of this sets a new sort of normal in a way that is slow, and small, and imperceptible, and yet amounts to a lot.
And that’s not even to speak of the other initiatives that TGC does, certainly, the conferences, and international ministry, and regional chapters. I think the future, if the Lord gives us however many years he wants to give us as a ministry and an organization, must be continued to be brought back to those first things and those first principles. You know, gospel-center has become such a buzz phrase that some of us don’t even like to use it anymore. But really, we’re about those things that are of first importance. And so, if TGC can continue to help people know the gospel, understand the gospel, have a ministry shaped by the gospel, ministry methods that are mindful of the gospel, how the gospel is adorned by our good works, how the gospel and the truth of Scripture shapes how we think about life, how we love our neighbor, I think that’s the heartbeat of TGC. And I think the Lord’s been able to see us through these 10, 12 very busy years and however many years he gives us in the future, hopefully, we’ll be faithful with that as well.
Hansen: Let’s close on this note, Kevin. I think one thing that I try to explain to people about TGC pretty often is that we’re not an organization that is a destination. We’re just a guide. We’re just trying to help you get to a place where you might be able to learn more about how to do gospel-centered ministry, especially as a church leader, especially as a pastor, a preacher, things like that, but then also as a mom with her kids, or in the workplace, or all these different kinds of areas that are laid out in our theological vision for ministry. But ultimately, we’re not trying to advance TGC. Our institutional growth and health doesn’t really matter, except it helps people to love God and to obey the commandment to love their neighbor than as themselves. And so, I think it’s appropriate that as we conclude this 10-week series on TGC’s theological vision for ministry, that we then close where the conclusion of this statement is, in a call for prayer and in a call for revival in the church. That prayer and call for 12 years ago that we continue to echo today. But I wanted to ask you from this perspective, Kevin, what signs would you be looking forward to see that God has sent revival among us?
DeYoung: Yeah. You and I have talked about revival before. And, you know, you co-authored that book.
Hansen: Yes, with John Woodbridge, yes, in 2010, God-Sized Vision.
DeYoung: Revival Stories to…
Hansen: Stretch and Stir. There you go, way to go.
DeYoung: …Stretch and Stir.
Hansen: A little book plug in there too, Kevin, thank you.
DeYoung: Kevin: You know, revival has been one of the hallmarks of evangelicalism. And it’s probably one of the marks that we don’t talk about enough and really separates…separates is maybe too strong a word, distinguishes among Christians, even today that share a lot of the same, maybe the same theological underpinnings but their approach to Revival, does it happen? Is it a good thing? Was the great awakening a good thing? Should we look for it? Should we pray for it? You read enough history as you’ve done and you understand that revival was no panacea. It often brought confusion and problems that came with…
Hansen: And division.
DeYoung: And division. But as our evangelical forefathers and mothers would agree, it also brought genuine conversion and the Spirit of the Lord was genuinely in it. I believe that, and look forward to it, and pray for it. I think the signs would be similar to what you see in Josiah’s day. In fact, I’ve preached from Josiah’s reign a number of times as a sermon about praying for revival or what to look for in revival. You see a rediscovery of the Word of God. You see a commitment to personal integrity. You see a passion to be obedient to the scriptures. I see probably more implicitly there prayer.
I think when the Spirit of God is at work and as I define revival as the ordinary work of God by the Spirit wrought in a surprising swift, extraordinary way. So, we’re not looking at things that we don’t normally want to see: conversions, awakenings, Bible readings. And revival tends to happen more quickly, more swiftly, more completely, perhaps in extraordinary, surprising ways. And so, it’s not so much in the manifestations of spiritual gifts as it is in the presentation of spiritual fruit, that I think we see revival. And true revival is always gonna go hand in hand with reformation, reformation of doctrine, and of worship, and a strong biblical preaching.
And so, we ought to long for, we ought to pray for, we ought to be thankful for all the signs of gospel health and strength that we do see. There’s so much to be embarrassed by, afraid of, so many things that we can look in the American church, and rightfully so be critical of. And yet, you only have to travel a little bit around the world to realize, yes, there’s a lot that we get wrong, but by God’s grace, He’s been so faithful to us with so many resources, so many gifts, so much ability to serve. And we ought to be thankful for all the places that we see strong churches growing up, men looking to preach the gospel, and faithfulness, and fruitfulness, and men and women being sent out all over the world. And these are encouraging signs and we ought to pray for more of them.
Hansen: My guest on “The Gospel Coalition Podcast” today has been Kevin DeYoung, TGC’s board chairman, longtime blogger, council member, and certainly one of my good friends in life and in ministry over the course. It’s been fun, Kevin, to talk about a little bit about these last 12 years because I know that, not only has TGC called us into these positions of leadership organizationally, but also this organization has shaped us in some formative years of our ministry and service. So, something to be thankful for but, again, above all grateful to God for His work of primarily working in our churches, in our families, and then also for as long as He sees fit to work through this organization called TGC. Thank you. Thank you, Kevin.
DeYoung: Thank you, Collin.