Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry discuss the specifics of how to begin cultivating gospel culture within your church, starting with your leadership.
In this episode:
- Introduction—best family vacation (0:00)
- Not every church service needs utility (2:56)
- Gospel culture is not an optional add-on (4:53)
- Church culture reflects what we believe (6:46)
- Does anything go? (9:33)
- When you don’t have a gospel culture (12:00)
- Cultivating gospel culture long term (13:56)
- It starts with the pastor (16:32)
- Why the team follows the pastor (20:35)
- Gospel culture in your leadership team (23:41)
- It’s not “baptized corporate America” (24:43)
- Honesty and vulnerability in leadership (26:38)
- Recommended resource: Lead by Paul Tripp (29:18)
Explore more from TGC on cultivating gospel culture in your church.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Sam Allberry: Welcome to You’re Not Crazy, a podcast for young pastors from the Gospel Coalition. I’m Sam Allberry. I’m joined as always by Ray Ortlund. Hi, Ray.
Ray Ortlund: Good to see you, Sam.
Sam Allberry: And we are really just wanting to promote and cultivate gospel sanity today in the church, and we need it. Before we get into that, Ray, best ever family vacation for you.
Ray Ortlund: Good, great question. Jenny and I made a commitment early on that we were going to take at least one week every year for vacation with the kids. Even if we couldn’t afford it, we would find a way to make it happen because that was our one unrepeatable opportunity to create family memories and to establish a kind of narrative, a mythology of our family, such that to this day, when somebody mentions the fish in the toilet in Wisconsin, we all break out into laughter because we have this narrative that’s been established through family vacations. So I would say the week in Minnesota spent fishing for pike and large mouth bass with the kids on a little lake in Minnesota, actually, we did that several times, we had a blast. And Jenny and I have no regrets about making the financial commitment and time commitment to do that. What about you, your favorite ever?
Sam Allberry: Yeah, I think in terms of family vacations, we had a few years going into Cornwall. Do you know Cornwall?
Ray Ortlund: No.
Sam Allberry: It’s the far southwest of England, lots of cliffs. If anyone out there watches Poldark, that’s where Poldark is set and filmed. So lots of hills, rugged coastline, sort of slightly mystical vibe to the place, sort of Celtic kind of feel.
Ray Ortlund: Is Stonehenge down there?
Sam Allberry: It’s on the way there, yeah.
Ray Ortlund: Okay.
Sam Allberry: But as you said that, Ray, about family memories and mythology, it would be the same. Most of the most repeated stories we have in our family probably had to do with family vacations, Dad losing all of our passports in the middle of France, that kind of thing.
Ray Ortlund: Uh-oh.
Sam Allberry: And I wasn’t intending to ask this question to go into something ministerial from it, but it strikes me that the same is true of churches, isn’t it? It’s worth investing in memories.
Ray Ortlund: Yes.
Sam Allberry: It’s good to have, a friend of mine once said, to invest in memories.
Ray Ortlund: Yes. Especially because life is hard. Life is hard all the time for everyone. Everyone coming into our church and the church as a church experiences hardship. We get our fair share. We don’t need to go looking for it. It comes and finds us. So for a church to have fun together is very healthy.
Sam Allberry: Not every church meeting needs to have some sort of utility to it. It can just be… Well, when you finished as lead pastor at Emmanuel a couple of years ago, we just had a party to celebrate, didn’t we?
Ray Ortlund: Sam, that was one of the most fun occasions I’ve ever experienced in my life. The band was up there. I mean, they’re amazing to begin with, and they were so kind. They said, “Ray, what are your favorite songs that we can play to start out the evening together?” So I had them playing Bob Dylan, and the Four Tops, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Credence, and, oh my goodness.
Sam Allberry: I’ve heard of one of those.
Ray Ortlund: Your education is still incomplete, Sam Allberry.
Sam Allberry: But I mean, it was a real blast that evening. Quite apart from the fact that it was honoring to you and we needed to mark your finishing as lead pastor in some way, that was an appropriate thing to do. Quite apart from all of that, it was just fun. And there are so many things from that evening we still talk about as a church.
Ray Ortlund: I mean, what if Jesus meant it when He said from His cross, “It is finished”? Sam, we’re not going to hell anymore. That is reason enough right there to kick up our heels and not only dig in for heavy slogging in courageous and rugged ministry, but also at times to stop everything and just have a great time together for Jesus’ sake. It’s healthy.
Sam Allberry: It is. And it’s not trivial. It’s not a distraction from true spiritual life. It’s a significant part of it, isn’t it?
Ray Ortlund: That point right there is material to the category gospel culture. Gospel culture is not an optional add-on if a certain pastor or a certain church has the personality for it or the interest in it. Gospel culture is simply gospel doctrine with all its glory and authority and gravitas, what that doctrine actually looks like, how people experience it when that doctrine enters into the soul of a congregation and transforms the, I don’t know what else, the relational social dynamics that are firing off among those people. So this is part of faithfulness. I think our category faithfulness, Sam, faithful gospel ministry, that category has been underdeveloped. And you and I are doing this podcast because we believe that category includes more than just faithful orthodox teaching.
Sam Allberry: Absolutely. Various times, you’ve said that every theology creates a sociology.
Ray Ortlund: Yes, everyone does, so we can reverse engineer it. If I’m in a church and I have this uncomfortable feeling like, “Am I the only one here who doesn’t enjoy this? Am I the only one here with doubts? Am I the only one here with sins,” that feeling of isolation and non-participation, that pressure that pushes me more out than attracts me more in, that is an indicator that maybe the doctrine of that church is not right.
Sam Allberry: And certainly it isn’t what-
Ray Ortlund: Yes.
Sam Allberry: The most prominent features of our church culture actually reflects what we really believe, don’t they?
Ray Ortlund: Yes. Every church is communicating at two levels simultaneously. The message is coming from the pulpit in the preaching and teaching, and the message is coming from the people and from the pastor, not in what they say, but in what they are and how they relate, the very countenances on their faces, the social dynamics, the reasonableness, the gentleness, the honesty, the honor, and so forth, as we’ve said before. So every church, culture is saying something. And it is possible for a church to unsay by its culture what it says by its doctrine. And whatever the culture of the church is, that will trump the doctrine. So we can be pure as the driven snow in our…
Here’s another way. I’m not saying it’s easy to preach the gospel, but doctrine is more cut and dried. It’s a matter of choosing the right English words. I mean, that does require good judgment and sincerity of thought, but it’s not that hard. But cultivating a relational environment where good things happen to bad people, which is what the gospel is all about, that requires of every pastor more sensitivity and nuance and intuitive awareness of human need. I would say, Sam, my biggest regret about, I’m 71 years old now, and for too many years, I really did not understand the human realities people were bringing into church.
And so with utter sincerity, I was preaching the Scripture, preaching the gospel as best I knew it. I was faithful to that, but I wasn’t really nurturing the people in a shared corporate experience of divine grace. So their burdens were not relieved, and the opportunities that I had right in front of me, I never saw because I just wasn’t thinking in terms of gospel culture.
Sam Allberry: One of the ways I think of it is in Colossians 1, Jesus is the image of the invisible God. He is the humanity we were always intended to be, which means He will always create humaneness. If He is the real human, if He is true humanity, then we can’t, as His people, fail to reflect a more humane way of relating to one another.
Ray Ortlund: So one of the questions that I’ve had to think through, and we inevitably do, and we’re so grateful to every young pastor who’s listening to this podcast, thank you for joining us. We’re here for you. We’re here to help. And here’s a question that Sam and I feel we’ve got to answer, and that is, does gospel culture mean that anything goes? Does gospel culture, is this an all-approving standard-less relational chaos? And the answer is no. We don’t see that anywhere in the New Testament.
The basic ground rule in a healthy church that embodies gospel doctrine in its gospel culture is this, here’s the basic ground rule. Everyone is building that culture, and no one is jeopardizing or destabilizing or unsettling that culture. So for example, gossip is not just a bad thing in gospel culture, it’s unthinkable. Undermining someone else, a snarky quip and so forth, those are poisonous behaviors and they are big-deal sins in a context of gospel culture.
Now, I would say, of course, that take adultery for example, that is a serious betrayal, a serious betrayal. And I have seen unrepentant adulterers who just kind of put their foot down and say, “You elders in this church, you pastors, you don’t understand what I’m facing,” and they’re unrepentant. They’re going to proceed in that manner. I’ve seen them disciplined by a church, but rarely have I seen an unrepentant gossip, for example, disciplined by a church. It’s not perceived as a big-deal sin, but in any gospel culture, it is because it truly is. Indeed, I have seen slanderers and gossips and so forth actually protected by elders, such that the church spiraled down into profound crisis that was totally unnecessary.
Now, how could that happen? Partly because even pastors and elders sometimes don’t even have gospel culture as a category. And instead they have gospel doctrine with a kind of sociological moralism, and unless you reach the threshold of a really big, bad, big-deal sin, one of the usual suspects, there’s no challenge. If all we have is half of faithfulness, gospel doctrine, really bad things are going to happen in the other half that is not being attended to. So gospel culture is not without standards and expectations. So that’s where we’ve come so far, and we want to take the next step in this podcast.
If there are standards and there are rules and there are expectations, it’s just that gospel culture is defined by the gospel, and the sense of moral proportion and a sense of expectations are defined by the gospel and not by mere moralism. So how can we help our leadership teams embody gospel culture? Because that’s how the whole church starts. It grows from the inside out from the pastor and the pastoral staff, other staff, the elders, deacons, and so forth, and it spreads out from there a healthy gospel culture with high standards, legitimate expectations, defined by the gospel itself, standards and expectations that people rejoice to uphold and support and so forth. How can we build that out? It seems to me, we need to press into that question.
Sam Allberry: Yeah. I get asked that a lot. Whenever this topic of gospel culture comes up, I hear pastors frequently say, “Well, okay, I’ve got that vision now, how do I start to cultivate that? How do I get the church on board with that?”
Ray Ortlund: Yeah, I think we need to take the long view it’s going to take in many of our churches, five years, 10 years, maybe 20 years to turn the corner, really catch the vision for how this works and learn new intuitions. One of the barriers to awakening is just how we do church right now.
Sam Allberry: Well, I was thinking, Jesus famously said, “By all this, all people will know that you are My disciples if you have love for one another,” not just if you have a really good doctrinal statement on a piece of paper in the church office, but if you have love for one another. That relational dynamic, Jesus says is going to be one of the key apologetics.
Ray Ortlund: And then during the first century, the Holy Spirit detonated a movement in the Roman Empire the first century. What happened, that began in Jerusalem and just began to push dominoes over in all directions in the ancient world. The preaching, the doctrine, the beliefs, the teachings of the early Christians were certainly clear and well articulated, but in some ways, offensive to people in the Roman Empire. What the Roman Empire couldn’t ignore, and they were allured by, is the sense of community among… Was it Tertullian who quoted the Romans who looked at the Christian community, this new movement spreading around the Roman Empire, and said, “How they love one another.”
The Roman Empire was not flowing togas and marble palaces and sumptuous feasts. It was brutal. It was nasty. And all of a sudden, appearing around that ancient world, human beauty in community began to appear because God was taking the gospel into new communities. And people were discovering the glory, the dignity, the thrill of entering into community where we’re not going to take one another’s lives, we’re going to lay down our own lives for one another. Boy, that is what we need today.
Sam Allberry: Yeah. So in that case then, if that’s something we really want to move into and get our churches into, and pastors are thinking, “How do I get from A to B on this?” I guess one starting point is the pastor himself being himself an embodiment of that gospel culture within his own leadership team, with his own elders, church council, whatever it might be, but actually being able to be the kind of person who attracts that kind of relational dynamic, who facilitates it and isn’t simply being the leader who’s pushy and brash and assertive, but is actually wooing people into this by his own very demeanor and posture.
Ray Ortlund: I wonder if… Oh, I totally agree because that is Jesus. He’s not a swashbuckling reckless guy throwing his weight around. He came in among us as the servant of the Lord and our servant, and broken people warmed to Him. I wonder, here’s a crazy thought, Sam. I’d love to know what you think of this, what if there’s a young pastor listening to this, and as he listens to these episodes, he’s thinking, “I wish I could start my ministry over again. There were some things I didn’t understand. I’m five years in, I’m 10 years in. I wish I could go back and take a different approach.”
Well, any growing man will have that discovery at multiple points along the way. That is a great thought. That’s not a mark of shame. It’s a mark of growth and opportunity. What if that young pastor thinks it through, discusses it with some very trusted, close allies in the church, and then when the time is right, in the not distant future, goes to the elders, goes to the staff and says, “I’d like to begin again. I think this church needs a new pastor, and I’d love to be that new pastor. Maybe you’d like to begin again too, and just relearn together with me how to be Christians and how to be a church and put everything right out on the table and begin again.”
Sam Allberry: It’s one instance, one example of Paul saying to Timothy, “that people may see your progress.” So actually, if we’re needing to do course corrections, whether they are minor or major, in the middle of our ministry, that’s actually a sign of health. That’s a sign of growth, not a sign of everything’s going wrong.
Ray Ortlund: Yes, I’m in Acts 29, and there were some years there when we pastors in Acts 29 were kind of famous for telling people what to do and not listening and persuading. We were leading by commanding people rather than by inspiring people. I mean, there was a lot of health there too, but the needle was moving too often over toward more assertive and directive leadership, not often enough toward listening and reasoning, and we paid a price for that. And Matt Chandler has really helped us correct our swashbuckling sort of buccaneer tactics as young pastors. I mean, I’ve never been young, I’m the oldest guy in Acts 29, but he has really helped us. And so we have turned in Acts 29.
Here’s a question that every pastor needs to ask, “Does your team follow you because they have to, their livelihood is on the line, or does your team follow you because they want to, because they see in you the living embodiment of their own ideals and their own aspirations. Are you leading with moral authority, or do you just have institutional authority?” There’s a big difference between the two.
I saw my own dad. He was at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena for 20 years, two clearly marked decades. The first 10 years he was laying foundations. The second 10 years that church went into warp speed. We could not wait for Sunday to come. And what I don’t even think my dad realized is that as those years went by, he himself became the living embodiment of the most cherished ideals of that sociological reality called Lake Avenue Church people. He was able with a delicate touch to sort of move mountains because that was the nature of his leadership. It was very Christ-like, and he was sticking his neck out, leading himself with the sheer force, I’ll use that word, with the beautiful force of who he was as a man of God, and the church really responded.
Sam Allberry: I mean, that sounds like he’s just embodying 1 Peter. I was looking at 1 Peter 5, “Pastors should not be domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock,” so not leading through force of personality, but leading through, what should make you compelling is the example of Christ in you.
Ray Ortlund: Yeah. Maybe some of us need to become less cool. I mean, I’m in no danger of being too cool, right? I was cool for about 15 minutes in the summer of 1968, I think it was. But some of you guys are so impressive and so captivating, and you have such charisma and so forth. Well, if that’s just you being you, great, okay. It’s a gift of God. He’s sprinkled some pixie dust on you, and that’s great. But if you really want to build a captivating church that compels the attention of your city, you’ve got to be a man of God. You’ve got to be able to say with the apostle Paul, “Follow me as I follow Christ,” and then your people will do more than follow you. They will trust you. They will respect you. They will love you. And that church will begin to take on the very honor and dignity and quality and integrity that you yourself are displaying on a consistent basis. It will be powerful.
Sam Allberry: I think the most immediate area a pastor can begin with this is the leadership team. We’ve talked in other episodes about honoring one another about honesty and walking in the light. And our leadership meetings are a great opportunity to cultivate those things. If the leaders can begin to taste that and be attracted to that and really grow into that, they will then become ambassadors for it in so many other areas of the church.
Ray Ortlund: Yes, real change in a church begins from the inside and moves out. And it’s not a matter of programming. Programming is actually a very weak kind of delivery system. The character and quality and radiance of a leadership team is unstoppable. So start with your leaders, other pastors, staff, elders, and so forth. And okay, here are some thoughts. Let me put them out on the table, see what you think. Here’s one thought, Sam. Begin by accepting that your leadership culture is not just a baptized version of corporate America. It’s a different kind of reality altogether.
So for example, when you get together in, let’s say a meeting of the elders, and obviously you begin every elders’ meeting with a verse of Scripture, and it’s your privilege as pastor to bring that Scripture, just open up one verse, maybe a brief paragraph, and then pray together. Let that Scripture lead you right into prayer. So if we think in terms of Jesus’ community mission as the basic shape and the basic priorities of a healthy church, always start with Jesus. He always comes first. And we experience that at a practical level by opening up a meeting of elders with you open your Bible and read a verse, read something of Scripture, talk about it together, savor it together, enjoy it together, get their thoughts, what stands out in their minds about that verse, and then pray together and give thanks to God and praise Him and ask Him for His sacred and wonderful help.
Okay, so you start with Jesus. Now, typically what we do next in our meetings is we go to the agenda. And we have decisions to make, we have budgetary issues to consider and so forth, all legitimate, all important, but that actually is a mistake. If Jesus’ community mission is how Christianity flows, it flows from Jesus through us into mission, then the agenda after Jesus should be community. So the next question after Scripture and prayer in that meeting is you look around the table, “How are you, really? How are you?” And then you cultivate a vulnerability, honesty, gentleness reality among that elder team. And it took me a long time to understand, it took years to understand how important that was. And it was counterintuitive to me as much as to anybody else.
Sam Allberry: Presumably, people aren’t always going to get there on the first week, either. It takes people a while to realize it is actually safe to be honest in that kind of context.
Ray Ortlund: Yes. It’s not hard, and it’s more intuitive to be Jesus’ mission, community as an afterthought. But coming back to the Scripture you were citing a moment ago, Sam, John 13:34 and 35, one of the greatest passages in the Bible, “By this, everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Community is mission. It’s not the whole of mission, but community is very much what gives mission credibility. Otherwise, a church comes across to the mission field as if it’s just another faction, another political party, another business with a religious product. And the church doesn’t even realize how much it’s saying, “You really need to be more like us. Your problem is you’re not as good as we are. So we’re here to help you see how wrong you are, and then you can join us and become better.” And I mean, who in his right mind would move toward that kind of church?
But what if that church is a place where beginning with the leadership, everybody’s opening up and talking about what’s difficult in life right now, and they find support, they find understanding, and they find prayer? And then the city can look at that and say, “If those people are going down to that level, well, I can go down.” Anybody can go down, so let’s go down together to the reality of our lives and open up and share that together, starting with the elders and let’s see what God does with that.
Sam Allberry: I’ll wrap up. Well, Ray, there’s lots to think more about on that. We’ll pause there for now and call it a day with this episode. We are grateful as always to Crossway for helping for sponsoring this podcast and for helping us pay some bills. One particular resource that we would love to commend to you is the book Lead by Paul Tripp. Many of us will be familiar with Paul’s ministry and just what a blessing he is. And I know many have already been deeply impacted by this book. Subtitle is 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church, and that really is the challenge to let the gospel drive what leadership is and looks like. And so we would commend that very much to you. Thanks for listening.
Ray Ortlund: Yeah, we know you have a ton to do these days, and so it means a lot to us that you would listen to the podcast. Thank you for listening to this episode of You’re Not Crazy: Gospel Sanity for Young Pastors. Do visit tgc.org/podcasts for more episodes, and it would be great if you’d subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts. Thank you for doing that, Spotify, wherever you listen, wherever you hang out. Thanks.
Andrew Laparra: The You’re Not Crazy podcast was made possible by multiple team members at TGC. That team includes the hosts of the show, Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry, as well as Steven Morales and Andrew Laparra as executive producer and producer, Heather Ferrell, our podcast lead, Gabriel Reyes, our graphic designer, and Josh Diaz, our audio engineer. You’re Not Crazy is a part of the Gospel Coalition Podcast Network. You can find more podcasts at tgc.org/podcasts.