Marks of a Healthy Church: Gospel-Shaped
In the previous installment, I introduced a new series of articles on the marks of a healthy church. Notice healthy. The Belgic Confession already defines the marks of a true church as the following: the pure preaching of the gospel, the faithful administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline. Our churches can’t be healthy if they’re not true.
But my concern in these articles is not to distinguish the difference between true churches and false churches, or even true churches from less faithful churches. It is, particularly, to facilitate a conversation about what it looks like when our confessionally Reformed churches are healthy.
We all want to be healthy. The challenge is to define what healthy means. I think we can all agree that the Bible must be our measuring stick. But what does the Bible say? Does it speak about healthy churches, or are we left to navigate these waters ourselves? I believe it does tell us. We don’t have to draft a vision statement based on the latest Barna poll or the pragmatic pressures of the day. The Word sets our agenda, and anything less misses the mark.
Yet there is no verse in your concordance that reads, “The marks of a healthy church are as follows . . .” So, where do we start?
I believe we must start with the gospel.
The vision statement I suggested last time, the one our church leaders have adopted, reads as follows: “Grace URC seeks to be a gospel-shaped community of biblical grounded, confessionally Reformed worshippers, disciples, and witnesses of Jesus Christ.”
Notice that gospel-shaped comes first. This is intentional. In what follows, I want to explain why the gospel is the first and primary mark of any church that is truly healthy in the biblical sense.
The gospel has seen a resurgence lately across evangelicalism, at least in terms of terminology. Just check your local Christian bookstore and you’ll see an entire category of books that have “gospel” in the title: gospel centered, gospel driven, gospel shaped, gospel everything. And in this we should rejoice! There seems to be a growing awareness of the dangers of legalism and moralism, together with an understanding that the gospel must take center stage in all that we do.
However, like anything, especially when something becomes popular, the word can easily lose its meaning. Just because our vision statement says gospel-shaped doesn’t guarantee our church is shaped by the gospel. Moreover, the term gospel means different things to different people. Before we go any further, we should define our terms.
When we speak of the Gospel, we mean, as the word itself means, “good news.” Properly speaking, the gospel is an announcement of an event which we did not do but was done for us. The gospel is not the call to obedience, nor is it, strictly speaking, even the Word of God. The good news is the proclamation of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Listen to how the apostle Paul defines it: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1–4, English Standard Version).
J. Gresham Machen, in “The Christian Faith in the Modern World,” wrote: “What I need first of all is not exhortation, but a gospel, not directions for saving myself but knowledge of how God has saved me. Have you any good news? That is the question that I ask of you. I know your exhortations will not help me. But if anything has been done to save me, will you not tell me the facts?”
The gospel is an announcement we receive, not an exhortation we do. That is what makes it such good news. We can’t save ourselves, but thanks be to God that we are saved by faith in Christ!
And here’s where a danger looms. Our tendency is to think we’ve graduated from the gospel. It’s what got us in, but it doesn’t really help us grow or show gratitude. That part is up to us.
Yet as soon as we think the gospel is only for outsiders is the moment our self-righteousness can take over. Our worship services become solely about what we give to God and nothing about what God continues to do for us in Word and sacrament. Where the gospel is assumed, absent, or misunderstood, our churches can quickly become insular, joyless, and legalistic. We become interested only in what we are to do instead of what Christ has already done, which often leads to frustration, pride, and confusion.
But when the gospel is of “first importance,” our churches become hospitals for sinners, places of refuge for the weary, and beacons of hope for those who thirst for God. When the gospel is central, our worship becomes saturated by humble dependence. Our fellowship really becomes focused on what unites us instead of what makes us different. Our discipleship is fueled by God’s acceptance of us in Christ, which makes us want to know him more and obey his commands. And outreach becomes the natural result: we’ll want to share this good news in a world where bad news dominates the headlines.
So to summarize: the gospel is not something we do. We can’t live the gospel any more than we can be incarnated. The gospel is the good news that Jesus, God incarnate, lived a perfect life and died an atoning death so that by faith in him we might be made right with God. We live in light of the gospel, because of the gospel, and are called to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel. But the gospel is the announcement we preach and the news we receive.
Gospel-Shaped in Practice
As we all know, theory and practice are two different things. It’s one thing to say we’re gospel-shaped. It’s another thing to be gospel-shaped. So, what would it look like for our churches to be centered upon the gospel of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection?
While I want to explore this answer further in future articles by looking specifically at the four coordinates (worship, fellowship, discipleship, and outreach), here I want to suggest two areas where being gospel-shaped helps us become healthier.
The first is hospitality. As we’ve been welcomed, so we welcome. “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7).
If we are honest, sometimes, and perhaps much more than we like to admit, our conservative Reformed churches aren’t setting the standard for welcoming outsiders and visitors. We have our cliques, our comfort zones, and our cultural expectations. At times we act surprised and unprepared when strangers enter our doors, and often stand staring, hoping somebody who’s good with people will break the awkward silence.
But when the gospel takes center stage, our natural response is to welcome gladly the stranger and outsider. This becomes normal. We look for them because we were one.
If you’ve ever been an outsider to a church, you probably know the feeling of wondering if anyone will welcome you. Here’s the gospel: in Christ we have all been graciously and undeservedly welcomed by God! And not just put up with, but really welcomed. Invited. Treasured. God left heaven to pursue us, welcome us, save us, and protect us.
Where is that same gospel-shaped hospitality in our churches? What would the last month of visitors say about your church? Is it a place where the gospel shapes your welcoming practice, or just something we toss around in theory? What about people from different ethnic backgrounds? How about poor people? What about people with special needs? What about with different political views? What about people struggling with same-sex attraction? What about sinners?
The second area where being gospel-shaped makes a difference is in the week-by-week event of preaching and in the overall tone it fosters.
Preaching that focuses its attention almost exclusively on the law and our response tends to create an atmosphere that is more critical, self-righteous, and fake. Preaching that majors on the good news tends to build a community of joy, humility, and genuineness.
Admittedly, I’m painting in broad strokes here. I’m speaking in generalities. But preaching that understands that what we need most is not another list of do’s and don’ts but the amazing news that Christ is all our righteousness will produce Spirit-filled Christians whose response to the gospel is wonder and awe and obedience.
This is not to suggest that we don’t preach the law. As free followers of Christ, the law becomes our delight as we walk on its path. Yet there is a difference from preaching that regularly centers upon our response and preaching that consistently centers upon Christ and his work for us and in us.
We need the gospel every Sunday in the preaching of God’s Word. The gospel is where the power is. May our preachers and our churches be committed to the weekly exposition of the Scriptures as they center upon Christ and him crucified. “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:28–29).
To be a healthy church, we must be regularly and intentionally shaped by the gospel that both saves and sanctifies. We could be booming with programs, bustling with numbers, and building new buildings; but churches without the gospel, even when it says Reformed on the sign, are unhealthy indeed.
Rev. Michael J. Schout is the pastor of Grace URC in Alto, MI. He welcomes your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.