More Than a Reference Point
If you've been around the church world long enough, you've probably heard someone somewhere talk about being "gospel-centered" – gospel-centered preaching, gospel-centered worship, gospel-centered counseling, gospel-centered everything. And you've probably had one of a number of reactions to these pretentious-sounding assertions of unique commitment to the gospel – reactions that range from indignance at the implications regarding apparently non-gospel-centered churches and ministries to amusement at what sounds like an awfully simplistic approach to life and ministry. I initially reacted with a little of both and a lot of everything in between. I was at first a little confused at what people meant and why they were so adamant about it. But the more I learned, the more it made sense to me, and the more I liked it...until finally I decided “gospel-centered,” as a term, is just too small to capture what people are saying, that the relationship between the gospel and ministry is much more robust than mere centeredness. But before I explain what I think the gospel is to ministry, let me explain the idea of gospel-centeredness.
Gospel-centeredness is an approach to ministry, indeed a philosophy of ministry that keeps the essential message of Christ and Him crucified at the center of all it does. Preaching expounds the gospel and what it means from every text in scripture, and it directs the message not only towards unbelievers but towards believers as well. Prayer stems from the reality that Jesus' death and resurrection are what grant us access to God and favor in His sight. Praise is an orbiting around and admiring of the glory and power and love of God in what He's done for us in Christ Jesus. Theology is a system of thought that finds the gospel as its apex and fulcrum. Counseling is an application of the implications of what Jesus' work on our behalf mean for our everyday experiences of pain, trial, and sin. Mercy ministry is a responsive and practical expression of the mercy we have received from the God who granted riches to paupers and pardoned debt for delinquents, who knows the pain of His people and ultimately relieves it. Sanctification is the practice of living out the gospel every day. Gospel-centered is good. But the term is too small.
Now, you may accuse me of playing word games here, but I want to escape the limits that the vocabulary of "centeredness" puts on our understanding of the relationship between the gospel and ministry. "Centeredness" implies a fixed point of reference or a static location on a path or cycle. But the gospel is more than an important, foundational principle we keep coming back to or a reference point by which we measure ourselves. It's not just a right-path/wrong-path indicator or even the defining mark of ministry done and conceived rightly. Saying the gospel is "central," while certainly implying priority, makes it subordinate to whatever centers around it, as though it is the core principle within the paradigm of ministry or of preaching or of worship or of whatever. But the reality is that the gospel is the paradigm, and everything else is subordinate to that paradigm. More than the center of ministry, the gospel provides the framework by which it works itself out through the various avenues of ministry so that ministry, in all its forms, is just an outworking of the gospel that requires and empowers it. This dynamic of causation and expression suggests that the gospel goes beyond centrality to being centering and centrifugal. It's centering in that it provides the mission, boundaries, and priorities of ministry. And it's centrifugal in that it's what generates the movement that breaks our inertial stagnancy and gets us out of ourselves and into the life of Christ and the lives of others. In sum, ministry happens because of the gospel (centrifugal); ministry is doing the work of the gospel (central); and ministry is doing the work of the gospel on the gospel’s terms (centering).
This is where we begin to see that what people mean by “gospel-centeredness” expands beyond centrality to modality. As our paradigm for ministry, the gospel determines our approach to ministry, and it gives our ministry direction. It gives us a new way of seeing and thinking about the world, God, self, and others. It shows us how to meet people "where they're at," because, in a sense, it's precisely what tells us where they're at, and it tells us what God does for people in every phase, category, and season along the way to either glory or judgment. To put it another way, you could say the gospel is a key to a map – to God’s map of how to do life His way, God’s revelation of Himself and wisdom and righteousness in Scripture. The map defines the landscape, distinguishing between priorities, informing perspective, giving direction, orienting us to the world and the people around us. But the key (the gospel) tells us how to interpret the map, how to read it, what we’re meant to get out of it. But more than the key to the map, it’s the manual to the map. It tells us where we’re going, giving us goals. It tells us how to get there, giving us methods. It tells us why we’re going where we’re going and doing what we’re doing, giving us ideology and ethics. The gospel is central to all of this, because it’s more than central – it’s paradigmatic.
It is this conviction – that the gospel is the central ministry-paradigm of Scripture – that gives Redeemer church its shape and culture. This is what defines and motivates us, what comprises our philosophy and drives our methodology. This is our identity as a church. And for the next three weeks we will explore the implications of a gospel paradigm for preaching, counseling, and service at Redeemer church. We hope you are compelled by our vision and moved to share our convictions as we seek to build the church on the foundation of Christ with Christ through the ministry of the gospel (1 Cor 2:1-5; 3:5-17).