Gospel Preaching Isn’t Enough

“I thought if I preached gospel-centered sermons, I’d have a gospel-centered church,” a friend lamented to me. His church was rife with gossip, dissension, moralism, and apathy, despite a deep gospel centrality on Sunday mornings. The church had a gospel pulpit, but not a gospel culture.

Our conversation caused me to reassess the culture of my own church—and renewed my zeal to help others do the same. As I network with leaders, I see this mistake repeated consistently. Pastors and leaders are waking up to the centrality of the gospel. They hear leaders like Tim Keller talk about “getting the gospel down deep” into every aspect of the heart and life. And they labor in their preaching and their discipleship to do just that. But they neglect to apply the same insight to their church as an organization. They fail to “get the gospel down deep” into the ethos of their church.

Organizational culture is crucial. We see this in business, as Patrick Lencioni has recently observed: “The single greatest advantage any company can achieve is organizational health.” And we see it in the Bible, for example, when the writer of Kings observes that Jehoshaphat “did what was right in the sight of the Lord; yet the high places were not taken away, and the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places” (1 Kings 22:43). Israel had developed a culture of idol worship—and that culture persisted even when the idol worship itself temporarily ceased. Hezekiah was a more shrewd reformer: he “removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah” (2 Kings 18:4).

Culture is the “feel” of an organization. It’s what’s caught rather than taught. It’s what oozes out of the corners of your communication, your staffing decisions, and your community groups. The gospel is not just preached from the pulpit; it permeates the DNA of the organization. People regularly celebrate Jesus and the redemption he provides. Heart idolatry, unbelief, and “the sin beneath the sin” are familiar terms and concepts. Staff and leaders are discipled to understand the dynamics of spiritual renewal and to consistently practice repentance and faith.

Preaching a gospel-centered sermon is relatively easy, at least when compared to building a gospel culture. Culture shaping takes time and prayer and patience and persistence. But rest assured: it’s part of our calling as leaders. So we can’t be satisfied with preaching the gospel. By God’s grace, we must work the gospel down deep into the fabric of our churches and ministries. Here are some questions that have helped me assess the DNA we’re forming in our church:

  • Is our children’s ministry curriculum gospel-centered? Is it teaching kids to see Jesus as the hero of every story and to trust him?
  • Does our worship service have a “gospel flow” to it that includes communal confession of sin, hearing the promises of the gospel, and responding in faith?
  • Are we training our community group leaders to “get to the heart” with the people they’re leading and discipling? Do they understand the dynamics of spiritual renewal and how to facilitate it in others?
  • Do we regularly help emerging leaders identify basic idolatries (fear of man, control, respect, knowledge, comfort) and turn from them in repentance and faith?
  • Do our counseling ministries surface unbelief and false gods? Do our counselors show people how Jesus is better, urging them to repent and believe in a way that brings true change?
  • Are we training elders and future elders to be more “gospel fluent” so they can skillfully apply the gospel to all kinds of problems and issues in the church?

If you’re looking for good tools to help in some of these areas, check out the resources at the Gospel Resource Network. But whether you use our resources, find others, or create your own, make sure you’re doing more than just preaching gospel-centered sermons. Because gospel preaching is great . . . but a gospel culture is better.

  • brooks

    Yet for some reason, Jehoshaphat was said to have done ‘what was right.’ To boot, he rid the country of cult male prostitutes. God’s opinion was that even though the poles were not removed, King J still did ‘what was right.’ It wasn’t, “King J did almost what was right.”

    There was nothing left for him to do.

    If a healthy organization is one in which its members are not gossiping, comparing, arguing, and questioning, I don’t think that it’s an attainable goal. It would be easier to “shut down your church” and sleep easy than to strive after heaven on earth, where Jesus is done finding messy people and atoning for them.

    A preacher ‘does what is right’ when he preaches the gospel. That’s it. Further, the more we preach the gospel, the more sin we’re going to _notice_. That’s why the epistles are rife with counter-cultural instruction rather than revival-scented championing; even though many of the church’s members were Jesus’ Twitter followers and Apostolic Facebook followers. It just doesn’t get more depressing for a pastor than when he believes he can cause culture change.

    It’s the Spirit’s job, period. Methods inspired by any other view is not ‘doing what is right.’

    All that said… Thune’s methods suggested above are great methods and changes. Without a gospel motivation however, all methods – even ones labeled ‘gospel’ – will only add to a pastor’s frustration.

  • Kevin

    Dear Bob,

    I think there are many people in the church who believe it’s not necessary to repent of their sins. As long as they confess Christ, they figure that it’s covered under the blood and they can live how they want. Unfortunately, that’s not in the Bible.

    As long as we have these earthly bodies, we will struggle with sin, but 1John 1:6 says if we refuse to repent of our sins, we have no fellowship in him. These people are those whom the Lord will say “depart from me, I never knew you” (Luke 13:27). They forget that all unrepentant sin, whether small or great, leads to hell. The Holy Spirit will convict us of any unrepentant sin, but if we harden our hearts to Him, we are headed down a slippery slope. That’s why we are told to judge ourselves – lest we be judged.

    I think there needs to be more preaching about hell. We don’t have to preach it angrily, but out of love and sincerity. Also, there needs to be greater understanding of the consequences of sin and what happens to those who refuse to repent. Having a fear of hell is to have the fear of God.

    1 John 2:3 – God’s litmus test to know we’re true Christians

  • http://www.godcamedown.com Chtrist Centered Teaching

    If by “Gospel” you mean “Jesus” then say “Jesus”.
    I have witnessed much tendency in the church towards “Gospel Centered” but much of it amounts to talking about Christ in-the-third-person.
    “A Gospel without Christ is no Gospel”. C.H.Spurge on
    It should be the other way around.The phrase “Gospel”should be occasionally and “Jesus” should be frequent.
    Now you may think I’m saying we should give A canned impression of sincerity concerning portrayal Of Christ?
    Not at all what I mean.
    I’m staying we need to know Him personally and introduce people to Him as such. First person presentation of first hand knowledge of Jesus.
    God bless,C.C.T.

  • http://abramkj.wordpress.com Abram

    Good call about children’s curriculum. I think the pastor needs to attend to Christian education in a church (for all ages, in all its many facets) at least as much as he or she attends to the sermons.

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  • http://mackeyministry.blogspot.com Bob Mackey

    Good reminder Bob Thune. True and simple – but often forgotten.

    Have we emphasized public preaching at the expense of relational community in which leaders can model gospel living? I have heard many good gospel-centered sermons, for which I am thankful. But struggling to live out the gospel with others has had equal impact. Unfortunately such events are too rare.

    I might add a bullet point: Is our church structured so that we (leaders, laity and the lost) can, to a greater degree, ‘do life’ together and therefore model gospel-centered spirituality?

    God bless, Bob