What makes a church Jesus-centered? The right doctrine? The right programs? The right pastors? The right people?
In their new book, Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church (B&H), Matt Chandler (lead pastor of teaching at The Village Church outside Dallas), Josh Patterson (lead pastor of ministry leadership at The Village), and Eric Geiger (vice president of the church resources division at LifeWay) explore what it means to build a church around the life, death, and resurrection of King Jesus. What characterizes congregations who have let the good news saturate and shape their very culture?
I corresponded with Chandler about Creature of the Word, common features of “off-centered” churches, contextualizing to our kids, and more.
There are a lot of good (and bad) books out there about the church. What’s the distinctive contribution of Creature of the Word?
Few books on the local church combine both the theological and the practical without being overly prescriptive on individual church practice. We sought for Creature of the Word to find that sweet spot, to marry theology and practice without giving church leaders a vision statement to photocopy. From a distinctive vantage point, we simply wanted to help the reader saturate the church in the gospel from the parking lot to the preschool ministry to the pulpit.
What burdened you, Josh, and Eric to write this book?
We are incredibly grateful and excited that leaders are returning to an emphasis on the gospel as Christ’s redemptive and finished work for us. We are burdened that churches would embrace the gospel for all of their existence and not solely their doctrinal statements and teaching. Because of our proclivity to drift from grace, many churches could have a “gospel doctrine” without a church culture saturated in the gospel. We long for Christ’s church to be centered on him—for harmony between confession and culture.
I imagine many (if not most) Christians already assume they’re in a “Jesus-centered church.” What are some common traits or tendencies of churches that don’t sufficiently revolve around Christ?
We’re aware this assumption exists and are burdened by it. In fact, in January 2013 we are launching a “Year of the Word” campaign for churches and individuals to walk through an audit and renewal process looking into the reality of whether or not our churches and our lives are centered on the life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus.
Drift is always subtle, personally and corporately. We have to be vigilant to honestly evaluate the spiritual health of our community and culture. For instance, is your church a safe place to struggle? Is there an atmosphere of grace? Does the believer struggling with sin feel compelled by the culture of your church to wear a mask and promote an image? Or is there a healthy culture of confession and repentance? Is there a welcoming spirit of hospitality that exudes the hospitable nature of Christ to both the member and the guest? Is there an evident heart for the nations and missional living? Does your children’s ministry promote morals and virtues apart of the reality and empowerment of the gospel? Are sermons laced with Jesus and the promises of his gospel, or is he strangely absent? Is there a culture and pervasive spirit of prayer, or are most decisions pragmatic in nature?
Questions like these serve as primers for a vital discussion that we all need to be having on a regular basis.
You write, “At The Village we have grown in our understanding of contextualization in our next-generation ministries (preschool, children, and youth).” I can’t say I’ve ever heard this demographic mentioned in a contextualization discussion. What does next-generation contextualization look like at The Village?
As we stated in the book, everybody contextualizes; the question is how well. When you use the language of a culture, you are contextualizing. When you deliver age-appropriate messages from the pulpit or in children’s ministry, you are contextualizing. When you wear a suit rather than a tunic, you are contextualizing. These are very basic levels of contextualization, but they still illustrate the point: everyone makes contextual decisions. The essence of the message doesn’t change, but the delivery mechanism does.
For instance, in our preschool ministry we’ve structured the teaching based on a child’s age. Our 1-year-olds have eight narrative lessons that tie into five foundational truths. We intentionally repeat these lessons six times throughout the year. But a 3-year-old is introduced to a lead teacher format and has 26 unique lessons that we do two weeks in a row for the sake of repetition. This is entirely different than how we approach elementary-age children, middle school students, and high school students.
All of these decisions are based on the context we’re trying to love and serve with the gospel. We need to start recognizing that contextual thinking is not just for the church planter or missiologist; rather, it’s for everyone desiring to maintain the distinctive essence of the gospel message while sharing it in a meaningful way with anyone who would hear.
“Although the gospel does impact everything,” you observe, “everything is not the gospel. If everything about Jesus and the Bible becomes ‘the gospel’ to us, then we end up being gospel-confused rather than gospel-centered.” What are some on-the-ground consequences of this mistake?
There are places and programs in church life that are philosophical in nature and not necessarily theological. Things like small groups versus Sunday school, styles of worship and dress for weekend services, and so forth. I could name more, but I think that short list makes my point. When tools meant to stir up the truths of the gospel in us are viewed as the gospel themselves, we begin to fight over fringe things that, while perhaps important, should be handled in light of our preferences rather than elevated to a place of sacredness in and of themselves.
Trevin Wax has suggested that the ministry gifting rubric of prophet/priest/king is represented by you/Patterson/Geiger, respectively. How does this unique dynamic shape the book?
We share a strong and singular commitment to God’s truth and his church, but the Lord has given us unique functions in his body. By working together on the project, our hope and prayer is that the approach results in a more complete book than would have been possible alone. We also enjoyed the challenge and thought it was appropriate to write in community since we were writing on the church, the community of Christ followers.