I’m that guy that opens up the hood of his car when something goes wrong and stares at everything waiting for a big on/off switch to suddenly appear. I have no idea what I’m doing. If someone came by and said I needed to to replace this filter or pump or spray this stuff or get a new whatever rod, I’d do it. I don’t understand how stuff fits together and the relationship between the parts. I am proficient at turning the key and driving (at a high-level, mind you).

I do respect the heck out of a guy who knows how stuff (technically speaking) fits together. I trust them.

When I look at some of the trends in Evangelicalism, and in particular the Gospel-Centered movement, I wonder if pastors are more like the mechanic or the mechanically challenged guy. What I mean is, are pastors just looking for the “on-off” switch or do they actually know how things fit together? Do we understand the implications of doing or saying certain things? Do we understand church history and historical theology?

Let me give you an observation of where we seem to be and then a theological proposition as to why this makes no sense.

An Observation

First, the observation. “The Seeker Sensitive Movement” attempted to appeal to unbelievers by intentionally shaping ministry with them in mind. They asked the question, “What is the unbeliever looking for?” In attempting to answer the question via the church they created a ministry suited for unbelieving Harry and Sally. This was cool and trendy 10-20 years ago in the US and in some sections still is. Over time it lost its freshness and impact. It also didn’t seem to work very well. Some guys became disgruntled with the methods and looked around at what else was cool. Right about this time there was thankfully a recovery of the gospel as the center. Soon the phrase “gospel-centered” is as ubiquitous as beards and plaid shirts at conferences. In many stations today the gospel is cool (I still don’t get how this works, but we’ll go with it). In particular, churches that articulate a gospel-centered view of ministry are considered “in.”

I have seen people marry some of the seeker sensitivity with gospel-centeredness. In other words, they seem to talk, write, and think as if the two go together. I don’t think this is helpful. I don’t think they fit together. Here’s why: you can’t marry a surpassing confidence in the beauty and sufficiency of the gospel with pragmatism. They cancel each other out.

A Theological Proposition

Now, the theological proposition. The Bible is clear that the gospel itself is powerful and that it saves us from ourselves (Rom. 1:16-17).  In other words, our main problem is selfishness and we don’t get saved from that by appealing to self. We get saved from that by the proclamation of the gospel.

A gospel-centered church should not be catered to a consumer-driven culture because the gospel saves us from selfishness. The heart of consumerism is the god of self. We aim to feed and satisfy the desires and demands of self. However, at the heart of the gospel is a call away from self (because self is the problem) toward Christ (he is the solution).

The threshold to the entry of the church is divinely engraved with this inscription: “If anyone wishes to come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Lk. 9:23) Quite literally this is, if anyone wants to line up behind me let them repudiate the worth, pursuit and identity he has built for himself. Let him be willing to take on the shame, rejection, and mocking that attends the foolishness of following me and my doctrine, and then let him line up behind me, even to death. This cannot be reconciled with selfishness. The basic tenets of the gospel are a judgment upon self and the provision of salvation from self.

A gospel-centered church cannot be catered to a consumer-driven society. Now, it may be the answer to one who has been tossed to the bottom of the ocean of selfishness but the gospel does not waltz with self aboard the cruise ship of our personal celebration. The gospel repudiates us it doesn’t congratulate us.

When I hear gospel-centered being dropped more and more I wonder if guys who are saying it really understand the categories. I don’t expect the church members to be the mechanics. However, the pastors, authors, conference speakers and leaders have got to have this down. This does not mean that we don’t aim to reach those entrenched in consumer-driven thinking, but it does mean that don’t forget the gospel when we try to reach them.

I know it is increasingly unfashionable to say anything negative about anybody or anything anymore, but at some point, you have got to let the implications of the gospel stand or else you do actually lose the gospel. A gospel-centered church should hopefully be intriguing and even strange but it should not be attractive to a consumer-driven culture. These two cannot walk together because they do not agree (Amos 3:3).


(photo via Shutterstock)

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18 thoughts on “A Gospel-Centered Church Cannot Be Consumer Driven”

  1. Brian says:

    Nice “beard” Erik! eh-hem… As Romans 1:16 says “the gospel is the power of God”… not methods or means. I have felt like you for a while. As Kyle Idleman said in “Not A Fan” – ‘Jesus isn’t a product to be marketed’… how about we seek to glorify God with our lives, pray as if our lives depended on Him, and let the Spirit of God bring people to Himself?

    1. Erik Raymond says:

      It is beard and plaid.

      1. Brian says:

        LOL nice… that’s a shirt for another day…

        1. Erik Raymond says:

          Well done.

      2. Joan says:

        You fellas forgot about the glasses….

        But, in all seriousness, thoughtful read. Thank you.

  2. chuck says:

    Hello, I am reading a book on the life of Martyn Lloyd Jones and one thing I came across is where he stated that gospel preaching must first convict the listener that he is a sinner before God, his situation is desperate and the only hope is Christ. I think to many of today’s churches try to do the opposite.

  3. David Keyes says:

    I know it’s hard to write 1 blog/article and cover everything, so covering all the bases on a subject as big as the Gospel in this limited space would have been impossible. I personally could not agree more with you on the power of the Gospel, on its message of death to self and surrendering to the call to take up our crosses and follow Jesus.

    However, perhaps there was need to define “seeker sensitive”, because what I see in the Gospels of Matthew-John is a pattern where the Messiah was often (not always) going out and meeting people’s needs for healing, food & demonic deliverance, and THEN speaking to them about the Kingdom of God in parables that fit their cultural surroundings (shepherds, vinedressers, etc)

    Yes, it is true, that in the Gospel of John, Jesus had a literal “come to Jesus” moment when He raised the stakes to thin the herd of those who were just looking for free food (discipleship should always raise the expectations over time), but that does not cancel the apparent evidence that Jesus was “seeker sensitive” as He came “seeking to save those who are lost”.

    I understand there are pastors/churches that have gone overboard in appealing to the flesh of potential Christ-followers, just as I see some “Gospel-centered” churches appear to say, “The cookies are on the top shelf. If you can get to them, then you’ll find the Gospel to be worth the climb.” As someone who has been at home in what I consider faithful, Gospel-sharing churches in both camps, I would encourage all of us to take the best from both ideas, because they are both part of Jesus’ model and message.

    Should we speak out against the extremes that move beyond Biblical doctrine and practice? Absolutely. Should we declare that anyone under either title (seeker sensitive/Gospel centered) is unworthy simply because of the failures of some who claim that tag? Doesn’t that seem a little like the time the disciples told Jesus that they’d tried to shut down the exorcists casting out demons in His name who weren’t among the chosen 12? His response was to cease & desist because “whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40) If a church uses Jesus-like methods enabling them to reach out to people far from God and to preach a Gospel of grace alone, faith alone, Jesus (substitutionary death/burial/bodily resurrection) alone… can we not press forward together with the Gospel and let those servants’ Master deal with any shortcomings in His perfect way and timing?

    Just asking
    Blessings to all in Jesus’ name

    1. Xf. says:

      My fear is that we often look too much into the text of the Gospel and not at THE Gospel Himself in regards to doing ministry.

      1. Erik Raymond says:

        Not quite sure how you can have a gospel apart from the Scripture. Perhaps we don’t mean the same thing by gospel. I am referring to the truth of what Christ has done to save sinners through his life, substitutionary death, and powerful resurrection (1 Cor. 15.3ff).

    2. Erik Raymond says:

      Good question. I think you are parsing the line between strategic catering of the message and the environment to people (seeker driven) and contextualization. When you read Acts 17 Paul speaks to two different people groups but seems to have a firm grasp on both their framework and the gospel. In neither case is he pragmatic and calculating. The seeker movement historically has been both. Remember, Paul told them to “repent” which is tantamount to a cuss word in some circles.

  4. Emily Lightner says:

    So, I am facilitating the Perspectives course out in Western Kansas. I totally agree with you, but we just finished discussing the E and P scales, which have to do with rating the difficulty of someone understanding the Gospel (E scale) and getting someone plugged into a church (P scale). P-3 means the new believer’s culture and language is radically different from the local church. P-2 the difference is less, and so on. The higher the P number, the more difficult it is for the new believer to stay committed to the local church. Yes, this is more for cross-cultural missions, but I think it can be applied to the local setting as well. And I may not have a good enough understanding of what these things mean. But anyway, if our culture is consumer-driven, how do we create a church that appeals to the consumer-driven culture all around us but doesn’t encourage it? Maybe that’s a question for another article…

    1. Brian says:

      “If our culture is consumer-driven, how do we create a church that appeals to the consumer-driven culture all around us but doesn’t encourage it?” a challenging statement. Consumer-driven is narcissistic – “it’s all about me.” The church is, or should be, all about Jesus. I have always believed the church, if truly biblical, was to be counter-cultural – Jesus-centered, not me centered. Church isn’t about a “what’s in it for me” – but what Jesus did for me. We have to come to the end of ourselves (see our desperate need) before we can give ourselves completely to Jesus. If the people in the church would reflect the loving, giving, and graciousness of Jesus, then it would be light for “consumer-driven” folks looking for hope. But first they have to see they have a great need…

      1. Erik Raymond says:

        Good comment Brian. Thanks.

    2. Erik Raymond says:

      Thanks for the comment Emily. I’m explicitly saying that we should not appeal to the consumer culture but instead aim to be faithful to God’s Word. I believe that faithfulness does not mean being culturally insensitive or personally offensive. There is a way to be faithful and winsome. Let’s remember that the Apostle Paul told the Corinthians about the priority of order and faithfulness said that when an unbeliever enters “the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” (1 Cor. 14.25) I’ve seen this happen. Let’s not forget the power of the Holy Spirit and the effectiveness of the gospel.

      1. Emily Lightner says:

        Okay…sorry to dwell on this. I am just trying to reconcile what this article is saying and what we are learning in my class. Maybe the two aren’t as related as I am thinking in my head. Can you give me some specific examples of what constitutes consumerism in church and some examples of winsome Gospel-centeredness? Maybe that will help me understand better?

  5. Chuckt says:

    I was grading papers in church while my wife was in choir and I saw the plan laid out on the desks which said, “Keep them happy, keep them happy, keep them happy.”

  6. Brian says:

    Great explanation Chuck! Emily, the gospel or Jesus isn’t a product to be marketed to convince people he’ll benefit them. Too many churches today are trying to “sell a product like a business” to keep a customer without telling them, “oh by the way, take up your cross and follow Jesus – surrender your all to Him.” Consider ‘giveaways’ churches use to get people in the door – TVs, iPads, etc. Or how about churches gearing their programs to appeal to the ‘felt needs’ of people. The problem? Are ‘felt needs’ really the need people have? The deep need is forgiveness and hope – the good news of the gospel. Reflect on this statement – “what we win them with is what we win them to.” Since when is God who became man, coming to earth, sacrificing His life, rising from the dead not powerful enough? We must realize that ONLY the Spirit of God draws people to Himself and transforms life. Calling on Him in prayer and sharing the good news of the gospel (showing grace, loving & giving) is still the only way to really impact others lives.

  7. Maddie Townsend says:

    Excellent article! I often feel that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is viewed as a product to be reviewed rather than a way of life, especially among my college peers. This was a beautiful, concise read.

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Erik Raymond

Erik Raymond is senior pastor of Emmaus Bible Church in Omaha, Ne. He and his wife Christie have six children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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