What does a gospel-centered church look like?

I find myself constantly thinking through the implications of the gospel in my personal life and in the life of the church. In fact I want my mind to be like a gospel grid in which I see, interpret and understand everything in this world. With that said, here is a wonderful description from Tim Keller, Center Church, of how the gospel impacts every aspect of the church. First of all let’s articulate what the heart of the gospel is…

New Testament scholar Simon Gathercole offers the following outline of the gospel taught by Paul and the Gospel writers:

1. The Son of God emptied himself and came into the world in Jesus Christ, becoming a servant. This is the incarnation and the upside-down aspect of the gospel.
2. He died on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice. This is the atonement and the inside-out aspect of the gospel.
3. He rose from the grave as the firstfruits of a whole renewed world. This is the resurrection and the forward-back aspect of the gospel.

So those are three key aspects of the gospel. How does that impact the church?

A church that truly understand the implications of the biblical gospel, letting the Word of Christ dwell in it richly (Col 3:16), will look like an unusual hybrid of various church forms and stereotypes. Because of the inside-out, substitutionary atonement aspect, the church will place great emphasis on personal conversion, experiential grace renewal, evangelism, outreach, and church planting. This makes it look like an evangelical-charismatic church. Because of the upside-down, kingdom/incarnation aspect, the church will place great emphasis on deep community, cell groups or house churches, radical giving, and sharing of resources, spiritual disciplines, racial reconciliation, and living with the poor. This makes it look like an Anabaptist “peace” church. Because of the forward-back, kingdom/restoration aspect, the church will place great emphasis on seeking the welfare of the city, neighborhood and civic involvement, cultural engagement, and training people to work in “secular” vocations out of a Christian worldview. This makes it look like a mainline church or, perhaps, a Kuyperian Reformed church. Very few churches, denominations, or movements integrate all of these ministries and emphases. Yet I believe that a comprehensive view of the biblical gospel-one that grasps the gospel’s inside-out, upside-down, and forward-back aspects-will champion and cultivate them all. This is what we mean by a Center Church.

It is critical that we are teaching and training our people to think about how the gospel plays out in the context of everyday life (home, neighborhood, work, culture). It is equally as important that we are equipping our leaders to deeply reflect on how the gospel affects every area of ministry in the church. The moment we divorce the gospel from life and ministry we, and our church, become more religious than we are Christ-centered (gospel-centered).

Taken from Center Church, Chapter 3, “The Gospel Affects Everything”

The Deception of Happiness

Happiness-Hands1We all want it. Most of our lives are focused on attaining it. Is it possible that we are guaranteeing a life of deep dissatisfaction (unhappiness) if happiness is what we are pursuing?

In Matthew 5, known as “The Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus is making some really counter-cultural claims about what it means to be happy.

Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Very few would identify happiness with being poor, mourning, meekness or hungering and thirsting. In fact these are exactly the things we work so hard to avoid for ourselves and our family! For many of us we associate happiness with a promotion, losing ten pounds, a sexually-fulfilling relationship, our kids doing well in school or sports.

What if all the cultural things we pursue to make us happy or fulfilled were an illusion? What if happiness or blessedness looked fundamentally different than we ever imagined?

“Happiness can never be found directly… happiness is always and only a by-product of seeking something else more than happiness… if you seek righteousness more than happiness, you’ll get both. If you seek happiness more than righteousness, you’ll get neither… the person who is happy is the one who has stopped trying to be so happy.” – Tim Keller, from a sermon called “The Search for Happiness.”

When Jesus tells us that ‘blessed are those who mourn’ he is pointing away from fleeting pleasures to the place where true eternal happiness resides; in himself. Here is the hard part. The happiness Jesus is talking about is only attained through death and pain. Death of self. The pain of giving up my way of doing things, my insistence that my pleasures rule my life.

I would encourage you to read through Matthew 5 and prayerfully consider how you are going about seeking fulfillment, satisfaction and happiness.

Valentine’s Day and the Gospel

I’m thinking that many of us, myself included, are putting too much pressure on our marriages by seeking ultimate satisfaction and happiness in our spouse. Instead of finding contentment in Jesus Christ we have this culturally romantic notion that we will be made complete when we find our true soul mate (or if we work really hard to shape our spouse into our one true soul mate). Of course we are setting ourselves, and our spouse, up for massive disappointment because the hole we feel in our soul can not be filled up by our husband or wife. 

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that romance is unimportant. Truth be told, I think it is something that we all deeply crave. On top of that, Song of Solomon clearly reveals that romance and affection for our spouse is a precious gift from God. The problem is when we can not be joyful or content without it. Seeking our deepest fulfillment in another person is a guaranteed way to destroy our relationships and our spiritual life. The apostle Paul never mentions being married and yet he experienced deep joy and contentment as a single man (Philippians 4:10-13). As I have learned from 20 years of marriage there will be ups and downs. There will be seasons where we do not feel all the emotions that we want to feel. So, what do we do in those moments? Look for romance in someone else? Or, do we realize that there is a good chance that we have made romance a god in our life?

This video from Alanis does a good job of revealing how we can be looking for something in our human relationships that is simply unattainable.

You’ll rescue me right?
In the exact same way they never did,
I’ll be happy right?
When your healing powers kick in

You’ll complete me right?
Then my life can finally begin
I’ll be worthy right?
Only when you realize the gem I am?

But this won’t work now the way it once did
And I won’t keep it up even though I would love to
Once I know who I’m not then I’ll know who I am
But I know I won’t keep on playing the victim

These precious illusions in my head did not let me down
When I was defenseless
And parting with them is like parting with invisible best friends

This ring will help me yet as will you knight in shining armor
This pill will help me yet as will these boys gone through like water

But this won’t work as well as the way it once did
’cause I want to decide between survival and bliss
And though I know who I’m not I still don’t know who I am
But I know I won’t keep on playing the victim

These precious illusions in my head did not let me down when I was a kid
And parting with them is like parting with a childhood best friend

I’ve spent so long firmly looking outside me
I’ve spent so much time living in survival mode

“In sharp contrast with our culture, the Bible teaches that the essence of marriage is a sacrificial commitment to the good of the other. That means that love is more fundamentally action than emotion. But in talking this way, there is a danger of falling into the opposite error that characterized many ancient and traditional societies. It is possible to see marriage as merely a social transaction, a way of doing your duty to family, tribe and society. Traditional societies made the family the ultimate value in life, and so marriage was a mere transaction that helped your family’s interest. By contrast, contemporary Western societies make the individual’s happiness the ultimate value, and so marriage becomes primarily an experience of romantic fulfillment. But the Bible sees GOD as the supreme good – not the individual or the family – and that gives us a view of marriage that intimately unites feelings AND duty, passion AND promise. That is because at the heart of the Biblical idea of marriage is the covenant.” -Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God

Free book giveaway: “Every Good Endeavor” by Tim Keller

Friday, December 7th I will be giving away a free copy of Tim Keller’s new book, “Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work To God’s Work”. To be included in the drawing you need to briefly (2-3 sentences) explain in the “leave a comment” section below why you are interested in reading this book.

22 Of My Favorite Quotes From “Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work With God’s Work” -Tim Keller

  • During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through his grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD…This album is a humble offering to him. An attempt to say “THANK YOU GOD” through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues. May He help and strengthen all men in every good endeavor. P.9-quoting John Coltrane
  • The book of Genesis  leaves us with a striking truth-work was part of paradise. P. 36
  • According to the Bible, we don’t merely need the money from work to survive; we need the work itself to survive and to live fully human lives. P. 38
  • So author Dorothy Sayers could write, “What is the Christian understanding of work?…It is that work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties…the medium in which he offers himself to God.” P. 38
  • Work has dignity because it is something that God does and because we do it in God’s place, as his representatives. P. 49
  • The current economic era has given us fresh impulses and new ways to stigmatize work such as farming and caring for children-jobs that are supposedly not “knowledge” jobs and therefore do not pay very well. But in Genesis we see God as a gardener, and in the New Testament, we see him as a carpenter. No task is too small a vessel to hold the immense dignity of work given by God. P. 49
  • All work has dignity because it reflects God’s image in us, and also because the material creation we are called to care for is good. P. 51
  • In 1 Corinthians chapter 7, Paul counsels readers that when they become Christians it is unnecessary to change what they are currently doing in life-their marital status, job, or social station-in order to live their lives before God in a way that pleases him. In verse 17, Paul directs, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.” Here Paul uses two religiously freighted words to describe ordinary work. Elsewhere, Paul has spoken of God calling people into a saving relationship with him, and assigning them spiritual gifts to do ministry and build up the Christian community (Romans 12:3 and 2 Corinthians 10:13). Paul uses these same two words here when he says that every Christian should remain in the work God has “assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” Yet Paul is not referring in this case to church ministries, but to common social and economic tasks- “secular jobs”, we might say-and naming them God’s callings and assignments. P. 65-66
  • Christians should be aware of this revolutionary understanding of the purpose of their work in the world. We are not to choose jobs and conduct our work to fulfill ourselves and accrue power, for being called by God to do something is empowering enough. We are to see work as a way of service to God and our neighbor, and so we should both choose and conduct our work in accordance with that purpose. The question regarding our choice of work is no longer, “What will make me the most money and give me the most status?” The question must now be “How with my existing abilities and opportunities, can I be of greatest service to other people, knowing what I do of God’s will and of human need?” P. 67
  • It is pure invention [fiction] that Pope, bishops, priests, and monks are called the “spiritual estate” while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the temporal estate.” This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy. Yet no one need be intimidated by it, and that for this reason: all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except by office…We are all consecrated priests by baptism, as St. Peter says: “You are a royal priesthood and a priestly realm” (1 Pet.2:9). P.69-quoting Martin Luther
  • The church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables. P. 76-77-quoting Dorothy Sayers
  • Research into the properties of the atom become the basis for the atomic bomb. In other words, work, even when it bears fruit, is always painful, often miscarries, and sometimes kills us. P. 89
  • Just because you cannot realize your highest aspirations in work does not mean that you have chosen wrongly, or are not called to your profession, or that you should spend your life looking for the perfect career that is devoid of frustration. You should expect to be regularly frustrated in your work even though you may be in exactly the right vocation. P. 94
  • Brooks’s first point is that so many college students do not choose work that actually fits their abilities, talents, and capacities, but rather choose work that fits within their limited imagination of how they can boost their own self-image. P. 108
  • Without the gospel of Jesus, we will have to toil not for the joy of serving others, nor the satisfaction of a job well done, but to make a name for ourselves. P. 112
  • “In the long term I think being a preacher, missionary, or leading a Bible study group in many ways is easier. There is a certain spiritual glamour in doing it, and what we should be doing each day is easier to discern more black and white, not so gray. It is often hard to get Christians to see that God is willing not just to use men and women in ministry, but in law, in medicine, in business, in the arts. This is the great shortfall today. P. 119-quoting Dick Lucas
  • Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff observes that modern culture defines the happy life as a life that is “going well”-full of experiential pleasure-while to the ancients, the happy life meant the life that is lived well, with character, courage, humility, love, and justice. P. 149
  • While from the outside there might not be immediately noticeable differences  between a well-run company reflecting a gospel world-view and one reflecting primarily the world-story of the marketplace, inside the differences could be very noticeable. The gospel-centered business would have a discernible vision for serving the customer in a unique way, a lack of adversarial relationships and exploitation, and extremely strong emphasis on excellence and product quality, and an ethical environment that goes “all the way down” to the bottom of the organizational chart and to all the realities of daily behavior, even when high ethics mean a loss of margin. In the business animated by the gospel worldview, profit is simply one of many important bottom lines. P. 168
  • So when we say that Christians work from a gospel worldview, it does not mean that they are constantly speaking about Christian teaching in their work. Some people think of the gospel as something we are principally to “look at” in our work. This would mean that Christian musicians should play Christian music, Christian writers should write stories about conversion, and Christian businessmen and-women should work for companies that make Christian-themed products and services for Christian customers. Yes, some Christians in those fields would do well to do those things, but it is a mistake to think that the Christian worldview is operating only when we are doing such overtly Christian activities. Instead, think of the gospel as a set of glasses through which you “look” at everything else in the world. Christian artists, when they do this faithfully, will not be completely beholden either to profit or to naked self-expression; and they will tell the widest variety of stories. Christians in business will see profit as one of only several bottom lines; and they will work passionately for any kind of enterprise that serves the common good. The Christian writer can constantly be showing  the destructiveness of making something besides God into the central thing, even without mentioning God directly. P. 179-180
  • God is creator of the world, and our work mirrors his creative work when we create culture that conforms to his will and vision for human beings-when it matches up with the biblical story-line. P. 184
  • But indeed, as Bible scholar Bruce Waltke points out, the Bible says that the very definition of righteous people is that they disadvantage themselves to advantage others, while “the wicked…are willing to disadvantage the community to advantage themselves.” P. 203
  • Without something bigger than yourself to work for, then all of your work energy is actually fueled by one of the other six deadly sins. You may work exceptionally hard because of envy to get ahead of somebody, or because of pride to prove yourself, or because of greed or even gluttony for pleasure. P. 230

Spiritual Revival and Prayer (Excerpt from Center Church, Tim Keller)

While the ultimate source of revival is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit ordinarily uses instumental, or penultimate, means to produce revival.

To start every revival, the Holy Spirit initially uses what Jonathan Edwards called extraordinary prayer-united, persistent, and kingdom centered. Sometimes it begins with a single person or a small group of people praying for God’s glory in the community. What is important is not the number of people praying but the nature of the praying. C. John Miller makes a helpful and perceptive distinction between “maintenance” and “frontline” prayer meetings. Maintenance prayer meetings are short, mechanical, and focused on physical needs inside the church. In contrast, the three basic traits of frontline prayer are these:

  1. A request for grace to confess sins and to humble ourselves.
  2. A compassion and zeal for the flourishing of the church and the reaching of the lost.
  3. A yearning to know God, to see his face, to glimpse his glory.

These distinctions are unavoidably powerful. If you pay attention at a prayer meeting, you can tell quite clearly whether these traits are present. In the biblical prayers for revivals in Exodus 33; Nehemiah 1; and Acts 4, the three elements of frontline prayer are easy to see. Notice in Acts 4, for example, that after the disciples were threatened by the religious authorities, they asked not for protection for themselves and their families but only for boldness to keep preaching! Some kind of extraordinary prayer beyond the normal services and patterns of prayer is always involved.

P. 73 “Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City”, Tim Keller