“A church with the truth of the gospel in its theology can produce the opposite of the gospel in its practice.” Ray Ortlund Jr., who planted a church in Nashville, Tennessee, makes this observation in his book, The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ. Ideally, the gospel should create “a culture of grace where good things happen to bad people.” However, as Ray observes, “A gospel culture is harder to lay hold of than gospel doctrine.”
This is true even for church planters who have the opportunity to create a “gospel culture” from day one.
The Glorious Gospel
Before considering why we struggle to achieve “gospel culture” in our church plant, we need to remember what the glorious gospel actually is. According to 1 Corinthians 15:1-2, it is the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised to life. Christ’s death and resurrection accomplished God’s glorious victory over the powers of sin and death and made it possible for us to be rescued faith alone in Christ alone.
The Great Barrier to Gospel Culture
The gospel is life-transforming. So why is gospel culture harder to lay hold of than gospel doctrine? The problem is the church you’re trying to plant. Ray explains: “The primary barrier to the ministry of the gospel through your church is not out in the world; the primary barrier is within your church itself. Every church, to some extent, clogs and hinders the gospel, even as we intend to advance the gospel.”
The great barrier, then, is the fact that churches are full of sin. This explains why the Apostle Paul, in his letters, keeps challenging us to let the gospel shape the way that we live and treat each other.
To believers struggling to get along, he writes: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death– even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:3-8).
Similarly, in Ephesians 4:32, Paul says: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Then, to believers struggling to control their passions, Paul writes: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:11). It’s clear, then that the gospel of Christ should inform how we live as the church.
Gospel wisdom for church planters
How, then, should we plant and nurture a local church? The answer is to work hard at creating a “gospel culture” and not give up or giving in when the going gets tough.
Ray Ortlund Jr. says: “It requires more relational wisdom and finesse. It involves stepping into a kind of community unlike anything we’ve experienced, where we happily live together on a love we can’t create. A gospel culture requires us not to bank on our own importance or virtues, but to forsake self-assurance and exult together in Christ alone.”
Wise pastors and church planters are constantly wrestling with what adjustments they need to make to align the church with the gospel. Neither church plants nor established churches can advance if we are not practicing it and living out gospel values.
May the gospel shape your church into a church of what Ray calls “bright, resilient, rugged hope—a church that faces life as it is and is not defeated.”
Steve Mathewson is the Senior Pastor at Cross Life Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, Illinois. Steve started in his position on May 7, 2006. Steve came to Libertyville from Belgrade, Montana, where he was the senior pastor of Dry Creek Bible Church. He received a Master of Arts Degree in Old Testament in 1986 from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in Portland, Ore. Most recently, he received his Doctor of Ministry in 2000 from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., where he studied preaching under Dr. Haddon Robinson. He and his wife, Priscilla, have four adult children and grandchildren.