Last Friday on this blog I addressed young men going into the ministry to encourage them to consider the important work of revitalizing existing churches. This week, my desire is to flesh out a little of what it takes to be a successful revitalizer. Today, I want to focus on the single most important step in revitalizing an existing church — refocusing on the gospel.
Whenever I have the opportunity to talk to young Pastors who are taking on a new church I always like to advise them to be careful about making many changes in their first year. Instead of trying to change programs, worship styles, and leadership structure, I encourage them to focus on making sure that the people understand the gospel and what it means to live a gospel-centered life. In reality, this process will usually take more than a year and should be an ongoing process throughout our ministry. But it is vitally important in the first year of ministry.
Do not assume that people understand the gospel just because they are members of the church. Over the past twenty years of ministry I have been shocked at the confusion that I have witnessed among church members, leaders, and even Pastors over the content and response to the gospel. The most common problem that I see, however, is what I might call the minimization of the gospel. This occurs when people think that the gospel only deals with how we become followers of Christ. In other words, they see the gospel as the elementary teaching about how we enter into life with Christ but then we need to move on to the deeper stuff. My contention is that the gospel is the central message of Scripture and forms the fundamental lens by which we view and understand the world. Furthermore, the gospel becomes both the model and the means by which we live out the Christian life.
So my advice for new Pastors is to start by first making sure that your people understand the content of the gospel — specifically the meaning of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Specifically, here I want people to understand the substitutionary nature and completeness of the death of Christ and the role of the resurrection in giving the believer new life. Second, I want to make sure that people understand their response to the gospel by specifically defining it in Biblical terms — to repent and believe in the gospel. If you want to understand the importance of using Biblical terms in defining the response to the gospel I recommend that you read J.D. Greer’s excellent book entitled “Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart.” That title may offend you at first but I promise that the book presents a solid, biblical explanation of how to present the gospel in clear terms.
Once the content and response to the gospel has been clearly laid out, I recommend that you start working on showing how the gospel can be seen throughout the Bible. That does not mean to simply tack the gospel on to the end of your message, but rather to use the gospel as a hermeneutical lens by which you interpret and understand the Scripture. Show your people how the gospel is present in Old Testament types and figures. Show them how story of redemption unfolds throughout the Old Testament. Show them how the Apostles (especially Paul) apply the gospel to specific problems and issues in the local churches. In other words, saturate your people with the gospel from the pulpit every time you preach. Do this for at least a year before you start making any other major changes.
Revitalization begins with the preaching of the Gospel! Start by patiently, carefully, diligently preaching the gospel. Everything else that you do will flow from this first and more important step.