Three years ago I talked my wife into letting me buy a ’79 Fiat Spider. I fell in love with this little roadster: wind in my hair (or what’s left of it), terrible ’70s music on the radio, and the roar of the 1900cc engine. The car is truly great—except that I have a bad habit of tinkering. I love to fix things that aren’t broken. Lately the car has been sitting in my garage because I tried to replace a working water pump.
This is often what happens to our churches. We spend so much time tinkering with the church that we lose focus on the purpose of the church. The details overwhelm the mission. The mission and purpose of my Fiat is to drive around town hoping people think I look cool. The mission and purpose of the church is to spread the gospel. When we lose sight of this, the church loses its purpose.
Seventeen years ago the church I pastor, The Bridge, started. I was not the founding pastor but I had the privilege of working with him for 10 years. In that time I learned why our small inner-city church was always one of the top-baptizing churches in the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention. It had an established culture of spreading the gospel. From the time you enter the church, whether for food and clothing or to serve, the gospel is presented first and foremost.
Most churches start strong in this category but our human nature takes over, and we break something that is working. I’ve heard Brian Bowman often say to young, aspiring church planters, “You’re not going to have a church if you don’t tell people about Jesus.” Churches often start with a “gospel first” culture, but after the church gets a few people in the pews the culture changes to “church first.” This is why we have so many 30-40 year old churches dying. How do we combat this change? I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers, but I can share some observations I’ve seen through our church.
Don’t Get Distracted by Church
Church is a perfect place to get distracted. This is Satan’s easiest way to disengage a church from spreading the gospel. In my own church we have a constant stream of distractions. Since we are in the inner-city, we feed and clothe around 40,000 people a year from our church campus. Daily we are picking up food, hosting a farmers market, and sorting clothes, among the “normal” church responsibilities.
It’s important to fight the temptation to only focus on our ministries and not the mission. We cannot get hung up on people taking too much food or too many clothes or patting ourselves on the back for what God has called us to do. We remind our group every morning to move past the distraction and approach every person with the same gospel message. Our church is not unique, even if our ministries seem to be. We have to move past the distractions of the church (politics, funding, worship style) and focus on the reason we are a church, which is spreading the gospel.
Growth and Sustainability Only Happen Through the Gospel
Paul never puts together a church growth plan in the New Testament. He never tells Timothy, or any of his other pupils, that a church’s growth is based on its relevance. Instead Paul’s message is consistent with Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” True church growth only happens and sustains when we are unabashed in sharing the gospel. This is not only the plan at the start of the church, it is the plan for the whole life of the church.
Our inner-city church has waves of growth. We could have 300 people one week and 75 the next. It’s the burden of our environment. Families are broken, parents go to jail, people disappear. As a pastor, it is God’s way of keeping me humble. As a church, it is God’s way of making us dependent on spreading the gospel. We will not have a church if we do not share Jesus. Our church culture has to reflect the urgency of our dying world.
Teach Your People to Be in Love with Scripture
People that know and love Scripture should feel the burden of a gospel culture. Aaron Norwood, my predecessor at The Bridge, often said, “Our primary job as pastors is to teach people how to read Scripture.” When people know and understand what severe culture shock the Bible calls for, it will not seem so upsetting when we push a gospel culture.
Send Your People Out
I love my church members. I love almost everyone that steps into our church. It kills me to see people leave. Most pastors and church members feel the same way. That is why it is going to hurt the first time you tell your church that you are purposely asking church members to leave the church to help start a new plant somewhere else. If we want a gospel culture in our church, we have to be willing to send people from our church and not just checks.
Instead we have to get more involved in church planting. We have to send our people to uncomfortable, small churches with possibly inexperienced pastors. We have to disciple our members to know that it is not all about them getting “fed.” We have to release people we know and love to live out the call that we all have on us as Christians.
A gospel culture is a constant stream of growth and release. It is selfish and not biblical to keep our best members in our churches. The first time I told our small church that we were sending five families to plant another church, they almost rushed the stage. “Is our church breaking up? Do they not like your preaching anymore? Are they mad at someone?” Our church culture did not understand the call to church plant and how much it would actually cost. Obedience is not cheap. We have to be willing to endure constant fluctuation in our churches for the sake of spreading the gospel.
The Main Idea
I’m sure there are 100 more things that I could add to this list but the main idea is this: telling lost people about the hope in Christ must be the only intention of the church. If this is your church culture, don’t get distracted! Do not fix something that isn’t broken. If the goals of your church are anything but bringing the message of Christ to the lost, it’s time to start changing. This doesn’t mean that all churches will look alike. Most churches will most likely accomplish this task differently. The Bridge looks very different than Valley Life, but our only purpose is the gospel.
Lastly, if anyone knows anything about 1970s Fiats, please give me a call.