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It happens. Whether you want it to happen or not, it will probably happen to you. It seems to be more the rule than the exception. There was a time when hardly anyone left their churches. But in our transient culture, our spoiled natures, and pastoral mishandling of the Word of God, it is the rule. People and churches don’t stay together like when the world was smaller and the options were limited. I certainly fall into this category. A few years ago, we looked for another church to attend. Looking for a local church is on my top ten list of things I don’t want to do. Leaving friends, making new friends, and finding our place in a new environment was daunting. But we went through it. That season challenged us to think through how we valued the local church, mainly what we believed was essential for our family.
If you were looking for a local church to join, what are the main things on your list? What is important to you? What are your non-negotiables? These are huge questions, and how you answer them will affect you and your family for years and generations. Our criteria for settling in a mature and sound local church boiled down to five things. I did not want to make a list so long that no church would qualify. There are no perfect churches. Therefore, we developed a list that covered five main areas of the Christian life. In this chapter, I will speak to the first one, the gospel, the main thing, and develop the others in the succeeding chapters.
I trust the easy part regarding the main thing when selecting a church is the gospel. Though there are many preferences that we want to elevate, nothing transcends the vitalness and value of the gospel. Paul said if anyone preached a gospel other than the gospel he preached, that person should be accursed (Galatians 1:6-9). We cannot say that about music, children’s ministry, or other essential preferences. Paul’s elevation of the gospel settled the “what’s the number one thing you look for in a church” question. For example, Paul flexed on whether we should eat meat but did not bend on the gospel (1 Corinthians 8:1-13). And we know why because in Romans 1:16, he said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”
Paul saw the gospel as the power of salvation and the power for sanctification (Ephesians 4-6). According to his theology, the authority appropriated through the gospel affects every area of our lives. Peter agreed. Will you appreciate these inspiring words about the gospel? “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3). As convincing as Paul and Peter were about the preeminence of the gospel, it was not their perspectives that put it at the top of my list. The gospel—Christ—is the Bible’s most significant message to humanity.
The Old Testament writers pointed to the person and work of Christ. The New Testament writers explained the person and work of Christ. Eternity is the unending place where we will worship the person and work of Christ. Believers in the best local churches purposely center themselves on the gospel—the person and work of Christ. He is the one who matters the most. John the Baptist was necessary for a while. Then he went away. The apostles stepped in for a season. They left, too. The gospel is the only transcending, unmovable fixture in our lives (other than the Word of God). Christ is the beginning and end of all we do.
Draw a circle in the middle of a piece of paper. Inside that circle, you write the word gospel—or Christ. Now, draw lines from Christ to any spot on the paper and write a word at the end of the line, e.g., family, finances, vocation, health, hobbies, friends, sanctification, repentance, forgiveness, joy, etc. That’s the idea. Christ is the centerpiece, who connects to every aspect of our lives. Everything in life flows from this gospel-centered worldview. Unfortunately, some churches place other things in the center of the circle, which is how they are known, e.g., The Second Chance Church. Whatever becomes your primary focus will become your identity. Every church has a central theme.
A church is similar to a Christian in that we all have an identity. The Christian’s identity should be Jesus Christ—the gospel. We take on His alien righteousness, His characteristics. We become Christlike. The local church is full of Christlike followers, which is why a local church’s identity is Christ (or it should be). A church without Christ as its identity will teach their people to make something else the center of their lives. Perhaps the best way to discern the heart of a church is to discover what they emphasize the most. Is it great preaching? Is it the preacher? What is the main thing? That thing pushes all other things—including Christ—to the periphery. My appeal to anyone looking for a local church is to determine if Christ is the centerpiece of all they do. Heaven is a place with Christ in the center, and wisdom implies Christians should prepare for heaven today by making Him the centerpiece of our lives.
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell and worshiped (Revelation 5:11-14).
The gospel brings you into a transformative experience with Christ. The only way to change is by having a dynamic relationship with Jesus. It’s this necessity that makes gospel-centered teaching more important than things like a principle-driven life. Principles teach you how to relate to Christ, but principles without Christ will not transform you. They are bumper stickers or social media quotes that drip dopamine. Best practices are similar as they temporarily shape your life according to the proportion and degree you use them. Tips provide light. They may inspire. But principles and practices were never meant to bring sustainable, inside to outside, transformation. Bible seminars and weekend retreats are inspiring; men’s meetings are terrific. Programs, initiatives, Bible nuggets, and your latest favorite book can lift you over a hurdle.
There is a place for all these things in Christendom, but if the gospel is not the centerpiece of our lives, we will always need these religious puffs like a chain smoker needs another cigarette. Without a dynamic, interactive relationship with Jesus, we’re only as strong as our latest principle, book, or conference. The secular world provides principles, books, and conferences. We have Jesus. Principles and programs, as effective as they may be, are analogous to the parts of a car. The gospel, on the other hand, is the engine that makes everything go. The issue here is not this or that but about priority and preeminence. The gospel is at the heart of the Christian life.
Go back to the circle in the middle of the paper. What is at the epicenter of your life? If it’s Christ, you’re in a great place, and you’ll long for a church that makes much of Christ. I’m not suggesting that every sermon makes a beeline to Christ and stays there, but He must always be the flavor of the day, even as we exegete and teach other passages that do not speak to the centrality of Christ. The goal is for every Christian to fall in love with Jesus, and out of that great affection for what He has done and is doing, we find the motivation to obey Him in all things, perseverance during our harshest trials, and an unencumbered desire to tell others they can refresh their souls with the water He gives (John 4:14).
Our search for a new church started with understanding the church’s view and practice of the gospel. The two most important questions were: Does the church have a sound view of the gospel? We answered that question by asking this one: How is the gospel actively presented to and practically changing the church? We were not looking for a church that had perfected its understanding of the gospel. Gospel transformation is always a work in progress. We were looking for evidence that the church understands how to practically implement the gospel into their lives, which is why these follow-up questions were essential.
If we are rightly affected by the gospel, then we have nothing to fear, nothing to protect, and nothing to hide. The gospel sets the captive free, releasing him to become everything God intends him to become. The gospel becomes the centerpiece, attaching and affecting every area of our lives. It becomes evident to others that the animating center is Christ, and the gospel contagion grows. The disciples of Christ were affected by Christ, and they turned the world on its head. That’s how it works. Disciples follow Christ, creating a gravitational pull that compels others to follow them as they follow Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1), making the church’s leadership assessment question valid and valuable when seeing if a church has the gospel as its theme. The gospel is not an ethereal, vague idea but a practical life you want to emulate.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).