There is little doubt that the church is facing hardships and problems today. Attendance is in decline (especially among the vital 20-40 year olds), there are fewer baptisms, tithing is down, and there is a severe lack of theological knowledge among average church members. Local churches regardless of their size feel the impact of these and other issues in their budgets and participation.
Depending on who you ask, the solution is one thing or the other. Preachers say that expositional preaching is the solution. If pastors would begin preaching expositionally—i.e., exegete and then explain the text—then the rest will fall into its proper place.
Still others promote church service restructuring as the solution to the church’s ills. Service restructuring ideas include adopting the seeker services, debates over worship styles, and other worship service changes designed to bring people into the church. If only churches would begin using this or that service then the rest will fall into place.
Others say that Bible studies or discipleship training must be emphasized to fix the church. If churches would hold more Bible studies or begin discipleship training courses (a classic fallback plan for Southern Baptists), then all other things will fall into place.
The Problematic Solution: Programs
Whether one argues that the fix is in the sermon, the worship service, or the small group, each one intentionally or unintentionally overlooks other aspects of the local church. As such, none of these are the solution to the failures of the church. Rather, each is a modern incarnation of a classic Christian solution to church problems: programs.
The American church has perfected the art of programs. Have a problem? There’s a program for that! Southern Baptists are famous (or infamous) for saturating churches with a plethora of programs designed to fix anything imaginable. However, they call them “Bible studies,” “retreats,” or other things in order to make them more palatable and seem less like a program. Whatever they are called, although each program offers something, they often overlook the real problem and the real solution. In the end, programs are one of the greatest failures of the church, especially the American church.
The Real Solution: Gospel-Centered Churches
So what is the solution? Is there a singular solution?
Yes, there is a solution, and that solution is simply one thing. It is not, however, simplistic solution or a new program. Furthermore, it does not require restructuring a worship service or small group organization, nor does it ask churches to follow the latest fad or popular movement. The real solution is broad in its application (it impacts all aspects of church activities), yet narrow in its focus (it keeps churches focused on one mission only). The solution is the mission; the mission is the gospel of Christ Jesus.
The church has one mission: promoting Jesus’ message we call the gospel. What is the gospel? It is the message that each one of us are sinners, Jesus died on the cross to pay for sin, he rose again, all who accept Jesus in faith are saved, and that Jesus is returning again. That is what Scripture reveals, and that is why Jesus came. Everything the local church does should be first and foremost about making the gospel known.
Whether it is a food bank, Sunday school class, sermon, music service, community outreach, or other activity, it is about the gospel of Christ. Where the gospel is proclaimed, Christ is emphasized; where Christ is emphasized, the gospel is proclaimed. When the focus of a ministry or church is on something other than the gospel, regardless of its moral virtue, the focus is not on Christ, but on an idol.
Looking back at the three solutions often proposed—sermons, worship services, and small groups—one sees that focusing on the gospel addresses all three. When preaching focuses on Christ and proclaims the gospel, that preaching will necessarily be expositional. Sermons that outline steps to a better marriage, discuss keys to well-behaved children, or advocate other Christianized pop-psychology are not gospel sermons. While they may be based on the Bible, they are not text-driven or expositional.
Preachers who want to have gospel sermons will necessarily return to the text. They will exegete the text, strive to help the congregation understand what that text teaches about Christ, and reveal how faith in Jesus is necessary. Because, as Martin Luther famously stated, all of Scripture reveals Christ, text-driven sermons will reveal Christ. Preachers who desire to make the gospel known as it is taught in Scripture will spend time studying the text, seeking to understand the message God is revealing in it, and then preach that message to the people. A gospel focus revives expositional biblical sermons.
Gospel-Centered Worship Services
The gospel focus also impacts worship services. Too often Christians want to create a service that draws in outsiders. However, outsiders are not generally seeking churches; those seeking churches usually have been attending elsewhere. More importantly, Jesus did not call his disciples to sit inside four walls and hope their spiritual magnetism will attract the lost; he instructed them to go out and seek the lost. Seeker services, traditional services, contemporary services, and the debate over which is best revolves less around going out and seeking the lost and more around looking in and pleasing the members. Too many churches create services that appeal to themselves—thus, in effect, they worship themselves—and do not create services where the gospel is emphasized.
Worship services that focus on the making the gospel known are services that emphasize worshiping the risen Savior. The worship service performs one purpose for believers: a spiritual fuel station. We come together to worship Christ, to be revived by the gospel message, and to renew our dedication to him. Once we are spiritually refueled, we are to go out and reach the lost. Those who come should hear the gospel sung, preached, and proclaimed. Believers should be challenged to face their sin, repent, and be renewed by Jesus; non-believers should be challenged to face their sin, repent, and be born again in Jesus! This requires the gospel.
Nevertheless, many argue over trivial matters or seek to follow the latest fad. In the name of Jesus, Christians create self-serving worship events that appeal to themselves, make themselves feel better, and satisfy their own desires. They argue over liturgical versus free services, contemporary versus traditional, or other meaningless, worldly debates. A gospel-centered worship service can be traditional, liturgical, contemporary, or charismatic. There is no prescribed worship service so long as the gospel is emphasized and Jesus is proclaimed. A gospel focus revives worship services.
Gospel-Centered Small Groups
Finally, a focus on the gospel also addresses small groups or Bible studies. Southern Baptists are known for their abundance of services and studies. The typical Southern Baptist church has at least three worship services (Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening) and at least two small group or Bible study times (Sunday school and discipleship training). Often, SBC churches have other Bible studies during the week. Overall, Southern Baptists are overwhelmed with church services and Bible studies. The last thing they need are more small groups or services (and some probably should pare down).
The solution to Bible studies and discipleship is not more studies or programs, but a renewed focus on the gospel. Just as a gospel focus impacts sermons, it also impacts Bible studies. Bible studies that focus on the gospel will seek to understand what the biblical text states rather than what people think, feel, or want it to mean. Small groups are often where churchgoers receive the greatest amount of fellowship, build stronger relationships, and delve the deepest into Scripture. Thus it is vital that small groups maintain a focus on the gospel because a gospel focus revives Bible studies.
One of the greatest failures of the American Church has been its promotion of programs or other inadequate solutions to the problems local churches face. Regardless of a church’s traditions, styles, structures, or congregational makeup, the solution is becoming gospel-centered. Social ministries, sermons, services, and small groups are not the solution or the mission. Rather, each of these help the church in its mission; each are tools that can help the church make God’s message known. When it comes to fixing problems in the church, whether financial, spiritual, or participational, the solution is the mission, and the mission is the gospel of Christ Jesus.