Thursday, December 4, 2014

Gospel clarity, part 3 (Tim Keller)

In our Sunday community group meetings we are using Tim Keller's Center Church as a jumping off point to discuss the vision for church planting in the Stanwood-Camano area. The vision revolves around three ideals:

1) We will think long and hard about the gospel (the central message of Christianity that J.I. Packer sums up as "God saves sinners") and it's implications for our lives,

2) We will respond to the gospel as a community (not just as isolated individuals), speaking the truth in love (both are needed) to one another so that we become more and more Christ-like, bringing glory to God and joy to us, and

3) We will respond to God's grace in Jesus by seeking to engage the spiritual and physical needs of those in our community.

Keller touches on all three of these topics in a brilliant way. His clarifications on the gospel are especially helpful and practical. Here's a snippet:

"Think for a moment of all the ways you can say no to ungodly behavior. You can say:

No-because I'll look bad.
No-because I'll be excluded from the social circles I want to belong to.
No-because then God will not give me health, wealth, and happiness.
No-because God will send me to hell.
No-because I'll hate myself in the morning and lose my self-respect.

Virtually all of these incentives use self-centered impulses of the heart to force compliance to external rules, but they do very little to change the heart itself. The motive behind them is not love for God. It is a way of using God to get beneficial things: self-esteem, prosperity, or social approval...

But the truths of the gospel, brought home by the Spirit, slowly but surely help us grasp in a new way how safe and secure, how loved and accepted, we are in Christ. Through the gospel, we come to base our identity not on what we have achieved but on what has been achieved for us in Christ" (68-69).

Keller is fond of pointing out how legalism (looking for salvation in our obedience and goodness) leads to both despair and pride, depending on how well we're keeping up to our standards at any given moment. But the gospel leads to both confidence and humility.

"The gospel destroys pride, because it tells us we are so lost that Jesus had to die for us. And it also destroys fearfulness, because it tells us that nothing we can do will exhaust his love for us...The gospel leads us to do the right thing not for our sake but for God's sake, for Christ's sake, out of a desire to know, resemble, please, and love the One who saved us. This kind of motivation can only grow in a heart deeply touched by grace" (69).

Searching our hearts to see where the gospel has yet to pierce is a never-ending process. Thanks be to God that our acceptance and favor depend on his sweat, blood, and tears and not ours.

All are welcome to join our community group Sunday evenings at 5 at our house on Camano. Come to grow in God's grace, to learn about our vision to church plant, or just to hang out with some (mostly) cool people!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Gospel clarity, Part 2

It’s easy to throw around the word “gospel.” I like to explain that when I use the word “gospel,” I’m referring to that which I believe is the central Christian message. If others are also using the word to refer to what they see as the central Christian message, it’s little surprise that the word can be used with a variety of meanings. For there are numerous proposals as to what constitutes the central Christian message.

The definition of the gospel that I’ve seen most widely used is that given by J.I. Packer: “God saves sinners.” Simple and to the point. Many respond that this is too simple. They say that the gospel is also about God remaking and renewing the world. Or that the gospel is about becoming a part of God’s family, the church. But I think it’s extremely important to make distinctions between the gospel and the results of the gospel.

With this in mind, here are four areas that, when perceived as results of the gospel, are a great and necessary benefit to the Christian, but when mistaken for the gospel, greatly weaken the Christian message.

  1. Renewal of the world, social justice: That God wants to bring the peace, justice, and goodness of his kingdom to this earth, and that he wants us to be a part of this movement, has been a popular, and valuable, teaching as of late. Yet the power of the gospel is greatly diminished when “God saves sinners” is exchanged for “God is renewing the world. Come and join Him.” One of the consequences of this exchange is that our vertical need of rightness with God is replaced by important, but secondary, horizontal needs. “If only we spread peace, if only we put an end to war, if only we eliminate greed, then…” Not only does this put too much trust in human power and wisdom, but it neglects the means by which God brings about renewal. The message of the cross of Christ gives identity and motivation to those pushing forth God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom isn’t characterized merely by healed social structures, but also by rightly directed worship. Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, is the central focus of the picture we are given of the completely renewed creation (Rev. 21-22).
  1. Personal moral living: “God saves sinners” is a radically different message than “Be a good person,” and there is no end to the need for this clarification. Equally important to recognize is that the central Christian message doesn’t lose its significance once one is saved. The gospel message of God saving sinners isn’t just for the unconverted. Christians, too, need daily to rest in the identity-altering news that salvation is a work of God through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
  1. Charismatic experiences: I’m all for powerful encounters with God and expecting God to work in miraculous ways. But the temptation for those of the charismatic bent is to quickly move past “God saves sinners” and become more interested in subsequent experiences of God. The core message that is often either articulated or at least implied is, “Come and live a supernatural life” or “Experience greater power in your life,” both of which are wonderful results of the gospel, but they are not the central Christian message. The power of God is seen most clearly in the message of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18, Rom. 1:16). We ought to never tire of meditating on and speaking of the wonder of this gospel that even angels long to look in to (1 Pet. 1:12).
  1. Community life: This is probably the area that I feel the most temptation to put forth as the gospel. Through the cross, God calls believers into a body or family. God has ordained that both Christian growth and witness depend on the church community. Those of us in the West don’t really get this. We are conditioned to see the individual as supreme, not the community. As a church planter, I want to push back hard against this Western idolization of the individual. I want to show how living life together is absolutely essential to Christian faith. Yet for all that Christian fellowship has to offer, “Give yourself to community and experience growth” is not the gospel message. While we need to see how we our intricately connected to other believers in our lives, we ultimately need to see that our identity comes from Christ. Christian community that loses this vertical focus becomes idolatrous and cultish. Yet Christian community that centers on the message that God saves sinners is a powerful force for change both inside and outside the church.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Gospel Clarity, Part 1

           “What do we mean by ‘the gospel’? Answering this question is a bit more complex than we might assume.” So begins Tim Keller in his book Center Church. And yet how we answer this question has huge implications.

            The gospel is the news about what God was doing in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And what God was doing through Jesus was healing the rift between man and God caused by sin and creating a people for himself.

            This understanding implies that our separation from God is a big deal, and that restoring this relationship is of utmost importance. And the big idea of the gospel is that it is God’s work alone which heals this relationship, not any work or effort of ours.

            This is why, as Keller says, the gospel is good news, not good advice. Most other religions present you with good advice on how to live life or how to please God or how to make it to the next life. Christianity presents you with good news of what God has done to make us right with him, to empower us to live new lives here, and to bring us safely into eternal life.

            The gospel means that God is the focus, God gets all the glory. The phrase “gospel centered” is a popular one today. The idea is that the Christian message is first and foremost about God and his work. Our hope and strength for both this life and the life to come are dependent on Jesus living the life we should have lived and dying the death we should have died.

            Our response is to repent, or turn from our sins, and trust in God’s gracious work in Jesus for our salvation, life, and hope.

To be continued…

We are currently discussing what the gospel is and isn’t, and what it means to us practically, in a community group that meets Sundays at 5 in our home. We'd love to have you join us. Email me at or text/call at 770-714-3865.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The new gospel vs. the old gospel

It's tempting at the beginning of a church plant to jump to the "what" questions: What will we do as a church? What will our services look like? What will our engagement with the community look like? It's tempting to jump to the tangible and practical and neglect theology and the "why" questions. But I'm convinced that we must spend considerable time asking questions that get to the root of motivation: What is God like? Why has God saved us? What is the gospel and its implications for our lives?

If, in our concern to meet practical needs and be relevant, we skirt around these questions, our gaze will slowly become less on God and more on man, and we will miss the purpose for which God saved us: his glory. As J.I. Packer explains so well:

“[The new gospel]... fails to make men God-
centered in their thoughts and God-fearing in their
hearts because this is not primarily what it is trying
to do. One way of stating the difference between it
and the old gospel is to say that it is too exclusively
concerned to be 'helpful' to man - to bring peace,
comfort, happiness, satisfaction - and too little
concerned to glorify God. The old gospel was
'helpful', too - more so, indeed, than is the new -
but (so to speak) incidentally, for its first concern
was always to give glory to God. It was always and
essentially a proclamation of divine sovereignty in
mercy and judgment, a summons to bow down and
worship the mighty Lord on whom man depends for
all good, both in nature and in grace. Its center of
reference was unambiguously God. But in the new
gospel the center of reference is man. "
- JI Packer

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Sunday: Join the discussion for a gospel-centered, mission church plant

The vision is for a new church plant in the Stanwood-Camano area. We are starting a community group as the first step in that direction. The first group is this Sunday at 5 at the Fekkes home (text or Facebook me for address/directions: 770-714-3865). This group will serve two purposes:

1. A place to discuss the vision for this new church and invite others into the discussion.
2. A functioning community/small group where we seek to help one another live more and more in line with the gospel.

Although this is a community group through Communion Church in Mount Vernon (the sending church for the intended plant), you do NOT need to be a part of that church to be a part of the group.

* Come to hear about and discuss the vision for a gospel-centered, missional church in the SC area.
* Come to both receive from and contribute to the health of other believers.
*Pass on the invitation to others you think may be interested.

For more info, see my series of blog posts this vision.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Church planting: 5 specific steps (part 4 of 4)

This post is part 4 of 4 in a series explaining my vision to plant a church in the Stanwood-Camano community. Here are the other posts: part 1part 2, and part 3.

  1. The first step towards planting a church in Stanwood will be to start a community group in the Stanwood-Camano community (starting Oct. 5). This community group will be through Communion Church (a 3-Strand church in Mount Vernon), but will function slightly differently than the other community groups. The purpose of this group will be to start gathering a core group and begin discussing the vision for the plant.
This group may include people currently attending Communion Church or Damascus Road Church (a 3-Strand church in Marysvile) who live in the Stanwood-Camano area, and also people attending other churches or with no church home who are interested in being a part of the plant. People currently attending another church in the community are welcome to stay at their current church, but will be encouraged to check out Communion Church (the sending church) to get an idea of what the church plant will be like.

This community group will be a place to invite people to come and see if they’re interested in being a part of the plant. We will have small flyers for inviting people to the group, and also have a presence online where we can point people to more information.

During these group times we will study Bible passages and other resources relevant to church planting. We will discuss the purpose of a local church, what the gospel is and isn’t, what a gospel-centered church looks like, and distinctives of this new church. We will also analyze characteristics of our community, its existing churches, needs not currently being met, and what it looks like to bring gospel-centered ministry into this context.

During this time, I (Derek) will continue to go through eldership training at Communion Church, while also regularly meeting with Jim to discuss church planting. I also will attend at least one of the 3-strand monthly meetings to connect with the other 3-strand pastors.

This period will also be used for identifying and beginning to train potential elders of the church.

  1. We will aim for an official announcement of the church plant in January, 2015. This does not mean we will move to having Sunday services or find a church building at this point. Rather, it means we will have several things in place: 1) core beliefs and distinctives of the church, 2) a website, blog, or other online location to host this information, 3) a handout that includes brief description of the church with links to more information, 4) and a name for the church.

  1. Once the community group grows to more than 20 people on a consistent basis, we will either look for a bigger location in which to meet or discuss branching into two groups.

  1. Though it depends on many factors, we will look to officially launch the church, including moving to weekly services and finding a centralized space to meet, in the fall of 2015. Factors that affect this date include: finding a location, size of a committed core group, availability of a salary for Derek, and agreement/approval from Communion Church and the other 3 Strand churches.

  1. Once the church is officially launched, Derek will serve as the lead pastor, with the elders of Communion Church being the elders of the plant until other elders are established.
     Community groups begin Sunday, October 5 at 5 p.m. at the Fekkes' home. Come join the conversation!

Church planting: 4 points to the vision (part 3 of 4)

This post is part 3 of 4 in a series explaining my vision to plant a church in the Stanwood-Camano community. Here are the other posts: part 1, part 2, and part 4.

Although future discussions with the community group will help lay out the exact nature and core distinctives of the church, my vision for the church includes the following four ideals:

  1. Gospel-centered ministry. The central explanatory event of the Bible is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as God’s work to deal with sin and reconcile the world to himself. If this message is ignored or disconnected from other messages (however biblical), God’s ordained means to change lives and the world is forsaken. Thus, a gospel-centered church will include at least the following:
    1. Preaching that connects everything back to the gospel. The Bible does have important things to say about morality, the renewal of the world, social justice, etc. However, these things must be understood as responses to the gospel rather than the gospel themselves.
    2. Gospel-informed discipleship and counseling. A right understanding of the good news of the gospel brings freedom to acknowledge the depth of the bad news which made the gospel necessary. Thus, gospel-informed discipleship does not work from the premise that people are basically good and just need some advice or support (even church people), but that people are “desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9) and continually need the gospel. Gospel-informed discipleship and counseling encourages honesty over hypocrisy, confession of sin rather than keeping up appearances, and reliance on God and the church body rather than self-sufficiency. It fosters an environment where messed up people (all of us) are welcome, but also where there is an expectation that the gospel will leave no one unchanged.
  1. Intentional community. We live in the most individualized society in the world. We want to be self-sufficient and we cringe at the idea of letting others have any input into our decision making. Yet the Bible is clear that God calls believers to be in continual and close fellowship with other believers. God’s mission is not to create a bunch of isolated, individual Christians. Rather, his mission is to create the church, a term which has both local and universal implications.
The Bible uses the imagery of the physical body to paint the picture of what the church should look like. We are connected to Jesus as our head and ultimate authority, while also “members one of another” (Rom 12:5). Just as parts of the physical body are connected to and dependent on one another, so God orders the church in such a way that it relies on the contributions of every member to be a fully-functioning body.
God calls us to get involved in the often messy work of Christian community both for our health and growth and for that of the church body as a whole. Hence, the New Testament is full of corporate commands: “love one another,” “live in harmony with one another,” “comfort one another,” “submit to one another,” “speaking the truth in love” to one another, and many more. In other words, much of what it means to be a Christian can only be worked out in intentional Christian community. 

What, then, are the characteristics of a biblical Christian community of believers?

a.       People seek to be involved in each other’s lives beyond the regular church gatherings because they know that God works through these relationships.
b.      The “work of ministry” is not seen as something reserved for church leaders or staff. Rather, the advancement of the gospel both within the church and beyond the church is seen as the calling of every believer (Eph. 4:11-13).
c.       People encourage and support those hurting or in need, motivated by the grace and comfort that God has shown them.
d.      People are motivated by grace to confess sins to one another. A culture of grace AND truth means that sin is not ignored, yet grace is never withheld.
e.       Unconfessed sin is not ignored or covered up because people know the power of God’s grace to not only forgive sin, but redeem sinners. Unconfessed sin is also taken seriously because people care about the health of the church and its witness to the world.

  1.  Intentional engagement with the city and people of Stanwood-Camano. Although there is a high calling on the church to gather and live life as a community of believers, the church has ultimately failed at its mission if it does not also scatter and love those outside of the church. God saves people, in part, so that they can then proclaim his gospel and glory to others. God calls all Christians to join him on his mission to reconcile the world to himself, thereby spreading his glory.
Being a church that intentionally engages the Stanwood-Camano community involves:

    1. Seeking to understand the unique culture of the Stanwood-Camano community
    2. Seeking ways to truly love the community and people who call it home.
    3. Getting involved in existing community activities to connect with people where they are.
    4. Discussing how to communicate the gospel in a way that speaks into the unique ideals, fears, and idols of this community.
    5. Consistently teaching what it means to be a Christian not just in private, but also in public.
    6. Consistently teaching what it means to be a Christian in a secular society.
    7. Keeping to a minimum programs and activities “inside the church walls” so that believers can spend time engaging unbelievers.
  1. Theology-informed ministry. Every church has theology. And every church has particular ways of doing ministry. Yet not every church puts concentrated effort into connecting their theology to their particular ways of doing ministry. In many cases, a ministry model is chosen simply because of pragmatism or a current trend rather than as an outflow of beliefs about God’s character and ways.
A church with theology-informed ministry takes theology seriously. This is not because theology is the whole of the Christian life, but because the whole of the Christian life is informed by some form of theology, whether intentionally or not. What we believe is connected to how we live. Wrong beliefs about God lead to destructive patterns of behavior and thinking. Right beliefs about God lead to the life of grace and freedom that God intends. And where theology is minimized, the result is not a lack of theology, but the presence of bad theology. Thus, a theology-driven ministry seeks to understand all that God has revealed about himself, and then lets this understanding inform every facet of church life.

Of course, there is always a temptation to idolize theology, or to disconnect theology from godly living, or to use theology merely as a weapon to cause unnecessary division. Any pursuit of right thinking about God must also be a pursuit of humility and love to other believers. The goal is neither mere moral living divorced from right thinking about God, nor right thinking about God divorced from godly living. Right theology, when fully believed, leads to right living. This is the direction it always flows: right thinking to right living. The temptation to idolize theology does not at all diminish its importance for the life of the church. 

(Community groups begin Sunday, October 5 at 5 p.m. at the Fekkes' home. Come join the conversation!)