7 Ways to Cultivate a Church Culture for Gospel Growth

When churches think about sharing the gospel with visitors, we can easily jump straight to outreach strategies and event planning.  But here are seven ways to cultivate a culture for greater gospel growth in the church – foundational pieces that need to be put in place:

1. Gospel Clarity – Make sure your church is clear on the gospel, consistently clear.  We can easily fall into using Christian language in a sloppy way.  The gospel is good news, not vague news.  So do not settle for a gathering of people that are united by church tradition, or who know how to behave a certain way and dress like they belong.  Speak about the transforming power of meeting Jesus and following Jesus.  Present the good news of who Jesus is and what Jesus did for us on the cross.  Feature the importance of the resurrection as a historical fact and the basis of genuine faith.  Explain what it means to respond, to repent, to receive, etc.  Do not assume a vague gospel agreement in preaching, or in conversation.  Too many churches rely on a specific event and a specific speaker to give a gospel message.  There is a place for special events and overtly evangelistic speakers, but the church should have the good news of Jesus in its DNA, permeating its culture.

2. Loving Community – The church is not just another social club in a society full of social clubs.  The church is a family that does not make sense.  Why do these people love each other like this?  There should be a level of love, concern, practical support, patience, graciousness, and warmth that is genuine and profoundly different from any social club in society.  A healthy church will grow in diversity.  Everyone will not be the same.  Obviously, if a town is full of very similar people, then that will impact the church.  But few towns are!  There should be diversity of race, of class background, of education level, etc.  Then the unity of believers in a church community will be magnetically attractive to visitors who don’t experience that kind of family warmth anywhere else – in many cases, not even at home.  This takes more than labeling to be genuine.  It is not enough to say from the front, “we are a church family.”  It has to be true.  Live it out at the leadership level and encourage mutual care wherever you can. For example, don’t overcrowd the schedule with meetings so that people don’t have space in the week to connect relationally.

3. Obstacle Removal – Will visitors feel awkward?  The church is a very different subculture than the world around.  It will feel different, but it does not need to feel unnecessarily awkward.  In our church, we have often said that we only want visitors stumbling over the gospel and Christians loving one another.  We do not want them feeling like they do not know where to go, what is happening, if their children are safe, if they will be embarrassed, if they are welcome, etc.  When I was in seminary, in one class, we were required to attend a religious service of a different religion.  The benefit was huge.  Most of us had always gone to church so it just felt normal.  But thrown into a different subculture, we became profoundly self-conscious.  It taught us to try and imagine coming to church as an outsider.  What could we do to make that experience warm and welcoming, rather than starkly awkward?

4. Whole Experience – What does a visitor experience when they park their car or arrive at the venue?  Do they know where to go?  Are they welcomed and introduced to children’s workers if they have children, or helped into conversation with someone who will be sensitive to their being first timers?  Will the service itself be explained in non-jargon terms?  Will they know if they are supposed to stand for singing and when?  Will there perhaps be a simple explanation of why Christians sing at all?  Will the location of Bible readings be given in Bible code, or will there be a page number given if people are using the church Bibles?  Will “normal people” who are not officially welcoming guests be genuinely friendly too? 

5. Assume Visitors – When we started our church, we had a period of several months where we were learning how this new church was going to function.  We did not actively promote the church at that time.  There was no website, no signage, etc.  People were welcome, but our focus was on getting used to functioning in a new way.  Every week we opened the service as if guests were present.  The small number of believers would sometimes look around with a grin, fully aware that there were no guests present.  Why would we do that?  Because they needed to grow in confidence that when they did bring someone along, it would be a safe environment.  We don’t want our people hesitant to invite others to church.  It can be risky to a friendship if you invite a colleague and their experience is poor.  So, the experience has to be consistently trustworthy.  A number of people in our church had past church experiences where some weeks the preaching was guest sensitive, but other weeks when you would hope no guests were present.  We had to work to earn trust and cultivate a culture where guests could come any week.

6. Every Service – Every service is a gospel service.  Obviously, there are sometimes church business meetings that are restricted to members.  But a normal church gathering on a Sunday (presumably) has the potential to attract visitors.  They could be there because they are visiting family members.  They could have found the church online.  They could be looking for a church, or passing a couple of hours in a one-off visit.  But the point is, we should not be wishing they would come back in four weeks’ time when there is a special guest-friendly gospel service.  It is possible to make every gathering guest friendly, and it is possible to make every sermon relevant to everyone.

7. Driving Values – Is the church driven by tradition, by the preferences of influential people, or by defined values?  If the church is driven by denominational tradition, then there will be plenty of opportunity for what is normal to actually be strange to first-time visitors.  At least explain it but consider changing it if necessary.  If the church is driven by the preferences of influential people, then there will be plenty of ways in which the church is quirky for guests.  It is harder to explain an eclectic set of church features when they are present because of someone sitting in row three.  Changing this internal power dynamic will be necessary for genuine gospel growth!  As much as possible, seek to define the values of the church and aspire to be a church that God will trust with newcomers and new believers.  The whole congregation may find it uncomfortable to be consistently and genuinely welcoming to others.  By identifying its value, the leadership can then model buy-in and help the whole church take the steps necessary to live out that church value.

God may bless outreach strategies and special events whenever you implement them.  But my sense is that deliberately cultivating a church culture ready for gospel growth in these seven ways will prepare the church for greater fruit from outreach and special events.  What would you add to the list?


Click on this image to find the playlist of Enjoying the Word videos from Cor Deo:

Billy Graham: Some Lessons for Preachers

Billy Graham has changed address. He is now more alive than ever. Upon hearing news of his death I thought it appropriate to reflect on what preachers might want to learn from his life and ministry.

I remember hearing Billy Graham preaching during Mission England in 1984/85. As a boy I sat on the terraces of the stadium and heard his voice ring out with clarity, urgency and sincerity. A few years later technology allowed LiveLink – I remember sitting in a large tent and watching him preach on the screen, and then several friends going forward to trust in Christ for salvation. His book on Angels was the first Christian book to ignite a love for reading in me. A few years later as a student I listened to a cassette of him preaching as I drove into university each day. I lived at the tail end of Billy Graham’s ministry, but I am a grateful recipient of it nevertheless

As preachers in a new century, what can we learn from Billy Graham as we reflect on his life and ministry? Here are a few lessons, please do add more:

1. Preach Christ. Billy Graham gradually developed a very significant platform in society. He had access to Presidents, and yet that never swayed him into preaching politics. He was known across the globe, and yet that never stirred him into promoting himself. He preached Christ.

2. Personal Integrity. Billy Graham would have been a colossal scalp for the enemy to take. It would have been a huge media frenzy. It never happened. He is a lesson to us all on the power of personal integrity in ministry. He made choices regarding money, and especially personal purity, that many would scoff at today. But we should thank God for men who make it to the finish line.

3. Profound Conviction. Billy Graham believed what he preached, and so listeners felt the force of his message. The direct manner of his communication left listeners without any doubt that he wanted them to hear him and act on what he said. This conviction was not a performance, it was forged in the crucible of prayer and a personal walk with Christ.

4. Pioneering Innovation. Billy Graham was willing to embrace transport and technological developments to preach Christ. When others felt constrained by tradition, he was willing to travel further and press into the use of newspaper columns, network radio, television, satellite broadcast and so on. What he did may look antiquated now, but he was radical then.

5. Proclamation Ministry. Billy Graham proclaimed a message. He was a herald. There is certainly a need for those who can debate or engage in high level apologetics. There is a place for various approaches to evangelism and ministry. Billy Graham heralded the gospel. “The Bible says…” may sound quaint to some, but it rang crystal clear in many hearts. He knew that God would use the proclaimed Word.

6. Preach Simply. Billy Graham preached so that ordinary people could understand what he was saying and relate to it. He avoided complicated terminology. He didn’t show off his learning. He kept the vocabulary and the sermonic structure simple. He would build rapport, show that something is not right (sin), and then announce the hope to be found in Jesus, inviting response.

7. Pathos Targeted. Billy Graham knew that the Gospel had to be proclaimed to the heart. He knew people feel empty, they feel lonely, they feel guilty and they feel afraid of death. He did not harangue his listeners with duty, but proclaimed the message with deep compassion.

8. Prayer Integral. Billy Graham knew that for lives to be transformed it would need to be the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, he was a man of prayer. His ministry was bathed in prayer. We might say his impact can only be explained by prayer. Copying Billy Graham’s intonation or gestures, using his illustrations, replicating his urgency, and even plagiarizing his sermons will not bring significant fruit. Copying his prayer life might.

He preached in person to over 210 million people through his ministry. I suspect none of us will come close to that. But we would do well to seek to emulate a life lived with utmost integrity, gracious humility, profound simplicity – and may we also proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to an ever-needy world.

Edwards on Evangelism

I very much enjoyed an article in the Anvil journal by Peter Sanlon.  Let me quote three paragraphs, where the middle one is a quote from Jonathan Edwards –

The primacy of the affections has implications for our ministries.  We should see that prayer, sacraments, singing and preaching are all given by God ‘to excite and express religious affections.’ Perhaps one of the areas of ministry where we understandably, but erroneously, fail to appreciate the primacy of the affections, is evangelism.  It makes sense intellectually that an unbeliever needs to understand that of which they were previously ignorant.  This is indeed necessary (Rom.10:14) but Edwards would affirm that the main point of spiritual work in conversion is in the affections.  To engage in mission which takes seriously the primacy of the affections would involve a radical overhaul of our present day reliance on programmes, courses and rational explanations:

There is a difference between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of that holiness and grace.  There is a difference between have a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness.  A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes.

A compelling case could be made that much evangelical ministry today is geared at giving people an opinion and rational judgment about God which falls far short of the sense of sweetness Edwards encouraged people to taste.  In a time when people are starving for lack of the pleasure of tasting the sweetness of God, we should not denigrate emotions but rather seek to stir up any emotion which tends towards inculcating the emotional heart-felt plea, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us’ (Luke 17:13). We must do this in evangelism, because, ‘the way to draw men and women into Christ’s kingdom, Edwards believed, was through his listeners’ affections.’

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From Peter Sanlon’s article, “Bringing Emotions to the Surface in Ministry,” in Anvil, vol.26, nos. 3&4, 2009, p238.

Okay, One More Spurgeon Quote

Honestly, I’m at Keswick this week, moving on Monday, and a little overwhelmed, so I am resorting to an easy source for quality thought-provoking material.  Spurgeon.  Following on from yesterday and thinking about preaching to save souls, here’s a blast worth receiving:

If we ourselves doubt the power of the gospel, how can we preach it with authority?  Feel that you are a favored man in being allowed to proclaim the good news, and rejoice that your mission is fraught with eternal benefit to those before you.  Let the people see how glad and confident the gospel has made you, and it will go far to make them long to partake in its blessed influences.

Preach very solemnly, for it is a weighty business, but let your matter be lively and pleasing, for this will prevent solemnity from souring into dreariness.  Be so thoroughly solemn that all your faculties are aroused and consecrated, and then a dash of humor will only add intenser gravity to the discourse, even as a flash of lightning makes midnight darkness all the more impressive.  Preach to one point, concentrating all your energies upon the object aimed at.  There must be no riding of hobbies, no introduction of elegancies of speech, no suspicion of personal display, or you will fail.  Sinners are quick-witted people, and soon detect even the smallest effort to glorify self.  Forego everything for the sake of those you long to save.  Be a fool for Christ’s sake if this will win them, or be a scholar, if that will be more likely to impress them.  Spare neither labor in the study, prayer in the closet, nor zeal in the pulpit.  If men do not judge their souls to be worth a thought, compel them to see that their minister is of a very different opinion.

Some things have changed ever so slightly, but the bulk of this quote is well worth pondering in respect to our preaching today.  Perhaps it would be worth spending a season in prayer, asking God to make the souls of those around as important to us as they are to Him.  That might prompt prayer, and preaching, as never before.

(Quote from Thielicke’s Encounter with Spurgeon, pp58-9.)


Appalling Responsibility

I suppose this is the week of old quotes . . . lots from James Stewart (published in the 1940’s).  But today I am going older still.  This time Stewart, in Heralds of God (p207), quotes from the 17th century:

There is a great sermon of John Donne’s, delivered in the year 1624, in which he sets forth his conception of the awful burden on the preacher’s heart.  “What Sea,” cries Donne, “could furnish mine eyes with teares enough to poure out, if I should think, that of all this congregation, which lookes me in the face now, I should not meet one at the Resurrection, at the right hand of God!  When at any midnight I hear a bell toll from this steeple, must not I say to my self, what have I done at any time for the instructing or rectifying of that man’s Conscience, who lieth there now ready to deliver up his own account and my account to Almighty God?”  Is it to be wondered at that many a man of God besides Elijah and Jeremiah has tried to run away from a commission so crushing and intolerable?  Nothing but the grace of God can hold you to it.  The magnitude of the task is the first element in evangelical humility.

This is what Stewart calls the appalling responsibility of the minister of the Gospel.  Perhaps we would do well to ponder the burden of our calling.  We live in an age when many take the heavy things of ministry very lightly.  Yet some things have not changed.  Not least the impending reality of the judgment facing humanity after death.  It’s hard to justify levity in light of that.

Preaching to a Postmodern Culture

In his book, He is Not Silent, Al Mohler offers a no-holds barred chapter on postmodernity and preaching.  After listing a series of negative observations of the postmodern “mood” (and probably failing to recognize the positive opportunities now presented to us as preachers), he presents a series of principles for proper proclamation in a postmodern culture.  He earths his thoughts in Acts 17:

1. Christian proclamation in a postmodern culture begins in a provoked spirit (v16)
2. Christian proclamation in a postmodern culture is focused on Gospel proclamation (v17)
3. Christian proclamation in a postmodern culture assumes a context of spiritual confusion (vv18-21)
4. Christian proclamation in a postmodern cultureis directed to a spiritual hunger. (vv22-23)
5. Christian proclamation in a postmodern culture begins with the fundamental issue of God’s nature, character, power, and authority. (vv24-28)
6. Christian proclamation in a postmodern culture confronts error. (v29)
7. Christian proclamation in a postmodern culture affirms the totality of God’s saving purpose. (vv30-31)

Principles worth pondering.

Listen to Jonathan Edwards

I just listened to Max McLean’s performance of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon – “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It is considered the most famous sermon ever preached in US history. The sermon is available as a free download here. Actually it has been edited down to about 20 minutes of actual sermon (rather than 43), with extra comments before and after – think radio show. Nonetheless, it’s free and worth hearing.

It is worth hearing both as a listener to be ministered to, and as a preacher to notice a few things. First and foremost, listen as a listener. Get a sense of why people trembled and cried out for mercy. Listen, not for rhetorical power (although I’ll come to that), but for the strong truth of the gospel itself – that’s where “power” is. Listen to stir your appreciation for God’s favor. Listen to stir a passion for the lost, to light afresh a flame for evangelism.

And you can listen as a preacher too. Even this shortened version allows us to hear a classic example of the power of a controlling idea. You will appreciate powerful and vivid sensory imagery conveyed in well-chosen words. Surely, this will stir prayer for your own preaching and those that will hear it.

Review: Preaching for Special Services, by Scott M. Gibson


They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  In this case I think you shouldn’t judge a book by its size.  This short one-hundred page book is well worth having for several reasons that I will list below.  Honestly, I only picked it up in order to scan it and make space for a new book on my “preaching books to read” shelf.  I’m glad I did.

This book is focused on “special services.”  That means weddings, funerals, baptisms, infant presentations, the Lord’s Supper and a selection of other events in the final chapter including evangelistic sermons.  In each chapter Scott Gibson presents a brief but well-informed history of preaching on that occasion in Jewish and Christian history.  He briefly outlines elements of a theology of preaching for such an event.  Then he addresses the issue of developing the sermon, before the closing section on delivering the sermon.  There is a sensitivity and gracious spirit throughout.  The book follows the Haddon Robinson approach to sermon preparation.

Three reasons why I’m impressed with this little book:

1. It gives specific, helpful and gracious instruction for how to prepare and present a biblical sermon at these special services.  For many preachers these events tend to be an extra burden in the schedule, but for those present or involved, these events are long remembered.  Gibson offers help to the preacher, who will remain in the shadows of the event and yet brings a word in season for those gathered.

2. I suppose this book could be written simply with the sections on how to develop and deliver the messages.  I certainly wasn’t expecting the valuable historical and theological elements in these chapters.  Although short, these concise sections add great value to the book.

3. Scott Gibson does not try to re-create what Robinson has done so well in terms of the big idea approach to sermon preparation.  What Gibson does throughout the book is concisely and helpfully integrate and contextualize Robinson’s model (for example the careful concern for a sermonic purpose statement in each chapter).  Some who have read Robinson may find that elements “click” in their understanding when reading Gibson’s specific-occasion application of that model.

(And, a minor fourth point, unlike Gibson and Willhite’s Big Idea of Biblical Preaching, this book was almost bereft of editorial oversights.  There’s a sermon purpose statement error on page 97, and an extra word in a book title on page 99, otherwise the book seemed “clean.”)

(Published in 2001)

Unusually Careful

Just a brief thought since it is the season for non-regular attenders at church.  When preparing evangelistic sermons it is worth being unusually careful.  Apparently, Martyn Lloyd-Jones would always write out his evangelistic sermons, rather than his edification sermons.  Remember that the real “risk” when preaching the gospel is not the preacher’s, but the church folk who’ve invited their friends.  It is so easy to inadvertently offend in the wrong sense of the term.  So with all the extra visitors in our churches this Sunday, let’s be unusually careful in preparing the messages.

Evangelistic Preaching – A Flexibility Test?

I don’t think there is a definitive model for evangelistic preaching.  There are guidelines, certainly, but also a real need for flexibility.  You have to flex according to the kind of church you are in, the occasion on which you preach, the kind of people to whom you are preaching and so on.

I grew up in a church context where there was, in theory, an evangelistic sermon every Sunday night.  In many ways it was a remnant from an earlier generation in which people would attend church simply because a service was taking place.  By the time I came along (due to being in a Christian family), our culture had changed.  Week after week the meeting would take place, always to the same crowd of believers, usually without clear explanation of how to respond to the gospel, often without clear explanation of the meaning of the cross.  The format of the service was traditional and probably distinctly alien and uncomfortable for any outsider that might attend.  It certainly did not motivate me to invite non-believers.

I think many churches are more purposeful about evangelistic meetings now (at least in my circles).  More creativity, more “natural” communication, more effort to remove the “cringe” factors.  But one thing is clear – there is not one way to preach evangelistically.  Taking into account the people present, how the meeting has been promoted, the expectations of those who have invited friends, etc. all influences how to preach.  Sometimes a gentle introduction to Christianity that leaves people wanting more is ideal.  Other times it is critical to give a more complete gospel presentation.  Sometimes it is time to “shake the tree” and catch the already ripened fruit by overt calls to decision.

It takes sensitivity, wisdom, faith and courage to know which way to go on a particular occasion.  Generally it is best to present the way you informed the church that you would (because they bring guests according to what they are expecting you to do!)  Ultimately, there will probably be criticism coming from somewhere, but that is evangelistic preaching – never easy, always critical.  There is no simple formula, for there are so many variables.  But at its core the gospel doesn’t change, and the world needs it as much as ever.