For most of the last 1500 years, at least in the Western world, the Christian church held a position of power and favored status amongst society at-large. So profound was the church’s influence on culture for most of this time that the church actually defined, developed, and prescribed the prevailing societal institutions and normative behaviors of culture. The term used to describe culture during the first 1000 years of this time frame reflects the nature of the relationship between the church and culture: Christendom, which literally means “a Christian world.” Since public institutions were so heavily influenced and even regulated by the church, one of the major implications of Christendom was that society did an excellent job of “Christianizing” the citizenry. In other words, people learned the language and behavior of Christianity simply by growing up in the West.
Christendom was positive in that the language, symbols, and doctrinal emphases of Christianity were commonly understood and therefore provided a widely agreeable foundation for public discourse on matters of morality.
The great flaw of Christendom, however, is that Christian living was not dependent on Christian being. In other words, Christendom promoted the lifestyle of Christianity that was often separated from a true encounter with and understanding of the gospel of Jesus. The goal of society was not to produce Christians, but to produce Christianized people. Independent of gospel-induced heart-change, the Christianized life became, at best, a moral framework for cultivating a decent, socially acceptable life. At worst, the Christianized life fueled evil power structures that used Christian morality to cruelly oppress those on the margins of society.
For the last 200 years, numerous military conflicts (two of which were called “World Wars”), several periods of global economic instability, and scientific and industrial revolutions have brought Western society into a staggering awareness of its bleak condition. People have become aware that a Christianized society does not produce the lasting peace it once promised. The result has been the rapid dismantling of Christendom.
The problem is, no one alerted the church to Christendom’s demise.
Actually, the fault lies with the church, for while Western-society and values (culture) became increasingly non-Christian, the church failed to recognize and adapt to this important shift. Evangelical churches in particular continued to operate under the false assumption that the language and behavioral norms of Christianity made sense to the broader culture. Sadly, because of its inability, and often unwillingness, to adapt to its surroundings, the church lost its point of contact with culture, and with that, its voice and influence.
Thus the need for a gospel-centered missional church.
But what is a gospel-centered, missional church? Simply put, a gospel-centered missional church is one that recognizes that:
Authentic heart-transformation cannot happen apart from the gospel;
Culture is not the enemy of the church; rather it is a broken treasure God has gone to great lengths to restore.
A gospel-centered church is so because the gospel is the engine that propels its mission.
The gospel is the good news that God, the only perfect and righteous being, lovingly entered a broken, sinful world in order to bring us into right standing with himself. God has revealed himself to us through the person of Jesus and the Bible. The holistic purpose of the Bible (both the Old and New Testaments) is to glorify God by telling the story of Jesus (Luke 24:25-27; 1 Corinthians 1:22-24; 2:2): his life, ministry, death and resurrection, and to communicate God’s desire for people to experience him through Jesus. It is entirely accurate to say, then, that the gospel is Jesus himself (Luke 24:44-47; John 1:1; 14:6).
We affirm with Colossians 1:17-18 that Jesus is “before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” Since Jesus is the gospel, and since all things find their purpose and meaning in him, we recognize that we are only accomplishing “ministry” when Jesus is the driving force of our efforts.
The gospel is the primary lens through which to view the world and the people and things in it.
The Bible, which is the gospel story, is our ultimate authority on matters concerning the world and everything and everyone in it. This means that a right understanding of the world and the people in it, and how to address all needs and problems, will emanate from the gospel.
Like the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:2, we profess that there is nothing in life more important than knowing “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” If, by the aid of God’s Spirit, we view all things through the lens of Christ, if we submit all our decisions and ministry to Jesus, we will bring glory to God through our living.
The gospel is the only message the church is called to teach.
Being a gospel-centered missional church is not a strategy for growth or a self-help philosophy aimed at being a “better Christian.” It is in large part an awareness that the only hope we have for transforming the world is Jesus and the gospel that bears his name. The fundamental need of every person, Christians and non-Christians, is to hear and know the gospel at each moment in their life. As Pastor Tim Keller has written, “All our problems come from a failure to apply the gospel.” Therefore, the primary calling of the church is to equip Christians and inform and encourage non-Christians through the teaching of the gospel in worship services, sermons, community groups, classes, so that they will live out the gospel of grace in all of their relationships and contexts (family, friends, career, leisure, etc). The church’s job is to uphold the essentiality of the gospel both as the means to salvation and the pathway to sanctification.
A gospel-centered church is missional because it considers the needs, dreams, and hopes of culture, and engages culture in these areas as it communicates the gospel. A missional church finds the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to be so compelling and life-giving that it is willing to let it shape everything it does—its methodology—in order to communicate the gospel in a way that makes sense in its cultural context.
Primarily, a missional church recognizes the centrality of the gospel as its people live out the calling to be “for” the culture. This means a church must derive its purpose from the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-4); it must be a servant of the gospel that glorifies God by telling people the story of Jesus through word and action (1 John 3:16-17). A gospel-centered church’s ministry cannot be separated from the person of Jesus, nor can its mission be defined or performed apart from the gospel. The gospel is the ultimate guide and authority for how the church functions and ministers. Said another way, a missional church embraces God’s call to be a sender of missionaries to its own culture (Matthew 4:19; Acts 16:20; 17:6).
Because the relationship between “the world” and the church can be difficult to navigate, a missional church absolutely must be grounded in the authority of the inerrant and inspired Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:14-17). Indeed, the Scriptures provide the foundation for and inform all God-honoring mission work. After all, what is it except God’s truth that we are communicating to culture anyway?
A missional church is willing to boldly adapt its methodology, while holding firmly to the core truth of its message, in order to participate in God’s transformation and redemption of culture (Luke 7:34; Acts 16:20-21). Note the distinction: the method does not drive the message; rather the message propels the method. In other words, the solid, unchanging foundation of the gospel renders the method of communication flexible, so long as that method does not contradict the gospel as articulated in Scripture and illumined by the Holy Spirit.
A missional church expects every member to be a missionary to the people they come into contact with (family, friends, co-workers, etc). Therefore, a missional church spends a large amount of time and resources equipping members through Bible study, community groups, worship services and forums so that they can engage their specific contexts with the gospel (Ephesians 4:11-16).
A missional church seeks to understand the stories of culture (through popular film, music, literature, etc) in order to better understand the hopes, dreams and fears of people, so that it can re-tell culture’s story in the light of Jesus. One of the primary ways a missional church honors God is by creatively and fearlessly taking Christ into the broken world that needs Him most (Matthew 28:18-20). It does not see church as an end in itself, but rather a means to an end. That end is “Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
A missional church worships God in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24). The church worships in truth by communicating God’s truth in a way that makes sense in our day and time, avoiding pious religious language that creates an “us” vs. “them” mentality. The church worships authentically, not relying on sentimental religious language to set a “spiritual tone.” The church worships in spirit by relying on God’s Spirit as we help people discover the truth of the gospel in their own way and timing, trusting ultimately that God is sovereign and working ceaselessly toward restoration of the created order (Romans 8:26-30).
 Insights regarding the history of Christendom come from Tim Keller’s helpful article “The Missional Church.”