“None of us is ever beyond a call to return to the gospel. Never.”
J.D. Greear wears many hats: pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and author of several books, most recently Above All: The Gospel Is the Source of the Church’s Renewal (B&H, 2019). In this new title, Greear argues that in spite of rumors to the contrary, the church is not going away, and that if Christians return to the central message of Jesus, the future for Christianity is remarkably bright.
Outreach editor-at-large Paul J. Pastor caught up with Greear to focus on themes of the book, and why the church doesn’t need a new strategy for ministry today, but a renewed focus on what we are all about.
Let’s begin with the title of the book. “Above all” is an inspiring call. Is it particularly timely today? What dynamics are you seeing that led to this as the book’s emphasis?
The apostle Paul said that the gospel was of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3–4). That implies that other things were important to him, too. But they weren’t of first importance. Only the gospel was.
Evangelical Christians have always been gospel people, of course. After all, it’s in our very name. Evangelical is a transliteration of the Greek word “gospel.” So, in that sense, the gospel has always been our “brand.” It’s been the heart of Christianity from the beginning. It’s what gives our faith life.
But we’re tempted to turn elsewhere for renewal and life. That’s the context for my call to keep the gospel above all.
It strikes me that many of the people who may need the message most might already feel they are above-all people. How do we address our own self-deception about the gospel?
That’s a great observation. Look, keeping the gospel above all means that the gospel alone provides the power and the focus of our mission. In Romans 1:16, Paul says he is not ashamed of the gospel because it is the “power of God” for salvation. Other than Jesus himself, the gospel is the only thing in Scripture called the power of God. Not contains the power of God. Is the power of God.
Many people can articulate the gospel, but they don’t think it’s where the real power is. As a result they don’t act like it’s the primary focus of their ministry. But that’s what Paul said it should be. In 1 Corinthians 2:2, he went so far as to say that he would preach nothing but Christ and him crucified. The church in Corinth was a mess. They had a ton of practical teaching needs. But Paul knew that what they (as Christians) needed most was the gospel.
Martin Luther once said that to progress in Christianity is always to begin again. None of us is ever beyond a call to return to the gospel. Never.
What are you learning about relating to people who have become stuck on a smaller or more entangled (culturally, politically, theologically) gospel than that which you are espousing here? What works in speaking to them? What doesn’t?
That’s so complicated. When secondary issues become primary issues, mission quickly becomes maintenance. We start to prioritize preferences and traditions over the one thing Jesus called us to do: make disciples.
This happens incredibly easily, without us often noticing it. It’s almost like we are driving cars overdue for a tune-up—so severely out of alignment that the moment we take our hands off the wheel, we veer into a ditch. The ditches look different for each of us, but our hearts are wired to drift from the gospel. We have to keep our hands, so to speak, on the gospel wheel.
What works in doing that? Well, championing the original mission. Most pastors I know got into ministry because they wanted to reach people. They still do, and they often just need to be reminded of that. Once we agree to get back to the gospel, then we can start talking specifics about what this means, for instance, for the way we organize our church services or post on social media.
Let’s turn to address one of the recent crises you’ve had to respond to as leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, related to issues of sexual abuse, gender injustice and a history of abusive or callous leadership. With the issue of credibility at the core of the crisis, how does “above all” relate to the current sense that a reckoning has come home to the SBC?
Great question. It relates deeply. Prioritizing the gospel above all is why we have sought to pay such careful attention to the current sexual abuse crisis in the SBC. Some have suggested this is a distraction from our mission or pandering to a cultural agenda. Not in the least. This is a gospel issue.
At its core, the gospel involves God’s commitment to protect the vulnerable. The cross declares that God is a safe refuge for all who run (in repentance) to him. What greater lie could we tell about the gospel than for us not to be doing whatever it takes to make our churches safe places for the vulnerable? How would Jesus feel about leaders who sit idly by when abuse happens, not taking the necessary and uncomfortable steps to ensure protection? This is not a distraction from the mission; protecting God’s children is our mission.
If we don’t deal decisively with this, rising generations will simply not come to our churches. Already one large denomination in the U.S. that failed to respond to this rightly reported a 30% drop in attendance from people who identified this as the reason they quit coming. Our own LifeWay Research study shows that 1 in 10 people below the age of 35 have left a Southern Baptist church over failure to handle abuse rightly.
We should be the place the hurting and vulnerable know they can come for refuge, but our failure in this only drives them away. This is a gospel issue, and the gospel is above all. Therefore we must deal with this definitively and decisively.
THE SUMMIT CHURCH
Durham, North Carolina
Denomination: Southern Baptist
In Part 2 of the interview, J.D. Greear talks about why he thinks we’re primed for a gospel explosion in our day, how we can relate to people who don’t believe the gospel is good news, and how Summit Church encourages its members to be on mission.
Read about more Outreach 100 churches at OutreachMagazine.com/church-profiles.