Book Review

Which church growth method is best?

Jared Wilson on a gospel-driven approach

October 4, 2019

Every pastor who loves Jesus and his Church wants the church he leads to grow. After all, Jesus made it clear that he came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10), to build his Church (Matt. 16:18), and to lead his followers to become fishers of men (Mark 1:17). Before he ascended to the right hand of the Father, Jesus gave his followers the Great Commission, calling us to go and make disciples (Matt. 28:16-20). Following Jesus’ example and command, the apostles preached the gospel to everyone they could, and the early Church experienced explosive growth as thousands were added to the Church, including three thousand people in a single day (Acts 2:41). There is coming a time when all things will be subject to our King (1 Cor. 15:24-28), and as pastors we have the privilege of leading our churches to participate in God’s vision and mission. Every pastor who still has passion for his calling wants to see this happen in and through his ministry.  

Church growth methods

The question then becomes: How? How do pastors lead their churches to grow, and how do they discern whether or not they are growing? One of the predominant answers to this question is what is often called the attractional paradigm. This approach is based on trying to make every element of the church as attractive as possible to the surrounding culture so that people will attend the church and then make a commitment to Jesus Christ (and the church). Music, preaching, and programs are explicitly designed to draw people into the church. Success is then based on measurable metrics such as average weekly worship attendance, the number of decisions made to accept Jesus Christ, or the number of people who join the church.  

While the attractional paradigm continues to dominate many evangelical churches, an increasing number have begun to realize that there are problems with this model. For example, faithfulness to God’s methods of doing church as described in Scripture does not always produce measurable results. Large numbers of people and decisions do not necessarily indicate a healthy, growing church. 

After a generation with the attractional paradigm as the prevalent way of doing church, research indicates a heightened biblical illiteracy and lessened church commitment among evangelicals. In other words, it doesn’t seem to be working. These problems have led to an increasing popularity for what is often called the gospel-centered or gospel-driven paradigm, where pragmatic concerns and measurable metrics are no longer the driving forces behind how we do church. Instead, the biblical content and methodology of the gospel are the driving forces, whether they are considered “attractive” to the surrounding culture or not.  

Transitioning to gospel-driven growth

Jared Wilson's book The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace is dedicated to helping pastors and churches transition from an attractional way of doing church to a gospel-driven way. Building upon authors such as Jonathan Edwards, Ray Ortlund, Tim Keller, Colin Marshall, and Tony Payne, Wilson first offers a biblical critique of the attraction paradigm. He then walks through what a gospel-driven way of church looks like, beginning with how to measure and not measure success. This leads into a chapter explaining how to place the supernatural power of the gospel at the center of everything a church does. Subsequent chapters highlight what this looks like in preaching, worship music, discipleship, and mission. The last two chapters explicitly encourage and equip pastors in leading gospel-driven change in their churches. Several helpful resources come at the end of the book, including a bullet-point list of the principles Wilson has expounded throughout the book, recommended books for further reading, and a number of troubleshooting questions and answers. 

One of the features that makes Wilson’s book more readable than many in this genre is the narrative he builds his instruction around, echoing authors such as Calvin Miller. He weaves the story of a fictional church, LifePoint Church, throughout the book, and how its pastor becomes convicted about the need to move away from their attractional model to a more gospel-centered model. Grounding his teaching in an illustration like this helps highlight real-world issues, such as how this kind of transition will affect an established church both positively and negatively, how pastoral staff and congregational leaders might react, and how it will impact the pastor.  

Gospel-Driven Church is Wilson’s 12th book. Having read most of his books, it is everything you would expect from Wilson: biblical, practical, well-written, historically informed, and directed to pastors but accessible to most interested readers. Wilson writes as a former pastor, using his personal and ministry experience as illustrations, supporting his work with relevant examples, grounding his work in Scripture and doctrine, and focusing on practical application. While each chapter could be dealt with in a book-length treatment (something Wilson readily acknowledges with his recommended resources page), Wilson does a commendable job of focusing on the most important issues and not forgetting his audience of busy pastors. 

As a pastor who believes the gospel-driven paradigm is the biblical way of doing church and does his best to practice it, I was both encouraged and strengthened by Wilson’s book. I would recommend it to pastors, seminary students, and church leaders, particularly those who are struggling in churches dominated by the attractional paradigm or seeking instruction on how best to pastor at this cultural moment.  

Gary L. Shultz Jr.

Gary L. Shultz Jr. is the senior pastor at First Baptist Church Tallahassee. Shultz has a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and received his M.Div. and M.A. in Intercultural Studies from Baptist Bible Theological Seminary. He is the author of A Multi-Intentioned View of the Extent of the Atonement (Wipf … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24