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Which church growth method is best?

Jared Wilson on a gospel-driven approach

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.  

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