What prompted you to write Above All? Who did you have in mind as you wrote it?
Evangelical Christians have always been gospel people. It’s in our very name! The word, “evangelical,” is a transliteration of the Greek word “gospel.” So, in that sense, the gospel has always been our “brand.”
But it seems like a lot of us are increasingly tempted to turn elsewhere for renewal and life and to give our energies to other agendas. I wonder if Paul’s words to the Galatians might characterize a lot of our attempts at ministry today:
You foolish (Evangelicals)! Who has cast a spell on you? … Are you so foolish? After beginning by the Spirit, are you now finishing by the flesh? (Gal 3:1–3, CSB)
We get engaged in a lot of things—important things—that end up keeping us from the one essential thing—the gospel.
Think about this: The gospel is the one thing in the New Testament, other than Jesus himself, that is referred to as the power of God. Not contains the power of God. Not channels the power of God, but is itself the raw, unstoppable, death-defeating power of God.
Paul referred to the gospel as “of first importance,” and put so much emphasis on it that he told the Corinthians that he only wanted to talk about one thing with them: the cross of Jesus. Most scholars say that was an overstatement; after all, his letters to the Corinthians are filled with many important instructions for the Christian life. But in Paul’s mind the gospel was so important he didn’t mind saying it was all he wanted to be known for.
We should be known as a gospel people. We only have bandwidth in our communities to be known for a couple of things. I want that thing to be the gospel. I often tell The Summit Church that I might be wrong about global warming, but I’m not wrong about the gospel. So I refuse to let my views on the former prevent people from hearing me on the latter.
Jesus, in fact, said there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repents than over the 99 that are already in the flock. That’s a pretty shocking statement. There is literally nothing I can do with “the 99” that brings Jesus as much joy as bringing in the one. It doesn’t mean there’s nothing I should ever do with the 99; just that none of those things bring Jesus as much joy as getting the gospel to the people who need it. Thus, that has to be primary in our agenda.
In your years in ministry, why do you think it’s so easy to put programs, priorities, politics, etc. above all else in the church?
It’s safer. We rely on what we know, because the unknown is scary. And relying on our “flesh” to carry on the mission is a common temptation in the Christian life—enough so that Paul wrote a whole book about it to the Galatians warning them that what God started in the power of the gospel they could not perfect in the flesh.
Prioritizing the gospel takes faith. And faith is scary. Faith only begins with accepting how weak we are in ourselves.
Furthermore, if we put the gospel first, the world will call us fools, because all of our hope will be in the promise of a Savior who is no longer bodily present on earth. But we have to choose: Would we rather be wise according to the world (and lacking God’s presence) or fools for Christ rich in his resurrection power?
Christians have a lot of opinions about what the church “needs” to become relevant again. What does the church really need?
It probably sounds strange to some to say that we need a return to the gospel, since most Christians can already articulate it. How can returning to something we already know take us to places we’ve never been?
Education in gospel doctrine is not the answer, because ignorance is not the problem. The problem is that we have so many things that are distracting us from the gospel, and we have lost touch with its life-transforming power. In any church or movement there can be many good things, but when they become “of first importance”—the main thing—they have become bad things. And yes, here I’m talking about our programs, our politics, and our preferences in worship. The more we elevate these secondary issues, the less gospel power infuses our movements.
And sadly, our distraction from the gospel has led to a church culture that does not adorn, but rather obscures, the gospel. We are willing to sacrifice integrity for short-term political victories. We are insensitive to the marginalized and vulnerable outside our churches, even in our communities. We have covered up sin when we should have exposed it. We have made the house of God comfortable to insiders but inaccessible to those seeking him.
What the church needs now is what the church has always needed: a return to the gospel. This isn’t nostalgia for a bygone age. I’m not, in the words of one pundit, “sacrificing the future in search of the past,” and I’m not trying to make anything great again. What I am trying to do in this book is show us that the only way to save the future is by going back to the very beginning.
This book is intended to be a wrenching look at how secondary things—quite often good things, sometimes even necessary things—have displaced the gospel as the main focus in the life of the church.
Are programs, preferences, politics, and priorities bad?
Not necessarily. In fact, I’d argue that most of these things start as good things, which is precisely why they are so dangerous. Idolatry, I’ve heard it said, is taking a good thing and making it a God thing. So the better the “thing,” the more dangerous it becomes as an idol.
Our traditions, for example, can be what one theologian called “shortcuts to wisdom.” As G.K. Chesterton once said, if we come upon a gate across a road and are not quite sure why it is there, removing it before we know who put it up and why may not be the wisest course of action. Observing tradition can be a shortcut to wisdom, a humble response to our forefathers who learned things through trial and error and want to pass on the blessing of their wisdom to us.
The danger, though, is to take these traditions and to replace the gospel with them. Scripture makes clear that we stand condemned if we cannot—or will not—separate our cultural practices from essential gospel truths, thereby creating hindrances to the gospel.
We’ve got to be candid with ourselves that a lot of our traditions, preferences and even political strategies have nothing to do with essential gospel. They are merely reflections of our preferences, or our parents’ preferences, or our grandparents’ preferences. And while we should love our grandparents, we also need to love our grandchildren enough to reach them with the gospel.
I have my own preferences when it comes to how we do church. I have political opinions (strong ones, in fact). But I love the gospel more, and nothing should ever compete with or displace it. It is “of first importance,” above all.
Since being elected as President of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2018, what have you learned that has informed the need to put the gospel above all? How has leading The Summit Church informed this message?
All of my books began as pastoral conversations. This one is no different. The ideas in “Above All” were ones that we have been wrestling through at the Summit for years. Now that I’m in my role with the SBC as well, I’ve begun to see that our struggles aren’t unique to us. This is a battle in most churches in our country.
We must turn back to the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus if we want to go forward in mission. As Martin Luther said, any progress in the Christian life or mission starts with beginning again.
None of our goals for personal growth will take off without the gospel. None of our calls for renewal will endure if they are not grounded in the gospel. The fire “to do” in the Christian life comes only from being soaked in the fuel of what has been done.
As a pastor of a lot of college students in an area Oprah called one of the top five places in the country for young professionals, I’ve seen that the younger generation is really hungry for the gospel. They recognize that there is no dichotomy between biblical depth and missional relevance. They don’t accept the lie that we need to adapt our doctrine to reach our neighbors and our world. They know what the Apostle Paul knew—that the gospel is the unchanging power of God for salvation—and they are eager to do whatever it takes to get that message out.
There’s so much division in the United States—the church included—related to culture, race, and politics. What does the gospel have to say to these things?
If the gospel is above all, we find a unity in it greater than the myriad things from our heritages that might divide us. We’ll always feel a natural affiliation with people of our own ethnicity and culture, with those who share similar backgrounds to us and with those whose way of life is similar to ours. But the gospel will be larger in our hearts than even those things; therefore, we’ll feel more kinship, a deeper affiliation with believers whose culture differs from ours than we do with people from our own culture who don’t share our passion for the gospel. This will enable the church to achieve a unity among ethnicities that our society longs for but is unable to obtain.
When the gospel is above all, we will eagerly sacrifice our preferences for the sake of the Great Commission. Like Paul, we’ll wear our preferences like a garment we are ready to shed for the sake of the Great Commission whenever necessary. The question we bring to church will not be, “What kind of church do I prefer?” but, “What type of ministry best reaches the people in this community?”
And (just when you thought the book was salty enough), we’ll ask how the gospel being above all should transform our approach to politics, too. We’ll see that when the gospel is above all, every other agenda—especially political ones—take a distinct secondary place to it. This is not to say that politics aren’t important or that Christians shouldn’t engage in them, nor is it to say that Christians should avoid controversial issues and “just preach Jesus.” Quite the contrary; the gospel often compels us to speak out particularly on issues of justice for the marginalized. But when the gospel is above all, we’ll do so in a way that keeps the gospel central and avoids encumbrance in secondary strategies or political policies.
We’ll find that when the gospel is above all in our churches, just as Jesus gathered disciples of different political persuasions, so will we. And, we’ll see that if that’s not happening, we have good reason to question whether the gospel really is as prominent in our churches as we think it is.
How do you hope readers grow from reading this? What do you hope they do after reading it?
I’m hoping that this book leads us back to the only source of our renewal and power—the gospel.
When dynamite was invented in the 18th century, its name was derived from the Greek word Paul uses in Romans 1:16 for power—dunamis. Now, Paul, of course, didn’t know anything about dynamite, but I think it’s still a good image to use when thinking of the gospel. The gospel is God’s power to create, to redeem, to heal, to bring back from the dead. It doesn’t offer insights on a new or superior technique. It is raw, explosive power.
My dad told me that when he was a boy, one of the worst whoopins he got was when he broke into his dad’s company’s shed and “borrowed” some dynamite. He wanted to go fishing. (I know that raises a lot of questions. Suffice it to say, we’re fortunate to still have Dad around.)
As a boy, my dad may not have known about risk, but he knew something about power. Fishing sure is a lot easier when you do it with dynamite, Dad said. Toss the dynamite in the pond, wait for the BOOM, and then watch as lifeless fish float to the surface.
That’s that Western North Carolina-type fishing right there.
A stick of dynamite doesn’t give you instructions on new ways to fish, or tell you the best places to cast your line; it is the power that does all the work. In a similar way, the gospel doesn’t give you instructions on how to change. It is itself the power to change.
This is the power the church needs. My hope is that “Above All” will help fulfill Paul’s desire for the gospel to grow deeper in believers and then wider through them in the world (Col 1:5–6).