Every week, without fail—when we actually are ready to get down to business—my community group begins the same way, with these words:
Because of the gospel, this is a safe place. What is said here stays here. No one has anything to fear because if God is for us, who can be against us?
Through the gospel, we are a family and you belong here. If one suffers, all suffer together; if one is honored, all rejoice together.
To further the gospel, we are on mission together. We take responsibility to love our neighbors and declare the good news of Jesus together.
This is a safe gospel family on mission together.
This relatively simple statement captures everything we’re trying to be as a group, and as a church—a culture and a community shaped by the gospel. A gospel culture, if you will.
Community of Clichés
Many of us have heard (or shared) messages on the importance of community. When we believe the gospel, we are often told that we are not only saved from our sin, but saved into a community. And this is true. It’s been said so often in so many different ways that I can practically hear your eyes roll as you read it in this article. We say it so often that it’s become a cliché, much like the other (often biblical) ways we describe community within the church.
But here’s the rub: we can say this all day long, but not really believe it. Too harsh? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Think about it. Our actions, largely, are the evidence of what we believe—they validate or discredit what we think is true about ourselves and our churches.
- When we say, for example, that our church is united as one body, but we allow politics and preferences to divide us, what do we really believe?
- We might say we want everyone to be known, but if people can attend for years essentially anonymously, do we really believe it?
- We may say we want to be a safe place for everyone to be authentic or real or whatever people are saying now, but if we only ever talk about “safe” struggles, then do we care about authenticity?
The Building Blocks of Gospel Culture
So what about what my community group says every single week? Isn’t the idea of a “gospel family” just another cliché? It could be. And maybe to some people it is. After all, using gospel as a qualifier to any kind of ministry or mindset (gospel-centered, gospel-driven, gospel-shaped, etc) has itself turned into something of a cliché. It’s a buzzword, meant to signal… something. But we’re not always sure what.
But when a church latches onto this idea—and I really mean the whole church, not just one or two people within it—that what we believe about the gospel leads to culture shaped by the gospel, there is nothing else like it in the world. So what does it take to actually do this? Three things: Gospel + safety + time.1
- Gospel. It is impossible to have a gospel culture without the gospel itself. This doesn’t mean that we tack the gospel onto every conversation, in a hamfisted way, as though we were making some kind of evangelistic appeal at the end of a discussion about whether or not chorizo makes queso better (it does, just for the record). What it does mean is that when we have difficult conversations, we do so in light of the gospel, reminding one another of the hope we have in Jesus. It means that we encourage one another in light of the gospel, celebrating how we see God at work in each other. In other words, when one of us is honored, we all rejoice together; when one suffers, we all suffer together (1 Cor. 12:26).
- Safety. Genuine community requires safety: safety to be vulnerable, to let our guard down and not come to church or community group with our “Sunday faces” on. To be able to tell the truth when someone asks how we are. This means that we need to see one another not as problems to solve, but people to know. We need to have the freedom to be vulnerable, to not come to church or community group with our “Sunday faces” on, but to be able to say, “actually, today has been pretty rough.” Gospel culture means we are safe from fear and judgment. After all, “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:8). We have no punishment to fear. Because of Jesus, God is for us. And if God is for us, who can be against us?
- Time. Gospel culture—a culture where people feel genuinely safe and loved in and through the gospel—takes time. This means there is no hurry when it comes to people. People in our communities are not problems to solve, but brothers and sisters to love. So we let people experience the culture, to be saturated in the gospel, praying and trusting that the Holy Spirit will work in them according to His timeline, not our own.
A First Step into Gospel Culture
When I first joined my church, I didn’t know how much I needed this kind of community. I’m generally pretty cautious about getting too close to people; people have rarely felt safe to me, even those who have genuinely tried to be kind to me. And so for a long time—and I mean a couple of years—I kept my guard up. I watched as others opened up; I celebrated as they did (and rightly so). And then, one day, I let my guard down a bit. Years of not only hearing the message that we are a gospel family, but seeing it week in and week out, helped me to take a step.
So I did.
And do you know what happened?
My group—my friends—didn’t judge me. They rejoiced, not because I had done a good thing by opening up, but because they saw this as God at work (and they were right).
That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the result of three things: gospel + safety + time. This is the kind of culture we all need; a life-giving culture that strengthens the weary, and allows the “strong” to be weak. Where strangers, because of the gospel, can truly become family.
1. This understanding of gospel culture owes a tremendous debt to Ray Ortlund, founding pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, TN. The church of which I am a member is a daughter church of Immanuel, and Ortlund’s passion for gospel culture has been baked into our DNA from its first day.