Missional Priority #1: Gospel Formation
Our five missional priorities as a church—those things which comprise our faithful Gospel witness as a church—are Gospel formation, Gospel culture, Gospel mercy, Gospel outreach, and Gospel unity. Gospel culture is the product of something. It is the result of Gospel formation. We can measure the effectiveness of our Gospel formation if we examine our culture, for it is the result of past formation.
Formation and Culture
Authors Anthony John Payne and Colin Marshall, in their book The Vine Project, write:
“How do you work on the culture of a church to change it in any direction? The answer is that you can’t. You can’t change the culture by working on the culture, because culture is a description of what you have become. It’s a way of summarizing the whole way you do things, the multifaceted web of tacit beliefs and practices, formal and informal, that make up who you are and how you roll. You can’t work on ‘culture’, as such. It’s the product of years and decades of idea-driven practices and practically expressed ideas.” (Emphasis mine.)
Don’t miss this: You can’t change the culture by working on the culture, because culture is a description of what you have become. This begs the question, “Then how do we change what we’ve become?” Since our culture is “the product of years and decades of idea-driven practices and practically expressed ideas,” then to affect our culture, we have to change our “idea-driven practices and practically expressed ideas.” That process is called formation. If we want a Gospel culture at Gulf Coast Community Church (or any church), then we are going to have to focus on Gospel formation. Focusing on Gospel culture, per se, will never produce the results we want.
Of course, there is value in exploring what a Gospel culture is, especially so we can discern whether we have one or not. Without doing so, we interrupt the feedback loop necessary for improvement. Yet, if we are going to experience Gospel culture, we must focus on Gospel formation.
What is Gospel Formation?
Gospel formation might be spoken about in two senses. Firstly, as the practices or activities which help form us or shape us into who we are. Secondly, as the result or the goal of formative practices. We will use both and try to be clear about the distinction, unless the context helps make it clear.
As for the second sense, the goal or desired end of the formative practices could be described variously as “Christ in you” (Col. 1:27), “Christ formed in you” (Gal. 4:19), “conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29), or we might speak of one who has been taught “to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20).
Formative practices, then, are essential to disciple-making. In other words, since making disciples involves baptizing converts and teaching them to obey the commands of Jesus (Matt. 28:19-20), and since the goal of formation is one who has be so trained, then identifying and practicing those things which move us to that end is the very essence of disciple-making. This explains why almost everything we do as a church can be formative. The church is the one to whom the Great Commission was given.
This explains why almost everything we do as a church can be formative.
As noted above, we could say that formation (the set of formative practices) is designed to change our “idea-driven practices,” which are rooted in a cultural narrative in rebellion against God, into “idea-driven practices” rooted in the Gospel narrative of God’s kingdom mission. This narrative begins with a Creator and Creation, and the points of the story might be summarized as kingdom lost, kingdom longing, and kingdom coming.
Thus praying, “Your kingdom come,” is a formative practice, forming in us a desire for the coming kingdom. We are constantly examining our church service with questions like, “How does this practice form us?” “Is it shaping us differently than our culture?” “Is it producing lives which bear witness to the in-breaking reign of Christ?”
In our gathered expression on Sunday, the service itself is designed to tell a story. The call to worship reminds us that it is God who calls us out of the world to worship Him. Therefore, we use Scripture itself from places that bid us come and worship. He gathers us from the fields of harvest where we labor all week, where we experience fellowship with one another, and worship God.
In song, we proclaim the praises of God, and the truths of what God has done for us, both to Him and to one another. It builds our faith as we hear one another singing. We lift our voices in unison to pray, we are learning how to pray biblically centered prayers in unison and even teaching one another how to pray. We give in order to renounce the story that money is the supplier of what we need. We worship God and not mammon, and we renounce the story that says our net worth is defined by our bank accounts and worldly assets.
When God’s word is being declared, we actively engage and respond with affirmation (Amen) as a way of reminding ourselves that God’s word is the food we ultimately need. In our affirmations, we encourage others to give heed to it. The very practice itself is a visual representation of the fact that our own reason is insufficient, and we need God’s word from our brother or sister, from outside ourselves, in order to know and be reminded of the true story of the world.
We partake of the elements of the Lord’s supper, reminding ourselves of the food that truly satisfies the longing of our souls, and remembering the kind of King we have, one who gave Himself for us. This, of course, tells us a lot about what the nature of His kingdom is (and is not).
Finally, we end with a blessing from God as he sends us back into the harvest fields to live as His image-bearers (representatives of His kingdom) in the world, acting as a holy priesthood, mediating God’s word and blessing to the world, and interceding on their behalf.
How does this practice form us? Is it shaping us differently than our culture? Is it producing lives which bear witness to the in-breaking reign of Christ?
Gospel formation is much more than this, but it is never less than this. I noted above that “almost everything we do as a church can be formative.” I say “can be” because if we do these things but aren’t willing to submit to God’s ways, they won’t likely be formative.
The same goes for our private formative practices. Whether Bible study, prayer, or small group participation, if they are not done with the intention of learning to obey the commands of Jesus, or to be made in His likeness, their formative nature will be minimized if not eliminated altogether.
Gospel formation is essential because the end goal of Christian discipleship is not knowledge but a transformed life. And a transformed life is something we cannot accomplish by ourselves, but something we do together. We live out the true story together in our community, bearing witness to the inbreaking reign of Jesus by living out a different story, a counter-narrative to the world’s story.
Gospel formation is essential because the end goal of Christian discipleship is not knowledge but a transformed life.