Reader beware: if you like tomato sandwiches, J. D. Greear thinks you have serious issues, borderline demonic in nature (32). It’s obvious Greear needs to come to my parents’ house. When tomatoes, toasted bread, and mayonnaise unite in our home, it tastes nothing of hell but only heaven. Honestly, it took me a while to get over Greear’s critique of such a celebrated staple in our home. And that reveals my need for his new book, Above All: The Gospel Is the Source of the Church’s Renewal.
Greear—pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham and president of the Southern Baptist Convention—pinpoints the tomato-sandwich plague facing the church today. Secondary issues and superficial solutions have crowded out what should be of “first importance” to us all: the gospel (1 Cor. 15:3).
More Than Gospel Language for Renewal
Greear offers 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” (5). Gospel language abounds, Greear argues, yet the visible proof of the gospel’s transforming power is lacking. Above All moves us beyond labels to analyze just how central the gospel is to our churches. As the gospel occupies the focal point and the functional power of our corporate life, our churches will look different. Grace creates a unified, multicultural, missional community—not a comfortable, uniform, self-absorbed people. Internally, we will relate graciously to one another; externally, we will move toward brokenness in our cities.
A gracious gut punch awaits every reader of this book. It has the feel of a prophetic book in the Old Testament. Placing the gospel above all necessitates the costly displacement of its rivals. We need this wrenching as “the wounds of a friend are trustworthy” (Prov. 27:6a). Graceless relationships, racism, political maneuvering, and self-centered preferences provide the dark backdrop on which the diamond hope of the gospel shines. Reflect on your relationships and your resolve to make disciples as you read. Take time to absorb the blow. And let us be quick to repent. Greear’s writing oozes with the significance of the kairos moment in which we live. The impotency of our corporate witness must be addressed. Yesterday was too late. We need to change now.
Just how far we’ve drifted away from this vision comes to light when we attempt to course-correct. Our programmatic solutions, far from solving this dilemma, actually reveal the depth of our problem. Gospel-centrality can only be recovered in gospel-centric ways. Greear writes, “Only the gospel can change you. Only the gospel can change your church. Only the gospel can change your community. Only the gospel” (42). Only grace triggers the new kind of obedience in which God delights and the kind of transformation we need. Above All induces humility. Prayer, reflection, repentance—you will find your heart drawn in those directions as you read this book. We need God to change us.
“Gospel-centrality can only be recovered in gospel-centric ways.”
It’s hard not to be motivated to mission when one sits under Greear’s teaching, ministry, and writing. His zeal is contagious and his vision for The Summit Church is clear. Speckled throughout the book are examples of how the gospel has produced easy on-ramps for mission: “Who’s your one?”, plumb lines like measuring success by sending capacity over seating capacity, and even the Go2 Initiative, which challenges college students to give two years post-graduation to the nations. The gospel energizes the mission and clear pathways help foster congregational ownership.
Gospel Hope for Renewal
As a pastor, having just returned to the US from serving among the unreached for seven years, I was particularly appreciative of the chapter on “gospel hope.” A certain degree of romantic idealism accompanies every endeavor to spread the gospel among the unreached in its early phases. Optimism runs high, but as time progresses, reality begins to settle in. The unreached are unreached for a reason. It will not be easy to reach them. Greear provides a litany of examples in this chapter of great attempts at gospel advance that took long, long seasons before bearing fruit.
From my perspective, the book needs balance here as chapter one heightens the expectation of immediate fruitfulness if we follow the method of the early church. There, Greear identifies gospel multiplication “expanding rapidly” in the early church through ordinary members and wants this book to instigate that kind of growth (29). He employs the language of “rapid” growth again in a quote on page 61. Coupled with the urgent tone of the book, this language can motivate under the misguided assumption of rapid fruitfulness. Do we want to mobilize a future generation of global laborers with the expectation of pace or of patient endurance? The “slow way of ministry” needs to be highlighted continually alongside a refusal to become complacent about the pressing needs of the world (102).
The need for patience also applies to the missionary force Greear motivates to go. Yes. Amen. More do need to go. The outward orientation of the plumb line: “We measure our success by sending capacity, not seating capacity” is to be commended. May nothing dampen that zeal (not even my addition here!). One feels the weight of the momentum for mission that could be unleashed on the world if more Christians would be more faithful to go to the nations with gospel intentionality.
Like driving a manual transmission, this book shows how the gospel puts the church in gear so it will move on mission. Yet, the clutch and brakes have their place if more than movement is the goal. If arriving somewhere safely factors in, we need prudence and patience. These function to direct the zeal in healthy directions. Church leaders will need to train and guide this passion in the right people to the places that are poised to facilitate gospel growth in all its dimensions. This will look differently depending on the context. My fear is that an overemphasis on pace in mobilization can constrain the necessary assessment of character and context. The temptations and struggles of living the ordinary Christian life in an overseas setting are real. Yes, let’s reach our sending capacity.
Yet, seats in our churches aren’t a bad thing. The gospel sits us down before it sends us out. Occupying seats in the assembly precede the airplane. And that seat may be the best place for this new generation to be as wise church leaders come alongside them to assess where and when they should be sent. Those ordinary acts pave the way for the nations to behold the extraordinary beauty of the gospel.
May God use this book to displace all agendas that rival what should preoccupy us above all. “We have a gospel too great and a mission too urgent to be distracted by any secondary thing” (16).