The Gospel above all

an outreach magazine interview with J.D. Greear

The Interview

Originally published in Outreach Magazine August 2019

J.D. Greear

The Gospel Above All


J.D. Greear wears many hats: pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina, current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and author of several books, most recently Above All: The Gospel Is the Source of the Church’s Renewal (B&H, 2019). In this new title, Greear argues that in spite of rumors to the contrary, the church is not going away, and that if Christians return to the central message of Jesus, the future for Christianity is remarkably bright. Outreach editor-at-large Paul J. Pastor caught up with Greear to focus on themes of the book, and why the church doesn’t need a new strategy for ministry today, but a renewed focus on what we are all about.

Durham, North Carolina
Founded: 1962
Denomination: Southern Baptist
Locations: 12
Attendance: 10,905
Largest: 24
Reproducing: ✔

Let’s begin with the title of the book. “Above all” is an inspiring call. Is it particularly timely today? What dynamics are you seeing that led to this as the book’s emphasis?

The apostle Paul said that the gospel was of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3–4). That implies that other things were important to him, too. But they weren’t of first importance. Only the gospel was.

Evangelical Christians have always been gospel people, of course. After all, it’s in our very name. Evangelical is a transliteration of the Greek word for “gospel.” So, in that sense, the gospel has always been our “brand.” It’s been the heart of Christianity from the beginning. It’s what gives our faith life.

But we’re tempted to turn elsewhere for renewal and life. That’s the context for my call to keep the gospel above all.

It strikes me that many of the people who may need the message most might already feel they are above-all people. How do we address our own self-deception about the gospel?

That’s a great observation. Look, keeping the gospel above all means that the gospel alone provides the power and the focus of our mission. In Romans 1:16, Paul says he is not ashamed of the gospel because it is the “power of God” for salvation. Other than Jesus himself, the gospel is the only thing in Scripture called the power of God. Not contains the power of God. Is the power of God.

Many people can articulate the gospel, but they don’t think it’s where the real power is. As a result they don’t act like it’s the primary focus of their ministry. But that’s what Paul said it should be. In 1 Corinthians 2:2, he went so far as to say that he would preach nothing but Christ and him crucified. The church in Corinth was a mess. They had a ton of practical teaching needs. But Paul knew that what they (as Christians) needed most was the gospel. 

Above All by J.D. Greear

“At our church, we often say that success in ministry isn’t about seating capacity so much as it is about sending capacity.”

Martin Luther once said that to progress in Christianity is always to begin again. None of us is ever beyond a call to return to the gospel. Never.

What are you learning about relating to people who have become stuck on a smaller or more entangled (culturally, politically, theologically) gospel than that which you are espousing here? What works in speaking to them? What doesn’t?

That’s so complicated. When secondary issues become primary issues, mission quickly becomes maintenance. We start to prioritize preferences and traditions over the one thing Jesus called us to do: make disciples.

This happens incredibly easily, without us often noticing it. It’s almost like we are driving cars overdue for a tune-up—so severely out of alignment that the moment we take our hands off the wheel, we veer into a ditch. The ditches look different for each of us, but our hearts are wired to drift from the gospel. We have to keep our hands, so to speak, on the gospel wheel.

What works in doing that? Well, championing the original mission. Most pastors I know got into ministry because they wanted to reach people. They still do, and they often just need to be reminded of that. Once we agree to get back to the gospel, then we can start talking specifics about what this means, for instance, for the way we organize our church services or post on social media.

Let’s turn to address one of the recent crises you’ve had to respond to as leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, related to issues of sexual abuse, gender injustice and a history of abusive or callous leadership. With the issue of credibility at the core of the crisis, how does “above all” relate to the current sense that a reckoning has come home to the SBC?

Great question. It relates deeply. Prioritizing the gospel above all is why we have sought to pay such careful attention to the current sexual abuse crisis in the SBC. Some have suggested this is a distraction from our mission or pandering to a cultural agenda. Not in the least. This is a gospel issue.

At its core, the gospel involves God’s commitment to protect the vulnerable. The cross declares that God is a safe refuge for all who run (in repentance) to him. What greater lie could we tell about the gospel than for us not to be doing whatever it takes to make our churches safe places for the vulnerable? How would Jesus feel about leaders who sit idly by when abuse happens, not taking the necessary and uncomfortable steps to ensure protection? This is not a distraction from the mission; protecting God’s children is our mission.

If we don’t deal decisively with this, rising generations will simply not come to our churches. Already one large denomination in the U.S. that failed to respond to this rightly reported a 30% drop in attendance from people who identified this as the reason they quit coming. Our own LifeWay Research study shows that 1 in 10 people below the age of 35 have left a Southern Baptist church over failure to handle abuse rightly.

We should be the place the hurting and vulnerable know they can come for refuge, but our failure in this only drives them away. This is a gospel issue, and the gospel is above all. Therefore we must deal with this definitively and decisively.

In the book, you ask, “How will the recovery of something we already know take us to places we’ve never been?” This “never been” is intriguing. What do you mean by it? What’s your vision for our future?

This is exciting stuff. By “never been” I mean asking, “What does a radical gospel movement in this day look like?” We know the gospel is capable of leading us into a new reality. God’s arm is not shortened that it cannot save. His ear is not dull that it cannot hear. 

“Our failure to raise up church-planting leaders is symptomatic of our failure to raise up disciples in our churches.”

“We know that the gospel did not appear in the first century as a religion of oppression. It came as good news to the broken, the shameful, the sinful and the outcast.”

If we are encountering a barrier, it is not with God, but with us. However, with the gospel returned to our center, I think we are primed for a gospel explosion like never before in our culture.

What are the hallmarks of that new vision?

My vision for the future shouldn’t feel terribly new. It’s founded in Jesus’ Great Commandment and the Great Commission. At The Summit, we summarize our vision for the future with four value statements: We prioritize the gospel above all; we do whatever it takes to reach all people; we make disciples, not just converts; and we send every member.

Obviously that is a future that needs to be chosen. What will choosing it require of pastors, congregations and everyday Christians?

We need to be genuinely dedicated to those four values. In keeping the gospel above all, we need to ask, “Are we removing every distraction we can to make the gospel as clear and compelling as possible?”

In doing whatever it takes to reach all people, we remember that Jesus said there would be more rejoicing over one sinner who repented than over the 99 who were already in the fold. Because he prioritized those outside the fold in his ministry, we prioritize them in ours, constantly asking what we can do to bring the gospel to more people.

In making disciples (not just converts), we remember that the final command Jesus gave his disciples was to make disciples, teaching them to observe all that he had commanded. Heaven does not count professions of faith; heaven counts disciples of Jesus. So we are committed to developing and discipling all those God has entrusted to us.

And in sending every member, we teach often that calling is not a special experience for a sacred few—it is a basic element of the Christian Life.

When believers accept Jesus, they accept his call to join him in his mission. The question, then, is not if our people are sent on mission, but only where and how.

How do we deal with the (understandable) reality that the gospel does not feel like good news to many people and populations in the modern world? How can we relate with sympathy and honesty to those for whom Christianity is perceived as a religion of oppression or ignorance?

There have always been cultural barriers to the gospel. As good ambassadors, we need to listen deeply to the issues that are keeping people from hearing the gospel as the good news that it is. But this shouldn’t frighten us. After all, we know that the gospel did not appear in the first century as a religion of oppression. It came as good news to the broken, the shameful, the sinful and the outcast. We follow a Savior who laid aside his power to suffer with us, who died in our place and who calls us to follow that same pattern.

So if Christianity has gotten tangled up with heinous acts, we should be straightforward in pointing out how incongruent that connection is. And we should continue to live out the grace and truth of the gospel, knowing that God still has the power to change hearts. We don’t need better PR. We need his Spirit to move.

In contemporary Christianity, how do we keep to the “above all” gospel without falling prey to legalism or empty religiosity? After all, the shadow side of this is a brand of pharisaical faith—doctrinal perfection, with dead bones inside.

True depth in theology doesn’t make our feet cold. It makes our feet move. Gospel depth leads to effective missiology, because the deeper we go into the gospel, the more we stand in awe of God’s grace toward us. The more we see God’s grace toward us, the more we will be motivated to share that grace with others.

“The gospel alone provides the power and the focus of our mission.”

“Martin Luther once said that to progress in Christianity is always to begin again. None of us is ever beyond a call to return to the gospel. Never.”

Let’s unpack those “moving feet.” In the book, you tell the story of a dinner you shared with North American Mission Board representatives who said their greatest need wasn’t for money, but “for qualified planters. We just don’t have enough qualified church planters to invest in.” That’s surprising. What story does that need tell you? What opportunities or calls exist for church planting today?

The need of the hour is for more and better discipleship. The reason we don’t have enough qualified planters is that our churches don’t have intentional pipelines for leadership development. Our failure to raise up church-planting leaders is symptomatic of our failure to raise up disciples in our churches. It seems that very few of our people are engaged in, much less skilled at, making disciple-making disciples.

At its root, the problem often goes back to a faulty idea of calling. Calling is not a special experience for a sacred few. It is a basic element of the Christian life. When believers accept Jesus, they accept his call to join him in his mission. The question, then, is not if our people are sent on mission, but only where and how. If people believed that, we’d see a lot more applications to join in church plants.

You write, “Everything we do in ministry should flow from or lead toward making disciples. Disciple making is, after all, the key component of Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt. 28:19–20), and it ought to be the standard by which we judge every ministry in the church.” From your vantage point, what practical correctives need to be taken for churches to live this out?

One of the key ways to do this is to celebrate the right things. At our church, we often say that success in ministry isn’t about seating capacity so much as it is about sending capacity. We drip this kind of vision into our services so often people get sick of hearing it. But we need to keep the focus on reaching and sending, because we naturally turn inward. As I heard one pastor say it, the first thing on your body to go cold is your feet.

In our day, disciple making will have to happen outside the church more often than in it. The number of people identifying with no religion (the “Nones”) is growing, and may reach 25% of our population within our generation. These people have no plans, for any reason, to set foot in a church. If we care about reaching them (and we do!), we need to go to them.

This is why we’ve developed initiatives like “Who’s Your One?” in which every member of every Southern Baptist church identifies one person to pray for, share the gospel with and invite to church. Or “Go2,” in which we’re challenging every college graduate to devote the first two years after graduation to being a part of a church plant.

You write, “Gospel doctrine that is not accompanied by gospel grace is deadly both to the culture and the church that is dispensing it.” I love this commitment to a lived—not just an intellectual—gospel. But flesh this out. What are the barriers to this? What happens when doctrine and grace come into conflict—which they, from my perspective, truly can do? How does a congregation grow in the second without losing the first?

Grace and truth. The apostle John described Jesus’ ministry as one full of “grace and truth.” Either of these without the other is not the gospel. Grace without truth is sentimentalism. Truth without grace is fundamentalism. If we want to impact our culture with the gospel, we need to approach people with both.

True belief in the gospel will lead us to become like the gospel—full of grace. How can it not? A nongracious gospel is a contradiction in terms. The problem with those who are not gracious and generous is not that they are too dogmatic about the gospel. They don’t believe the gospel too much; they believe the gospel too little. Their ungracious attitude reveals it.

The challenges you’ve faced as leader of the SBC have been deep—ranging from engaging racism in your ranks, to the denominational sexual abuse crisis, to dealing with fallout from Paige Patterson’s actions and comments during his tenure. How have you personally handled these difficulties? What has it taught you about leadership—especially leadership in a culture of growing transparency?

Coming under fire is never comfortable, and it often makes little difference if the critiques are fair or not. It hurts. But it’s important for leaders to prioritize integrity and transparency anyway. Leaders need to care more about doing the right thing for their people and less about their reputation before others. Our first commitment is to God and his flock, not to saving face or preserving institutions.

The way of the cross is the way of humility. This means the best leaders admit mistakes—really admitting them, not spinning them or hedging on them, but accepting them without posturing. It means listening deeply for even a shred of valid criticism from the most uncharitable sources. And it means accepting persecution even when it is unfair. In the end, God will vindicate those who have been honest and pursued justice. We often want to help him make those vindicating remarks early, but it’s best to let him do his thing.

Paul J. Pastor is Outreach editor-at-large and author of several books, including The Listening Day and Palau: A Life on Fire (with Luis Palau). He lives in Oregon.

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