Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church – Book Review
Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, Eric Geiger
There’s a lot to love about the simple premise at the heart of this book – the church is only meaningfully the church if Jesus is its core business. A church operating on anything other than this core business – though its pews might be packed – is essentially empty.
Creature of the Word: The Jesus-Centered Church is the product of a collaboration between two members of The Village Church team – Matt Chandler and Josh Patterson – and Eric Geiger, from Lifeway Christian Resources who serves at New Vision Baptist Church. Geiger made waves in 2007 with his book (co-written with Thom Rainer) Simple Church.
The church context these guys are from is relevant – only to establish how wonderful it is that the core principle of this book is as applicable in their multi-site or mega-church contexts as it is in a small suburban or regional church here in Australia.
This book bridges the gap between authors and reader by moving away from talking about systems and schematics for church growth and emphasising what needs to be at the heart of a living and vibrant church. The book’s goal is for the gospel of Jesus to infuse every aspect of the life of your church community, and especially the Sunday service. It does talk about the practical outworking of a Jesus-centred church and the relationship between theology, philosophy of ministry, and ministry practice – but is mindful of the need to “contextualise” (it couldn’t be a book about church in this era without using that word in a chapter heading). Because it’s big on the power of culture (and the need to be culture shapers) the book doesn’t provide rigid imperatives or procedures but emphasises the content, heart, and ethical approach produced by Jesus-centred thinking.
The real strength of this book – and other books on church hitting the shelves around the traps – is the way it brings together different aspects of Christian thinking – from biblical theology to ecclesiology to missiology to sharp observations about the nature of culture and preaching. It truly stands on the shoulders of giants, and presents a clear and exciting view of life as a Christ-centred person in a Christ-centred community.
The authors make a nice semantic distinction between “gospel-centred” and “Jesus-centred” – though they hold that the two are incredibly tightly bound, because the phrase “gospel” has become something of a catch-all “junk drawer” for reformed, evangelical theology – and while the gospel is profoundly important to the work (and existence) of the church – Jesus is at the heart of the gospel.
The opening chapter serves as something of a Biblical Theology of the people of God – the church. One of the other important aspects of their approach (and we’ll get past the first few pages of the book soon – I promise) is the refreshing corrective of the relatively modern view that salvation is an individual affair, to the view that the gospel creates a community – the church – of saved individuals.
The church is a creature of the word – the same word that created all things, and spoke the nation of Israel into being – creates and shapes the church. The church lives when “she is sustained by the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ and is drawn back to that precious reality again, and again, every time she gathers.” The church doesn’t graduate from the gospel because the church is gospel-centric. This has a pretty profound ecclesiological pay off in terms of who the church gathering is aimed at – because, by the nature of the content of the church gathering – it contains the same important message for believers or non-believers alike. The good news that Jesus died and rose again, and is Lord of all of creation.
This is a thoroughly reformed doctrine of church, and produces a thoroughly reformed approach to the Sunday gathering – the language used in this chapter is a re-framing of the sorts of definitions of church one might find in Calvin, Luther, the well-known catechisms, or the Westminster Confession of Faith – just in modern language. The central thesis of the book isn’t anything new – it’s a call to return to the old, old, story of Jesus.
The book’s approach to the church and its function is helpfully framed by Biblical Theology, drawing on theological heavyweights from the past like Tertullian, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Spurgeon, and the work of modern thinkers and theologians like C.S. Lewis, Don Carson, and Tim Keller, in a really helpful and fruitful way.
The authors show their working throughout, and demonstrate the methodology they suggest should underpin our preaching of God’s word (Biblical theology that focuses on the work of Jesus) in developing their position. Chandler, Patterson and Geiger use pop-culture and engaging illustrations in a natural way, but perhaps the greatest strength on the illustrative level is how much they draw on Biblical narratives, and particularly the life of Jesus when making a point. Each chapter ends with real world application of these Jesus-centred convictions about how the church should live, breathe, and serve in the world.
The chapter on serving features a relatively brilliant treatment of work and service across different spheres of life, the emphasis on the implications of signing up for the idea of a priesthood of all believers – and the need to be reminded of the gospel pay-off of any ministry jobs is also refreshing.
There are traces of Simple Church in the chapter on the need to have theology, philosophy, and practice aligned – and the call to get everybody from pre-schoolers to puberty (and adults as well) – excited and engaged with the gospel, not just Christian morality.
The one downer, from this reviewer’s perspective, is the trotting out of the well worn “prophet, priest, king” trichotomy of leadership types in the church. This has always seemed a little bit of a stretch and a false distinction to me.
The other weakness of this book – which ultimately drills down to theology, philosophy, and a bit of the practical – is that the chapter on the necessity of prayer comes at the end, I feel like this is all to often the case when it comes to how we operate as creatures of the world, and frontending prayer may see us more focused on the word. I have no doubt the authors agree – the chapter itself is helpful, but I feel like putting it earlier in the book might have made it seem like a necessary aforethought, rather than an afterthought.
This book is a must read for those training for ministry, it’s a must read for those keen to serve the church well in a leadership capacity, and it’s a great read for those thinking about how to be part of a Jesus-centred church right down to being part of the “Jesus-centred flower committee.” It’s hard to go wrong with the foundational idea that the church should be on about Jesus, and Creatures of the Word gets so much right that the faults become largely invisible, it calls those of us who would be part of the living, breathing, creature that is the church to keep coming back to our foundation in Christ in a helpful, timely, and exciting way.