Joe Coffey is lead pastor of Hudson Community Chapel.
Hudson Community Chapel is a suburban church in the Midwest that averages a little over three thousand people each weekend. We were ranked as one of the top one hundred fastest-growing churches in 2007. I think we have done some things well, and I don't think our growth was the result of preaching a prosperity gospel or appealing to the felt needs of people. But in the last year there have been some notable changes—and most of them have been in me.
During a mission trip to India in 2006, I was having extended time with God. I had an epiphany. Ido not think many original thoughts, so this got my attention. The epiphany was that the incarnation was not hard for Jesus. I am sure that I had preached differently in the past about the great kenosis when Jesus "made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men."But I suddenly realized that since Jesus still had an unbroken relationship with the Father, it was not all that difficult for him. The man who has God and nothing else has no less than the man who has God and everything. Jesus still had God, so it wasn't hard.
But there was a second part to the epiphany. As Jesus approached the appointed hour, each passing moment became progressively more difficult because he knew he was going to lose God at the cross. When Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"the shock of separation was unimaginably intense. Jesus experienced absolute agony because God had been torn away from him. He experienced infinite pain because he was devoid of God, deprived of God, and truly had nothing at all. Seeing this, I held my breath, wondering if I had ever really understood the depth of the love of Jesus for me or the extent of his sacrifice. The reality of his suffering had never struck me quite like it did that morning. It was the beginning of a rediscovery of the Gospel.
At the end of the mission trip one of the team members gave me a CD of a sermon called "What is the Gospel?"by Tim Keller. I put it on my desk and thought to myself, "If I don't know what the Gospel is by now, I am in sad shape."Indeed.
A couple weeks later, I met with a man who had been attending our church for four years. He said he needed to ask me a theological question before he could join our church. I never like those kinds of conversations since the question is usually about a distinctive rather than about something central. We met for breakfast, and his question was the best theological question I had ever been asked. He simply asked me how people grow. He said that he knew people were saved by grace, but he wanted to know if I thought people were sanctified through their own sweat equity. I thought for a moment and then told him that the only thing that ever really changed me was love. Ever since the mission trip, I had been feeling that it was more important for me to understand how much Jesus loved me than it was for me to figure out how to love Him. I watched in amazement as relief spread across my friend's face. He said he had tried for twenty years to be sanctified through his own effort; it had ground him to powder, and he would not go back.
A couple of months went by and I finally picked up the Keller CD and listened to it as I drove. Before long, I found myself sitting alone in my car, fighting back the tears. Keller was connecting the dots: Christ's relationship with his Father was shattered so that mine might be made whole. I suddenly realized that I had undervalued the Gospel by treating it as merely the starting point of the Christian life, instead of as the all-encompassing source of truth and grace that empowers all of the Christian life.
The Bible came alive over the months that followed. When I read in the Old Testament about the wrath of God, the frustration of God at the Israelites in the desert, or the mercy seat in the Tabernacle—it would all take me to the cross. Everything everywhere was about cross-centered redemption: the Bible, relationships, even creation itself. The over-arching story of salvation became more clear to me than ever—beginning with creation, moving to the fall, and then redemption, and finally restoration. What I learned, I preached. Almost overnight it became the Gospel every week displayed in a different passage.
It has been a year of great growth inside my soul. And it has been a year of intense battle as Idiscovered the unplumbed depths of my depravity. My sins are not isolated incidences of weakness. There is an infection of idolatry in the core of my being where will-power is impotent and the only thing in the entire universe powerful enough to cure me is the blood of Christ.
To be specific, I have found it to be incredibly challenging to give up the belief system that has sustained me so long, one built on an initial forgiveness and then fed through a powerful combination of pride and fear. This pride stemmed from the performance of spiritual disciplines, pointed to the obvious signs of success (we were, after all, named in the fastest-growing one hundred churches!), and most of all was fueled by the approval of others. But fear may have been an even greater motivator: fear of being exposed as less than what people expect; fear of not being as smart, spiritual, or competent as I should be; fear of not measuring up; and fear of Luke 12:48, "to whom much was given . . . much will be required."
The belief system of a pastor is bound to come out in his preaching at least in subtle ways. My emphasis was always on grace, but it was also laced with the discipline of effort and inner strength to be what God called us to be. The result was either pride or defeat. My preaching has changed as a result of the Gospel going deeper inside of me.
The truth is I have existed as a pastor with gods in my closet. There were times when these gods sustained me. Giving them up has caused more death this year than I would like to admit. The closet is still not empty, but the death of these gods has made me ravenous. Without the Gospel as my source of security and significance, I would die. So as one who has vacillated between self-sufficiency and depression, Gospel-driven transformation is both liberating and terrifying.
There are some in our church who have not yet rediscovered the Gospel this way. There are others who hear the terrifying part but not the liberating part, and they sit on pins and needles. Many of them will leave soon, I think. But there are many others who have felt the shackles start to fall off, and, like me, they are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.
Rediscovering the Gospel is an ongoing process. Our church is a big ship to turn. I would never attempt to turn it if the approval of others was as vital to me now as it was a year ago and if I hadn't been changed by love, by Good News. In the midst of news this good, there is no better place to be—even if Iam rejected by some and even if attendance falls. As a sinner-pastor, I stand in dependence on grace to plant and water Gospel seeds, recognizing that God himself gives the growth. In 2008, I will endeavor to preach an ever-clearer message that is faithful to the Scriptures—and woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel. Indeed.