The Gospel Driven Organization
- James Tonkowich President, Institute on Religion and Democracy
- 2007 7 Jul
St. Paul says that the Gospel is “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” Through the Gospel, God saves us. It’s the difference between spiritual death and eternal life. It’s the difference between standing before God guilty as sin, and standing before God clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. It’s the difference between life as an orphan having to fend for yourself, and life as an adopted daughter or son under the Father’s care, protection, and discipline.
Through the Gospel, God saved us when we first believed and began walking with Christ. Through the Gospel, God saves us today. It’s not through great works of personal spiritual discipline that we turn from our sin and disordered love to grow in holiness; the Gospel is the power of God for change. And finally on the last day when all things are made new, our salvation from this world of sin, death, and decay will be the Gospel.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (Colossians 1:19-20).
It’s no wonder that Paul went to Corinth with nothing else to talk about but “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). The Gospel is central.
In light of that, as a newly minted president of a Christian nonprofit, I’ve been asking: What does it mean for a Christian organization to be driven by the Gospel?
By that question, I don’t intend an adjunct to our strategic plan. I mean something prior to plans, projects, and programs. Nor do I mean a naïve approach that says that all our problems in the world will be solved if only everyone comes to Jesus. After all, it hasn’t solved all the problems in our churches. Rather it’s a question of where our hearts are; a question of how we do business, not of what business we do.
The Gospel should pervade Christian organizations in at least three ways.
1. Truth and Truth Telling
First, Gospel-driven organizations affirm that the Christian message is true — eternally and absolutely true. No other gospel can save us though there are plenty of ideas and ideologies lined up and claiming that they possess power to save us:
· Radical Islam
· Radical Feminism
· Radical Environmentalism
· Rewarmed, One-World Marxism
· Sexual “freedom”
· Any religious message that places an exclusive emphasis on the love of God while excluding or concealing any reference to the holiness of God and his judgment.
But rather than being truth that sets men and women free, these false salvations enslave minds and hearts with false ideas and false hopes. They confirm people in error. Gospel-driven organizations hold out an alternative: the truth.
As theologian David Wells has written:
In order to think biblically about our world, we have to put ourselves in the minds of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Paul, and Peter and accept for ourselves the norms and habits by which they functioned. And their starting place was the category of truth. Truth to them was not privatized. It was not synonymous with personal insight, with private intuition. It was not sought in the self at all, as a matter of fact, but in history — the history that God wrote and interpreted — and it was therefore objective, public, and authoritative.
To be Gospel-driven, a Christian organization must declare and defend “objective, public, and authoritative” truth against error. This comes before planning, marketing, public relations, and development. The truth that Jesus Christ came to die for helpless sinners who were otherwise doomed to Hell doesn’t play well culturally. But in order to be Gospel-driven, we are bound to tell the truth in all we do.
As someone who is Reformed, I know that the declaration and defense of truth can become a very nasty business unless we are also convinced about brokenness.
First, we ourselves are broken. When God called Isaiah, he responded, “Woe is me! I’m ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips…” (Isaiah 6:5). Peter’s response to Jesus was, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8b). St. Paul counted himself “the worst of sinners” (1T 1:16). The Gospel frees us to know the truth about who we are: broken, sinful creatures. As former Westminster Seminary professor Jack Miller used to quip, “Cheer up, my friend! You’re far worse than you think. And God is far more loving and kind than you ever dreamed or imagined.” If we don’t have an understanding of our brokenness, we don’t understand the Gospel and we and our organizations will do more damage than good.
Because not only are we broken, but we work in a broken world filled with broken people — many of whom are Christians. Years ago, Richard Lovelace, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary professor and long time church renewal figure, taught me what I consider the most valuable lesson I’ve ever learned for ministry. “It’s very difficult,” he said, “to tell the difference between wolves in sheep’s clothing and very confused, very broken, very angry sheep.”
Christian work requires a Gospel-driven humility to speak truth to brokenness out of brokenness. That doesn’t mean we can never be tough in our approach. It does mean that we speak to heal - not harm - our enemies, friends, staffs, and boards.
3. The Sufficiency of Christ
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27)
There is no question that we all have plenty of work to do in the churches, among the nations, and in the public square. But in our work, our planning, our governance, our giving, and our prayers, the hope we cling to is not our ability to achieve great things. The only hope is the sure fact that Jesus has already accomplished the Great Thing. The text says that Christ, out of love for the Church and by His sacrifice:
· Makes her holy
· Cleanses her
· Makes her radiant
· Bleaches the stains
· Smoothes out the wrinkles
· Heals every blemishes
· Makes her holy and blameless
Given the discouraging things most of us know about the Church and about Christian organizations this is an astounding list! And yet, it’s a list that reflects the power of the Gospel and the sufficiency of Christ. Gospel-driven organizations understand that our part in Christian mission is to join Christ in His work. He is bringing about what His death on the cross has already accomplished. That He chooses to use our organizations and us is both ennobling and, once again, humbling.
At Denver airport, waiting to board a flight, I bumped into someone who for twenty-five years has been Executive Vice President of a large, influential secular nonprofit. “What did you do,” I asked, “to take the organization from a line in the white pages to what it is today?”
“It’s a long story,” he replied, “but the short answer is, we ran it like a business.”
I believe that he’s right. Christian nonprofits should be run using all the best business practices we can muster. And during my short tenure at the Institute on Religion & Democracy we have developed a new strategic plan, strong funding prospects, and new programming.
And yet anyone can plan, raise money, and develop programs. As Christian organizations, unless we are driven by the Gospel, the timeless message of Jesus Christ and him crucified, we may find that we are indistinguishable from our secular counterparts.
But driven by the Gospel, we can expect truth to prevail, brokenness to be healed, and the sufficiency of Christ to be made known in and through us. That is, we can expect to be distinctly Christian organizations and, after all, isn’t that the point?
James Tonkowich was named President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in March 2006. Prior to joining IRD, Jim served as the Managing Editor of BreakPoint radio. Jim has also worked in prep school youth ministry with FOCUS (Fellowship of Christians in Universities and Schools) directing boarding school outreach. After that he pastored Peninsula Hills Presbyterian Church in California's Silicon Valley. He then spent two years in a Northern Virginia high-tech company. Jim holds a degree in philosophy from Bates College and both a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Jim is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He and his wife Dottie attend McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, Virginia. They have an adult son, Johnathan.