I enjoy reading thematically—following a certain theme through a variety of books. Recently I noticed that some of today’s most popular Christian mega-pastor authors had released new books and I thought I’d work my way through that list. The list includes new titles by Francis Chan, Matt Chandler, Mark Driscoll, James MacDonald and David Platt. Not surprisingly, the books and their authors are all tightly connected. Driscoll and MacDonald endorse Chandler’s book; Chandler and Driscoll return the favor in MacDonald’s Vertical Church. Chan’s book has a foreword by Platt and Platt’s book has a foreword by Chan. And so on.
Having reviewed MacDonald’s Vertical Church, I turned my attention to Chandler’s Creature of the Word (co-authored with Josh Patterson and Eric Geiger). Written primarily for pastors and church leaders, but applicable to all Christians, this is a book that looks to gospel-centrality, a very popular theme today. It calls Christians to “view the essence of the gospel as the foundation for all of ministry.” After all, there is a huge difference between “knowing the gospel and being consumed by the gospel, being defined by the gospel, and being driven by the gospel.” Chandler wants the reader to “start a fresh journey into the heart of the gospel, prepared to be newly amazed by it, resolved to let its principles begin shaping how our churches worship, serve, and operate.”
Rather than focusing on the individual, he focuses on the gospel in the local church, calling the church “a Creature of the Word.” “Yes, a Creature. She is alive. A living, breathing movement of God’s people redeemed and placed together in a collective community. But she is not alive in her own doing. She has been made alive by the Word. God spoke her into existence through the declaration of the gospel—His righteousness on our behalf.”
The book is divided into two parts. In the first half Chandler looks at what the gospel does to the hearts of people, to their relationships, and how they understand their position and purpose. He shows that this Creature worships, forms community, serves, and multiplies. In the second half he shows what a Jesus-centered church culture looks like, how it is formed and how it is sustained.
Creature of the Word is a good book—a really good book. I enjoyed it from beginning to end and benefited from reading it. Having said that, it is not a book with a lot of original thought, but one that helpfully collects the best of what others have written about being gospel-centered and presents it to a new audience. Those who have done a lot of reading will probably find that they recognize the inspirations in many of the chapters. So, for example, a chapter on ministry to children and teens has Chandler channeling Tedd Tripp and William Farley (though he refers to him as Chris Farley. The thought of Chris Farley paraphrasing a Thomas Chalmers sermon titled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” is pretty funny). And this is well and good. Those men have done great work on the importance of the gospel in parenting and there isn’t a compelling reason to attempt to write something new and original.
The strongest chapter, at least in my assessment, is “Jesus-Centered Flower Committee.” The tongue-in-cheek title is meant to communicate that every ministry in a church can, and ought to, relate to the gospel. “One way to know how deeply the gospel is being woven into the culture of your church is to continually check the small details for gospel proof. If there is gospel absence in practice, you will know what areas of your theological foundation and ministry philosophy need to be addressed. Instead of finding ‘the devil in the details,’ lead in such a way that they find ‘grace in the details’.”
If there is a weakness in the book, it relates to the author’s insistence upon the “prophet, priest, king” model of leadership. “Some leaders are primarily prophets, uniquely gifted to declare truth. Some leaders are primarily priests, uniquely gifted to shepherd people to wholeness and maturity. And some leaders are primarily kings, specifically gifted to provide clear direction.” While I appreciate how this grid distinguishes different gifts and different forms of leadership, I see it as a grid imposed upon Scripture rather than one that is carefully drawn from Scripture. It goes beyond what Scripture teaches to insist, “All three types of leaders are necessary and essential.” Still, though this grid is present throughout the book’s second half, there is much to learn even without adopting it.
The book’s great strength is Chandler’s careful collecting and distilling of all it means to be gospel-centered in every part of church life. I appreciate his concern that the term gospel can too easily become “a sort of junk drawer that holds any and every piece of our theology. Although the gospel does impact everything, everything is not the gospel.” He avoids falling into the trap of unthinkingly lumping anything and everything under the banner of gospel. The book is also exceptionally well-illustrated, with illustrations that consistently help rather than hinder.
Creature of the Word powerfully combines theological truth with practical application. I hope and trust that it will find its way into the hands of many church leaders.