Preaching: Your book is titled Creature of the Word. I suppose a natural question is: What is a creature of the word?
Geiger: The title actually comes from a quote from Martin Luther in which Luther said that as the Word is preached, as the gospel is applied to a group of people, she becomes a creature of the Word. Basically the church is formed by the Word. She’s this living, active, breathing body. She’s a creature, but she didn’t come to exist in her own doing. She’s come to exist by the Word of God. So the church is a creature of the Word.
The title comes from that quote from Martin Luther and it challenged us to remember we really were born of the gospel, born of the Word of God, so we must find all of our meaning, all of our foundation, all of our practice in that reality. That’s where we find our origination. That’s where we find our birth.
Preaching: The subtitle of your book is The Jesus-Centered Church, and clearly that’s what the book is about. The question someone might ask is: “Aren’t all churches Jesus-centered?”
Geiger: Sadly, all churches aren’t Jesus-centered. Sometimes you’ll have a doctrinal statement that is grounded in who Jesus is, that is biblically accurate, is a faithful doctrinal statement. In many cases, just because in our sinfulness we have this tendency to drift from the grace of God, to default away from a close, intimate, growing relationship with Him based on what He’s done for us, our church cultures are the same way. A church culture can drift away from the gospel, drift away from the grace of God, even though the doctrinal statement is grounded in it. If we’re not careful, if we don’t have leaders who constantly call people back to this ongoing repentance…
Luther said to progress is always to begin again, so it’s always to come back to what He’s done for us, what He’s accomplished for us, who He’s made us, because of His sacrifice for us. If we don’t constantly go back to that, we will drift in our culture, we will drift in our practice away from a doctrinal statement that is Jesus-centered. So you can have a Jesus-centered doctrinal statement or a Jesus-centered confession or creed without having a completely Jesus-centered church culture.
Preaching: How does someone analyze his or her own congregation to see if it’s Jesus-centered? What are things to look for?
Geiger: There are so many different ways. I would say you want to look for congruence or alignment between the gospel that’s declared from the pulpit and how it’s finding its way into all of ministries of the church. For example, if a pastor preaches that we should be hospitable because Christ welcomed us as sinners—it’s one thing that it’s stated from the pulpit (and it must be preached from the pulpit)—but then does that impact how we treat people when they come into our churches? Does that inform a hospitable culture even if it’s just a couple of greeters at the front door? So, I’d look at those sub-ministries of the church to find if their meaning and motivation of who Jesus is and what He’s done.
Another tendency to drift is in our student and children’s ministries. You can go into a church, and at times there will be strong statements of grace from the pulpit. Yet in the children’s and student ministries, we may have the tendency to drift toward teaching for behavior—often only teaching children how to live, to be this, this and this. Then we teach students don’t do this, this or this, which doesn’t transform.
So you’ll have a drift sometimes. You’ll have these strong declarative statements of the gospel from the stage, from the pulpit, but if we’re not careful, we’ll start teaching for morality or against immorality in our children’s ministries and student ministries. So you want to look for harmony there. Is there congruence between what is preached from the pulpit, the gospel in the confession and the gospel articulated to the next generation?
When you look at how people are implored to serve or volunteer, are they implored to serve because that’s the altruistic thing to do in our modern culture, or are they implored and encouraged to serve because Christ first served us? So you look throughout your own congregation and ask: Are we really finding the motivation for all of the imperatives in Scripture—and there really are a lot of them; Scripture is loaded with imperatives—are we using the indicative of Scripture, the reality of what Christ has done for us, as the motivation for these imperatives we give our people? If not, then we’re just going to enslave them with a new law, a new list of things to do without the motivation and power to do them as Christ has done for us.
Preaching: In working with children and youth, as you think about being a Jesus-centered church or gospel-centered church, how do you go about balancing that tension of grace and moral activity?
Geiger: It’s a tension. I feel the same thing because I have two little girls now—a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old—and there are things I do want them to do. I want them to treat their mother with respect. I want them to obey me when I ask them to go to their rooms. I want to be careful because we’re not saying behavior isn’t important, but I don’t want to teach my children to behave apart from changed hearts. I don’t want to burden them with virtues apart from the vine, because then they will learn how to behave underneath my supervision without having their hearts ultimately transformed.
For me, the solution is applying the grace of God, applying Jesus to their hearts over and over again, reminding them I constantly fall short of the glory of God, but by His grace and mercy, He’s loving me and pursuing me; He’s changing Daddy. He’s making me into the daddy I really hope I can be for [them] and the husband I hope I can be for [their mother].
There’s a lot of runway left on my parenting. I want my kids to behave well; but on my best days when I am most Jesus-centered, I want them to behave well because their hearts are being changed.
Preaching: The book talks about the biblical ideas of why we need to be a Jesus-centered church, but you also get into some practical issues, some counsel for pastors and church leaders. What are some things you counsel church leaders to do as they seek to make their churches Jesus-centered?
Geiger: One is a word that pastors don’t often think about and that’s the culture of our church. It’s a leadership principle really. Peter Drucker, a famous management guru, once said that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Sometimes in churches, we have a proclivity to look for new strategies, but we need to be concerned as well with the overall culture of our church. So I encourage church leaders to look at the overall vibe, the DNA, the shared beliefs and values that really drive your church. Are those values continually being informed by who Jesus is and what He’s done?
As leaders, we sometimes underestimate the power of culture—a culture that’s going to transform and not just be a force. There are cultures of communities that are powerful cultures, but they aren’t transformational cultures because they aren’t informed by Jesus.
We believe Jesus ultimately is the only One who can transform the deepest part of who we are; so if you have a powerful church culture that’s not informed by Jesus, then it isn’t a transformational culture. I would say, Pastor, think about the culture of your church. Is it being immersed in who Jesus is, because that’s when the overall ministry of our church will be most impactful to the soul of humanity?
Preaching: You have a chapter in the book called “Preaching the Word.” How is preaching used as a tool to help people become Jesus-centered?
Geiger: In the local church world, I would teach and preach some—I’m a teaching pastor now—but I’ve never been the senior pastor. I’ve been the executive pastor or the teaching pastor. I’m the guy who says the pulpit is absolutely central. The pulpit forms the doctrine of the church, the direction of the church, the culture of the church.
You want to be careful that you don’t use the pulpit simply to cast vision for what your church should be. You actually want to teach and preach Scripture and preach faithfully who Jesus is. As you do that, as you lead from the pulpit…you will influence the overall culture of your church. The pulpit is absolutely essential for cultural formation in the local body.
Preaching: I’m guessing one of your co-authors, Matt Chandler, had an influence on this particular chapter on preaching.
Geiger: I personally think Chandler is one of the most gifted preachers. In fact, I was just listening to him today. Every time he teaches, I feel my soul is just crushed. I’m just brought back to the grace of God and my own sin and constantly repent. So I have a love-hate relationship with Chandler because I constantly repent when he preaches.
Preaching: There’s a section in this particular chapter on preaching that identifies the preacher as the Jesus-centered culture creator.
Geiger: As I said before, the pulpit is central for establishing a doctrinal direction—what we believe, how the gospel and the Word of God are forming us as people. So the pastor, as he is being formed and changed continually by who Jesus is and what Jesus has done, is going to set the pace for the church and overall culture of the church.
Preaching: You work with LifeWay, so you’re working with churches around the country. What do you see happening in churches in terms of trends that are impacting the church? What are some positive trends, as well as things that concern you?
Geiger: There are some very, very positive and exciting things about the overall health of local bodies. There has been a lot of talk in the past several years that we bring people to the baseline, foundational truth of the Christian faith, which is the gospel. That’s so, so encouraging.
I think we have to be careful that the word gospel doesn’t become a junk drawer for everything and anything [we] want to put in it. Leaders who are constantly clarifying and reminding us what the gospel is have been so huge and important.
The emphasis now on reaching urban areas and cities is so important, as well. I believe as the cities are impacted, the culture as a whole is impacted.
The discouraging thing for me would be ensuring the word gospel doesn’t become this junk drawer. Also, I get discouraged at times about the energy that is expended on criticism of other tribes. I know some leaders feel it’s important to correct and rebuke, but sometimes I struggle with the disproportional amount of energy spent on that as opposed to teaching the truth and ensuring that local churches are healthy.