January 27, 2021

Found: A Gospel-Centered Church

We frequently take shots here at the home of the iMonk at churches who have abandoned the Gospel for a message of self-help, or of prosperity, or of how to never again have a bad hair day. And we will continue to do so. Why? It is our calling to do so. And it’s fun. What other reason do we need?

So when I come across a church service where everything–and I mean everything–is centered solely on the Gospel, it really stands out to me. That was the case this past Sunday when I was in Ohio visiting family. My 18-year-old niece was being baptized and, since I was in town, asked if I could come. (How could I refuse?) So Sunday morning I ventured to Middletown to The Oaks, a fairly new, independent church sharing a building with a very old United Methodist congregation.

This is not a commercial for The Oaks, although I could probably do a pretty decent one after just one visit. It is just a small round of applause for a group of believers who, at least for one Sunday (maybe every Sunday–I don’t know) set aside any silliness and focused on Jesus. In everything they did, the spotlight was on Jesus. The music was led by two young men, one with an acoustic guitar and the other with a mandolin.* They did some hymns rearranged for these instruments, and some newer songs that fit this sound as well. All of the songs were about Jesus. Then the message–about Jesus. Then communion–about Jesus. Then five baptisms (in a cattle trough!) with the testimonies of those being baptized–about Jesus. The whole service was about Jesus.

*The mandolin may be the most underused instrument of our time. It has a unique sound that can go with just about any genre of music and, used skillfully as it was by this young man, it adds another voice to the choir. Find the Loggins and Messina classic Be Free and hear how Jimmy Messina makes it sing. Or anything Ricky Skaggs does on the mandolin.

I hesitated to even mention the name and location of this fellowship for fear an editor with a Christian publishing company will swoop down, sign the pastor to a three book deal, and come up with Seven Secrets To A Jesus-Focused Church and corresponding small-group study. T-shirts (“Eye Focus On Jesus!” with the picture of a huge eye on the front) and a CD of Jesus-focused songs would follow. Guitar and mandolin worship albums would top the charts. Cattle troughs–decorated with the appropriate Jesus-focused slogans (I’m moooooved by Jesus!”)–would be found in all the hip churches.


The Oaks centered on Jesus–in their own way. Perhaps the Methodists on the other side of the wall were just as focused on Jesus in their own style. Maybe this service struck me as unique because I have spent so much time with megachurch leaders (I hesitate to call them “pastors,” but that is a topic for another day) that I have lost sight myself as to how the Gospel looks and sounds in a worship service. (I am not counting my own fellowship in Tulsa; I am too close to the picture here to see it objectively, though I would say it is, for the most part, Gospel-centered.) So again, a small round of applause for a church who gets it. I got it. Well done.


  1. Bill Monroe plays a mean mandolin too.

  2. LOVE the endorsments……

    how ’bout “DINKIN” DISCIPLES”…….the Kingdom runs on Dunkin’………

  3. How refreshing! Michael would love it…especially the 3-book deals and the cattle troughs 🙂 Actually, my own church DOES use a cattle trough.

  4. Book deals, studies, CD’s, and T-shirts? I’m getting out my checkbook!

  5. A cattle trough may work better than what my local Catholic Church used a few weeks ago. I was not there, but they had a black plastic “pool” that I think is meant to be sunk in the ground and used to make a little pond with rocks and plants around it. Maybe it holds around 100 gallons (I am not good at guessing that.) Well, the entire thing tipped over before the baptisms began! It’s a pretty low-key bunch in this neck of the woods, so my guess is the congregation all had a chuckle and the two folks were baptised with the few gallons still left in the pool.

    I can just picture the “Eye Focus on Jesus” t-shirt, Jeff!

  6. I am still struggling to understand why a particular service is “about Jesus” and others are not. I have a friend of mine who is pastor of a small Baptist church that meets in what was once a restaurant (of all things). They have a projector and screen for lyrics and scripture references and a small group of young musicians doing praise and worship (as best as young, inexperienced musicians can).

    When it came time to baptize new converts, he had a small above-ground pool brought into the sanctuary and three people were baptized (himself being in a wheelchair had others do the actual dunkin’). The pastor asked each person if they had accepted Christ as their personal savior before they were baptized. It is not a big, rich church, but a small, poor congregation struggling to build their worship around community and faith.

    With all of the criticisms level against “evangelical” Christianity, I continue to struggle why this particular service would or would not be considered “about Jesus.” Does it have to be a Shane Claiborne thing or a Lutheran thing or a psuedo-Catholic kind of thing? I attend Presbyterian services and ask myself if our worship “about Jesus.”

    It would be nice to know for sure just what “about Jesus” looks like.

    • sarahmorgan says

      As a former worship leader (now wandering in the post-evangelical universe), please allow me say that, in a service that is “about Jesus”, every action done in that service is done in a way that draws the congregation’s attention to Jesus. It’s hard to give examples, because, in the end, you don’t necessarily recall the exact activities of the pastor, ministers, speakers, musicians, etc, (nor the props used, for that matter), but when it’s over, you remember Jesus.

      In contrast, an example of a service that is not “about Jesus” is one in which an elder feels compelled to stay at the podium after the opening prayer…and comedically relate the trials and tribulations of the previous Saturday night’s wedding ceremony (especially the part where one of the party’s elaborate outfit caught fire from the candles and the whole ceremony was interrupted by the need to take the person to the hospital to be treated for burns…yes, the pastor and congregation laughed)….right before the musicians are supposed to lead the congregation in worship.

    • THANK YOU for asking this question!!!!!!!!!

  7. FWIW, during our 3-year sojourn in the EO Church, that was one of the things that attracted us to it from Charismatic/Non-Denom/Evangelical Protestantism where we had spent most of our adult lives up till then – i.e., the services were all about Jesus, the Divine Liturgy was all about Jesus, the vestments and colors and icons and (in)censing and prostrations and Vespers and various other services, the fastings, the Eucharist, the prayers, the Holy Days, the iconostasis, the altar, etc., etc., were all about Jesus.

    • I am an Anglican, not Orthodox, but I have to agree with you that Liturgy when done right can FORCE a focus on Christ; even if the pastor wants to steer the focus to something else in his sermon, the liturgy forces the congregation back to Christ. Especially in the Gospel Readings and the Eucharist.

      You could almost argue that the Liturgy is like a yolk or a rope. If the congregation wants to pull away from Christ, the Liturgy Pulls us back on course.

      I have attended Orthodox Divine Liturgies, and I have seen it is very similar in this respect if done properly. (I also attended a much larger Orthodox congregation that rushed through its liturgy, had no sermon and i suspect even if the liturgy were in English (this was a Greek congregation) I’d still have no idea what was going on).

  8. If it wasn’t always about Jesus, I would not be a member of The Oaks.

  9. Vivaldi wrote several concertos for the mandolin, so you are right: it can’t be all that bad.

    But then again, Bach didn’t.

  10. Bryan Lopina says

    Jeff, thank you for the very kind and humbling words. We look forward to having you worship with us when you are back in town.

  11. This is super encouraging stuff guys! That’s pretty much the best compliment a church can get!

  12. The Oaks truly is all about Jesus and seeing the implications of the gospel play out in their city. Although I don’t attend The Oaks myself, I know the hearts of their pastors and have witnessed on multiple occasions their dedication to Scripture and the gospel. It’s encouraging to know that others perceive this as well, and this post is a great affirmation of God’s work in their midst. To Him be the glory!

  13. I’m not a member of the Oaks but know some of their folks well, and can attest to the fact that they’re solid and it IS about Jesus. Glad you found them and shared!

  14. My wife and I have lived in the Dayton area for many years. We have tried many churches ‘large and small”. This includes a number of independent and organized home churches, etc. A couple of church based biblical principles come to mind when I read thought this section of the blog:

    (1). There is no office in the church called the pastor! What does someone who calls them self a pastor do in a group of people? He/she is revealing their ignorance of the scripture and taking the place of leadership that the Spirit of God wants preeminence in.

    (2). The only biblical reason for believers gathering together is found in Heb 3:13. “Let us stimulate and encourage each other *daily* to love and good works”. The traditional reason that believers meet in ‘church’ on Sunday is to ‘worship’ together it is said. There is not one instance of ‘corporate worship’ found in the New Testament! This concept is not biblical and should never be used as a basis for Christian gatherings of any kind. It is a good subject for bible study I encourage everyone to study this subject for themselves.

    (3). The best definition of the church that I have ever come across was by a pioneer missionary that did may years of work in Brazil was some thing like “The people of God meeting together in such a way that they enable each other to live the Christian life on a daily basis”

    (4). Sadly most of the things that go on in traditional churches today is based on pagan religious practices taken right out of the Roman Empire. I would recommend the book ‘Pagan Christianity’ be added to everyone’s reading list that is interested in the vital subject of meaningful Christian meetings/gatherings today.

    • You must be new here

    • Re: Pagan Christianity – While I felt Viola/Barna did a decent job of describing some of the major problems in modern Xianity, a major flaw in their book, IMO, is that they seemed to primarily cite secondary sources to make their case – i.e., what others had written about, e.g., Luther or the Church Fathers, etc., instead of what the persons themselves had written – cherry-picking short statements here and there to make their case. Before uncritically accepting the Viola/Barna description of the development of church practices and traditions I’d advise one to read several scholarly works on the history of Christian doctrine and practice that quote from primary sources, or even read some of the primary sources themselves, whether in the original or in translation. It’s one thing to say what someone else says (or what someone else says that someone else says) that Luther said; it’s another thing to read Luther in full or in context.

    • Some time back Michael S. quoted someone who described (paraphrasing) their image of the church as, “a band of joyful rebels pressing the claims of the Kingdom.”


  15. kevin is a solid guy. in regular conversation he find natural and practical ways to point people to Jesus.

    i’d guess what you saw in one week is what others are seeing every week at the oaks!

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