Book Review: Gospel-Driven Change, by Paul Watts
Paul Watts, Gospel-Driven Change: Navigating Reform in a Local Church. Grace Publications, 2022. 220 pages.
It was Julius Caesar who once opined that “experience is the best teacher.”
“Best” might be debatable, but its indispensability is not. Pastors who lack experience at the beginning of their ministries learn invaluable lessons from older men who have faithfully shepherded congregations for decades through ups and downs, peace and turmoil, joys and sorrows.
In Gospel-Driven Change, Paul Watts comes alongside his reader as the seasoned, older pastor. Any younger pastor will learn from his experience.
Watts’s primary message is that the gospel and biblical wisdom must propel any meaningful change in a church. Such gospel-driven change must often swim against currents of tradition and denominational expectations when those things become merely “barriers that [have] nothing to do with the gospel itself” (54), left standing in the way of effectively reaching people with the message of Christ.
Watts’s story serves as an example of how God uses the wisdom, courage, and humility of a pastor with gospel convictions to navigate challenges and lead his flock to align more closely to God’s will for his church.
REFORM IS HARD
In Section I of the book, Watts tells the story of his pastorate at Hillfields Church Coventry in Coventry, England, where he served for over three decades. But these chapters are not merely an autobiographical narrative or a general history of the church; Watts specifically focuses on how prioritizing the gospel brought about significant changes in that body.
When Watts arrived at the church, the church was firmly entrenched in “the Strict Baptist way of doing things” (59), referring to the deep-rooted and sometimes unhelpfully insular practices of the denomination to which the church belonged, the Gospel Standard Strict Baptists. Having been raised in that environment himself, and thus having his own worldview shaped by denominational traditions, Watts realized at the outset of his ministry that he was part of what needed to change, “if the gospel through me, and the people with me, was to reach a wider, more diverse group of people” (59).
Once the gospel began to grip his own heart and the hearts of those around him, Watts and the church had to navigate through sensitive issues such as changing the statement of faith, which Bible translation to use, music selection, building layout, and who could take communion. While the circumstances and challenges Watts found himself in are unique to him and his ministry, any man in any pastorate must deal with the same dynamics of tradition, vision, and change. The onus is on the reader to take the examples and principles that Watts anecdotally presents and adapt them to his own situation.
REFORM DEMANDS HUMILITY
Watts’s courage and leadership in sticking to biblical conviction are to be commended. But he does not present himself as the exemplar of church revitalization, nor does he pretend that every decision he made was the right one.
Throughout the book, Watts adopts a genuine tone of humility, openly acknowledging that he himself has been “reluctant to change, even resistant to it” (43), and that “with hindsight some of the issues that were causing observable impediments in bringing the gospel to unchurched people could have been handled more decisively and courageously” (70). He even admits that “the extent of my emotional attachment to the work of the church has at times resulted in me taking it too personally when people take up a different stance or viewpoint from my own” (154).
But God gives grace to the humble (Jas. 4:6), and as humbly as he points out some of his own failings, Watts is quick to point to God’s grace as the source of all good that has come about in the church.
WISDOM FOR REFORM
Section I comprises the majority of the book and allows the reader to primarily learn from Watts’s example; Section II presents the reader with some specific applications and principles for pastoring and leading a church.
In Chapter 7, Watts helpfully emphasizes the need for prayer in decision-making, the importance of “regular, systematic Bible preaching and teaching” (159) in setting the pace for change, a healthy view of church buildings, and even principles for peaceful church meetings.
He then shares thoughts on “some practicalities” in Chapter 8, including elders’ meetings, trial periods for implementing change, and pastoral sabbaticals. Because Scripture does not explicitly address many of these details, Watts speaks largely from his own decades of experience.
Readers will not necessarily agree with every idea or view that Watts presents in these chapters, but the book serves as a helpful starting point for thinking through such topics.
Overall, Watts has a fluid writing style that keeps the book moving along at a brisk pace, and the stories he tells are relatable for any pastor. Any pastor reading this book will be able to receive Watts’s nuggets of wisdom and apply them to their own local church.
If you’re looking for a step-by-step, how-to manual on church revitalization or a biblical defense of a specific ecclesiological issue, there are other books that would serve you better. But if you’re looking for an easy-to-read and thought-provoking memoir of a long and fruitful ministry, with helpful practical principles and applications sprinkled throughout, this book will profit you.