Does "gospel-preaching church" have a shared meaning among Christians? What is it supposed to mean, and what are the signs of this "gospel-preaching church"? Is the term a tautology? Or is the negation of the term a way to criticize and slight other types of Christians or denominations that one group of Christians may disapprove of or dislike? If possible, where did this phrase come from, and by whom is this phrase typically used?
The term is not one that has an official definition across the board. However, there are two meanings that are generally implied by the phrase. One is a bit.. inflammatory, even if it's not really "meant to be taken that way". It is tied up with the idea (common to most Christians) that some Churches are preaching a false "gospel". (I say it's common to most Christians because if it weren't, we wouldn't have so much division within the umbrella of what's called "Christianity".) The other is less inflammatory.
Starting with the inflammatory meaning, to get it out of the way:
It's something usually said by mainstream evangelicals, and in typical usage, it means "A church that preaches what my Church preaches.
To clarify that, most denominations agree on the central tenets of Christianity, but there are disagreements on certain points.
- Some denominations teach a works-based salvation, or faith+works salvation.
- Others are perhaps unfairly accused of teaching a works+faith salvation message. - Some denominations preach a Gospel message at the end of every service, and may include an invitation, while others don't. (I don't recall any such thing ever occurring in a Catholic or Lutheran service, come to think of it. Just the fiercely evangelical denominations.)
But typically, when you hear this phrase, it's a standard Evangelical protestant, who is a strong believer in salvation by faith alone. And they're saying, in effect, "Go ahead and go to a Baptist Church, or an Evangelical Free, or an Assembly of God, even, they all differ in some ways, but they all have the right message on what it takes to be saved. But don't go to that Catholic Church, they teach that you're saved by obedience to the Church, ordinances, and believe all kinds of wacky stuff like praying to saints and Transubstantiation. Steer clear of them and stick to the churches that teach the real Gospel message. And don't even get me started on them Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses. Go find you a Church that teaches that you're a sinner, that you need to repent and put your faith in Jesus, and trust in that alone! Don't go to some Church that teaches anything not found in the Bible".
(Again, shorter version, "Go to a Church that teaches what I believe.")
It can also have a less "I'm right, those heathens are wrong" meaning. It can also simply mean, a Church whose focus is evangelism.
As noted above, I don't recall ever hearing a message about having to repent, put my faith in Christ, and get saved in a Catholic Church. (They may preach that, but I've just missed it...) By contrast, every Baptist service, wedding, funeral, or pot-luck I've ever attended has a message, or at least a prayer that does this. Also, you don't see a lot of Catholics going door-to-door handing out tracts, inviting people out to Church. I see that in Baptist and other strongly Evangelical Churches (As well as with LDS and Jehovah's Witnesses) all the time. So in that context, "Gospel Preaching Church" can simply mean a Church whose focus is on sharing the Gospel.
A church sermon can include many topics: history, language, society, morals, ethics, relationships, psychology, and more. None of these things are wrong in and of themselves, and yet if a sermon consists only of these things, that sermon is deficient. A gospel-preaching church will aim to always make the core of their sermons be the Christian gospel, out of which these other topics can be developed and discussed in the context of the gospel.
A gospel-preaching church would also want the gospel to be addressed in all the other things it does too (in its hymns/songs, prayers, bible studies, children and youth programs etc.)
My answer has a purely anecdotal basis. Being a "boomer," I am more than a little familiar with the tension which existed in my formative years--the 50s and 60s--between two distinct flavors of ethos within the nationwide Christian church in America.
On the one hand, there were the "social gospelers." These were self-confessed Christians of various mainline (and not-so-mainline) denominations who, like James, the half-brother of Jesus, weighed in on the works-side of the works-faith dichotomy. You know, "faith without works is dead." Call them realists who believe the Gospel should not be about
"Pie in the sky when you die by and by."
To them, the Gospel should make a positive and constructive difference in the life of Everyman and Everywoman in the here and now. Themes such as justice, mercy, compassion, good deeds, the brotherhood and sisterhood of all mankind, and even "All roads lead to Rome if you agree on these themes; but if you don't, then you're a narrow-minded bigot who doesn't deserve to be called a Christian."
On the proverbial other hand were--for want of a better word--the idealists, whose Gospel alone, they believed, had the power to change people's lives from the inside out so that they would quite naturally do what the Gospel requires of them, which is make disciples of those around them so that they in turn can make more disciples, and so it goes until the whole world at least hears the Gospel message at least once and Jesus returns and takes all true believers to heaven. Call them the "truth gospelers." In terms of James's theology, they leaned more toward faith than works, and while they believed good works are a good thing, in order to "count" they needed to be the fruit of conversion and not the fruit of a social gospel which to them was, in the Apostle Paul's words, "another Gospel" (in other words, a spurious Gospel which must be rejected; see Galatians 1:8,9).
Having grown up in the latter camp, I came to resent the "social gospelers" because they--wait for it--did not preach the true Gospel, but a spurious, fake Gospel. "They" preached a Gospel of good works and not the Gospel "we" preach; namely, "For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; not of works lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:8,9).
With 20/20 hindsight, what we failed to do was read the next verse and take it seriously. What fell by the wayside was, "For we [Christians] are [God's] workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10).
What the "social gospelers" failed to do (again, from my side of the tracks) was to read and take to heart the message of verses 8 and 9, with its emphasis on grace--or God's unmerited, undeserved favor to us sinners--and faith, which was also a gift of grace and not just an intellectual affirmation such as "I'm a Christian because I was not born a Moslem in Egypt." Furthermore, "Faith without works [may be] dead, but works without faith is equally dead," which message goes back to Jesus' teaching that we "must be born again [or born from above]" (John 3:3).
By contrast, the "truth gospelers" failed to combine the best of both worlds; namely, faith AND works, in an admixture that ignored neither the importance of personal conversion (or being "born again") nor the importance of good works as an entre for presenting the Gospel to the recipients of those good works.
Two sayings come to mind, and they emerged in the decades following the tumultuous and polarizing 60s:
You've got to earn the right to be heard, and
Preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words!
In conclusion, as is so often the case with potentially polarizing issues, it's not so much a matter of either/or, but both/and. Separating faith from works is as inappropriate and as dangerous as combining faith and works in a mixture which suits us and ignores some basic differences between the two. It's not a matter of either preaching the Gospel or fleshing out the fruit of the Gospel, but it's a matter of both proclaiming the faith and demonstrating the faith in a marriage made in heaven. It's a combination of the best of both worlds, and not one at the expense of the other.