Month: March 2009

Missional Preaching Pt .2

Over the past several weeks, we have had an ongoing discussion about what being missional looks like in Metropolis. Last week I began a discussion of what the preaching ministry should look like in such a context. As you will remember, missional simply means that as a church and individual followers of Jesus, we view ourselves as missionaries. In other words, we see ourselves as having the same responsibilities in our community as a missionary on a foreign field would have. A missionary has to learn the language, culture, customs, and distinctive of the people he is trying to reach in order to determine the best way to present the gospel. Our goal is to present the life-changing message of Jesus to the people of our community and see them transformed by God’s grace. However, we know there are all kinds of barriers standing between the people of our community and the gospel. Some of these barriers are supernatural and only Jesus can break them down. Others, however, exist because of differences in culture and language. On the foreign mission field, these barriers are easy to spot and no one ever questions the need to overcome them. It is harder to recognize barriers that keep people from hearing the gospel here in America but they do exist and we must be willing to tear them down if we want to be effective.

Here in the American church we have developed our own way of speaking, dressing, and relating to each other that is foreign to the un-churched. In the past, these differences were much smaller and represented less of a barrier to the gospel. But today that gap has widened significantly. Today when an un-churched person walks into the average church, they are bombarded with a culture that is foreign to them. We speak in a strange language. We dress different. The songs we sing are not like anything they are used to hearing. These all can become major barriers to the presentation of the gospel.

So, you ask, what does all of this have to do with preaching? Actually a great deal more than you might think. If we agree, as we all should, that the mission of the church is to glorify God by reaching the lost with the gospel we must pay close attention to how we deal with these barriers. In fact, it would make good sense to tear down as many manmade barriers as we can as we proclaim the good news. Just consider the preaching of Paul in the books of Acts to see that there is a Biblical mandate to match our preaching to the audience. When Paul preached to the Jews, he went to the synagogue and started his proclamation with the story of Abraham. But when he went to Athens, he went to the Areopagus and started his presentation at creation. He even quoted from the pagan philosophers of his day to drive his point home. (Acts 17:16-34). Paul, like any good preacher, knew that he must speak in a manner that is relevant to the audience. Starting with the story of Abraham or the law would not make any sense to the Greeks in Athens, so Paul matched his message to the audience he was speaking to.

So how does this apply to preaching today? Preaching in a missional context requires the preacher to understand he is speaking to two different audiences- the churched and the un-churched. Too many times sermons aim at only one of these crowds and often that crowd ends up being the already churched. The goal of missional preaching must be to make sure that we speak in such a way that the un-churched can understand the message. What we would regard as the traditional sermon is really a reflection of how this concept has been applied in the past. For instance, the verse-by-verse preaching that I am most attracted to and comfortable with is largely a development of the reformation period. People during that period had been forbidden to have access to the Bible and so there was a great hunger and thirst for knowing what it said. Furthermore, the reformation was part of the larger movement known as the enlightenment, which was marked by a tremendous interest in all kinds of learning. My point here is not to bore you with a history lesson but to demonstrate to you that this kind of preaching was contextualized for the culture they were trying to reach. The same could be said for the three points and poem sermons that became popular in the early part of the twentieth century. What we now regard as traditional forms of preaching were actually developed to make the preaching of the church relevant at a specific point in history. What I would like to suggest is that rather than copying the methodology of the past we should seek to find the most effective ways to preach to our modern audience. There are three characteristics of our modern culture that I think must be reflected in the way we preach.

First, this is a culture longing for truth but has no idea where to find it. Two generations of Americans have been taught by the education system, media, and world that there is no objective truth. No one really believes this when it comes to things like banking, medicine, or their paychecks, but the majority of Americans do hold this view when it comes to morals and religion. The un-churched in America no longer trust the church as a source of authority and are skeptical of the Bible. When it comes to the Bible, what I am finding is that most un-churched people still have some respect for it but aren’t sure whether they can really trust it. Furthermore, since they have grown up in an era of pragmatism the only test of truth they really trust is whether or not something works. I saw this lived out in a Christian worldview class I recently taught at a local college. During the course of the class I presented all of the typical evidences and defenses of the Christian faith I could think of and none of them had any real impact on the non-Christians in the class. However, as we compared the worldviews of other world religions to Christianity several students began expressing interest in becoming followers of Jesus. When I asked them what had convinced them they all said, “Because it works.” This is an important insight into the mind of the un-churched. We must show them how the Bible works in real life if we expect them to be interested in it. Therefore, preaching in a missional context will require heavy doses of practical application. Thankfully, most Christians sitting in the pew will not object to this emphasis on application because they too are longing to see how it works.

Second, this culture is very skeptical of any truth claim, therefore, we must be willing to wrestle with the text more than we have in the past. There was a day when a preacher could stand in the pulpit and expect the audience to believe what he said just because he showed it to them in the Bible. That day is gone. The un-churched are skeptical, therefore, we must wrestle with their objections. As a preacher that means I must wrestle with the objections that the un-churched are going to bring up in their minds and try to head them off at the past. This is a place where I actually encounter resistance from Christians at times. Sometimes people who have been in church for years will come up to me and say, “Pastor, you don’t need to talk about all of those objections and problems. Just give us the Bible.” I know what they’re saying and appreciate their advice, however, what they don’t realize is that while they may not question or wrestle with the text, the guy sitting beside them does. What I hope will happen here at First is that we will all become sensitive to the needs of the un-churched. After-all they are the people we are trying to reach; therefore, we need to think about them in everything we do. This means that sometimes in the preaching of the Bible we need to raise the problems and difficulties of a passage. We need to be willing to wrestle with the hard things of the Bible.

Third, this is a culture longing for something real and authentic. When an un-churched person visits with us, they want to encounter real people and real life. They are immediately turned off any hint of hypocrisy and preachers that they see as fake or plastic. They are not looking for a preacher to be polished and professional, instead they are looking for someone who can understand them and who is real about who he is. This is a very big issue for many Christians who are used to having Pastors who never admit mistakes, never seem to struggle and present an unrealistic picture of what being a Christian is all about. The un-churched see right through that façade and label it hypocrisy. They want someone who is real and genuine. Someone who they can see is not detached from the real world but struggling with it just like everyone else. This means that the preaching of the church needs to be transparent and conversational. It needs to reflect real life and real struggles.

Missional Preaching Pt. 1

This week I want to continue our conversation on becoming a missional church but I would like to start getting more specific.  I’d like to start taking the conversation towards some specific actions and changes we will need to make in order for this vision to become a reality.  Over the next weeks and months, my plan is to lay out a range of specific actions intended to make our worship, outreach, and discipleship more missional in nature.  However, to begin this discussion I want to take a couple of weeks to talk about the preaching ministry of the church.  All of you know that I believe the preaching ministry of the church must be central to everything we do.  If the preaching is not right then it is doubtful that any of the other ministries in the church will be right.  So preaching must be a top priority in the life of the church.  Specifically, I want to share in with you some thoughts about what preaching will look like in the context of a missional church.

One of the primary characteristics of missional preaching is that must be focused on life change.  I just finished reading Andy Stanley’s book Communicating for a Change and found myself to be greatly challenged concerning this issue.  Stanley points out that preachers have basically three options when it comes to preaching.  They can teach the Bible to people, they can teach people the Bible or they can teach people how to live a life that reflects the values, principles, and truths of the Bible.  The first option, to teach the Bible to people, focuses exclusively on the content of the Scripture.  Essentially, the preacher just stands up and explains what the Bible says and then lets everyone try to figure out what to do with it.  This is a favorite approach of many of the men that I love and respect in the ministry but it has no Biblical foundation.  Never in the Bible will you see the content of Scripture being taught without application being made.  The second approach is a little better in that the preacher focuses on audience as he prepares the message.  He tries to make the message easy to understand and memorable by using various means of good communication.  But a gain, this model falls short of the Biblical view of preaching because it aims at understanding rather than life-change.

The third option is the one Stanley advocates and that I think is the most Biblical model for preaching.  In this option the preacher focuses on applying the text to life and showing people how to live the values, principles, and truths of the Bible.  This kind of preaching focuses far more on applying the passage than explaining the content of the passage. Stanley writes, “Preaching for life change requires far less information and more application.  Less explanation and more inspiration.  Lest first century and more twenty-first century.”(p.96) Some will quickly argue that this kind of preaching will ignore the text and focus too much on people’s felt needs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  To preach for life change requires the same in-depth study of the text but with more attention given in the presentation to showing how the principles are to be lived out.

As I have been thinking about my preaching it has occurred to me that most of my preaching has fallen into the first category.  I am usually more concerned about having a lot of content and do not think much about how to apply all of this information to life.  I went back and listened to a few of my sermons from the last year and tried to put myself in the place of an unchurched person.  Basically, I realized that generally speaking there is simply far too much content even for the average Christian to absorb let alone an unchurched man or woman.  So my goal is to focus more on learning how to apply the Bible to life and showing how the principles, values and truths of the Scripture can be lived out.  To do this I will need to do the following two things and I would like to ask you to pray for me as I strive to get better.  First, I need to focus on smaller amounts of material, specifically, on just one point from the text.  This means that often I will be preaching two or three sermons in a row from the same passage.  But each sermon will focus on just one point.  Second, I need to spend more time reflecting on specific actions that we need to take as a community of believers to live out the truth. This means far more reflection and prayer about what we should do because of the sermon.

I would like for you to help me in this task by doing three things.  First, pray for me.  Ask God to give me wisdom as I preach the Word.  Second, hold me accountable.  Don’t let me slip into my little professor role and focus just on passing on information without showing you how to apply it.  Third, give me some feedback about what is helping you and what is not.

A Missional Worldview

As you know, I have been thinking a great deal lately about the problem of the declining church in America and what the solution is. Just the other night KFVS news aired a short report about the decline of Christianity in America. They reported that here in Illinois, the average church attendance is down 8% from what it was ten years ago. Nearly every denomination is experiencing decline. For years, this decline was limited to the liberal mainline denominations but now the trend has carried over to the more conservative groups, including our own Southern Baptist Convention, which has reported three straight years of decline. So what is the problem and how do we fix it?

At least part of the problem stems from the fact that most churches in America are living in a by-gone era and are simply not equipped to reach their communities. In a recent article that appeared in The Tennesean, Ed Stetzer, points out that many denominations simply grew complacent thinking that what they had always been doing would continue to work. In the past churches faced little competition and could count on a culture that was still marginally Christian. He states, “We had home-field advantage. We had gotten used to being the place where people went when they had spiritual needs. And now we are like bears fed by tourists, and the tourists are gone.” I like his analogy of bears that have been consistently fed by tourists. I remember as a kid driving through the Smoky Mountains and seeing all kinds of bears standing around the trash bins and pull offs along the road. A couple of years ago, we took a vacation to the mountains and I was surprised that I did not see one single bear. I remember asking a part ranger why that was and he told me that the bears had forgotten how to fend for themselves because the tourists kept feeding them. This reminds me of the church. The church is declining in America by-and-large because we have forgotten how to go out and reach people with the gospel. Gone are the days when a church can simply hang up a sign or hand out some flyers and draw a crowd. The culture that we live in, even in Metropolis, has lost its Christian grounding and memory. The church cannot sit and wait for people to come to us, we must go to them. We must regain a missional world view.

A missional world view believes that God is on a mission to redeem a people for Himself out of very tribe, nation and tongue (Rev. 5:9). We see this mission unfold from the beginning of the Bible all the way to the end. Throughout the Old Testament God prepared the way for the coming of His Son. In the Gospels we see God accomplishing the work of redemption through the life and death of His Son, Jesus. In Acts and the Epistles, we see that God has invited every believer and every local church to be a part of that mission. This missional view of the world should fundamentally change the way we think about ourselves and the church.

First, God’s invitation to be on mission should cause us to change the way we think about the church. A missional world view sees the church as being God’s instrument for reaching the world. In other words, the local church has a missional purpose. Most Christian agree with that statement in principle but fail to carry it out in practice. The old saying says “the church is the only institution that exists entirely for the benefit of those outside its membership” yet in practice most churches have lost this focus. Far too often we are more concerned about keeping things the way they have always been than adjusting them in order to reach the lost. Obviously, you all know that I am not talking about compromising on the gospel or on the fundamental doctrines of the faith. Churches usually do not divide over those issues anyways, but they will divide when personal preferences become more important than the mission of reaching the lost. Some would divide the church over the style of architecture, or dress, or music, or order of service, or programs. They would rather hold on to what they have always done than to adjust in order to reach the lost. A church that adopts a missional world view, however, will be willing to change how it does things in order to reach people for Jesus. It will be willing to sacrifice personal preference for the purpose of reaching the lost.

Second, God’s invitation to be on mission should cause us to change the way we think about ourselves. A missional world view sees every local church as a missionary in its community and every Christian as a missionary to his or her sphere of influence. The New Testament shows us that the gospel moves along relational lines. For instance, when James was converted he went and told Peter (John 1:35-42) and the woman at the well went and told the men in her village (John 4:27-38). Everyone has a sphere of influence, a group of friends, family members, co-workers, and acquaintances that they influence. To be missional means to see yourself as a missionary to that group of people. You are God’s ambassador to your friends, co-workers, neighbors, and family. This means it is your responsibility to live like Jesus in front of them and to find opportunities to share the good news with them.

The decline of the American church cannot be stopped in a day nor will it be easy. The 1950’s are not coming back and the church, like it has always done, will adapt to the new cultural climate we find ourselves in. Churches that refuse to become missional in their thinking in ministry will slowly die and disappear. Churches that accept the missional mandate laid out in the New Testament will engage their culture and reach their communities with gospel. As your Pastor, my prayer is that we will become a missional church. The only way for that to happen, however, is for each of you to adopt a missional way of looking at and engaging the world.

What Does Missional Look Like in Metropolis? Pt. 2

I read a statistic the other day that shocked me, according to a recent study 90% of heart patients faced with the need to make changes in their lifestyle choose to die rather than making change.  That shocked me until I stopped and thought about it for a moment.  No one likes change and if forced to, I would have to admit that I dislike change as much as anyone.  The simple reason that I dislike change so much is that I like to be comfortable and I have gone to great lengths to organize my life in a way that is comfortable for me.  Change means that I will have to leave that comfort zone.  I will have to do things that might make me uncomfortable and disturb my carefully maintained equilibrium.  Do you have the same problem?  I guarantee that you do and if you want me to prove it just let me come over to your house and start rearranging it.  You would very quickly discover that change makes us very uncomfortable.

I think that this basic aversion to change is what hinders the church in America from being effective.  The statistical evidence has been mounting over the last decade to show that the church is in decline in America.  In our own Southern Baptist Denomination, nearly 90% of our churches are either plateued or declining.  Sadly, much of the reason for this decline is the failure of the church to engage the emerging culture around it.  No one can doubt that we are experiencing one of the greatest cultural shifts in the history of our nation and perhaps even the world.  But unfortunately, the church has largely stayed in the 1950’s ministering to a culture that does not exist anywhere except in its own four walls.  This failure to engage the culture has resulted in a devastating decline in evangelism and conversions.

Last week on this blog we began a discussion about what it means to be missional in Metropolis.  Part of this involves being willing to change so that we can engage the culture we live in.  We will discuss specific changes in future articles but I think it is important to understand the difference between principles, methods, and preferences.  One of my favorite professors in seminary was Dr. Elmer Towns.   He was famous for drilling the following saying into the minds of his students, “Methods are many, principles are few, methods may change but principles never do.”  Often this distinction gets forgotten in the church.

There are principles that we should be willing to die for and that are never up for compromise.  For instance, we believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible.  This is a principle that we are not willing to ever give up.  We believe in the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone.  These are all principles that we should never give up.  They are the foundational, fundamental issues of our Christian life.

Our methods represent our principles as applied to culture.  Methods will change as the culture changes.  We may not like that and it may make us uncomfortable but it is true.  Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22 “…I have become all things to all men, that might by all means save some.”  What Paul is talking about in this passage is his willingness to set aside personal preferences and adapt his methods to reach his audience.  For instance, when Paul was preaching to Jews he went to the synagogue, dressed like a Jew, talked like a Jew and started his gospel presentation in the Old Testament law.  But in Acts 17, when he preached in Athens, Paul adapted his methods to fit the context that he was preaching in.  He went to where the Gentiles met, the Areopagus.  He spoke the language they could understand, even quoting from popular Greek poets and philosophers.  He started his presentation not in the law but in their misunderstanding of who God is and creation.  In other words, Paul was not afraid to change in order to preach the gospel.  He understood that the principles of the gospel never change but the methods of presentation will.

So what does this have to do with the church?  Simply put, we must be willing to embrace change if we are going to be effective in reaching our community with the gospel.  While we will never compromise our principles we should always be willing to change our methods and sacrifice our preferences.  To be on mission with God, Abraham had to leave his hometown and his fathers house.  To be on mission with God, Paul has to be willing to give up his personal preferences and become the missionary to the Gentiles.  To be on mission Jesus had to leave the glory of heaven and become a servant.  To be on mission we will have to change.  We will have to be willing to sacrifice personal preferences for the sake of reaching the lost and dying of our community with the gospel. I leave you with the words of that famous hymn writer/theologian Bob Dylan:

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.