I enjoy driving, maybe not as much as some, but probably more than most. However, when I was young I wasn’t all that interested in learning how to maintain cars; consequently, I learned some very expensive lessons. For example, engines must have 3 essential liquids if they are to run very long; they are fuel, oil, and coolant. When it comes to engines, only having 2 out 3 is a very bad thing. Of course, if you had to choose one of these essentials to run out of, then the best choice is gas. That’s because once your run out of it then all you have to do is add more and you’re back on the road. But if you run out of oil or coolant and keep driving, then your engine will freeze up and be ruined. That, my friends, is a costly repair, so costly it may even mean that your car is totaled, depending on its value. When it comes to driving there are some things that are essential if you want stay on the road. The reality of “essentials” is everywhere in our lives, but occasionally some think it fashionable to challenge their importance, and those who do so inevitably run the risk of ruining the very things they claim to value.
Recently I read the online article titled “10 Church Activities That Need to Go.” Keeping up with current trends in ministry is important, so this article piqued my interest. The last item on the list of things that churches need to jettison was “sermons.” First of all, that someone would make such a suggestion, or that an “online Christian media leader” such as Crosswalk.com would allow it to appear on their website is symptomatic of the spiritual decline and biblical illiteracy of our time. Nevertheless, I can relate to the problem that Millennials are experiencing in many of today’s churches, which is that pulpits are filled with people that they aren’t worth listening to because they really have nothing of significance to say. Regrettably, what occurs in many pulpits today amounts to little more than religious speeches. Ironically, the solution promoted by the author, Lindsey VanSparrentak, is to simply get rid of sermons altogether rather than replacing pastors that are ungifted, disinterested, or poorly trained with respect to effectively communicating God’s word. It’s kind of like what we are experiencing with respect to the NFL and the protests during the national anthem. Some have actually suggested that the “solution” to this controversy is to stop playing the national anthem before the games. Now there’s a thought.
Regrettably, VanSparrentak apparently is unaware that she’s attacking God’s primary method for casting vision, educating, evangelism, and discipling the church at large. Paul made it clear that God has ordained the method of preaching to bring people to faith (1 Cor. 1.20-25). Moreover, the Spirit inspired Paul to tell his disciple Timothy, and by extension all future ministers, God’s charge to “Preach the Word!” (2 Timothy 4.1-4). God has ordained that preaching the scriptures is a paramount method of communicating His word to His people. And, at the risk of being obvious, sermons are the product of Christian preaching, plain and simple. And to be clear, we are talking about preaching, not “sharing,” “suggesting,” “informing,” or “lecturing” about God’s word. To preach means to “publically proclaim” the good news of the gospel; to forcefully assert with conviction the truth of God’s word; and to implore God’s people to conform to His will. To put it another way, preaching is not the dissemination of recommendations and suggestions, it is publically announcing the word of God “in and out of season.”
Nevertheless, VanSparrentak’s justifies doing away with sermons in the church in favor of adopting more effective educational methods because apparently even universities are moving away from lecture based education models. First, writing as a professor I must say that this is certainly not the case, there is no mass movement in higher education away from lectures as a foundational educational tool. Regardless of VanSparrentak’s assertion, even if it were true, she has unfortunately made a category mistake. The church is not a university, and God has ordained that what may work in secular institutions does not apply to the body of Christ, which is the church. And is precisely Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 1.20-25. In this text Paul explained in emphatic detail that God has chosen what the world deems foolish (i.e., preaching) in order prove wrong what it views as wise and erudite (and this includes whatever educational models Millennials are currently advocating). Moreover, the greatest spiritual renewals throughout human history came about with sermons being a major method used by God to reach both his people and the lost. Moses, the prophets, Ezra, Peter, Paul, Chrysostom, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, Whitefield, Wesley, Edwards, Moody, Spurgeon, Graham, Criswell, and Falwell all regularly preached sermons and were used greatly by the Lord. And lest we forget, even Jesus preached sermons; so I ask, what would Jesus do?
I must admit, however, I can relate to VanSparrentak’s frustration with the educational ineffectiveness of many of today’s churches. If you are only listening to one sermon a week, and you are not involved in any relevant small group Bible studies (the operative words being “relevant” and “Bible”), nor are you being discipled by someone of greater spiritual depth and biblical literacy (which is probably the experience of the majority of those attending church), then you are probably seeing very little spiritual impact for Christ in your life, your church, and your community. And that is especially true if your church is being held captive by weak lay leaders that tolerate inept pastors giving sermons devoid of scriptures. If that is your experience, then only the Lord can help you. Nevertheless, the Lord himself used several different educational methods throughout his ministry, one of which was regularly preaching the word of God. Of course he reached people while also utilizing different instructional methods as well, teaching them both individually and in small groups, as well as engaging in interactive “ask and answer” discussions. Consequently, if we know how Jesus engaged in ministry, should we excuse ourselves from doing any differently? Should not our Lord provide for us the educational models that we should practice and master? The problem is not that the time for sermons has expired, the problem is with those pretending to be preachers and/or with those tolerating their irrelevant Bible-less sermons.
Without question, preparing and communicating weekly sermons that are fresh and relevant is a difficult task. Moreover, communicating God’s will to those living outside of it makes preaching a more daunting task. So daunting that many pastors have become jaded; consequently they provide “sermonettes” that are entertaining, less threatening, and harmonized with the greater dominant culture. In other words, many pastors tend to sanitize their sermons of things that our unbelieving culture finds offensive. In today’s churches, pastors dare not sacrifice the world’s sacred cows; consequently, they have unwittingly become cattle protectors instead of shepherds. The result is that they have ceased being effective spiritual leaders; consequently, they have stopped providing reasons for anyone to listen to them. I generally do not recommend books in my blogs, simply because I find that most people aren’t all that interested in reading substantive books. Nevertheless, I’m recommending one that is on my top-ten list of books to read for both layman and those preparing for ministry, and it is Stott’s book Between Two Worlds, and I recommend that you read its first edition (i.e., 1982) instead of its politically correct revision.
Ministry is difficult enough, and it is made even more challenging when people uncritically accept man-made premises about how to do God’s work. There are some things that God has ordained as essential to biblical ministry, and one of these essentials is the preaching of sermons. To those who have made the mistake of concluding that sermons are no longer foundational for effective ministry, but instead are actually an impediment to building relevant churches, all I can say is that you are building your houses upon sand. While your “groups” may grow and enjoy the momentary success that comes with being fashionable and popular, they will not last. They will not endure simply because they are not built upon the foundation of God’s wisdom. As Paul put it, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.” Ministries built upon man-made wisdom are not biblical ministries, and if your church is not built upon the foundation of God’s word, then one has to wonder if it is truly a church at all.
Dr. Monte Shanks, © 2017, The Lantern & Shield Times LLC.