Preaching: The Heart of a Biblical Church-growth Philosophy By Phil Johnson

Americans love success stories, and huge churches epitomize success in a massive way. Mega-churches have congregations that are made up of the young, the popular, and the materially wealthy. They represent everything you and I wanted to be when we grew up. And wherever you find the mega-church these days, you will usually find pragmatism.


Pragmatism is the theory that the importance of any method must be measured in practical terms by its success or failure. The pragmatist is somewhat less concerned with the truth or falsehood of any given proposition or approach than it is with its effectiveness. The main question is, “Does it work?” In other words, the pragmatist is driven by methodology, not theology.


Pragmatic approaches to church growth have especially flourished in America, partly because pragmatism is so deeply rooted in our culture’s national consciousness; but also because this kind of pragmatism has been responsible for the rise of a new generation of mega-churches admired and envied by many American evangelicals.


Often called ‘user-friendly churches,’ after the title of a well-known book by George Barna, they prefer instead to call themselves ‘seeker-sensitive churches.’ Characterized by informal services that emphasize drama, music, comedy, and other forms of entertainment which draw a crowd, these churches usually de-emphasize preaching.


If preaching is featured at all, it must be brief and friendly and practical and topical and very light on doctrine and reproof. Above all, everything in the seeker-sensitive worship service must be ‘relevant,’ a code word that means the church service has to be as hip and trendy as possible, and not too serious or formal. This approach, we’re told by many of the experts, is the only way churches can expect to see dramatic growth in the twenty-first century.


Let’s face it: pragmatism is a significant change in direction for evangelical Christianity. Until the last part of the Twentieth Century, virtually all the great churches since the Protestant Reformation deemed great and worthy of emulation were primarily so because they had great pulpits. They were primarily known for their great preaching. Some were large churches like Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, or Barnhouse’s Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia.


Many had a long heritage of one great preacher after another, like Westminster chapel with


G. Campbell Morgan followed by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Their large attendance figures were the direct result of a strong pulpit. In most cases, their preaching featured biblical exposition, not merely interesting homilies.


Pragmatism however, is now the order of the day. This is not just an American phenomenon either. These trends have made their influence felt worldwide. Even in the poorest third-world countries, churches are doing drama instead of strong preaching. And those churches held up as examples tend to be the ones whose ministries have been molded and shaped by pragmatic philosophies of church growth…where it is truth versus technique and truth is losing out.


Don’t get me wrong . . . most evangelicals who buy into the so-called “seeker-sensitive” philosophy wouldn’t dream of attacking the doctrines of justification by faith alone, or the deity of Christ, or the absolute authority of Scripture. But they functionally ignore such doctrines rather than risk boring people with theological teaching. In my assessment, the long-term effect of this is the same as actually attacking the doctrines themselves, and maybe worse. Even the frog jumps out of the boiling water when turned up fast; but turn the water up slowly and he boils to death.


Though advocates of seeker-sensitive styles of ministry may claim that their pragmatism doesn’t compromise doctrine, it does. From the very start it determines what they will preach and how they will preach it. And because pragmatism establishes the value system by which everything is assessed, the basic content of what is believed is invariably affected as well.


Here’s the main reason why seeker sensitivity and sound doctrine must ultimately and inevitably clash: Because the Gospel itself is a stumbling-block; an offense to unbelievers and the unchurched. We can’t make our message palatable to everyone and maintain its purity at the same time. They may not realize it but those among us who downplay sound doctrine for the sake of appealing to the tastes of unchurched people are in the process of doing as much (or more) damage to the cause of truth as if they had launched a full-scale frontal attack.


This leads me to my primary objection against pragmatism as a strategy for church growth. It is this: If we allow our first concern to be with whether our methodology is effective in meeting “felt needs,” the most important methodology of all, biblical preaching, will inevitably be downplayed or discarded and in the process, real needs go unmet.


This is not because biblical preaching is inherently ineffective and doomed to fail the pragmatist’s test. In fact, I argue that with biblical preaching at the heart of a church strategy, it is the only strategy for church growth that can ultimately succeed in accord with God’s standard. That is because preaching is at the heart of God’s design for genuine church growth. And though a church that minimizes or discards preaching may see immediate numerical growth, it will never be the kind of growth that is healthy for the church or that pleases God.


The decline of biblical preaching is paving the way for a weak church with weak Christians and no safeguard against false doctrine. The direction this movement is taking is like a dagger to the heart of evangelical vitality, and if the Lord tarries for another generation, the evangelical movement will rue the day she ever downplayed sound doctrine or minimized the importance of preaching.


Long sermons or messages that are expository in nature rather than topical are favorite targets of those in the church growth movement. Expository preaching is caricatured as boring, irrelevant, and ineffectual. Instead, pastors who really want to see church growth are told to shorten sermons, deal only with topics addressing people’s felt needs and make people feel comfortable. Some have even counseled pastors to avoid too many references to the Bible in preaching, because it intimidates unchurched people. Shorten your message. Keep it as light as possible. Instead of delivering a prophetic word from the Lord, the ideal in preaching now is a motivational talk spiced with plenty of humor and anecdotes.


In The Purpose Driven Church, the most successful book ever written from a church growth advocate, Rick Warren cautions preachers not to begin with the Bible if they want to reach the unchurched, but to begin with some ‘felt need.’ He writes:


You can’t communicate with people until you find something you have in common with them. With the unchurched, you will not establish common ground by saying, ‘Let’s open our Bibles to Isaiah, chapter 14, as we continue in our study of this wonderful book.’ The ground we have in common with unbelievers is not the Bible, but our common needs, hurts, and interests as human beings. You cannot start with a text, expecting the unchurched to be fascinated by it. You must first capture their attention, and then move them to the truth of God’s Word. By starting with a topic that interests the unchurched and then showing what the


Bible says about it, you can grab their attention, disarm prejudices, and create an interest in the Bible that wasn’t there before.6


Among other several serious flaws within Warren’s philosophy of ministry, He misunderstands Scripture’s clear teaching about the true nature of “seekers” (see for instance, Romans 3:10; 8:7; Isaiah 9:13). No sinner sets out on a quest for God by his own initiative. Wherever there is a true seeker, God is behind that person, sovereignly drawing his heart to Christ. And if a person is being drawn by Christ, the Spirit of God is using the Word of God in the heart of that person as the only effectual means of reaching him. What this meansto every pastor, elder, deacon or anyone else who is teachingif genuine seekers are our target, the Word of God must be front and center, not merely a footnote in our philosophy of ministry. The idea that there are all these “seekers” looking for God and seeking a way out of their sin is therefore based on a false premise.


Some might respond, “But I remember a time when I was seeking after God.” It is true that Scripture says we should seek the Lord (Isaiah 55:6-7). What we’re being reminded of however is that whenever anyone truly seeks God, it is rather God seeking that individual. But how can someone find God without seeking Him? And how can anyone seek God who refuses to take the initiative in inquiring after Him? Scripture affirms that our ‘seeking’ is in response to the Lord’s own initiation. We are told that we would not love Him if He had not first loved us (1 John 4:19). The prophet is told by God, “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me” (Isaiah 65:1). Jesus told the Jews that it is God the Father who draws men to Christ (John 6:44). Jesus essentially said the same thing again in John 6:65.


6. Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), pp. 294-295.


And though some in the church growth movement want you to believe otherwise, it must be made clear that the preaching of the Word is never ineffectual. It will accomplish what God intends with those whom He is drawing to Himself. God Himself declares in Isaiah 55:11, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Of course, as human beings we don’t always clearly see what God’s purposes are for His Word. We are also reminded of this fact earlier in Isaiah 55:8, where God tells us that His thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are His ways our ways.


We also must be reminded that no one should fault the goal of the church growth movement. On that we can all heartily agree. Surely all of us who love Christ long to see His church grow and flourish and multiply. And there is nothing wrong with seeking the best means to accomplish that end. God even desires us to be creative as it His very nature to create. Yet the essence of being biblically ‘creative,’ according to God’s Word, is ‘to renew’ or ‘do something new.’ And yet it is only the Word of God by the Spirit of God that can renew or create something new in men’s hearts.


In his book, Insight and Creativity in Christian Counseling, Jay Adams writes, “Biblical creativity requires the use of the imagination within the framework of, and according to, biblical principle.”7 Since it is the Lord alone who adds to the church, our focus in church growth ought to be the means He has ordained. And Scripture is clear about what means God uses to add to the church: the preaching of the biblical gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16).


Even the apostle Paul acknowledged that from a worldly perspective, biblical preaching seems a foolish strategy for reaching a world that is hostile to God’s truth. Talk about seeker- insensitivity! Read carefully the words of 1 Corinthians 1:22-23: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” But in verse 21, we read that it pleased God “through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”


7 Jay Adams, Insight and Creativity in Christian Counseling (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1982), p.55.


Never forget that the message we are called to proclaim is an offense and a stumbling block to those to whom we proclaim it (cf. also Galatians 5:11). Christ Himself is a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense (Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:8). Sometimes, ruffling a few feathers with the truth can actually be indicative that what you are doing is right! Yes, you are called to “speak the truth in love.” But also take courage when at times you may be ridiculed, shunned or even ignored.


No one should doubt that the New Testament record of the early church affirms that preaching is at the heart of all church activity and that it was the principal strategy for early church growth. Church growth was even measured by the progress and expansion of the Word of the Lord! Here’s how the historian Luke recorded early church growth: “And the word of God continue to increase; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem” (Acts 6:7). “The word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24). “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (Acts 19:20).


Why, then, is there such a dearth of emphasis on preaching in most of the books that talk about church growth today? It seems the church is seized with a fear of strong, biblical preaching.


Thankfully, the apostle Paul addressed this very fear with his close disciple Timothy. In a pastorate of his own, cut off from his mentor, young Timothy struggled with fear. He was tempted to tone down his message. He was evidently hindered by his own fear of preaching. So the apostle Paul wrote to urge him to stand up boldly for the faith, even if that meant he would suffer as Paul himself was suffering: “Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Timothy 1:8).


Paul foresaw a time when it would become even harder to preach boldly, when congregations would not tolerate sound doctrine or fearless preaching, when people would deliberately turn away from the truth (2 Timothy 4:3-4). If Timothy was struggling under mild opposition, what would he do when he faced more harsh persecution? What would he do when called upon to minister to people with no appetite for the Word and no tolerance for bold preaching? Would he accommodate his hearers’ preferences, or be faithful to his calling? He could not do both. In those times when he might have been tempted, the young man knew that Paul’s advice left no room for compromise: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).


Clearly, “user-friendliness” was the furthest thing from Paul’s mind. He urged Timothy to preach the Word boldly, even if that is not what the crowds are clamoring for. People’s ears may be itching for anything but sound doctrine, but the faithful pastor will defy the spirit of the age, confront his own fear, and boldly preach the truth anyway. Paul longed to see that kind of boldness in his young disciple and yet warned him that he would suffer hardship.


No fear is legitimate if it dissuades the preacher from that task. No philosophy of pastoral ministry is sound if it has anything else as its main focus. Preaching the Word is by no means easy. The faithful preacher will not always gain accolades. In fact, he is guaranteed persecution (2 Timothy 3:12); inevitably meeting with hostility and rejection. As a result, it is easy to become fearful. Be aware; the pulpit is no place for a timid man or the faint of heart. Pastors must not allow fear, public opinion, or pragmatic methodology to dissuade them from boldly preaching the Word. No aspect of church ministry is more vital than this. The church that substitutes entertainment, moral lectures, motivational talks, or anything else in the place of preaching has therefore allowed the Word to be abdicated from its exalted position.


So “Preach the Word.” The preacher of the Word in this pragmatic age must therefore be bold, thorough, patient, loving, unrelenting, persevering in the face of hardship and opposition and above all, fearless.

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