What’s the number one thing we can do to fill our churches? It’s probably not what you think.
By John Stonestreet, at www.breakpoint.org, May 9, 2017
According to a new Gallup survey, the quality of the worship band isn’t the main reason people go to church. Neither is it thriving kids’ programs. Or even a dynamic personality behind the pulpit. No; instead, respondents said that “Sermons that teach about Scripture” are the reason they show up on Sunday mornings.
As Christianity Today reports, “Researchers found that 82 percent of Protestants and 76 percent of all regular worshipers consider sermons’ biblical lessons as a major factor that draws them to services.” They also want application: “80 percent of Protestants and 75 percent of worshipers valued sermons that connect faith to everyday life.”
Now it shouldn’t really surprise us that people are hungry for truth in this post-truth, post-fact culture, especially when it’s harder than ever to discern fact from fiction, reality from conspiracy theory.
Scripture tells us that God has “set eternity” in our hearts. Our first parents may have been expelled from the Garden of Eden, but we, their descendants, still cannot quite shake the memory of it. Augustine knew something about this insatiable search for truth and beauty, writing in prayer to God, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” As G.K. Chesterton once said, people are “homesick in their homes.” Chesterton knew that every time we lay our heads on our pillows at the end of the day, we lay them down in a foreign land.
Whatever our neighbors may say, whatever veneer they present, we know that many of them are hungry for what we’ve been given in Scripture— the Truth that is Christ Himself. Pastor and editor Matt Woodley says in Preaching Today, “In a distracted, outraged, shallow culture, people begin to hunger for something rare: the focused, balanced, and deep.”
So it’s time to, among other things, abandon the therapeutic-driven, self-centered sermons that characterize too much preaching these days. As researcher and pastor Ed Stetzer recently pointed out, Oklahoma-based Life Church is one of many congregations that has started beefing up its teaching in response to people we sometimes call ‘unchurched.’ “In other words,” Ed says, “those for whom sermons were being dumbed down aren’t dumb. They are interested in the truth or else they’d be out golfing.”
The goal of church cannot be to out-entertain the world. First, we can’t. In a world of instant gratification, 24/7 communication access, and virtually limitless glowing rectangles clamoring for our attention, the church just can’t win the entertainment battle. Second, it shouldn’t try. That’s not what church is about, nor is it what people need. Gathering for worship, though it can be exhilarating— or, on some days, boring— isn’t about entertainment, because it’s not about us. It’s about meeting with God as a community of His people, giving Him His due, and being instructed, admonished, equipped, and encouraged by Him to join in His work.
As Pastor Jared Wilson recently tweeted, “Someone will always have better coffee, music, facilities, and speaking. Showcase Christ and his gospel. No one can improve on that.”
We should encourage our pastoral leaders to prepare deep, biblical sermons and education offerings that rest firmly on the authority of Scripture. This sort of thing requires hours of diligent study of the Word of God and prevailing, passionate prayer. There are no shortcuts if we are to end the tragedy of a church too often a mile wide and an inch deep.
II Timothy 4:1-5 — In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage— with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.
Romans 10:14…17 — How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?… Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.
Mark 16:15 — And (Jesus) said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to all creation.”
Almighty and Gracious God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, give us true teachers and ministers of Thy Word, and put Thy saving Gospel on their hearts and on their lips, that they may truly fulfill Thy command, and preach nothing contrary to Thy Holy Word; so that we, being warned, instructed, nurtured, comforted, and strengthened by Thy heavenly Word, may believe and do those things which are well-pleasing to Thee, and profitable to us; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord. Amen.
—Service Book and Hymnal, Augsburg Publishing House, 1958, page 225.