Dig Deep

Preaching that Changes Lives

Baptist preachers have always known that beliefs matter. The challenge has been in convincing the congregations of the same. The pastor spends hours in study searching the Scriptures. He cross references verses. He analyzes passages in their context. And he wonders if what he says will make a difference. Are those sitting in the pews eager to receive Bible doctrine or would they be fine with just a “thought” for the day?

The spiritual beliefs of Americans are best described as confused. When Americans were asked in 2002 if “the Bible, the Koran, and the Book of Mormon are all different expressions of the same spiritual truths,” 44% of adults said yes.1 Yet when the same research group in 2008 asked Americans to identify which books were sacred, the results were far different. Of those surveyed, 84% said the Bible is a holy book, while the Koran and the Book of Mormon were called sacred by less than 5% of the population.2

Can that many Americans really believe that the Bible is the only holy book, but still think it says basically the same thing as these other religious books? Many people don’t really know what they believe, but they do trust the Bible. They are desperately seeking answers to spiritual questions, but where will they go if local churches cannot speak with clarity? There is no other institution God has ordained to answer with truth. “But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Howard Hedricks summarized the plight of a church without an authoritative voice, “In the midst of a generation screaming for answers, Christians are stuttering.”3

When we identified the characteristics of a healthy church in Church Still Works, we found that practical Bible teaching is a cornerstone. I quote from the book:

Pastors who more frequently organize their sermons around a question, decision, or reality from today’s context using one or more Scriptures to examine the theme exhibit significantly more growth than those who do this less often. This is very big.4

Unfortunately, there are preachers that have abandoned strong biblical teaching. They have bought Satan’s lies—the people will get bored with the Bible, you have something better to say, it’s not worth the time in study. They begin their sermon with a text but never develop it, explain it, or support it with another verse of Scripture. For whatever reason, the Bible only gets an honorable mention when it should be the center of the sermon.

By abandoning the Scriptures, pastors have laid down their only weapon in the spiritual warfare for their congregations and their communities. “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). When pastors abandon the ministry of the Word, the Christians under their care suffer.

‘We Made a Mistake’

Os Guiness warned that as pastors sought after “relevance” in their churches, they began to substitute Bible teaching for entertainment and pop-psychology. He wrote in Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance:

The faith-world of John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, John Jay, William Wilberforce, Hannah More, Lord Shaftesbury, Catherine Booth, Hudson Taylor, D.L. Moody, Charles Spurgeon, Oswald Chambers, Andrew Murray, Carl Henry, and John Stott is disappearing. In its place a new evangelicalism is arriving in which therapeutic self-concern overshadows knowing God, spirituality displaces theology, end-times escapism crowds out day-to-day discipleship, marketing triumphs over mission, references to opinion polls outweigh reliance on biblical exposition, concerns for power and relevance are more obvious than concern for piety and faithfulness, talk of reinventing the church has replaced prayer for revival, and the characteristic evangelical passion for missionary enterprise is overpowered by the all-consuming drive to sustain the multiple business empires of the booming evangelical subculture. In other words, in swapping psychology for theology in their preaching and enthroning management and marketing in their church administration, evangelicals were making the same errors as liberals had earlier.5

Jesus warned against replacing Scripture in Mark 7:13, “Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.” Neglecting the Bible comes at the expense of the congregation’s spiritual health. Bill Hybels, pioneer of the seeker-sensitive movement, was struck when the fruit of a program-driven church became apparent.

“We made a mistake.” Hybels admitted at a conference for evangelical church leaders. “What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become [sic] Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”6

In other words, they should have taught the Bible and taught their people to make the Christian faith their own. Paul stressed this as the primary function of a pastor. “If thou put the brethren in remembrance of these things, thou shalt be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine, whereunto thou hast attained” (1 Timothy 4:6). The church that tries to keep people with polished programs will draw a crowd, but it will fail to deliver what people need the most.

Faith Anchor

While people may give several reasons when they leave their church (and never join another), one study found the strongest common factor among all those who used to attend a church. Eighty percent of these do not have a strong belief in God.7

On their way out the door, departing church members can list several different reasons for leaving—they didn’t like the direction of the church, they thought the church was getting too big, they became disillusioned with “organized religion.” But at the core, most leave their church because their faith is small and fragile.

No church can force faith to develop in someone. Jesus taught multitudes, but only a handful became dedicated followers, and one of those was Judas. Every individual has to choose for himself, but the right philosophy and culture in a church can encourage growth. The difference between a church that teaches the Bible and one that doesn’t is the difference between a greenhouse and a desert.

God makes faith building so simple. “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Sometimes we can overcomplicate our church’s problems. We worry about the local economy, cultural decline, fragmented families, short attentions, political elections, oil spills, Islamic terrorism, national debt—and that’s just after watching the 5 o’clock news. Remember that God has already warned us that this day would come, and He has given us our instructions to continue in the doctrines we have learned. “But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived. But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them” (2 Timothy 3:13–14).

In order to help our congregations, our families, and our own lives grow into Christ-like maturity, we must be saturated with God’s Word. Nothing else carries the promise of God’s power.

For the Bible Tells Me So

One of the most theologically sound lyrics in a Christian song is “Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so.” In a single statement, it teaches Christ’s love based on the authority of Scripture. If we stick to that formula, our people will receive the spiritual nourishment they need.

When you trace the spread of Christianity in the book of Acts, it doesn’t mark skyrocketing fame of Peter or Paul. When the Bible describes the spread of the early church, it says that “the word of God increased” (Acts 6:7). Later on it says that the Word of God “grew and multiplied” (Acts 12:24). Again later, it says, “So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed” (Acts 19:20). The triumph of God’s local church was a victory of God’s Word. God’s Word and God’s church cannot be separated.

Over and over, God promotes His Word as the source of our faith and growth. “And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God” (Luke 4:4). The Bible carries the power to break up hardened hearts. “Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29).

These truths aren’t new. You may have all these Scriptures memorized. You may know God’s promises to bless His Word, but do you believe it? If you believe it, it will change how you live.

The Fruit of Faith

The word doctrine carries a negative connotation in many Christians’ minds. It’s the boring part of the Bible. They divide the Bible into the practical and doctrinal—what we do and what we know—and they treat the doctrinal parts as a purely academic interest. It’s not surprising then when the practical isn’t practiced.

What a person believes affects how he behaves. As John Locke said, “I always thought the actions of a man are the best interpreters of his thoughts.”8 James 2:18 says it this way, “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.

God gives the steps to fruitful maturity in 2 Timothy 3:16–17, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

God uses the Bible to tell us what is right, what is wrong, how to fix what is wrong, and how to do better the next time. The end result of following this pattern is a mature Christian ready to serve God.

Do you seek that for your church? Wouldn’t you like to see your children grow up in faith and follow God when they are out of your house? Do you want your life to be a chronicle of God’s grace and power? It’s all possible—through the Word of God.

Does it matter if pastors pray, study, and teach what the Bible says? Is it worth the effort to craft a sermon filled with God’s Word? It’s worth it. Sometimes we may believe Satan’s deception. We may be tempted to think that the Bible stopped working, but it still has the power to change lives. Never stop preaching the Word. “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:2).

1. Barna Group. “Americans Draw Theological Beliefs From Diverse Points of View.” <http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/82-americans-draw-theological-beliefs-from-diverse-points-of-view>. October 8, 2002.

2. Barna Group. “American’s Identify What They Consider ‘Holy’ Books.” <http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12-faithspirituality/31-americans-identify-what-they-consider-qholyq-books>. July 7, 2008.

3. Howard Hedricks. Taking a Stand: What God Can Do Through Ordinary You. p 12.

4. Paul Chappell & Clayton Reed. Church Still Works. Striving Together, 2009. P. 100.

5. Os Guiness, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance. 55.

6. Out of Ur. “Willow Creek Repents?” <http://www.outofur.com/archives/2007/10/willow_creek_re.html> October 18, 2007.

7. LifeWay Research. “LifeWay Research Surveys Formerly Churched; Can the Church Close the Back Door?” <http://www.lifeway.com/article/163837/>. 2006.

8. John Locke. Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 1689. Book 1, Chapter 2, Paragraph 3.

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