Barna Research continually reports that the environment within US churches is undergoing significant shifts. These changes suggest areas that the church must address. An obvious beginning point is to address these through our preaching and teaching. Analyzing the new realities, six major factors deserve mention: (1) increasing theological and biblical illiteracy, (2) an increasing inward focus, (3) increasing pragmatism coupled with a decreasing commitmentment to moral principles, (4) increasing interest in community service coupled with less focus on evangelism, (5) an increasing tolerance of alternative views and actions, and (6) less and less influence on culture and individual lifestyles. These six factors suggest six threads to be woven into our preaching. How do your sermons stack up in light of these suggestions?
Sermons must be Bible-based and built on solid theological foundations. The Bible is less and less visible in contemporary sermons. Sermons must wrestle with the message of the Bible. Sermons must identify appropriate, applicable theological principles from Scripture. Without this kind of foundation, sermons are less than biblical. Some people consider sermons biblical because they do not say anything false; but sermons are sometimes unbiblical because they do not reflect, let alone communicate, the whole truth. Sermons must communicate the message of Scripture and not merely use the biblical text as a springboard for whatever happens to come to mind. Unless Christians are challenged to think theologically, most will remain theologically weak and immature. The sermon is a first line of defense against biblical and theological illiteracy. In case you are doubting that biblical literacy is a problem, Barna found in one survey that only a minority of the adults surveyed associate Easter with the resurrection of Jesus. Without solid theological grounding, the divisions in Christendom will only increase.
Sermons should help the church develop a healthy balance between edifying internal fellowship and outwardly-focused evangelistic fervor. The modern church acts more and more for its own good and less and less for the good of others. Most Christians do not invite non-Christians to church, do not discuss Christianity with their friends, and are not fully engaged in a local congregation. As the church becomes more spiritually isolated from its surroundings, sermons must lift our eyes to the harvest, providing both motivation and insights for action. Churches will lose their missionary fervor without regular encouragement from the pulpit.
Sermons must present a healthy balance of principles and action. It is not enough to provide knowledge. Sermons must address the application of biblical truths. Rather than moralizing about certain good behaviors, sermons must encourage the deeper thinking and meditation often associated with spiritual practices, things such as contemplation, solitude, silence, and simplicity. A healthy integration of truth and application will help Christians avoid the increasing tendency toward the compartmentalized life. Moral principles guide every action because what the Bible says always matters.
With interest in service projects escalating, churches are more likely to be involved in benevolent activities both at home and in foreign missions. While ministering in the name of Jesus to those in need is a good thing, the challenge facing the church is that such benevolence often does little or nothing to advance the kingdom. Further, it is easy to become involved in such activities based on self-interest and feeling good more than self-sacrifice. The pulpit must address the integration of serving and sharing the Gospel, urging people toward justice and compassion from a biblical perspective and not only for social acceptability. Service is eternally meaningless until the end result is focused on salvation. One Barna reseach report said,
"the postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the church. Biblical illiteracy discourages making discerning choices for fear of being labeled judgmental. The result is a church that has become tolerant of a vast array of morally and spiritually dubious behaviors and philosophies. This increased leniency is made possible by the very limited accountability that occurs within the body of Christ. There are fewer and fewer issues that Christians believe churches should be dogmatic about. The idea of love has been redefined to mean the absence of conflict and confrontation, as if there are no moral absolutes that are worth fighting for."The pulpit must address the issue of biblical illiteracy, seeking a thorough approach to Scripture so that the church hears the "full counsel of God" and not isolated scriptural "tidbits." The pulpit must address the issue of moral absolutes, the nature of truth, and the question of Christian faith, worldview, and attitudes. Another quote from Barna:
"The challenge today is for Christian leaders to achieve the delicate balance between representing truth and acting in love. The challenge for every Christian in the US is to know his/her faith well enough to understand which fights are worth fighting, and which stands are non-negotiable."
Barna continues, "...the influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible." The pulpit must be a positive influence that motivates hearers to Christian living, setting forth a positive image of what is good as well as providing correctives and negatives when needed. Many modern pulpits that are prone to moralizing and criticism in the name of correction would do well to consider that "honey works better than vinegar." The church is in desperate need of a positive and accessible image. A good first step would be Christian believers who implement their faith in public and private, encouraged by the preaching and teaching they hear each week.
So here is my preaching resolution: