The following comments on how religious attenders impact the church are not taken directly from any one resource. I will be using over 25 years of experience as a church attender, pastor, preacher, avid reader (theology & apologetics), and leader in the church. I do not consider myself an expert in this area. What I will share is from a sense of frustration when I see the church begin to cater to the religious attenders rather than strengthen the followers of Jesus Christ. I will focus my comments on two areas: Sermons and evangelism.
For two years as a director of ministry development for Mission Hills Church, our senior pastor chose to implement the Saddleback model for church growth developed by Rick Warren. Rick does many things well and I am not here to bash him. However, I think some of his church philosophies were geared to target the religious people rather than the spirit-filled Christians.
One such strategy was to focus sermons on application rather than an in-depth examination of the text. Rick felt by teaching to application points you could reach all levels from mature to new believers in Christ. In theory it seems to have merit. Under this preaching philosophy each major point of the sermon began with a verb, attempting to spur the listener to action. This is such an appealing methodology. Every pastor in the world wants their listeners to put their sermons into practice. So it makes sense to make application the major focus. So what’s the problem?
We must ask ourselves, what motivates a change in behavior? As Dr. J.P. Moreland says in his book Loving God with all Your Mind, actions run on the rails of beliefs. Weak beliefs can contribute to a lack of action. On the other hand strong beliefs can be a foundation for positive behaviors. By focusing on the action and making beliefs less important, change doesn’t seem to take place. In many surveys, the actions of Christians fares no better than the non-church going individual. The application focus doesn’t seem to be working. I realize this could be viewed as a simplistic solution to our moral problem inside the church, but it could be a contributor.
I am not going to go into depth on how to change beliefs. In his book Moreland says we cannot do it directly, only indirectly. Our beliefs can be affected indirectly through study, meditation, prayer, scriptural reflection, and other spiritual disciplines. I believe sermons can help in this process. My point is I believe teaching to application doesn’t seem to yield the desired outcome. Most listeners ignore the weekly 3-5 application points and for the most part behavior remains unaffected.
And yet multiple sermon application points is exactly what the religious person desires. Through this type teaching they are given a checklist of things they can do to please God. It caters to the works salvation crowd.
Now application has its place. The Bible is loaded with application and these are to be preached. People need to be given the scriptural challenge to apply the teachings of the Bible to their lives. However, application points that go beyond the verses simply come from the imagination of the pastor and I don’t believe carry God’s power from His Word. Pastors have an obligation to preach the word as the author intended and to carefully challenge the listeners with logical applications taken from the text. I am not trying to put forth a hard fast rule here but I am asking pastors to be careful not to make application the focal points of the sermon. Expound the text and application will naturally flow from your teachings.
I believe gospel centered sermons will reach all levels. The emphasis needs to be on what Jesus has done and not what we can do. When application is the primary focus, we become the focal point of the sermon. Jesus is no longer needed. Joel Osteen is king of preaching how you can live a successful life by pulling up your own bootstraps. I heard one of his sermons on television where Jesus was never mentioned. Why should he be? If I can solve my problems by doing things myself why do I need Jesus?
I am aware of a local preacher in an evangelical church who preached on forgiveness and never mentioned Jesus Christ. How is that possible? Forgiveness is only possible through the finished work of Jesus. Yet in his sermon Jesus wasn’t needed for forgiveness. He spent the majority of his efforts on forgiving one another.
A highly recommended book on this topic is Michael Horton’s book Christless Christianity. He gives an in-depth look at why evangelical churches today need to bring Jesus back to the center of the sermon, the center of worship, and focus on the gospel.
The second problem is how the religious view affects evangelism. For many people the word evangelism is to be feared and only done by the trained professionals.
Spirit-filled believers know it is their duty to share Jesus and feel a sense of guilt for not participating. Their heart breaks over the fate of the unbeliever but many still struggle with the task of getting into spiritual conversations.
Many religious people don’t see the need to evangelize. Everyone has their religion and who are you to tell someone he is wrong. I am aware of one local pastor who was preaching through the book of Acts and made evangelism his central theme. After a number of sermons, the sheer quantity of complaints about his focus on evangelism, he had to abandon the series. My guess is the majority of the complainers were the religious individuals.
Classes on evangelism in a typical church are not well attended. At Saddleback Church I discovered they were hosting a top notch evangelism speaker. With a weekend congregation of over 20,000 people and knowing Rick Warren’s love for evangelism, I decided I needed to get there early or I wouldn’t get a seat. By the time this guest speaker started there were less than 20 people in a large room. I was stunned to say the least. Rick Warren has a heart for the lost and has communicated that passion continually. However, it seems those who call Saddleback their church were content to let Rick do the evangelizing and they didn’t need to be trained.
What can be done? First and foremost church is not about us. Churches need to make the gospel the center of all sermons and Jesus Christ the heart and soul of the worship service. Christianity is about God’s kingdom; His restoration plan through His Son Jesus Christ. We must not let the religious crowd dictate how we do church.