(Credit: Focus Magazine)
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)
One of my earliest experiences of Christian churches I remember growing up between the ages of 15-19 in Ausfralia was something that pastors everywhere would call “Christian consumerism.” It was almost described as an epidemic of Christians either leaving churches to go elsewhere or leaving them entirely. There were multiple reasons for these, but the most common phrases were, “I just feel called to serving at …”, or “I’m not growing anymore”, “this church wasn’t very welcoming”, “I don’t like the preaching here”, “I just don’t feel like I’m being fed”, and lastly, “I don’t feel I belong here”. The culture of consumerism that we live here in the west, and as Chinese folk had led us to believing that the church was all about us, us being the consumer and the church being a product. Once a person felt like he had taken all he could, it was time to move on. That was how it was explained to me, and as many a pastor would say, “the church is not about you!”
As a young Christian and someone whom by God’s grace saw this reality occurring, I gritted my teeth and vowed not to leave for any of those reasons. Unlike all these other Christians, I did not want to contribute to this growing problem. I had seen the damage it did to churches and the mindsets that it encouraged. One of the biggest reasons cited for leaving was the substance of preaching at the local church. At the time I saw it as an entirely selfish reason to leave. Asian churches often minimize the role of preaching as a backlash against Christian consumerism and dvidison, but looking back now I have to ask the question: have we lost its importance altogether? Is it really the role of individual prayer and scripture that shapes the growth of a Christian? I want to argue that the role of preaching should not be understated because it is both an essential to what it means to be a church and a critical part of a Christians life and yes, even growth.
1. Get together – for the Word!
When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel,he said to them, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law.They are not just idle words for you—they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” (Deut. 32:45-47)
First, a church without sound doctrine through preaching is a tree cut off from its roots. Even though there is no direct statement of what it means to be a church, the bible is clear enough to draw out its definition from its passages. In the Old Testament, the word church is replaced with the word for congregation, and when the congregation gathers it is in order to hear the word of God (see Mt. Sinai as an example). Moses made it clear that the word of God was the life of Israel and urged them to have it on their hearts. Just as a tree is cut off from its roots so is a church without the word of God. As the great reformer John Calvin says, where the word of God is faithfully preached and the sacraments administered, there is the church. Anything else is a deficient church. In the New Testament the example is seen in Pauls letters to Timothy. To devote himself to public reading of the scriptures and teaching sound doctrine was Timothy’s primary task, without which people would Wander off into fruitless speculation. Just like Israel, preaching is one of Gods primary vehicles of grace to grow, correct and perfect Christians into being like his son, the living word.
Without this preaching, we become people who gather but for a different purpose. We gather to hear sharing of another’s experience. We gather to hear motivational talks. We gather to be entertained. We gather for miracles and signs. We gather for social opportunities. We gather for moral education but we do not gather for the word of God. All of the above have their place and time, but to substitute artificial bread for the bread of life is no substitute at all but a deceiving malnourishment. History has seen enough churches die for a lack of preaching but it has yet to see a church die where the word of God is faithfully proclaimed.
2. Preaching is the Fire for Holy Living
Second, preaching in the life of individual Christians is a sergeants call to arms, the trumpets blare at dawn, and the rallying cry to battle not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities of this evil world, the present age of darkness. Preaching on a Sunday rallies the troops and musters their morale to fight from Monday to Saturday
. Without this preaching, Christians are directionless in their pursuit of godliness the rest of the week. While the individual spiritual disciplines are not to be neglected and just as critical, God has always designed people to grow in community. Who teaches the Christian to read if not the church, the people of God? Because as no man is an island unto himself, neither is any Christian. Don’t let the importance of individual disciplines elevate themselves over the importance of Other means of Gods grace. As the apostle Paul’s exhortation to not neglect meeting together shows us, gathering together under God’s word is God’s means to unite and disciple Christians together in community by reminding us of our common purpose and trains us for this goal together, through its application. Not by generating activities, games, social clubs, lunches or sharing groups. There are few things more glorious than fellow saints, sharpening one another through tough conversations, servant hearts and an unbounded passion for knowing God. My own life has been greatly enriched by many such brothers and sisters, without which I would not be who I am today without them.
Consequences of Poor Preaching
When a church loses its substance in preaching, it also loses its sight. Many of these signs include: disordered Christians, who without a vision of Gods word, find their vision of life from their culture. In Asian churches this often amounts to chasing their career, climbing the big corporate ladder or their Asian dream of money in the bank, a house, car, white collar job and successful kids. All while keeping enough attendance and involvement in a church to appease their conscience that they’re living as radical disciples of Christ, without suffering of course, because they are blessed enough to live in a country that doesn’t persecute Christians. Excess ministries, where ministries are done to bring all manner of people, young and old together, in the hopes that it encourages serving and discipleship in a fun, entertaining, feel good way. Rarely are the ministries questioned because they have always been there and seem to be advancing some sort of kingdom. People are busy and without the ministries, the church would seem to have no foundation to stand on. This is natural because where the preaching and teaching fails, it’s void must be filled somewhere. Lastly, though many may seem busy, and the ministries plenty, the amount of people serving will actually be 20% while the other 80 look on, because what motivation is there to serve when there are so many more important things to do after church?
There are many wrong reasons to leave a church, and while Christian consumerism is sinful and not to be encouraged, preaching is not one of them (in so far as every effort has been made to resolve this). The backlash of Christian consumerism should not lead us to minimize the role of preaching in the Christian life and the life of the church, without which, the glory of God is dimmed and hearts remain dormant. Rather, I think a better response is to prayerfully examine the scriptures in light of every word that is said, and to seek every resolution possible where preaching is not faithful. Don’t expect your pastor to be Paul Washer or John Piper. Ultimately though, Christians should not be discouraged from leaving when preaching is a primary reason, and we would do a lot better to address these concerns of brothers and sisters rather than glossing them over for the sake of superficial unity.