Alan D. Strange
The Athenians did not have a thing on us in their insatiable demand for novelty (Acts 17:21). In our lust for the "latest," we seem perpetually driven to redefine everything, even the church and its mission.
How many denominations and congregations erect committees to define the church and its mission, as if that had not been done centuries ago? We find such a definition in chapter 25 of our Confession of Faith, sections 1 and 2, describing the church, and section 3, setting forth the mission of the church: "Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world." Simply put, the mission of the church is to gather (evangelize) and perfect (disciple) God's people by a faithful use of the means of grace (the Word, sacraments, and prayer).
To be sure, we can become stagnant and stale in a heartless use of the means of grace. This is why we always need to be renewed in our first love and to have a sense of freshness and vibrancy in our use of the means of grace. And we always need to do the hard work of applying that mission statement in our congregations, asking ourselves whether we are using all the means of graceand how we might better use those means of gracefor the gathering and perfecting of the saints.
It is particularly tempting, in considering how we might best gather the saints (or evangelize), to give way to "market concerns." For instance, if our research indicates that baby boomers want drama, dance, and livelier music in worship, then we might conclude that we must accommodate those desires in order to reach them. We might even convince ourselves that by liberally sprinkling our worship with video presentations, we are only becoming all things to all men so that by all means we might win some (1 Corinthians 9:22).
Is this really the case, though? Do we need such entertainment to gather the saints? Has God commanded liturgical dance as a means of gathering his people?
No, we need a faithful use of the means of grace, especially the preaching of the Word. The Spirit of God has not promised to bless any means other than the ones that he has appointed for the gathering of the saints. And we confess that the Spirit especially blesses the preaching of the Word of God.
Such blessing is affirmed in the Larger Catechism, Q. 155, which asks, "How is the Word made effectual to salvation?" The answer is most instructive: "The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation."
In the church these days, though, there seems to be a low view of preaching and a lust for "more exciting" means of bringing the lost to Christ. When we hear folk in the church opine that we need to do something (that we are presumably not doing) to get people in the door, the subtext of such sentiments is often, "The last thing that we need here is more of that boring preaching that drives prospects away." And, too often, they are right. Such preaching as we haveeven in Reformed churchesis too often boring, dry, dull, academic, lacking in life, heart, and passion, and tending to repel (rather than draw) needy sinners to Christ.
All this is to say that preachers cannot blame members and visitors entirely for the lack of interest in preaching that is too frequently evidenced in our churches. To be sure, many people want their ears tickled. They want to hear smooth things. And they do not want to be confronted with their sin and responsibility. Yet, how often do we as preachers fail to preach in a way that is calculated to engage the hearts and lives of our hearers? How much "Reformed" preaching is passionless, droning, and disconnected from the congregation?
Is part of the reason that there is so little taste for preaching the lack of good preaching? I would argue that many in the pews have a low view of preaching as the primary means of evangelism, at least in part, because there is a lack of the kind of preaching that we ought to havethe kind of preaching, in fact, that the church professes to believe in, according to her doctrinal standards.
The kind of preaching that we need is Spirit-filled, Spirit-blessed preaching. We need preaching that is Christ-centered, that comes from a brokenhearted preacher, and that opens up the heart of the people and applies the only balm that can cure sin-sick souls. Laughing revivals may bring people in the doors, but only preaching blessed by the unction of the Holy Spirit will, to paraphrase the Larger Catechism, cause sinners to see their native misery, despair of themselves utterly, and flee to Christ alone for salvation.
What is evangelism but proclamation of the gospel, the "good news?" And the good news is that, although Adam (as our federal head) plunged the human race into sin, Christ (as the last Adam) has, by his active and passive obedience, secured everlasting salvation for us and has constituted his people as a new humanity. This is the gospel, that by the person and work of Christ (both by his sinless life and by his vicarious death), we are reconciled to God. Evangelism is the heralding forth of this gospel and of the imperatives that arise out of it, namely, the command to repent and believe. This evangelism is primarily carried on in the preaching of the gospel.
Now this is not to say that the Spirit does not bless the Word other than in preaching. Certainly he blesses Bible reading and Bible study, when done faithfully and with proper understanding. He blesses such study when it is done personally, in family devotionals, in home Bible studies, in workplace Bible studies, and in many other settings. Never does the Spirit bless the use of the Word more than when it is undergirded with prayer. So it is crucial that all of our Bible study, teaching, and preaching be accompanied by prayerprayer that recognizes that apart from the Spirit's empowerment, the Word will have no effect whatsoever.
Thus, it is only and ever the Spirit who makes the Word "effectual ... [in] drawing [sinners] unto Christ." And though the Spirit is pleased to use the reading of the Word effectual in saving sinners, he is especially pleased to make the preaching of the Word effectual for salvation.
Preaching is key to evangelism because the gospel must be received in faith by the needy sinner if he or she is to be saved. Romans 10:17 makes it clear that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. This refers not simply to the Word of God read, but, as Romans 10:14 puts it, "How shall they hear without a preacher?" Preaching is necessary for people to hear the gospel because the gospel is proclaimed especially in preaching with saving power. Preaching is the living voice of God in his church, setting forth him who is the way and the truth and the life, the truth to be received "as the Word of God" (Larger Catechism, Q. 160).
We need the preaching of the Word because the Bible was given to the community of God's people, to be received in community by God's people, and to be understood in community by God's people. The Bible was not given to individuals, to be received as individuals and interpreted by individuals (each in his own way). That we are a confessional church stands over against that. We confess the main teachings of Scripture as one body with one voice.
Furthermore, God has called and gifted certain men to be preachers and teachers of that Word. The community of God's people has recognized that and submits itself to them, over against an "every man for himself" approach. The Scriptures, in other words, require exposition. God, in his mercy and grace, gives preachers to the church to exposit and apply the Word to needy hearers.
Never is the Word so clear to our hearts, and never is the Word a greater blessing for our souls, than when we hear it faithfully preached. Why? Because when the Word is preached, it is "opened up" in all of its glorious features. The centrality of Christ and his redemptive work are held forth. The whole counsel of God is applied, and covenant faithfulness is enjoined as our proper response to God's Word.
Preaching sets forth what Christ has done for us and who we are in union with him as a result of thatand gives rise to the response of faith and repentance. When the Word is preached, Christ is lifted up from the volume of the Book and is pleased by that to draw his own to himself by his Spirit. This is why gospel preaching is and always must be the heart of evangelism.
The author is the associate pastor of New Covenant Community OPC in New Lenox, Ill., and teaches at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He quotes the NKJV. Permission has been granted to him by the editors of the Mid-America Journal of Theology to excerpt portions of his article from the Journal, vol. 10 (1999), pages 185-238, for use here. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2000.