I once spoke to a group about God’s desire for us to win souls. A man in the front row blurted out, “Yeah, but what if half your congregation isn’t saved?” It’s a question we might prefer not to ask ourselves, but we need to face facts. If people in our churches attend only once or twice monthly, want the shortest meetings possible, have no appetite for prayer, and aren’t interested in spiritual things, something is wrong. If they know more about how to use their phones than their New Testament but then say they want to go to heaven for eternity, we have to stop and ask ourselves, “What has my preaching and ministry produced? Are these folks genuinely Christian?” They never will be unless we present to them the message of Jesus, who said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). Expecting spiritual growth from people who have not experienced the new birth is a waste of time. Preaching to them about principles and morality found in the Bible only makes them hard-hearted and even more self-righteous.
The purpose of the gospel is to convert people to Christ, not to get them to say, “I’m going to try to live a better life,” or to get them to come back the following Sunday. And certainly the goal should not be to have them merely recite some words. I once visited a church where the pastor preached an insipid sermon without much Jesus in it and, at the end of the service, said, “Before we dismiss, let’s everybody pray this prayer together: ‘Dear God, thank you for loving me. I receive Jesus as my Savior. Amen.’ ” And then he exclaimed, “You are now all Christians.” No mention of the sin that nailed Jesus to the cross, no mention of what repentance means. Shallow ministry won’t make saints out of sinners.
If our people haven’t been born again, we have to preach to them, pray for them, agonize over them. We must love them and some way, somehow bring them to Christ. Sometimes an overlooked mission field is sitting right in front of us on Sunday morning.
But how can we pastors complain about our congregations’ spiritual condition if we’re their spiritual leaders? If the Brooklyn Tabernacle were filled with people who came to church every week but weren’t believers in Jesus, that would be my responsibility, in some sense. I’m the shepherd. What kind of messages am I preaching? What kind of spiritual food am I providing? Is the Holy Spirit helping me? My wife and I made a vow to each other a long time ago. Thousands of people come to the Brooklyn Tabernacle every Sunday, and we’re grateful for that. But we’ll go back to our first building with one hundred people in the pews if we have to, as long as they’re true believers. What value is there in having a building filled with people singing and swaying to the music, while knowing they don’t really know Christ as Savior? I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Paul could sleep at night. Why? Because he gave the full, unadulterated gospel to everyone and saw them become new creations through the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
A major question facing Christian leaders today is, Who is sitting in front of me week after week? We must be aware that even those who often attend the services might not know Christ. Imagine all the people who may have been going to the temple in Jesus’s day with no idea about who God really was. That would include religious leaders who preached about the Messiah yet had the Messiah five feet away and didn’t recognize him. There could likewise be churchgoers today who call themselves Christians but don’t know the Lord.
I’m reminded of the parable of the lost coin: “Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin’ ” (Luke 15:8–9).
Notice that the woman’s coin was lost in the house. This is a reminder that we must keep watch over our flocks and not take for granted that they are all Christians.
In the end, we have a choice. We can either lead people to Christ and see them grow spiritually or we can dilute the message so that people are comfortable living in their sin. When we come before the Lord to give an account of our ministries, we do not want to hear Jesus say, “I gave my life so that sins could be forgiven. And you didn’t share the meaning of my cross and resurrection? How could your only goal be to get them back the next Sunday!”
Preaching to the Saved?
This concern raises another important question. What does our preaching mean for the members of the church—hopefully the majority—who are saved? How do we preach a message that will feed the believers but still reach the unbelievers? If we go all one way, or all the other, we risk leaving someone out. We always need to be mindful of the people attending who still need to meet Jesus. We must give the gospel to the guy in the balcony who’s strung out on cocaine. Or the woman bound by oxycodone. Or the businessman who tries to live a moral life but doesn’t know the Savior. They all need to hear the good news of salvation through Jesus.
But where does that leave the rest of the congregation? They already know the gospel message. They already are saved. They need to learn more about love. They need to know the possibilities of faith. They need instruction about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. They need to know about the second coming of the Lord and other blessings of the new covenant. But the unbelievers in the audience will not fully appreciate any of that. “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:14). So how do we preach in a way that meets everyone’s needs? It’s not easy, but the Spirit will help us. Let me share something I’ve learned.
Let’s say I’m preaching from 1 Corinthians 13 about the supremacy of agape love. I try to establish that it’s more important than faith, understanding spiritual mysteries, even doctrinal knowledge. But I know the characteristics of love that follow in the text are too numerous for the heart and mind to take in at once.
Many of our sermons have too many outline points. When we present our people with loads of points and information, we risk having none of what we say truly pierce the heart. When a preacher says, “Point nine . . . ,” it probably won’t be very effective. It might be doctrinally sound and true, but who can appreciate and digest so much food at one sitting? As Samuel Chadwick said, “The further you get from simplicity, the further you get from God.”5
Warren Wiersbe once suggested that when we prepare a sermon, the truth we want to communicate should be narrowed down to a sentence or two. That way we can leave people with the main thought of the message. Also, before we go off on a tangent regarding some obscure topic, we need to ask ourselves, “Does anyone really care?” A preacher might have a fascination with the origin of the Philistines or where Cain got his wife. But I think we can agree that those have little connection with our audience, who daily face spiritual battles and problems of all kinds.
In addition to keeping our message simple, every sermon should also include a call to action. In other words, what response does this truth from God call for? Repent and receive Christ? Believe God for more grace in your life? Be encouraged? Come to the throne of grace in prayer? Give thanks in everything? Sometimes the preacher eloquently provides a lot of information and walks off to applause. But if we don’t call people to act on God’s truth right then and there, they will likely forget the sermon before they get home.
Because of the need for clarity, when I’m preaching, say from 1 Corinthians 13, I focus on something simple. I might focus on “love is patient, love is kind.” Being patient and kind to those around us is often a challenge, but that’s the very testing ground of God’s love in us through the Holy Spirit. I try to point out that agape love is the only measuring stick as to our spiritual maturity, and not verses memorized or theological propositions understood. D. L. Moody once said somewhere that the hardest thing for God to do is make someone kind. Once I’ve explained the passage, the hardest part is still ahead. How do I make a personal application of these truths to the people in front of me in a tender but challenging way?
“You know, folks, it’s not how we act in church only. Can our family member say we exhibit God’s kindness at home every day? Do the people who work with us see God’s patience in our lives?”
We need wisdom from the Holy Spirit to apply the sermon because that’s where the rubber meets the road. Conviction, repentance, and prayer for mercy are liberating for those of us in the light of God’s truth. But how about the unbelievers who are listening to all this? We must never forget them, and one of the challenges in preaching is to take the application for believers and turn that into an illustration of the love of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Here’s how I once ended a message on patience and kindness:
Well, I’ve been talking about love, patience, and kindness in the Christian life, but I want to finish by telling you about someone who is ultimate love. God so loved this world that he sent his Son Jesus Christ to die for your sins and mine, even before we were born. That is the ultimate expression of patience and kindness. That’s how much God loves you. Even if you don’t want him, he wants you. Even if you don’t believe in him, he loves you. He brought you here today. He wants to show his love to you. He has a gift for you, the gift of eternal life. Confess your sin and put your trust in Christ to receive his full pardon.
Application for the believer; a call to respond to the gospel for the unbeliever.
What if we modeled our churches after what Jesus intended His church to look like? What if our hope for our ministries rested not on human wisdom but on God’s power? In his newest book, Fan the Flame, Jim Cymbala urges Christian leaders to remember the deep roots of their ministry calling—and the One who called them.
Over the past few years, we’ve all seen how quickly circumstances can change, and many of us have experienced firsthand how church growth trends and popular models fail us. Churches across the country are struggling, and many pastors are deeply discouraged. We work hard and with great sincerity, but our efforts don’t seem to be helping our churches flourish.
Jim Cymbala—New York Times best-selling author and long-time pastor of The Brooklyn Tabernacle—has been watching the pressing need for back-to-the-basics spiritual leadership among Christians, and he’s seen so many churches come to defeat because so many leaders forget this one truth: Your church is not your church. It’s Christ’s church. In order for his church to flourish, we have to minister his way.
In these pages you’ll:
- Identifies the many pitfalls that church leaders can fall into.
- Reasserts the need for total confidence in the Gospel.
- Preaches complete dependence on the Holy Spirit, while showing you how to see the new things that the Spirit can do through your work.
- Offers practical guidance on inevitable leadership challenges, such as money, division, and priorities.