According to a new study by Gallup, the hottest thing at church today is not the worship and not the pastor. It’s not the smoke and lights and it’s not the hip and relevant youth programs. It’s not even the organic, fair trade coffee at the cafe. The hottest thing at church today is the preaching. Not only is it the preaching, but a very specific form of it—preaching based on the Bible. And just like that, decades of church growth bunkum is thrown under the bus. As Christianity Today says, “Despite a new wave of contemporary church buzzwords like relational, relevant, and intentional, people who show up on Sundays are looking for the same thing that has long anchored most services: preaching centered on the Bible.” Praise God.
Praise God, but please don’t jump on the bandwagon. The last thing we need is a bunch of preachers responding to this poll by suddenly ditching their series on “7 Keys to Successful Relationships” or “5 Secrets to a Happy Home” to dabble in biblical exposition. What we need is for preachers to search the Scripture, then to commit to biblical exposition.
Pragmatism Dies Hard
For decades, the Western church has been dominated by the church growth movement, a movement that drew heavily from the business principles of pragmatism. Pragmatism insists that the end justifies the means. It demands that we establish goals, determine the best means to achieve those goals, then assume that success proves that both the goal and the means are good. As one of the fathers of church growth said, “Never criticize what God is blessing.” According to pragmatism, there is no distinction between what works and what is experiencing God’s hand of blessing. One proves the other.
The church growth movement established the goal of having as many people as possible profess faith in Jesus Christ. To do this, it would need to make church attractive to unbelievers. This demanded changing the services to make them seeker-friendly, changing the music to make it more contemporary, and even changing the gospel to make it less offensive. Of course, it also demanded changing the preaching to make it more palatable and that meant preaching themes and principles rather than preaching the Bible itself. Pragmatism is so ingrained in the very fabric of the church today that it is extremely difficult to root out. Churches that have been immersed in it have to battle tooth and nail against its seductions. They need to retrain themselves to look not to what appears to work, but to what the Bible demands.
My concern with the results of this poll is that it will convince many pastors to change course for pragmatic reasons. They will see that the people want biblical exposition and, therefore, they will provide it. But they will do so not on the basis of biblical convictions, but on the basis of pragmatism. Ironically, to switch to expositional preaching on the basis of a poll is the very essence of pragmatism. It is to determine what the people want, then to assume the right thing is to give it to them.
What God’s People Want and Need
It should come as no surprise that God’s people want God’s Word. A baby wants nothing more than his mother’s milk because he needs nothing more than his mother’s milk. A Christian wants nothing more than God’s Word because there is nothing he needs more than God’s Word. The Christian may not know it or be able to verbalize it any more than the baby can, but within every true believer will be a deep hunger to be fed by spiritual food—food that is found only in the Word of God. Those churches that committed to preaching endless series of sermonettes for Christianettes were starving their people. They were starving sheep in order to entertain goats.
Now Gallup assures us that we’ve gotten it wrong, that what Christians want is the straightforward preaching of the Bible. I’m glad to read these results. I’m glad that God’s people are choosing God’s Word. But I don’t want pastors and their churches to jump on the biblical exposition bandwagon. Instead, I want them to search the Scriptures, to see what God says about the relationship of his people to his Word, to understand the purpose of the weekly gatherings of the local church, and then to commit from this day forward to preach God’s Word to God’s people.
Here’s the thing: Eventually Gallup or Barna or someone else will come up with a new poll that will display new results and mere bandwagoners will veer to this new course. Their deep-rooted pragmatism will drive them to the next big thing. But people who are convinced from the Bible that there is nothing better than to preach the Bible will stay the course. Even when Bible-based preaching is the very last thing people want, these pastors will know it is the very first thing they need.