Church
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How strong and vibrant is Christianity in America at the moment? On a superficial level, it might appear that the church is growing faster and accomplishing more than ever. The nation is currently dotted coast to coast with megachurches boasting unprecedented attendance figures. Several of them now draw in excess of 20,000 people every week. Massive conferences, enormous songfests, and stadium-sized pep rallies have become fairly commonplace in the current evangelical subculture. Contemporary Christian music is the fastest-growing segment of the recording and broadcast industries. Christian publishing is big business. A few evangelical novels have even made it to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

Given only those facts, you might think conservative Christians now have greater clout and more visibility than ever. But the opposite is true. Christians have all but lost whatever influence they once had for shaping the policies and values of the culture around us. Indeed, the world has far more influence on the church than vice versa.

Today’s evangelical churches constitute what is arguably the most conservative segment of Protestant Christianity. The word evangelical is supposed to signify an unbending commitment to the gospel — with Scripture as the supreme authority and the substance of the church’s message to the world. But today’s “evangelical movement” enthusiastically assimilates and absorbs its valuess and opinions from popular culture. The typical evangelical church service is little more than a stage show punctuated by an insipid message styled to feel like a TED Talk. All of this has rendered evangelicals’ collective testimony to the world almost totally ineffectual.

Many church leaders insist what’s needed is even more of the same. They say if we want to reach unchurched people we must talk only about what interests them; tone down the parts of Scripture that are politically incorrect; adapt our message as much as possible to trendy tastes and topics. One popular book for pastors even suggests that in the current political climate, the worst possible way to start a sermon is by telling people to open their Bibles.

The result is that most churches today are (at best) spiritually lukewarm, like the Laodicean assembly at the end of the first century. Jesus said to that church: “You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).

It is sheer folly to think spiritual health can be measured by attendance figures, book sales, public acclaim, or other tokens of popularity. Church growth in the apostolic era was measured quite differently: “The word of God kept on spreading” (Acts 6:7). “The word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied” (12:24). “The word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing” (19:20). They evaluated the effectiveness of their ministry by the influence of God’s word and the breadth of its reach—not by trying to elevate their approval ratings among unbelievers.

Ashamed of God’s word?

And yet some Christians today act as if they are embarrassed by the Bible. The lead pastor in one of the largest churches in America recently suggested that Christians should stop saying, “The Bible says…” After all, he said, it’s an ancient text and most people today don’t take it seriously. So pointing people to the Bible only makes our message sound less persuasive and hopelessly irrelevant.

That is diabolical nonsense. The Bible itself is eternally applicable, and it is infinitely more germane to the issues of life and godliness than topical humor, personal anecdotes, pop-culture references, literary analyses, viral videos, stage props, or any of the other gimmicks people nowadays tend to think of as necessary tools of spiritual “relevance.”

More to the point, the idea that churches are giving their people too much Scripture is the very height of absurdity. Christians today are biblically malnourished — severely so. A dearth of biblical preaching is the number one reason the evangelical movement is so spiritually anemic.

The Bible foretold times like these. The Old Testament includes this prophecy: “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land — not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11).

The apostle Paul likewise foresaw an era that would be marked by a severe shortage of God’s word. He predicted that a time was coming people in the church “will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).

Paul might well have been speaking of our generation. Preaching is on the decline in a major way. Numerous churches — including several of the largest, most heavily marketed evangelical congregations — have relegated the pulpit ministry to second-class status. The highlight of their worship service is the music, followed by skits, multimedia extravaganzas, and a variety of other entertainments. The preaching of God’s word has never been more out of season or out of style.

What is the answer?

Preach the word

Notice: the strategy Paul commends to his young protégé Timothy has nothing to do with seeking more inventive or entertaining means of trying to reach a new generation. In fact, Paul’s answer was a straightforward and unequivocal reaffirmation of the primacy and centrality of the Bible.

Scripture is, after all, the word of God. It is therefore to be proclaimed fearlessly and faithfully — regardless of how the winds of fashion seem to be blowing at any given time: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (v. 2).

“Preach the word.” It is significant that those familiar words come in the verse immediately preceding Paul’s prophetic warning about seasons of apathy and indifference. That means before he even mentioned that a time of wandering and famine was on the horizon, Paul had plainly told Timothy what to do about it. Scripture is the only source of the spiritual nourishment people are starving for.

But Does it Work?

Paul elsewhere acknowledged that from a worldly perspective, preaching seems a foolish strategy for reaching a world that is hostile to God’s truth. Preaching the Bible to people who have no taste for God’s word is practically the polar opposite of “seeker sensitivity” — and that was no less true in Paul’s era than it is in ours: “For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23).

But Paul says God’s strategy for reaching this world is wiser than men in all their so-called wisdom: “God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (v. 21).

Indeed, this is the only strategy that actually does work — and it always works. God himself says, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11).

Those are especially important words for our generation, because we live in a time of almost unprecedented apathy and indifference. And there is no shortage of strategists and innovators in the evangelical community who think they have better ways for reaching the culture than by preaching God’s word.

The answer to apathy is better preaching, not shorter, lighter, or fewer sermons, and certainly not entertainment instead of instruction and exhortation from Scripture. “The gospel … is the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16). Human cleverness and slick PR tactics are no substitute for that, no matter how such things may garner accolades from the secular culture or from church people eager to have their itching ears scratched.

Moreover, the word of God itself is more exciting, relevant, timely, and applicable to every heart and life than any substitute message of self-esteem, self-help, or human motivation could ever be.

Advice for These Difficult Times

Speaking of “relevance,” Paul’s correspondence with Timothy includes a series of warnings that are disturbingly apropos for the church today. In 1 Timothy 4:1, the apostle writes, “The Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith.” Then in 2 Timothy 3:1, he adds, “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.” Then the closing chapter of the last epistle Paul ever wrote includes the passage where he warns one more time about people who “will not endure sound teaching [but] wander off into myths” (4:3-4).

Notice progression. First Paul said a time was coming when people would depart from the faith. Then he warned Timothy that dangerous times were coming for the church. Here he suggests that a time would come when even people in the church would not endure sound doctrine, but desire instead to have their ears tickled.

In such times, clear biblical preaching is only more vital. When intolerance of the truth is heightened, the need for preachers to open the Bible and declare its truths boldly is greater than ever. When instead churches tone down their message to accommodate the spirit of the age, they only play into the enemy’s scheme.

Ear-tickling preaching is the very opposite of what Paul wanted from Timothy. When popular opinion demandspreachers who are palatable to the tastes of the audience, faithful church leaders must not capitulate to the demand.

What the apostle Paul warned Timothy about has clearly come to pass in our generation. There is no shortage of teachers today. But the overwhelming mass of them purposely cater to the tastes of their audience — precisely what Paul warned against.

Feeding an appetite for glib and unbiblical teaching leads inevitably to spiritual catastrophe. People who crave ear-tickling messages always turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. Their own deliberate refusal to hear the truth predictably leads them into error.

Not Just for Pastors

Paul’s dying charge to Timothy clearly sets the main agenda for the church for all times. Just two chapters before telling Timothy, “preach the word,” the apostle had instructed his protégé to be sure to hand down everything he learned from Paul to future generations of church leaders: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:22).

So the duty of every church leader today is clear. Our calling is not to lead self-help seminars or be motivational speakers. Our most important responsibility is to proclaim the word of God.

Of course, that is every Christian’s duty as well — not just pastors and church leaders. Christ’s Great Commission is a mandate for making disciples, and Scripture is the necessary tool for fulfilling that task. So every Christian, in whatever sphere of influence God has placed us, has a mandate from Christ himself to proclaim God’s Word to a world starving to hear its truth.