What to Look for in a Church: Bible-Preaching (Pt. 3)

Let me ask you a question: how important and influential do you think the sermons preached at a local church are? Are they fairly insignificant to the whole life of the church? Are they really significant in shaping a local church? Go ahead and answer that question before you keep reading.

I am a firm, firm believer that what happens in the pulpit on Sunday morning drives and shapes the rest of the church. The pulpit drives the church. If you preacher doesn’t use a pulpit, than fill in whatever he may use. The “pulpit” does this in more than one way. It does it by the content that is preached weekly, and also how content is preached. What I mean by the second statement is that if a pastor doesn’t show the church how he came to the conclusions he came to, he won’t model each week to the church how to love and study Scripture.

What happens when a pastor stands up to preach is incredibly influential in the rest of the church. It shapes small groups, discipleship groups, mission trips, evangelism, and the list goes on. I am so confident in the above statements that I think if you found a church with some serious issue(s), simply listen to the sermons preached there and I bet they will be weak in Bible-content and weak in showing the church how to read and respond to the Bible. The preacher may be an amazing communicator, but he will be weak where it counts.

I believe that if sermons are weak in Bible-content and weak in showing the church how the pastor came to his conclusions, the rest of the church, inevitably, will not love to study, read, and respond to the Bible in their personal lives. Thus, their relationships with Jesus will be stunted and remain immature. They won’t see a need and/or won’t know how to really read and understand and respond to God in the Word, the main way he interacts with us daily.

So, sermons should be rich in Bible. The responsibility of a preacher is to preach God’s Word, the Bible. That means he is to get up on stage on Sunday, or wherever, and explain what the Scriptures are saying. You shouldn’t feel like he is giving you his opinions, backed up by peppering Scripture throughout his sermon. You should feel like he started with the Bible, explained the Bible, and preached the Bible to you.

And look for a preacher showing you how he is getting to his conclusions. Don’t be content with someone who preaches biblical-truth, but never actually opens the Bible. That seems risky. They should read the texts, spend time showing you the texts, spend time showing you how they came to the conclusions they came to about the text. All of that is for the sake of showing you God’s Word, letting God speak to you. If by the time you find the main Scripture of the Sunday in your Bible, the preacher is done talking about it, he probably isn’t really preaching it.

Preaching matters, so go ahead and let it be a huge criterion for you. I have heard preachers blast, and I mean blast people for requesting sermons be more rich in biblical content. They are told they are just big-headed Christians, only focused on themselves, not the lost. They are told they just want to debate and stir up controversy. While there are such people out there, I think thousands and thousands of Christians sitting under weak preaching are dying of starvation, requesting to be fed with the milk of the Word, and are being rebuked for it. That is heartbreaking and infuriating to me. Don’t listen to them if you are genuinely after good, biblical preaching.

Practically speaking, look for churches that preach through books of the Bible. Series that focus on topics are not inherently bad (my church is doing one now!), but if all a church ever does is make up topics to preach on, they are, in my opinion, taking big risks. Again, if that is primarily all they ever do, here is why I think it is a massive risk:

First of all, it seems the church is trusting that the preacher picking the topics knows what is most needed, so he sits in his office and thinks about topic after topic, year after year, rather than trusting the Word of God and the Spirit of God to feed the people of God as the God of all gods sees fit.

Secondly, life doesn’t operate topically. I seldom hear of people, for their personal times in the Bible and prayer, choosing topics to work through for weeks (though that is good to do!). Normally, people pick a book of the Bible to read. That is, after all, how the Bible was meant to be read. As a book, that you start in the beginning and read to the end. Just like you would read any other story. So, I think preaching should model that. Pick a book and read (preach) it from beginning to end.

Thirdly, I think topical preaching, when done primarily and regularly, stunts the church growth. It seems you simply can’t cover the wide-range of stuff the Bible does (all centered on Christ) when you pick topics. You are too focused over a period of weeks. You may cover one topic in 8 weeks, whereas preaching through Galatians in 8 weeks will cover much more stuff, if you will.

All in all, use simple wisdom when examining a preacher. No preacher is perfect, so don’t hold him to that standard. Be charitable and gracious. Hold him to the standard of standing up on Sunday, directing your attention to a biblical text, explaining it, preaching it, and leading you to Jesus and his grace, week after week. Be gracious when his jokes sometimes flop, his stories are sometimes lame, and his illustrations don’t seem to make sense.

 

What to Look for in a Church: The Bible (Pt. 2)

Have you ever been to a church where you felt it was unnecessary to bring your Bible? Or where sermons contained a peppering of the Bible, but didn’t seem to be primarily focused on what Scripture was saying? Ever wondered what the role of the Bible in the church is?

The Bible is God’s perfect Word to us, containing no errors in the original manuscripts, written by men who were inspired by God. Even though we normally say the Bible is the inspired Word of God (and it is), it would probably be better to say with 2 Tim. 3:16 that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God…” God breathed out His Word, inspiring men to write it down (that is a mystery how all that happened).

As the perfect Word of God, the Bible is the Church’s, and subsequently the local church’s, supreme authority for all faith and practice. That means the Bible is God’s perfect authoritative word to tell us what we should believe. John, commenting on his book (The Gospel of John) says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:30-31).

And the Bible is God’s perfect authoritative word to tell us how we should live. 2 Tim. 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Nothing is left out. We have everything we need to know about what pleases God in life (practice).

The Bible is the full revelation of God. We have exactly what we need to know to rightly have faith and rightly live. That is some good news. We don’t have to guess, or find a sign in the sky. We can simply read.

Therefore, the Bible should have the seat of supreme authority in the life of a local church. That may sound rigid, so I will add: it should have the supreme seat of mesmerizing the church authoritatively. The Bible is constantly preaching the gospel, the most astounding true story there is. It is hard to express just how much we ought to love, cherish, revere, submit to, respect, listen to, study, and meditate on the Scriptures. And here are a few reasons why.

First, the Bible is God directly speaking to us. Want to hear God? Read the Bible. You don’t need some mountain top experience. Just go read in faith.

Wait, don’t keep reading. Did you catch what was just said? God speaking directly to you.

Peter actually had a mountaintop experience, yet listen to how Peter compares his experience with the Bible in 2 Pt. 1:16-20. Peter was on the mountaintop with Jesus in Matthew 17:1-8. He saw Jesus’ face shining like the sun (like. the. sun.) and he heard the voice of the Father, yet listen to what he says:

“we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt. 1:18-20).

What?

Peter said the Bible is “more fully confirmed”; the NIV says the Bible is something “completely reliable”. He doesn’t say, “Chase an experience like mine! It will make you feel sure about the faith, it will drive away doubts, it will guide your whole life!” Nope. He says, “Hey, remember how I was on the mountain with Jesus? Well, you have something better. The Bible.”

You don’t need to chase an experience like Peter’s. God has given you something “more fully confirmed”. Do you have a Bible?

Are you starting to see why the Bible should have the supreme place of authority in church sermons, small groups, and all-things discipleship? If it’s not, what is? Our experiences? What we “feel” God is speaking to us? That is silly.

Without the Bible, how can we know what we are to believe and how we are to live? God has chosen to communicate all of that, sufficiently, in the Bible. If He has chosen to do that, and then we neglect the Bible, we are shooting ourselves in the soul. We become the authority. If we choose to ultimately rely on what we “feel” the Holy Spirit is telling us, we are simply rejecting the way God has chosen to communicate with us.

At this point, you may say, “But I’m no theologian, and I am into a relationship with Jesus, not doctrine. I just want to listen to the Spirit and walk with God, not get lost in theological debates.”

While I will give you the benefit of the doubt and say that you may have some good intentions with that, you are (I love you) wrong. First of all, you are a theologian; you believe in doctrines. The minute you say anything about God, you are explaining your theology and doctrine.

The question is, where does your theology come from? Your experiences? Your head? What the “Spirit” told you? Or does it come from where God tells us it should come from: the Bible.

Secondly, theology is not an enemy of a raw, intimate relationship with Jesus. Quite the opposite! Those who know the Scriptures more and more will have a more personal relationship with Jesus. In the same way that the more a husband gets to know his wife, the more intimate they will be.

Further, how can you be in a relationship with someone if you don’t know them? Would you be alright with your spouse being by and large wrong about who you are? That is not loving; that is not a vibrant relationship with Jesus. That is dysfunctional at best. Studying the Bible is you saying you have met God, and seen that he is infinitely big and boss-awesome, and you want to know more and more.

Lastly, if you are one who relies more on “feeling out” what the Spirit is saying, rather than reading what He has already said in the Bible, I am concerned and nervous (at least) for you. Firstly, you are way more flimsy, weak, and messed up than you could ever dream. If you only knew how sinful you were, you wouldn’t trust yourself like that.

Secondly, you cannot back up that lifestyle with the Bible. While the Bible records God directly speaking to people, and such, it never tells you to expect that in your life, or wait on it, or think you need it. If you believe you need extra-biblical experiences, you are saying the Bible is not enough for faith and/or practice.

If you are not at a church who views the Bible this way, or puts this kind of emphasis on the Bible, then they are doing it wrong. You should leave respectfully and find a healthy, Bible-loving, Bible-preaching, Bible-absorbing church. It doesn’t matter how great that church may be in every other area, if they are wrong here, it will affect everything in that church.

What to Look For in a Church: The Gospel (Pt. 1)

Many Christians in America have been taught that the gospel is for non-Christians only. At one point, they were not Christians and the gospel was brought to them. Now, as Christians, they have the gospel in their heads and hearts and what they are supposed to do with it is give it to non-Christians.

Is this true? Absolutely. We should bring the gospel to non-Christians, making disciples.

Is this the whole truth? Absolutely not. If that is all we say about the gospel, that it is for non-Christians, we are wrong, and the results are devastating for us. Devastating.

The gospel is the good news that God became a man, Jesus, lived a perfectly righteous life, died in the place of and for imperfect, unrighteous sinners, and rose from the dead. His life, death and resurrection is sufficient to cleanse us of our sin and bring us into a right, adopted relationship to God. 1 Cor. 15:1-4 “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you…For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sin accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,“.

This gospel, this good news, is the foundation for our eternal life, yes. But it is also the foundation and fuel for our daily lives. Let me illustrate this with a simple question: If you are a Christian, how often do you doubt God’s love for you? How often do you wake up, and for reasons unknown to you, struggle to believe God is for you, not against you?

Follow me here. If you answered never, I think you are lying or God is unbelievably merciful to you everyday. If you answered sometimes, you are like many Christians. If you answered, “Every day I sense the struggle to believe the good news that God loves me unconditionally in Christ,” then you are like me and, I think, most Christians.

Now, if it is true that the gospel is the bedrock, the foundation of our relationship with God and eternal life, could there be anything more important to fight for every day than our faith in the gospel? That seems logical.

But let me take it a step further. The gospel is your fuel for Christian living. When you became a Christian, God did not initially show you grace, and then say, “Ok, now that you are saved and in the Kingdom, it is time to keep yourself in the kingdom by your good works.” Our security in God’s love is not dependent on our works any more than our initial salvation, or justification.

If you don’t believe this, your life as a Christian is, quite frankly, going to be miserable. Daily you are going to fail and thus daily believe God is angry with you. Daily you will sin and thus daily believe you need to make atonement for your sins.

Then, all your good works will be filthy, sinful acts, because they will be done out of self-righteousness, trying to be righteous apart from Jesus. All your good works will be done motivated by fear, not faith, which is sin. Check it.

Maybe that is why we are told by Paul in 1 Tim. 6:12 to “Fight the good fight of the faith…”

You see the gospel is not just for non-Christians, but for Christians! Actually, the more you grow in the Christian life, the more you realize how sinful you are. And the more that happens, the more you will see how much you need the good news of God’s grace in Christ, every single day.

What does this have to do with looking for a church? Really simply, here it is: if a particular church is not preaching the gospel, not just as a tagline at the end of a sermon (for all the non-Christians present), but as the main event of Sunday, as the lifeblood of small groups and discipleship groups, as the greatest story imaginable, as the fuel for daily Christian living, as the spark for all our worship, then they are doing it wrong.

Look for a church that is amazed at the gospel, that believes it is the power of God for salvation and daily sanctification (growth). Look for a church that knows the difference between moral commands and good news, that doesn’t act like you can save and cleanse yourself. 

Look for the gospel and do not compromise until you find it.