In Jim Shaddix’s convicting and helpful book, The Passion-Driven Sermon: Changing the Way Pastors Preach and Congregations Listen, he tells the following story:
I learned an important lesson about people’s perception of preaching shortly after assuming my second pastorate, a small congregation in the deep south. I began immediately preaching systematically through a book of the Bible. All of the messages during the first several weeks were more fellowship-oriented, addressing Christians as the receptive texts demanded. I assumed the people were receiving the sermons eagerly as their shepherd fed them the Word. Boy, was I naive! About two months into the series, I finally came to a text that was more evangelistic in nature. So I proceeded on Sunday morning to wax eloquent with a hot sermon on hell, making primary application to those persons without Christ. The next day one of the prominent men in the church stopped in front of my house as I was mowing the lawn. He rolled down the window of his truck and yelled, “Great message yesterday, Pastor. You finally started preaching!” And I thought I had been preaching all along.
The fact of the matter is that many congregations today believe that every sermon ought to be directed at the lost, informing them of their sinful condition and their eternal destiny of torment (23).
I think many Christians believe the primary form of evangelism is to invite lost friends to church so that they can hear an evangelistic sermon. When this theory is implemented in a church, the extent of the evangelism of church members is to invite and the extent of the evangelism of the pastor is to preach evangelistic sermons week in and week out. Under this system, the pastor is the primary evangelist and the rest of the church serves as gatherers, not messengers.
However, is this the way preaching and evangelism are meant to primarily function? Is it wrong to invite someone to church? Is there no place for evangelistic sermons? Obviously the answer to both questions is “No.” Still, to whom should the pastor primarily be directing his weekly sermons?
I believe that as long as we keep the proper perspective, we can rightly say that the pastor should primarily direct his sermons to believers rather than unbelievers, while not neglecting the probability of the presence of unbelievers in the hearing of the sermon.
A quick glance at 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 may give the impression that Paul only preached evangelistic sermons. He wrote to the Corinthians, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (v. 2). However, Paul is writing this letter to the church for their edification. The role of every pastor is to be an undershepherd of the flock of God. This flock must be fed and so the pastor’s primary purpose on Sunday mornings is to glorify God through the preaching of his word to the people he has chosen and redeemed in Christ.
Like Paul, we are to preach the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). The direction of a sermon should be dictated by the text. If pastors narrow themselves to solely preaching evangelistic sermons only one implication of the atonement will be on display. This will show that the gospel is only vital for unbelievers. This will also place the burden of evangelism solely on the pastor’s shoulders. What pastors should strive for is to expose the word of God to the people of God to equip them to live a gospel-centered life with the gospel on display in their words and actions.
This does not mean there is no place for evangelistic sermons. Primarily directing sermons to believers does not imply that unbelievers should not be invited, should not attend, or cannot respond to the gospel. The way God has rigged the whole process of pulpit ministry is that when the preacher proclaims what God has said and nothing more, believers grow in Christlikeness and unbelievers can receive saving grace by responding to the gospel. When a pastor sets out to preach the word of God as God has intended, he will be preaching the gospel. In the words of Charles Spurgeon, “No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then, go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching.”
In fact, direct messages on the atonement and God’s power to save sinners through faith in Christ will undoubtedly be preached if expository preaching is employed. But the role of the pastor must be to feed the flock that God has entrusted to him. The gospel is for both unbelievers and believers. To set aside certain days where you preach the gospel and neglect preaching the gospel from all of Scripture every single week is to miss the point of preaching. However, at the same time, it is not best for a pastor to solely prepare evangelistic sermons directed at unbelievers. The role of the pastor is to shepherd his flock with all of the word of God and he is to proclaim the whole counsel of God for the guidance and growth of his flock.
Shaddix calls this “reflecting on the cross.” He writes, “The shepherd of the local congregation has the responsibility of reflecting weekly on the cross of Christ in order to show its implications and applications for the body of Christ and the individuals who com rise it” (24). He admits this is the primary function of the New Testament itself.
So, pastor, preach the word primarily for your flock! Preach the word in all of its depth and reflect on the cross for the guidance and growth of your flock.
Church member, rejoice when your pastor preaches the word for your edification and spiritual nourishment. I know nothing brings me more joy than when my pastor reflects on the cross and draws out its implications from Scripture. Call him to preach the cross each week as together you worship the Christ who died to draw you to himself and together as a body.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.