I’ve noticed a recurring topic in my conversations with other pastors. For some reason - and maybe it’s my gray hair or the fact that I’ve been serving at my current position for over thirty years - other pastors, especially younger pastors, want to know how things have changed since I began my ministry in the early eighties. Where do I begin? Obviously, there have been a few changes over the last forty-five years.
For one thing, there’s the whole internet thing. When I started, calendars were on paper and we stayed in touch with our church members by calling them on the phone...that was attached to the wall. Now, every book I used in seminary is an e-book that can be cross-referenced with just a few keystrokes. Sermons have gone from struggling to find the right word to finding the right video, slide, and music to enhance and strengthen the “sermon event.”
When preaching, I used to worry about the sermon holding the attention of the congregation. People’s thoughts would wander off and you would wonder if they were listening at all. Now, you know they aren’t listening. Everyone has their phone in their face. For someone to listen, the sermon has to be better than EVERYTHING on the internet or people will simply turn you off with a few swipes or clicks.
Yet, the most profoundly interesting, curious, and overwhelming reality is the number of unbelievers who will be in attendance on any given Sunday. A few years ago, you would hear pastors complaining about “preaching to the choir.” According to them, every person they saw on Sunday morning was already a believer. Pastors were always asking their members to bring their unsaved friends.
Not anymore. Most of the people in attendance in any church on any given Sunday morning are, in one way or another, an unbeliever. Let me explain.
While most of those who are sitting in the congregation would say that they are followers of Christ, if you look a little harder you will begin to question that statement. Most of our church members are good moral people, but how many of them do things that you would think a follower of Christ would do? How many read their Bibles with any seriousness? How many of them thought about Jesus’ teachings or made a decision influenced by what Jesus considered important? While it’s not true of every person, it’s more true than we would like it to be. The fact is that most church members never think about Jesus until they come back to church the next Sunday. Most of us are casual observers of Jesus, not committed followers. We are part of the multitude that gathered around Jesus, but we’re not going to follow Him when it starts to cost us something.
Second, a lot of our people have been hurt by an unfulfilled expectation of God or the church. Perhaps they were wounded in one of the sex scandals that has rocked the church in North America. Perhaps they were betrayed by a well-known church celebrity. Maybe life got hard and no one from the church reached out. Maybe they prayed – really prayed - but they didn’t feel like God answered. For whatever reason, they no longer take God or church that seriously. Like a cup of hot chocolate, church warms them inside, but doesn’t change much else. They still attend, but they no longer expect anything from their faith.
Others have had their faith shaken by scientism. Notice what I said - scientism, not science. There’s a difference. Science is the study of how our world works. Scientism is the worldview that says science can answer all of life’s questions and ultimately show us the best way to live. While the preacher is delivering the sermon, the congregant is comparing what the preacher says to a YouTube lecture by the latest celebrity scientist who has told them there is no God and anyone who believes in God is trapped in the prehistoric concept of the world that keeps them trapped in ignorance and bigotry. This person may not have told anyone, but they have made the quiet decision to live as a practical atheist. Faith in Jesus, like Santa Claus, is something they have outgrown.
The interesting part of understanding this new reality is knowing that our best preaching has been sermons delivered to unbelievers: Stephen in Jerusalem, Paul in Athens, and Peter’s sermon at Pentecost. All were preached to people who had no concept or framework to understand, much less believe, in the resurrection. Yet, those sermons changed the world. How?
First, while the early disciples weren’t the smartest men in the world, no one could deny that they had been with Jesus. When the Sanhedrin challenged Peter and John to stop preaching in the name of Jesus, the Sanhedrin themselves confessed that these men had been with Jesus. I know it’s an obvious question, but it’s one that bears asking. Has the preacher been with Jesus? Too many pastors are trying to describe moments they’ve never experienced.
Second, these great sermons preached the whole salvation history of God. Stephen recounted the full history of Israel in his sermon. Paul routinely pointed to significant moments of God dealing with His people in the past. As preachers, do we know enough about how God has dealt with His people in the past to recognize how God is dealing with us now? Can we begin with Genesis, go through the Bible, and make the case for Christ?
Lastly, can anyone else recognize the difference Christ has made in our lives? Most people don’t believe in Christ because, quite honestly, they’ve never seen a Christian. Sure, I’m exaggerating a little to make my point, but I’m not exaggerating much.
Yes, it’s very disheartening and frustrating to realize how many unbelievers will be sitting in our pews. But, on the other hand, it’s got to be challenging to know that this Sunday, we’ll have one more chance to preach a sermon that changes somebody’s world. After all, it just takes one sermon to do that. Maybe, with God’s help, it will be this Sunday.