Stop preaching only to the choir?

It’s hard to manage expectations about how much our regular church meetings are for evangelism!

Last weekend, I received this feedback from a very mature and committed member, via our comment cards.

Feeling a bit frustrated. We always seem to be preaching to the Christians in church. I want to invite family, neighbours, friends, but we seem to talk about ministry and church but not challenging people about what the gospel is – why we should be Christians.

Are the congregation feeling confident to bring guests that they will hear a clear gospel message? Our church seems to aim at Christians only. Talking about evangelism and not doing it in the services.

Sorry for my negative sounding comment. Very tricky for churches to cater for Christians and the outsider at the same time. Your sermon was good and my girls really enjoyed it today. I should probably get the log out of my eye before worrying about specks in church. Thanks for all your hard work.

I replied… it is always fine to receive feedback. I realise comment cards often have to be written on the fly, and you don’t have a chance to sit on it and edit them and so on. But even when I or the staff do not agree with every bit of feedback or critique, I keep reminding us: find the kernel of truth before blowing any chaff away!

At any rate, you guys are very encouraging.

On the issue, you are right on the trickiness. There are both theological and pragmatic issues. I write at length in what follows, not to ear-bash you, but because your note has given me a chance to articulate some stuff that has been brewing in my head for some time.

Theologically, I think church is for believers, for fellowship/edification rather than evangelism. This is what I think Phillip Jensen teaches (following Broughton Knox), and what our recent Sydney Anglican Doctrine Commission report said in its theology of assembly.

However church is to be done in such a way that

  1. The gospel of God’s grace in Jesus and his work is always central, (e.g. 1 Cor 1:30, 2:2), and,
  2. The outsider who enters can always have a chance of being convicted by the gospel as he hears and see what’s going on (1 Cor 14:22-25 of course)!

It is always the gospel that edifies, as well as evangelises people.

Pragmatically, I have no problems with individual church meetings being designated as “guest services”, or running “seeker series” where the topics are designed to interest non-Christians, and to ensure the gospel can be more easily focused on with a view to inviting friends and people’s conversion. We’ve done that, but probably not enough, I’m sure. Definitely, in fact!

However, I am also wary of the old ‘converted by = converted to’ danger. If we ‘dumb down’ most of our public meetings as ‘seeker services’ so as to accommodate the visitor, it has been observed that we’re quite likely to habituate many of them to that ‘easy’ style of service as the staple they expect and might even demand, long after God might bring their conversion about.

In addition, pragmatically, in terms of communicating the gospel of Jesus, even evangelistically, I also want to suggest that we can sometimes overweight the sermon.

For example, sometimes I have heard Christians say in person or via comment cards – generally with some disappointment or disapproval that, “The gospel was not really preached in the service today”.

Sometimes, of course, they will agree that somewhere in the sermon the preacher did mention the Lordship and Saviourhood of Christ and the need to serve him in repentance and faith. I certainly think Christ needs to be there somewhere. But perhaps it was not a major point of the sermon, or could have been weightier or clearer. I concede this.

But perhaps the sermon just did not use our evangelical buzz words. Perhaps the particular passage in front of us led the preacher to came at Christ from an oblique angle. Sometimes – perhaps quite often – there was not a crystal clear cut call to repentance and faith: “Hey any non-Christians here, I am talking to you, and you need to turn and trust in Christ who died for your sins today!

But Christ as Lord was still truly preached. And I think God’s Spirit is perfectly capable of using that to bring someone to faith, without an explicit call to conversion.

In addition, if we sometimes overweight our expectations of what the sermon should contain to qualify as useful to non-believers, I believe we often underweight what is said in others aspects of the assembly.

For example, in the sort of services you and I are used to (evangelical Anglican), we are often urged to admit our sins, and share in a prayer of confession. This is immediately followed by a gospel-shaped assurance of forgiveness through Christ for those who trust him. We often recite a Creed (Apostles or Nicene) or a Scriptural affirmation of faith (Phil 2:6-11 or Col 1:15-20), which communicate central truths about the person and work of Christ. Not every aspect of those words will be obvious and easy-to-understand to a newcomer, but some certainly will be, if they are listening. Sometimes the non-sermon Bible reading will communicate an aspect of the gospel. And certainly, every week, we have songs that focus on the gospel, (and not just our response in discipleship), often in very moving ways.

In other words, in our church meetings, there are many more ways than the sermon in which the gospel of Jesus may often be communicated. And at our best, it is done genuinely, warmly, clearly and meaningfully. We must not forget this.

Just this week, I talked to a fine young Christian man from elsewhere, who is now serving strongly. He said that when his friend invited him to church, it was the conviction with which the congregation members sung the content of their songs that struck him. God used that as the means to get him to take seriously the gospel. He couldn’t remember the sermon content at all!

There are some pragmatic issues from the side of the edification priority too. If church is primarily for believers, then part of building them up will be thorough teaching of God’s Word in breadth and depth.

Tactically, and by conviction, the way we here are committed to doing this is by systematic expository preaching. That is, one chapter after another in sequence, trying to make sure we cover a wide range of the books of the Bible over the years.

This means that as we traverse the varied terrain of the OT and NT, there will be passages – sometimes for weeks at a time – where the interest level or relevance for a non-Christian is not so immediately high or obvious. Sometimes, there are complexities which they cannot hope to be familiar with on a first or second date! After all, the NT does indicate that in church, we have to go on the meat from time to time, and not just be satisfied with serving up only milk (1 Cor 3:1-3, Heb 5:11-6:3).

And though I think visitors don’t like deliberate obscurity or masses of jargon or a failure to help them follow along, I think most realistic visitors also expect not to understand everything, and to find some things a bit beyond their experience or even comfort zone.

And if they don’t come with those expectations, then maybe we who invite them need to help them be realistic in preparing them… (“You won’t understand everything, but never mind, I didn’t understand everything the first few times I went to the [enter your most recent new sporting or artistic interest]. I’ll help you follow along if that’s OK.”)

So yes, I am preaching primarily to Christians at church. But no, I don’t want to squash for a moment Spirit-inspired compassion for the lost, nor the initiative of those like you who invite friends, even when you suspect the particular service, or even the regular style, might not be as user-friendly, or gospel-focused for the non-believer as you might like.

What do you think? And given what I’ve said, what could we still do better to ensure we’re not only preaching to the choir?

14 thoughts on “Stop preaching only to the choir?

  1. I think i the only possible answer to the comment card has to be- “good point, we’ll make sure we don’t ever assume the gospel”

    6 years ago I became a Christian- the point i always make when someone asks how/why i became a Christian is that i started going to church when i finished school and every week i heard about Jesus and about his death on the cross and resurrection. I kept thinking why do they keep going on about that stuff it’s got very little to do with the Christianity i saw at the “Christian” school i went to. It was only after about 6 months when i was convictedmy own sin and that i deserved to die that i saw the wonder of Jesus death on the cross. Without consistent gospel centred preaching i don’t know that i ever would have got the gospel.

    But the thing is it wasn’t “simplistic” gospel preaching and there weren’t invitations for unbelievers to trust in Jesus every week. Now i look back at those sermon series i see that the gospel of Christ was being preached from all of scripture (by the way it was mostly OT sermons) – which is the best thing for both believers and unbelievers. The preachers were preaching to the church members but they were doing it in a way that was very accessible for unbelievers. And importantly the gospel of grace was central, clear and un-assumed.

    That pattern has continued over the rest of my time at church, even though i have seen quite a few different preachers giving talks. I think gospel centred preaching from God’s word in a way that is accessible and reasonably understandable for believers is something that is very achievable every single week of the year. In fact it is not just achievable- it is the responsibility of the church leaders and preachers to ensure that it happens.

    And it’s so great to have the assurance that whatever week i invite an unbeliever they’ll hear the gospel of grace- but i always look forward to church for what i’ll be challenged by and learn about as well.

  2. Thanks, James, for your encouraging comments.

    Do you and others thinks I would be right that we can be in danger of assuming the gospel not only just when we fail to articulate it at all and we when allow false ideas about the gospel to go unchallenged.

    But perhaps we can also assume the gospel implicitly when we give the part of a sermon which does take us to Christ little weight and it’s almost just in passing, to ‘tick a box’ (not intentionally of course). Is that part of the problem?

    • I’m a sceptic of the 100% of the Bible is about Jesus approach to BT, so I think for some passages it might be better to not mention Jesus than put in some fleeting sidewards mention to tick that box.

      For example, Dale Ralph Davis’ discussion of the David and Goliath story is a good one, and ticking the Jesus box would worsen it. Now perhaps you could have some further discussion of other people who have worked to uphold Yahweh’s reputation which of course would include Jesus, but there are other options too.

      Considering that the gospel should come out in the rest of the church service (or if not that then in conversations after!), I think it’s okay to have a sermon that is focussed entirely on the glory and honour of God’s name rather than salvation.

      • However, Dale Ralph Davis’ discussion includes this: “The focus of the chapter is not on David’s courage but on Yahweh’s adequacy in David’s weakness.”

        If this is the focus, it would be remiss of us to ignore the fact that the whole Bible demonstrates God’s adequacy in Man’s weaknesses, and that this is ultimately shown in Christ (e.g. Romans 5:6; Ephesians 2:2-5; 2 Corinthians 12:19). If God defeats Israel’s enemy through David to his glory, how much more glorious is Christ’s defeat of the last enemy, death (1 Corinthians 15:26-28)?

        I agree that we shouldn’t shoehorn-in references to Jesus. Nevertheless, I would add that we should still be eager to show that the very same purposes God had in the Old Testament are fulfilled in the New in Christ Jesus.

      • Dannii

        I agree that it’s not a good idea to force Jesus onto a passage of scripture, mentioning him any way that you can type thing.

        But i really don’t think we need to. We just need to take the time to understand how it does reveal Christ or point us forward to him.

        Think about how Apostles preached Christ from the OT in Acts. They consistently preached from the OT explaining how it was about Christ. They always preached Jesus death and resurrection (as Paul affirms in 1 Cor 2:2) . Some people might raise the argument that they were preaching to unbelievers- so therefore it’s a different context than regular church gatherings. But think of the content of the other teaching/ communication that we have in the bible (such as the letters, Hebrews and Revelation) almost all of it is Christ centred and saturated- why on earth wouldn’t we want to follow the very clear pattern and model set forth in our bible? They show for us what Christian teaching must be like and must centre on in the glorious aftermath of Jesus death, resurrection and ascension.

        You wrote that 100% of the bible isn’t about Jesus- maybe that’s the case, i think almost all of it is, and as a whole it is definitely about Him- but some parts i would agree with you- for example Song of songs is about the intimate marriage relationship between a man and a woman. But i still think as Christians who live after Christ we would be unfaithful to not preach and understand the book in light of Christ. We need to affirm that God’s grace in Jesus is our motivation to live this way in marriage and our only hope if we haven’t had marriages like this. We also need to affirm that Song of songs is only a partial revelation of marriage and what it looks like, we have a much more complete picture in Christ and the Church. We can’t preach exclusively the partial revelation of God and his character in the OT when we have a much fuller picture of him in his Son- that the partial revelation is pointing forward to.

        That’s what i would say about your David and Goliath example. (Firstly i definitely reckon that it would be faithful to see the passage the usual BT way- in that David’s defeat of God’s people’s enemies on their behalf is pointing us forward Jesus defeat of our enemies on our behalf). But even if we did take the angle you mentioned about focusing on the glory and honour of God’s name- we only see a taste of how worthy of glory God is in Samuel- but we see the picture so much fuller Christ. How could we talk about the glory and honour of God’s name without talking about Jesus and all he was for us? We’d be doing our listeners a disservice.

    • Sandy, yes i agree with you. I think mentioning Jesus in a sermon “almost just in passing” is very different to Christ centred preaching. There’s a big difference between Christ inclusive preaching and Christ centred preaching. Especially for an unbeliever the gospel inclusive talk is essentially the gospel anaemic talk because there’s so much other stuff going on for them. That’s what i think the problem was at the Christian school i went to – I think they believed the gospel but it wasn’t really on the radar week in week out so i went away thinking that it wasn’t that important at all.

      I think also for believers we want to our preaching to be Christ. Firstly because that’s faithful to God’s word, but also when we are presented with the news/ evidence/ facts of the gospel our view of Jesus and our desire to worship him grows, so the gospel of Christ is what actually causes changed hearts and changed lives for God’s glory.

      • Hi James, if this blog had a like button, I’d press it for this last comment of yours.

        May God help me and my colleagues do Christ-centred preaching and not just Christ-inclusive preaching, let alone gospel-anaemic talk!

  3. We all believe many false things. The Bible teaches many true things. So, how is it even possible to preach only to the choir when we all have lies that can be corrected?

  4. I’ve come to think of this as “God-sensitivity” instead of “seeker sensitivity.” I want to please Him, nobody else. With that said, yes – gathered worship is for the church – BUT we should be aware that non-believers may be in our midst and we should not make it unnecessarily hard for them to hear a clear gospel message. How do we do that? Simply include it, everywhere we can – and don’t be shy about making the invitation to believe.

  5. I think it was Tim Keller who said that you get the congregation you preach to. If you don’t preach to outsiders, you won’t get any in your church.

    Mark Dever is a big believer in this. In every sermon I’ve heard him preach, he always has a little section where he says, “Now, if you are here today and are not a Christian, here is what I want to say to you…”

    Practically speaking, Sandy, your mature congregant has told you of a barrier that is preventing him bringing people to church. From your response, I’m not sure if you are planning to make any changes – could you elaborate?

    • Craig, thanks for commenting. And thanks for pushing, in the best way.

      You were right to detect that some things I was not planning to change. There was a partly defensive tone – carefully considered I might add.

      But not set in concrete and the original post was written to invite people to push me. I want to keep thinking, growing changing, in the way we do things.

      So to answer your question… Some things that could or should change with us:
      * Preachers and service leaders should generally not talk about “non-Christians” or “unbelievers” as a label, but talk about those (or you) “who are not a Christian” (or “believer” etc) , or “not yet persuaded”, “those who are here as guests or visitors” (a broader category which can include Christians from non-Anglican backgrounds), etc.

      * Preachers should have a higher frequency in the sermons of the Mark Dever sample approach you quote addressing those who are not (yet) Christians directly (but I am not committed to it having to be done explicitly every week; people can be converted without it).

      * Preachers need to learn how to weight the part of their sermon that brings us face to face with the lordship or saviourhood of Christ – this could be anything from slowing down, to change of tone, through to giving it more time within the sermon, to working harder at what the particular unique angle this particular passage gives as entry point towards Christ, to feeling the emotional force themselves all over again.

      * Service leaders need to think more about how to sensitively acknowledge presence of guests/visitors (some of whom will not be Christian), who are not familiar with some of our customs or jargon, without over-explaining every feature of the service every week. I recall Carson’s rule of thumb is explain one feature of a service. And try not to be formulaic.

      * Service leaders in our later-in-the-day congregations must be encouraged to take advantage of the genuine permission that already exists to be more flexible in the liturgical elements (confessions, creeds, prayers) or their absence. They need to be reminded that it is fine not to have all these elements every time, and sometimes to have none (and I have done this a number of times, but less experienced leaders seem less inclined to take up that option, at least in our circle here). But they also need to remember that they probably need even more preparation then.

      * Understand that a church plant could be set up with quite a different feel and (non-)liturgical approach according to its location and the culture there.

      * Review frequency of guest services and seeker-friendly series and if needed increase frequency. However the key improvement here is advance preparation, good early preparation of invites, longer lead time in terms of informing congregation it’s coming and encouraging them to pray and invite friends.

      * Be content that what is user-friendly to one non-Christian is not necessarily use-friendly to another (any more than to the diversity of Christians. E.g. It seems some Aussies who have grown up post-Christian don’t much like repetition of any sort (e.g. shared prayers or creeds). But it seems many of our overseas students find them quite helpful, because the repetition gives them a chance to grasp the basics in a second language, and to participate with some confidence, as they begin to understand the gospel. For them almost every song seems new for the first few months. But the Creed they immediately recognise as something we had a week or two ago, and repetition means they can start to get their minds around the words – meaning and pronunciation etc. (Oops, last point not really a change.)

      • Thanks Sandy, some good points there. Praying that many not yet Christians will go to your church!

  6. Hi Sandy
    Thanks for the post and the question. I find it useful to think of church as a family gathering with some (invited) guests along. It’s still a family gathering, and we’re still us — and we won’t stop being us because there are guests present (so we still pray, preach in depth, confess, sing, and so on).

    But we’ll also do all we can to make our guests feel comfortable, welcomed, included and loved. More ‘outsider accessible’ or ‘outsider aware’ than ‘outsider driven’.

    This plays out in avoiding jargon where possible, explaining things as you go along, and warmly and explicitly addressing visitors during the gathering — including in the sermon. I agree with those above who suggest that it’s good to apply the pointy end of the sermon (in whatever shape it takes depending on the passage) to various groups in the listening congregation: those who are new, those who not Christian or not sure, those who’ve been Christian a while.


    • Yep, all good here, especially the reminder to address explicitly various groups in the congregation, not just two: believer or not. Peter Adam’s book on preaching Speaking God’s Words is good on this from memory.

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