One night years ago, in the first months after I had surrendered to ministry, I dreamed I was preaching to a large crowd and they all turned around and walked away. When I told my pastor the next day he laughed and said, “Every preacher has had that dream.” Obviously, preachers want to have their message heard but what if people stop listening?
There will always be faithful Christians who want to hear biblical teaching but Paul cautioned that a day would come when masses of people (if they attend a church service at all), will only listen to what they want to hear. Rather than gathering to hear a word from God (regardless of how personally confrontational that truth may be to their lifestyles), a group will emerge who will choose their preachers based solely on what they desire to hear. In other words, their eager teachers will effortlessly reinforce the ideas the hearers already wished were true. Instead of adhering to biblical teaching, popular religious preference will morph into an eclectic playlist of politically acceptable philosophy, culturally common sentimentality, shared outrage at the hint of anything confrontational, with a few old Christian terms and forms to make it all feel familiar. The culturally acceptable religion of that scenario may use our vocabulary but it will definitely not use our dictionary.
Most biblical preachers have experienced those moments when, while being faithful in the delivery of biblical truth, the congregation grows irritated by what the speaker is saying. Those times are expected and can be the beginning of deeper spiritual growth as believers are confronted with truth. According to the Apostle Paul, however, a movement resisting and ignoring biblical truth will become the norm and there will be no shortage of teachers willing to accommodate the trend (2 Tim 4:3). What should preachers do when they find themselves in that environment?
Some voices today advise preachers to merely change the methods of communication (http://wwv.group.com/refresh-the-church/blog/monologue-or-dialogue/#.VZbkPFI8KJL). In the “Information Age” when facts of all kinds are as close as your smartphone, some argue that Americans don’t listen or process information the way we once did. No doubt there is some truth in that observation. Excellent communicators, therefore, consistently work from the premise: “If I am not connecting with my listeners, I need to improve.” Most of us, for instance, remember Professor Howard Hendricks chided preachers with the admonition, “It’s a sin to bore people with the Bible.”
Methods of communication can change. Effective preaching and teaching styles often vary while remaining faithful to the significant ministry preachers and teachers are called to perform. Paul warned against something worse, however, than a dry delivery. He cautioned preaching itself would go “out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). In that case, the issue is not style- it’s substance-because Paul instructs us to “preach the Word” when the Word is “in season” and popular, or even when it is “out of season.“
Is it possible that our culture has decided it has heard enough Biblical preaching? Perhaps. Church attendance in America is stagnant or declining according to most polls and atheism is growing. Stronger opposition to historic biblical interpretation is being called into question more candidly than ever. Recently, for instance, a Presidential candidate announced that religious views needed to change to accommodate a political view held by many Americans ( http://www.nationalreview.com/article/417448/hillary-clinton-religious-beliefs-have-be-changed-accommodate-abortion-joel-gehrke). Did Mrs. Clinton mean religious people who differ with her should thoughtfully change on their own, or, was she implying that under her potential administration the law could force that change? It’s hard to imagine the latter but forced ideology by governmental regulation is not without precedent. Recently a baker who lost a law suit due to her refusal to bake a cake for a same sex wedding had an “effective gag order” placed on her by the court, insisting she stop speaking about her religious objections to same sex marriage (http://dailysignal.com/2015/07/02/state-silences-bakers-who-refused-to-make-cake-for-lesbian-couple-fines-them-135k/). What do Secretary Clinton’s comments have to do with the cake baking issue? It seems both new and strange that a powerful political figure, during an election cycle, would appear to suggest that politics could enforce the religious beliefs of fellow Americans. Yet, we have observed a few recent examples -such as the baker in the same sex wedding cake law suit, who has told by an American court she can’t speak about her religious views. Both situations appear to be government intrusions into the religious freedoms of Americans. Are pastors like me being too sensitive or is there a shift taking place in American culture?
After the last round of Supreme Court decisions it felt like the worldview I hold was handed a ribbon for second place in the culture wars. The social changes rapidly occurring in the United States, however, are objectively more than the subjective concerns of a few pastors. In the decision on same sex marriage, for instance, Chief Justice Roberts ominously observed, “Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/06/26/here-are-the-key-excerpts-on-religious-liberty-from-the-supreme-courts-decision-on-gay-marriage/)
In the early days of the Church it was much worse. When Stephen, one of the leaders of the original Jerusalem church, was called to defend his faith, he boldly preached one of the greatest extemporaneous sermons in history. The assembled crowd listening to him, however, viewed the sermon differently- they skipped past the invitation hymn and rushed straight to the benediction – and killed Stephen for what he said. Nestled in the emotional chaos of the mob scene that led to Stephen’s violent murder, is a phrase I have paid little attention to until lately. “But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him.” (Acts 7:57) Before they assassinated the first Martyr of the Church, they “stopped their ears.” In other words, they had heard enough. Could that happen again? As the division and polarization of American society becomes more emboldened by louder voices on all sides will we reach a tipping point when huge segments of culture simply stop listening to the message being preached in our churches? Will they conclude they’ve heard enough? Or, has that happened already?
Preachers should prepare to spend the next phase of their lives “out of season.” Fortunately, societal rejection often clarifies the resolve of the church, and history is replete with examples of history making renewals of the church in the face of persecution. When Stephen was killed, for instance, the message of the gospel quickly spread outside of Israel as a result, so that within a generation it had reached the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire. Centuries later when Wesley and Whitefield were forced out of the Anglican pulpits their open air sermons spread the evangelical message to the English speaking world and fueled a Great Awakening. In the early 20th century, when Mao forced missionaries out of China the Chinese Christians went “underground” and the Christian Church grew exponentially. A similar movement occurred in Communist Romania. The totalitarian government tried to destroy Christianity but Christians are resilient. Today in Romania Christianity is alive and communism is gone. Ironically, persecution has often strengthened the Church.
I predict the same kind of renewal will occur in a new generation of fearless young American preachers- unaccustomed to being in the majority and unintimidated by the majority. American culture has changed and continues to change and when persecution of any kind comes against the Church, the outcome could be revival, led by faithful preachers.
The current cultural climate may encourage sincere and concerned churches to consider insightful new methods to express the biblical message, while simultaneously other congregations will echo the views of the secular majority, thus surrendering any prophetic voice. In the midst of the upheaval, however, a counterintuitive and surprisingly contemporaneous power persists in the ancient instruction: “Preach the Word.” ~jkb
“…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2)