Preaching to Unbelievers | creed of jesus
I noticed a recurring theme in my conversations with other pastors. For whatever reason – and maybe it’s my gray hair or the fact that I’ve been in my current position for over thirty years – other pastors, especially younger pastors, want to know how things have changed. since I started my ministry in the early eighties. Where do I start? Of course, there have been some changes over the past forty-five years.
On the one hand, there is everything related to the Internet. When I started, calendars were on paper and we kept in touch with our church members by calling them on the phone…which was on the wall. Now every book I used in the seminar is an e-book that can be clipped 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 enhance the “sermon event”.
When I was preaching, I used to worry about the sermon getting the attention of the congregation. People’s thoughts wandered and you wondered if they were listening. Now you to know they don’t listen. Everyone has their phone in front of them. For someone to listen, the sermon has to be better than ANYTHING on the internet, otherwise people will just turn you off with a few swipes or clicks.
Yet the most deeply interesting, curious and overwhelming reality is the number of unbelievers who will be present on any given Sunday. A few years ago you heard pastors complaining about “preaching to the choir”. According to them, everyone they saw on Sunday morning was already a believer. Pastors always asked their members to bring their unsaved friends.
Not anymore. Most people in any church on any given Sunday morning are, in one way or another, unbelievers. Let me explain.
While most of those sitting in the congregation would say they are followers of Christ, if you look a little closer you will begin to question that claim. Most of our church members are good moral people, but how many of them do things you would think a follower of Christ would do? How many read their Bible seriously? How many of them thought about the teachings of Jesus or made a decision influenced by what Jesus considered important? While that’s not true for everyone, it’s truer than we’d like. The fact is, 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 disciples. We are part of the multitude that has gathered around Jesus, but we are not going to follow him when it starts to cost us.
Second, many of our people have been hurt by an unfulfilled expectation of God or the church. Perhaps they were hurt in one of the sex scandals that rocked the church in North America. Perhaps they were betrayed by a well-known church celebrity. Maybe life got tough and no one from the church reached out. Maybe they were praying – really praying – but they didn’t feel like God was answering. For some reason they don’t take God or the church seriously anymore. Like a mug of hot chocolate, the church warms them inside, but doesn’t change much else. They still attend, but they no longer expect anything from their faith.
Others have seen their faith shaken by scientism. Notice what I said – scientism, not science. There is 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. As the preacher delivers the sermon, the worshiper compares what the preacher is saying to a YouTube lecture by the last famous scientist who told them there is no God and anyone who believes in God is trapped in the prehistoric concept of the world that keeps it trapped in ignorance and bigotry. This person may not have told anyone, but they made a quiet decision to live as a practical atheist. Faith in Jesus, like Santa Claus, is something they have passed.
The interesting part of understanding this new reality is knowing that our best preaching has been the 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, let alone believe, in the resurrection. Yet those sermons changed the world. How?
First, even though the first disciples were not 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 itself confessed that these men had been with Jesus. I know it’s an obvious question, but it’s one worth asking. Was the preacher with Jesus? Too many pastors try to describe moments they never experienced.
Second, these great sermons preached the whole history of God’s salvation. Stephen told the whole story of Israel in his sermon. Paul regularly highlighted significant moments of God dealing with his people in the past. As preachers, do we know enough about how God treated His people in the past to recognize how God treats us now? Can we start with Genesis, go through the Bible and plead for Christ?
Finally, 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. Of course, I’m exaggerating a little to make my point, but I’m not exaggerating a lot.
Yes, it is very discouraging and frustrating to realize how many unbelievers will be sitting in our pews. But, on the other hand, it must be hard to know that this Sunday we’ll have one more chance to preach a sermon that will change someone’s world. After all, all it takes is a sermon to do it. Maybe, with God’s help, it will be this Sunday.