I recently had a dream that really got me thinking. In the dream, a pastor was describing a very common dilemma in the American church today.
“Jim, a few years ago I changed my preaching style in an attempt to reach more unchurched people,” the pastor began. “And sure enough, our church has attracted more visitors and unchurched people than ever before.”
“That’s great!” I told him. “So what’s the problem with that?”
With a rather pained look on his face, the pastor continued his story. “In recent months, several of our longtime church members—and biggest givers—have expressed dissatisfaction with my preaching. They say it’s not as ‘deep’ as it used to be, and they no longer are ‘being fed.’”
The dream was just getting interesting when I awoke, and that was the last sleep I got that night.
So how would you answer this pastor’s dilemma?
As I’ve reflected on the question raised in the dream, I’ve concluded that the answer is found in reexamining how Jesus preached. Although we like to think “times have changed” in our new technology-driven world, perhaps they haven’t changed as much as we assume.
Let’s take a look…
Instead of teaching from carefully constructed outlines, Jesus taught either via stories or in response to questions people asked Him. Grasping this simple truth has amazing implications for solving the dilemma raised by the pastor in my dream.
In Jesus’ vast crowds, we know there were at least three types of people:
- People far from God, known to everyone as “sinners.”
- Self-righteous religious folks, like the Pharisees, who mistakenly thought they were doing well with God.
- Jesus’ disciples.
How could Jesus possibly address all three groups without watering down His message? Should He given an evangelistic message, intentionally ignoring the religious folks and His disciples? Or, instead, should He ignore the people in need of salvation, while He taught “deeper truths” to those who were already steeped in Scripture?
In the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus masterfully addressed all three groups by telling one simple but profound story. He didn’t have to single out the sinners in the crowd and try to put them under “conviction” by harping on their vices. No, when Jesus told the story, the lost could see for themselves the consequences of living far from the Father’s house. No one in their right mind would want to end up broke and working in a pigpen.
But those far from God could also see a beautiful illustration of the acceptance they would receive in the Father’s embrace once they came to their senses. Why remain in the pigpen, when they could experience such abundance and celebration back home?
However, this parable wasn’t just an evangelistic message. Perhaps its most powerful message was to the self-righteous “older brothers” in the crowd. Although they were working hard on the Father’s estate, such people had little relationship with Him. When the Father threw a big party for the wayward son who had returned, the older brother refused to participate.
Again, those in Jesus’ crowd who fit this profile knew that He was describing them. They either could repent of their smug attitude and join the party, or else they would end up remaining outside, full of animosity and bitterness.
Jesus’ disciples could also learn much from this story. Would they have the Father’s heart to welcome the least and the lost into the kingdom? Or would they put up roadblocks, with a sour attitude like the older brother? This wasn’t merely a theoretical question, because Peter and the other disciples had to deal with this very issue when the Gentiles were brought into the church a few years later (Acts 10, 11, and 15).
So what can we learn from how Jesus preached? He never watered down His message for anyone. With each group present, He confronted the specific issues and attitudes that were hindering them from enjoying the full celebration available in the Father’s house.
If we adopt Jesus’ style, will there still be some people who say they “aren’t being fed” by our preaching? Undoubtedly so. But many of these, like the older brother, have no idea how much fun they could be having by joining in the party.
And some would rather have their notebook filled with sound theology than their heart overflowing with the love of God. They want to be “fed” by messages that reaffirm their self-righteousness rather than dispel it.
Often the critics are seeking to have their ears tickled, with no intention of ever acting upon the messages preached. But Jesus’ preaching made people squirm, because it demanded life-change and action.