The great expository preacher, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, made sure that at least one sermon every Sunday was directed primarily to the unsaved in his congregation. That was also the practice in the Scottish Presbyterian churches I grew up in and pastored for 12 years. But most reformed churches have no such distinction today. Both morning and evening sermons tend to be primarily teaching sermons for God’s people.
We start by pointing a finger at ourselves. Many of us have to admit that we much prefer to be teachers than pleaders. It is easier to engage in explanation than application. It is more socially acceptable, it is more dignified and respectable to be engaged in calm reasoning and deduction, rather than in anxious weeping and beseeching. I think we’d all have to admit that it is easier emotionally and socially to be teachers than evangelists. And that prejudice, that bias, influences our choice of text and the way we preach our texts.
In addition to our prejudice, there is also our pragmatism. Let’s get people in first. Get them used to our church. Then we will become more “evangelistic.” After all we don’t want to put them off by telling them they are sinners who need a Savior; or that they must abandon their own works and trust in Christ’s grace alone; or that without faith in Christ they will be punished forever in hell, etc. Surely it’s much wiser to begin more slowly, more carefully, more diplomatically; and then once they are in a while, we can begin to be a bit more confrontational and demanding. But then more new faces appear, and so the pragmatic cycle begins again.
Presumption also lurks in the background of many preachers’ minds. Some pastors dangerously presume that their hearers are already saved. Assuming that all is well with their souls, they teach, instruct, and give guidance on how to live the Christian life; but they rarely preach for conversion.
When we preach evangelistic sermons, some mature Christians in our congregations, those we often lean on for our encouragement and strength, might feel (or even say), “Well there wasn’t much for me in that sermon…that’s more like milk for babies than meat for the mature.” Of course, many mature Christians love to hear evangelistic sermons. They enjoy being evangelized all over again, and they especially love to hear sermons addressed to their unconverted family and friends. However, others may not respond so appreciatively as they do to our epic sermons on Romans. That lack of response can impact what we preach and how we preach.
Also, we might not have many unconverted people in front of us. My first congregation had only 20-30 people. Sometimes there were maybe only 3-5 unconverted hearers in an evening service. It’s a lot harder to preach an evangelistic sermon in these circumstances, because everyone knows to whom you are directing your warning, wooing, and pleading words. Teaching messages are so much more comfortable than convicting messages – both to preach and to hear. That’s especially true if our few unconverted hearers are very “moral” or “churchy” people.
There may also be in our congregation those who might view evangelistic preaching with a suspicious eye and ear, especially if they come from a hyper-Calvinistic stream of Christian upbringing. Maybe others have come out of Arminian easybelievism, hyper-emotionalism, and decisionism, and react against any kind of emotional appeal to the unsaved. We don’t want to offend these people, we want to keep them on our side, and so again perhaps we hold back from regular, full-throated evangelistic preaching.
We are not pluralistic. We believe, surely, in the exclusive claims of Christ. That’s what we swear to, sign up to, and state at our ordinations. But, we live in such a pluralistic, many-ways-to-God world, that it’s extremely difficult not to be influenced by that, even subconsciously.
Maybe, in the back of many pastors’ minds, the sharp edge of Gospel exclusivity has been blunted by worldly influence. They may not deny that Christ is the only way to heaven, and they may not preach many-ways-to-God. But they do not keep the believer/unbeliever distinction or the heaven/hell contrast constantly and vividly before their minds. And of course that’s going to affect their preaching – both its content and tone.
The real test of incipient pluralism is, “How do we really view the unconverted?” Is our first thought when we see them, “These precious souls are hell-bound, without Christ, lost, under the wrath of God, however religious they may be?” I’m deeply afraid that a kind of incipient, subtle, often unnoticed pluralism has blunted the sharp edge of evangelistic preaching.
Then, of course, there is our great enemy, the devil. If there’s any kind of preaching that has been more successful in stealing captives from him and claiming them for the Lord, it is passionate evangelistic preaching. No weapon in the Gospel armory has been so effective in rescuing souls. Of course, he’s going to fight it, and he’s going to supply every excuse not to preach in an evangelistic way.
See also the insightful comments at the end of this post with further suggestions as to why evangelistic preaching is so infrequent today.