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.

Having defined evangelistic preaching and looked at various examples of it, I’d like to suggest some reasons for the rarity of evangelistic preaching today, especially in reformed churches.

The Preacher
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.

The Congregation
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.

The World
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.

The Devil

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.

  • Ryan Elliott

    David, this has been a very enlightening series! We’re looking forward to your opening evangelistic sermon next August at the Reforming Families Conference!

    • David Murray

      Looking forward to it too, Ryan.

  • Nick Horton

    I would encourage everyone to read Spurgeon’s book on evangelism; “The Soul Winner, or, How to Lead Sinners to the Saviour”. I have found it very helpful in not only what is in the message, but also how it is preached, the cost, and arguments for it from the reformed perspective. While we may employ a few small details differently, the book largely translates completely to today. Sin is still sin, and God is still full of wrath, and grace and mercy.

    • David Murray

      We have so much to learn from Spurgeon on this issue.

  • Shawn Anderson

    Thank you for this series, Dr Murray. I was convicted about this the first time I heard you speak about it, and I have been intrigued with the idea ever since. In fact I have had multiple conversations with pastors about this idea with varied responses.

    Hear more of Dr Murray’s thoughts on this topic at:

  • Tim Challies

    I appreciate this series, David. But what I don’t think you’ve done is give a compelling argument as to why preaching should be always (or mostly) evangelistic, as per your definition. What you haven’t accounted for, I don’t think, is the view that preaching is meant to be primarily discipleship rather than evangelistic. You’ve argued against prejudice and pragmatism, but not against the prevalent idea that the worship services are meant to engage Christians more than unbelievers. You appeal to MLJ and to your tradition, but don’t go to Scripture.

    I’d love it if you could make that argument. I’m definitely eager to hear it…

    • David Murray

      Thanks for the interaction, Tim. Just to clarify one thing, I definitely don’t argue for preaching to be always or even mostly evangelistic. Once a week would be a maximum I would think. And where it’s been rarely done, probably its introduction should be gradual. The actual frequency would depend very much on a pastor’s wisdom about his context. I am definitely arguing for far more than is presently the case. I would think if even one sermon a month could be evangelistic, that would make about 12 more a year than is presently the case in many churches!
      Then, if you could clarify your question for me: Are you saying that preaching should be primarily discipleship of believers (or representing those that say this), and you want Scriptural warrant for sermons that address unbelievers?

      • Tim Challies

        Thanks, David.

        I can’t imagine too many people would argue with having one sermon per month that was primarily evangelistic. I had thought you were saying that every sermon, or almost every sermon, ought to be primarily evangelistic (rather than primarily discipleship).

        I guess what I’d like is your assessment of what the primary purpose of preaching is.

        (And obviously we are acknowledging that an evangelistic sermon will still disciple Christians and a discipleship kind of sermon may also be evangelistic)

        • David Murray

          Tim, I see two main purposes of preaching – “making” disciples out of non-disciples (the evangelistic sermon), and maturing existing disciples. I think there’s a lot of the latter and very little of the former.

  • Steve McCoy

    Dr. Murray, I just posted links to all three posts on evangelistic preaching over at Reformissionary. Glad to have your thinking on this. Helpful. What are your thoughts on open-air preaching as taught by Spurgeon (Lectures), done by Whitefield, etc? Could it be it’s so rare because we think of preaching in terms of a building or meeting space rather than the world? I have posted some thoughts on it and would love to know your thoughts on the subject.

    • David Murray

      Steve: Thanks so much for the links. Yes, I am very much in favor of open-air preaching and I’ve done a fair bit of it in my younger years – though without much skill or success. I’ll definitely link to your resources on it. Jeremy Walker also believes very strongly in it and still does it very regularly. Today, I think it probably needs to be a bit different to the older “shout-your-head-off” model – sadly not a caricature!

      • Steve McCoy

        Thanks, Dr. Murray. Very thankful for your blog.

  • Sam

    Dr. Murray:

    1) I only get one sermon per Sunday. Suggestions on the balance of evangelistic/discipling sermons?

    2) “Arminian easybelievism”?

    • David Murray

      Yes, Sam, the Arminian easy-believism has caused some to overreact and not call to faith at all. If you only have one sermon a Sunday, I would think a minimum of once a month would be a good target. When I preach twice on a Sunday I almost always have one sermon directed mainly to believers and one mainly to unbelievers.

  • Thomas

    “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.”

    I think this is one of the primary reasons, coupled with the fact that salvation as a conversion experience has been lost. I think most hearers don’t think there’s much to being saved or presume they are, and as you stated the pulpit doesn’t venture to go there, and preach real salvation due to the many perils.

    This could very well be a big downfall of modern day preaching and Christianity as a whole. BTW, I read LLoyd-Jones book Preachers and Preaching excellent book and it touched on this same topic as he explained why he preached the way he did.

    • David Murray

      Yes, Thomas, I agree with you about the loss of the doctrine of conversion. And the more unconverted people you have in church membership the harder and harder it becomes to preach conversion.

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