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Why is evangelistic preaching so rare today?

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.

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4 Kinds of Evangelistic Sermon

Every sermon text can be preached with an evangelistic application. But this isn’t “evangelistic preaching.” Remember our previous definition: “Evangelistic preaching is preaching that expounds God’s Word (it is expository) with the primary aim of the conversion of lost souls (rather than the instruction of God’s people).”

I was planning on following up that definition with some reasons for why such evangelistic preaching is so rare today. However, while reading through the great comments last week, I realized that there’s still some confusion about what an evangelistic sermon looks/sounds like. So, before returning to the “Why so rare?” question tomorrow, let me outline some examples of evangelistic sermon texts/topics, grouped into four categories.

“Warm-up” sermons
These are sermons we preach to clear and prepare the ground for the gospel. They address some of the common objections to Christianity, the caricatures of and prejudices against Christianity. Such “apologetic” sermons will set out to prove the truth and relevance of Christianity, and demonstrate its doctrinal and practical superiority. Examples:

  • Proofs of the resurrection
  • Evidence for creation v evolution
  • One way or many ways to God
  • Do only good people go to heaven?
  • Bible’s analysis of current economic, social, moral problems, etc.

These sermons are aiming at conversion, especially the early stages of conversion. They are clearing away all the rubbish that has accumulated in a sinner’s mind, to gain a hearing for the gospel. They deal with issues that will open the pathway for Christ and His grace. That’s why I call them “warm-up” sermons. We are taking sinners who are cold, prejudiced, and opposed to Christianity, and using God’s Word to break up the soil, warm the heart, and provide an opening for the core message of Christ and His grace.

Warning Sermons
Some warning sermons are characterized by a focus on the more threatening aspects of God’s character, especially His attributes of holiness, justice, sovereignty, and power. Other warning sermons may focus on human sinfulness, inability, frailty, and mortality. We may expound and apply the law, showing what God defines as sin and wickedness. We might deal with the speed of time, the uncertainty of life, the imminence of death, the certainty of judgment, the length of eternity, the reality of hell, etc. These are all warning sermons. They are designed to alarm the complacent, the comfortable, and the thoughtless; to make them anxious, and fearful, and even terrified. Examples:

  • Remember Lot’s wife – and Saul, and Judas
  • God’s law
  • The end-of-time parables
  • Revelation’s great white throne, bottomless pit, etc.
  • Ecclesiastes’ view of the best this world can offer, etc.
  • The Psalmist’s view of our frailty and mortality, etc.

The great aim of these sermons is to convict, to bring our hearers to an awareness of their perilous state before God, and their need of repentance.

Wooing Sermons
Having prepared the way for the Gospel with “warm-up” sermons, and having shown the need for the Gospel with warning sermons, we then come with a wooing word. We explain the wonders of the Father’s willingness to send his Son to sinners, and to save them by His suffering, death, and resurrection. We also focus on the Lord Jesus; His willingness to come, suffer and die for sinners; His tender, wise and winning ways with sinners. We explain the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating and renewing the hardest of hearts. We explain that God saves by grace through faith, not by merit through works. We are trying to address people who are trembling, who are fearful, who are scared, and are seeking to draw them in to the love and the mercy and the grace of God. No pastor can pluck the chord of grace enough. Examples:

  • The prodigal son
  • Christ’s tender dealings with sinners during his ministry
  • The sufferings of Christ on the cross
  • The atonement
  • Free justification
  • The Gospel invitations and commands
  • The sufficiency and suitability of Christ, etc.
  • Adoption

If the aim of the warm-up sermon is to demonstrate relevance, and if the aim of the warming sermon is to bring people to repentance, the aim of the wooing sermon is to bring people to rest in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Will Sermons
Every sermon is ultimately addressed to the will. Yes, we address the head; and through the head, we address the heart. But we don’t just want to give people facts and feelings. We want changed lives. That’s surely the aim of our preaching. Ultimately, then, every sermon is addressed to the will. But evangelistic sermons, and especially this fourth kind of evangelistic sermon, are addressed especially and repeatedly to the will.

These are sermons that bring people to the signpost at the junction, with two choices. These are sermons that bring people to the ballot box, where they must cast their vote. They bring people to that point where they are faced with the two great and ultimate options: faith or unbelief, life or death, heaven or hell. These are sermons that are full of persuasion, pleading, and arguing and beseeching. Examples:

  • Paul and Agrippa
  • Jesus and the woman of Samaria
  • Parable of the wedding invitation
  • Paul on Mars Hill
  • Peter at Pentecost
  • “Choose you this day whom you will serve”
  • Narrow/broad way
  • Revelation 22:17
  • Elijah on Mt Carmel
  • “Stretch out your hand”
  • “Lazarus, come forth”

But, is man not totally depraved? Are we not “dead in trespasses and sins?” Are we not spiritually “disabled?” Is the will not in bondage? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. There is no question the Bible teaches this. However, as the examples above show, the Bible also describes the depraved, dead, disabled and enslaved will being addressed. It may seem illogical to us, but God has chosen to free the will, enable the “disabled,” and give life to the “dead” by the persuasive preaching of the Gospel.

These sermons have content for head and heart, but are especially focused on pressurizing, yes pressurizing, the will. The truth is pressed home so closely that every hearer is “forced” to make a choice. The Puritans used to speak of the Gospel vice that squeezes hearers so tightly that they cannot but say “yes” or “no.”

From this range of sample evangelistic sermons, I hope you can see that this isn’t the kind of preaching that will sound repetitive. There is a great range and variety of evangelistic sermons. There is no need for us to sound the same every time we do this. The Word of God has provided us with so many models and so much material that we can preach evangelistically and freshly every time.

Any other kinds of evangelistic sermons that I’ve missed out?