Preaching Life into the Church
Preaching Life into the Church
How God uses the ministry of his Word to create and strengthen his body
Of a pastor's numerous activities, sermon preparation ranks as the one which takes most time. Surveys indicate an average of ten to fifteen hours a week, and that average doesn't include the hours of informal preparation that occur through ancillary reading, observing culture, and interacting with members of the congregation. Preparing sermons is a big part of our lives. Why do we do it? Because we're paid to preach? Because our people expect a good sermon every week? Because we like it?
These reasons have some merit—the merit of duty discharged, people pleased, and the pleasure of study—but they aren't good enough. A better reason, the one which I suspect animates most of us, is a conviction that preaching is indispensable to the life of the church. Through preaching God calls forth and grows the church.
Before explaining that thesis, one caveat: I am using the term preaching in the full-orbed biblical sense. The Bible uses 33 words to portray the richness of preaching—heralding, spreading good news, witnessing, teaching, debating, exhorting, and so forth. My usage of the term includes the stereotypical sense of "sermon from the pulpit on Sunday morning," but is not limited to public discourse (preaching can take place with an audience of one), the form of monologue (preaching can take place in dialogue; see Acts 17:2-3), or time and place (preaching can occur in the home, office, or mall as well as the church building). The Bible's portrayal of preaching is best caught with a general term like biblical communication or speaking in behalf of God. John Stott's phrase standing between two worlds summarizes this ministry.
Through preaching God calls forth the church
We are born again by the "living and enduring Word of Godthe Word that was preached to" us (1 Peter 1:23, 1 Peter 1:25). Faith comes by hearing the Word of God, and hearing demands that someone preach (Romans 10:14-15); therefore, preaching is the means by which God forms his church. Through preaching, God grants faith, repentance, and new life.
The Bible's depiction of preaching as a mighty power arises from a robust theology of God's Word. By words, God created the heavens and earth. He spoke, and it was so. By words he curses and blesses. He speaks, and it comes to pass. His words are not merely vibrations of the atmosphere causing sympathetic vibrations in our inner ear; neither are they simply dashes and dots, squiggles and slashes of ink on paper. Rather they are a creative force which embodies and produces his will. His words break stony hearts (Jeremiah 23:29), cleanse from sin (Ephesians 5:26), pierce the conscience (Hebrews 4:12), nourish infants (1 Peter 2:2), bear fruit (Mark 4:20), illumine our path (Psalm 119:105), and show us our true selves (James 1:22-25). Biblical preaching releases the dynamic spiritual power of the Word to enlighten and woo us from the world. By preaching, he makes us his body, the church.
The Book of Acts demonstrates how God forms the church through preaching: On the Day of Pentecost "Peter stood up with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd," and about 3,000 were added to the infant church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:14ff.). "Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went," and the church in Samaria was formed (Acts 8:4ff). "Those who had been scatteredtraveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch telling the message," and the church in Syria was formed (Acts 11:19ff). "Almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord...and all who were appointed for eternal life believed," and the church in Asia Minor was formed (Acts 13:44, Acts 2:48). "As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue and reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead," and the church in Macedonia was formed (Acts 17:2ff). "then Paul stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus" to proclaim the unknown God, and the church in Greece was formed (Acts 17:22ff).
I have a friend who is watching the church form in Cambodia among the Tampuan people. He is watching it happen as God's story is taught systematically with a curriculum called "From Creation to Cross." My friend is a tireless overseer, administrator, translator, teacher, and counselor in that church, so he is well aware that God works through human agency, but he also says he has the remarkable experience of simply watching the church "happen" around him with a life of its own. The seed drops on various soils, sprouts, and in some cases it brings forth fruit. To use a different image, through preaching, God forms his bride, the church. He also uses preaching to make the bride beautiful.
Through preaching God grows the church
The work of salvation starts when the Word is preached, and the work of salvation continues as the Word is preached. "We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone...so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy "(Colossians 1:28-29). The author of that statement, Paul, mentored his son in the faith, Timothy, to adopt a similar "church growth strategy": "Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching (1 Timothy 4:13).
Because God sanctifies through his Word (John 17:17), preaching that explains and applies that Word sanctifies the hearers. This is why pastors must be teachers (1 Timothy 3:2;Titus 1:9;Ephesians 4:11-12). They must "correct, rebuke, and encourage with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Timothy 4:2) as they refute false doctrine, explain right doctrine, and exhort the flock to follow the voice of the Shepherd.
The early church wasn't always pretty, but in this regard they had it right. For example, the Didache, a manual of church ethics dating from the early second-century, refers to a host of teaching ministries: bishops, deacons, traveling teachers, apostles, and prophets. The early church had caught the apostles' confidence that through preaching God sanctifies his church.
The emphasis on preaching continued in the second century as described in Justin Martyr's First Apology which pictures the "weekly worship of the Christians":
On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.
At the end of the second century, Tertullian wrote in his Apology:
We assemble to read our sacred writings.... With the sacred words we nourish our faith, we animate our hope, and make our confidence more steadfast...and we confirm good habits. In the same place also exhortations are made, rebukes and sacred censures are administered.
In the fourth century, Chrysostom expressed his convictions about preaching in a sermon on Ephesians 6:13. He said that Christ's body, like the human body, is susceptible to disease. Medicine, diet, a change of climate, and sleep help restore the physical body, but what can heal Christ's body?
One only means and one way of cure has been given us...and that is teaching of the Word. This is the best instrument, this is the best diet and climate; this serves instead of medicine, this serves instead of cautery and cutting; whether it be needful to burn or amputate, this one method must be used; and without it nothing else will avail.
By the Word of God we are born again, and the church is formed. By the Word of God that church grows up to be like the Head. Through preaching God unleashes the whirlwind of his Word.