What do congregations really need?

Or from the other side of the coin, perhaps this could be titled: “How then shall we preach?”

I get overwhelmed with the bewildering number of “wants” (usually described as “needs”) people have when they talk about the church.  An active youth program.  A big and enthusiastic music program.  An energetic social life.  A vibrant community service program.  A big multipurpose room.  A minister who is funny and social and cool and relevant. Etc. Etc…

But how often we hear – either from ministers or from congregations – that preaching needs to be focused less on highfalutin doctrine and more on practical application.  “Yeah, talk about theology is all well and good, but we’ve got a battle to fight and it’s time to start giving us the tips we need to make an impact starting Monday morning.”

All this to say, the word on the street is that it is more important that sermons provide us with tips for overcoming low self-esteem or anxiety or conflict with co-workers or ______ (fill in the blank) than it is that they talk about things that don’t really help us – things like imputation or the hypostatic union or the simplicity of God or anthropomorphism in scripture or ______ (again, fill in the blank).

“Pastor, be more relevant!” (Read: less doctrine, more practical advice.)  Although if truth be known, “be more relevant” actually means less gospel, more law.  Is this really the case?  Do deeds really trump creeds?  Does action really outdo accuracy?  Does practice really outweigh profession?

The following section from Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity hits the nail on the head:

Confident in ourselves, we will naturally incline toward moralism, asking Jesus, along with the rich young ruler, “What is the one thing that I must do in order to inherit eternal life?”  And until we are, like that ruler, faced with the real intention of the law, we will naturally assume with him, “All this I have done since my youth” (see Luke 19:18-21).  We do not naturally assume that we are wretched, poor, blind, and naked.  We do not like being brought to the end of our rope any more than that rich young ruler did.  Even the disciples asked, “‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible'” (vv.25-26).

Secularism cannot be blamed on the secularists, many of whom were raised in the church.  We are the problem.  If most churchgoers cannot tell us anything specific about the God they consider meaningful or explain basic doctrines of creation in God’s image, original sin, the atonement, justification, sanctification, the means of grace, or the hope of glory, then the blame can hardly be placed at the feet of secular humanists.  If, for example, privatization entails “the transfer of truth claims from the objective world to the subjectivity of the individual,” then American Protestants  have not only adapted to a secular culture but are part of a revivalistic heritage that helped to create it.

All that is necessary for us to become unwitting Pelagians is less preaching and teaching of the law and the gospel – downplaying the means of grace (Word and sacrament) in favor of our means of transforming ourselves and our world.  Since self-trust is our default setting, we can never assume that we really get the gospel and can now move on to our own works.  Even when we talk about our obligations to God and neighbor, it must be grounded first of all in the gospel of salvation by grace apart from works.

Christless Christianity, pgs. 243-44. (Underlining added.)

Fellow minister, fellow Christian congregant – never forget humanity’s greatest need: the gospel.  Christians aren’t just all-around decent folk who need some instruction.  They are sinners – dying and in need of good news.  Christians aren’t custodians of a pretty-good life who need some help at making a better difference in their community.  They are pilgrims, on their way to the promised land.  They are getting cancer, they are burying loved ones, they are getting kicked out of their homes due to foreclosure, they are struggling to care for parents with Alzheimer’s.

Christians need good news.  Even when they are being exhorted unto maturity, they still need good news!  Never accept the premise that the gospel is good … but the real action is over here ….  O that a day might come when every sermon from every Christian pulpit thundered the de-centering announcement to Christians that their sins are forgiven and they are no longer under the condemnation of God!  O that congregations and ministers both might relish in the news that Christ has borne their sins, suffering the curse in their place, and that he has obeyed the law perfectly, fulfilling all righteousness in their place as well!

Praise God for that all important biblical distinction between Law and Gospel!

Andrew Compton
Lakewood, CA

3 thoughts on “What do congregations really need?”

  1. Shane, you hit on one of those subjects that I am passionate about. I serve in a ministry that has a Substance Abuse Program. This is where God has put me at this time because, due to my own background before I was saved, I can relate to those with this particular sin problem. The program they have there is supposedly Christian based, but they are always telling these poor souls that their problem stems from “low self-esteem.” But, I know that their problem lies in the opposite direction – too much self-esteem!! It’s all about them and what they want (self-centeredness). Until they are touched by the Spirit of the sin forgiving God, and changed by His power alone, they will not change – especially if they begin thinking even MORE highly about themselves!!!


  2. Thanks for the comment, Tom. It’s so tempting to recast problems in terms of -isms rather than in terms of sin. Unfortunately, this actually takes people’s hope away. After all, Christ died for people’s *sins* but we read nothing about his work on behalf of people’s purported “self-esteem problem.”

    Another couple of books I’ve found relevant to the same topic, from a more counseling perspective, are Ed Welch’s book, When People are Big and God is Small” and Elyse Fitzpatrick’s “Idols of the Heart.” Written before Horton’s trilogy and for a different audience, they nevertheless note that we need to focus more on God’s glory and less on our own wants and “needs.”

    But still, Christless Christianity, the Gospel Driven Life and the Gospel Commission are remarkable assessments of the current evangelical milieu!


    1. Yes, Andrew. Modern Psychology teaches the disastrous error that drunkeness (“alcoholism”) is a disease, therefore taking away all hope of ever being set free. But, thank God, Jesus gives hope in that He has come to set us free from our sin. “…for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21b).


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