Recently many have noted the decline in overall church attendance. Fewer people attend church on an average Sunday, but recently observers started noting one of the underlying causes behind this phenomenon. Many Christians attend their church’s worship gathering less frequently than they did before. Because of other commitments or a lack of desire to be with God’s people, the average churchgoer attends less than they did ten years ago. Even churches adding new people regularly may see a decline in average attendance because of declining attendance patterns.
Pastors face a strategic decision about this new phenomenon. We can berate people for their “lack of commitment” or we can intentionally and compellingly preach the Gospel so their affections are awakened when they worship with God’s people. Our current choices are preaching for behavior modification or preaching for genuine change brought about by the work of the Spirit through the Gospel.
Since the Bible calls us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, we must think strategically about how we preach in this climate. If the average church attender is only hearing twenty-six to thirty-nine sermons a year, how can pastors make the most of each opportunity so our people are being changed by God’s word?
Recommit to Expositional Preaching
The tendency in our low commitment, attention deficit culture is to craft messages to entertain our hearers. Spend time perusing church websites and you will find no lack of “creative” sermon ideas. These sermons inevitably major on minor points, are heavy on “how to,” and short on biblical exposition. Hearers walk away having had a great experience, but the weight of God’s word has not rested upon them. Instead our churches must double down on expositional preaching.
By expositional preaching I simply mean preaching that focuses on a passage of Scripture and drives home the point of that biblical passage. The preacher will explain the passage, illustrate the passage, show how the passage points to Jesus, and apply the passage to the heart and lives of his hearers. This kind of preaching does not begin with what people want to hear or with what we think will build a crowd, but rather it allows God’s word to set the agenda.
Expositional preaching can range from a verse by verse walk through Romans to covering a section from Psalms. They can be an overview of biblical books or diving into the life of a biblical character; but whatever the form may be, the substance must consist of God’s word having the primary word. The pastor must have people open their Bibles, then read a passage of Scripture to them, both explaining it and applying it to their hearts.
We must be honest: people who do not attend church regularly most likely don’t read their Bibles regularly either. This means they are not hearing from God on a regular basis, but instead are having their minds shaped by the prevailing winds of our culture. Should they then come to worship with God’s people and hear messages that are only tangentially tied to a passage of Scripture or should they take in a hearty meal from God’s word?
Work on Your Introductions
You are more likely than ever to be dealing with people who have not been thinking about God or the Bible during the week. To begin your sermon by telling everyone to turn to a verse and quickly recap what you talked about last week only leaves people thinking they won’t understand this week since they weren’t here last week. To help those who are present to engage with the sermon we must set the table for them so they have a context in which to understand the message.. Endless possibilities exist as to how you can introduce your sermon, but a great place to start is by finding something your people likely have been thinking about during the week and then turn their attention to the Bible which will speak authoritatively to their concerns. This helps them to see how God’s word speaks into their life’s questions and reminds them this is where they should be turning in the first place.
Also, our introduction needs to set the context for the passage of Scripture we will be preaching. Pastors typically preach to a congregation where fifty percent of the people present were not there the week before. You cannot simply dive in to the passage and assume the people listening have any understanding about the section of Scripture you are preaching. It does not take long to explain who wrote the book, to whom he wrote, and the general theme of the book. This creates a mental framework for understanding the basic message of the passage.
Make the Gospel Crystal Clear
The people sitting before a pastor on Sunday morning are probably not hearing the good news of the Gospel on a daily basis. They receive a daily dose of hearing they should cast off all restraints or they are hearing a hundred ways they need to try harder. The two times a month they come to worship with God’s people they must hear the good news of the Gospel. They don’t need more self-help talks about how to get along better in the world. They’re beaten down, weary, and weak. They need the Gospel more than they could ever imagine, so we must proclaim it to them in all its fullness.
This must be especially true in imperative sections of Scripture. As you preach on parenting, honesty, evangelism, being a good neighbor, or sexual purity the people listening to you will begin to feel guilt as they sense they have disobeyed the Lord in these areas. Help them understand muscling up the resolve to work harder at obedience accomplishes nothing. Point to Jesus, who never disobeyed in the ways we have disobeyed and then died on the cross bearing the penalty for our disobedience before rising triumphantly from the dead. Remind them his death covers the guilt and penalty of their sins and his perfect life allows them to stand before God fully righteous in his sight. Then show them how the resurrected Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to empower them to obey and currently stands ready to help them in their moments of weakness because he was tempted in all the ways we are.
Aim for the Heart
If pastors are honest, our tendency when we see a disturbing trend is to hammer on it. We think we can change people by simply appealing to their wills. Let’s show them all of the reasons why attending church less is bad for them. Tell them stories to make them feel guilty and help them see the idolatry behind their lack of attendance. This type of approach might change people for a season, but it will not alter the love of their hearts and produce lasting change.
Pastors must preach to the heart. Jesus said the mouth speaks out of the heart and Solomon instructed his son to guard his heart because the springs of life flow from it. This reminds us that all behavior springs from desire and so we need to preach in such a way that the motivations of the heart are changed. So we must hold out to people the beauty of the Gospel and the desirousness of being changed into the image of Jesus. Our motivational pep talks and scoldings will make little headway, but real transformation from one degree of glory to another takes place when people see the beauty of Christ and long for it. When we sin in all of its horror and Christ in his glory, our people will increasingly long for Christ and jettison the things of this world.