How do we preach toward good evangelistic engagement? If, as many younger evangelicals of the gospel-centered persuasion believe, we aren’t to turn our Sunday service into a seeker-targeted evangelistic event, in what sense might the sermon time fuel the missional impulse in our churches to reach and serve the lost? Here are some practical ways to serve this end:
1. Put the text in the context of God’s mission.
There is a mega-narrative to the Bible, a grand story of God’s redeeming purposes and spiritual mission in the earth, and many times we miss this in our preaching and teaching. Helping your hearers make the connection between the narrative you are preaching and the big story of God’s mission can help them begin to see their own story in the context of the big story of God’s mission. Making regular, explicit application of biblical texts to their missional contexts or missional implications helps influence hearers, over time, to see and think in missional ways.
2. Make application mission-oriented.
Rather than turning the application time in your preaching into only (or even mostly) individualistic steps to address personal “felt needs,” make the practical admonitions others-directed. Help people see that applying the Scriptures to their everyday life is not mostly about living their best life now but about loving and serving others, especially those they encounter at work, school, and neighborhood “third places.”
3. Confront idols.
One of the most important things a local church can do is exegete its immediate community and then the wider culture of its city in order to identify what idols dominate there. Then, your preaching can address these idols head-on. For one thing, the people of your church will need this, as these idols will be their greatest temptations away from full-hearted worship of God too. But explicating how the gospel subverts and conquers specific idolatries in your context can (a) help lost people present in the room see the beauty and lordship of the one true God, (b) help Christians in the room repent of their propensities toward syncretism, and/or (c) train the Christians in the room to identify and address the idolatry they seen around them while on the mission of their everyday lives. Similarly:
4. Anticipate the right evangelistic challenges and apologetic questions.
Just as missional preaching can confront the idols of the church’s mission field, it can also anticipate the spiritual, theological, ethical, biblical, or personal questions lost people may bring into the gathering with them. At the risk of redundancy: this doesn’t mean the Sunday sermon should be primarily aimed at the lost, but it does mean the sermon should be appropriately “seeker-sensitive”—meaning, it should be mindful of lost people in the room (including people who think they are Christians!) and think ahead of time about addressing objections, questions, and obstacles they may have between them and gospel understanding.
Pastors Tim Keller and Andy Stanley are two figures who anticipate these questions well. I personally think Keller executes this practice in a much better way, but both should be admired for having the presence of preaching mind to not take the understanding of theological truths among their audience for granted, even though Stanley’s audience in particular is in an historically Christian culture. Trevin Wax writes:
These two pastors come from different contexts (Atlanta vs. New York) and different theological streams (Baptistic non-denominational vs. confessional Presbyterian). What’s more, they approach ministry from different starting points, then employ different methods to achieve their purposes.
Despite all these differences, there is one thing Stanley and Keller agree on: preachers ought to be mindful of the unbelievers in their congregation.
. . . Stanley and Keller may be worlds apart in terms of their theological vision for ministry, but they both maintain that a preacher should consider the unsaved, unchurched people in attendance.
This doesn’t mean we can’t find differences even in this area. For example, Stanley uses the terminology of “churched” and “unchurched” (which makes sense in the South), whereas Keller’s context leads him to terms like “believers” and “non-believers.”
Likewise, Stanley and Keller engage in similar practices from different vantage points. Stanley’s purpose for the weekend service is to create an atmosphere unchurched people love to attend. Keller believes evangelism and edification go together because believers and unbelievers alike need the gospel. He writes:
“Don’t just preach to your congregation for spiritual growth, assuming that everyone in attendance is a Christian; and don’t just preach the gospel evangelistically, thinking that Christians cannot grow from it. Evangelize as you edify, and edify as you evangelize.”
Whether you are closer to Stanley’s paradigm for ministry or Keller’s, you can benefit from [their example of] how to engage the lost people listening to you preach.
Anticipating the right questions, like confronting idols, also helps train your believing audience, over time, to know how to answer these questions they are encountering on a daily basis in their homes, workplaces, schools, and online. You’re equipping them for mission on the primary front even as you engage on the congregational front during your preaching.
5. Give the motivation of grace.
The gospel is the power of salvation. This necessarily means that the gospel is the power for missional engagement. The quickest way to shut down your church’s missional response to the gospel is to leverage guilt in motivating them to reach their lost friends. Turning it into a competition, shaming people who fall short, playing on their fears or insecurities, and the like all do wonders at de-motivating people to share the gospel.
Remember that the gospel will empower its own implications. So remind your church that they have all the wind of the Spirit at their backs, that God has always been roaming the earth seeking whom he may revive, that the kingdom is not contingent upon them but upon him, and that they are not responsible for evangelistic success, but evangelistic faithfulness.
The motivation of grace better triggers a church’s impulse for gospel mission.
Not every sermon can encompass all of these elements, of course, and probably more than a few individual sermons might not do any of them. But if you want to change the movement of your church, you have to change the message. Therefore, a regular practice of preaching from the gospel-centered paradigm with a missional mindset can help shape a church more toward being on mission.