Steering from the Stage

"The world is a ship . . . and the pulpit is its prow.”

So claims Herman Melville in his classic novel Moby Dick, and while Melville’s claim may not exactly hold up in this post-Christian era of the West, it is certainly true for the local church. The preaching is the steering wheel of the church.

The pulpit is not the only place of leadership or influence. It may not even be the most frequent place of leadership or influence. But it is the most impactful place of leadership and influence. Everything that goes on in a local weekend gathering of a church—and the preaching and teaching specifically—directs the church’s sense of identity, depth of belief, and quality of mission.

If a church is to be gospel-centered, it must have gospel-centered preaching. And if a church is to have gospel-centered preaching, it must have preaching that is substantially engaged with the Bible.

But this kind of preaching is not the norm for many attractional churches. Over twenty years ago when I began in ministry, I was trained in the seeker-church model. My instruction on preaching was not very robust, but I learned the basic pattern. We began by iden- tifying a felt need in the congregation. What do people have trouble with? What are their concerns and struggles? Where do they need help or assistance or advice? It could be a relational issue or a personal issue or even a religious issue. But we always began with a felt need of some kind.

Then, we thought carefully about the practical help we could give people in addressing that need. How can they overcome that challenge? What steps can be taken? What practices or habits can they develop to improve in those areas or achieve clarity or victory?

Once we had three to five action steps, we went looking for Bible verses to help support our points. You might use a concordance or a search program to find verses related to a particular topic of subject. Sometimes it was easy to find good verses, but sometimes it was difficult. If you could find a verse that used a word from your message point in the right way, it was like finding gold. A good sermon might have four or five Bible verses to support the various points of the message.

The problem with this approach ought to be obvious right away. First, it starts not with God’s Word, but with our ideas about what people need. Then, after determining what people needed, we made God’s Word serve our agenda rather than the other way around. The motivation behind this approach to preaching is sincere. The approach intends to reach lost people or spiritual seekers for God. The logic makes sense too. If we can show people that the Bible is relevant and applicable to their everyday lives, the reasoning goes, then they will be more likely to accept Christ.

But there are at least two errors embedded in this reasoning, no matter how sincere it might be. The first is mistaking what the worship service is for. The second is mistaking what changes people.

Who Is the Church For?

One of the reasons Christians have such diverse opinions about the elements in a worship service, from the service’s style to its substance, is that many don’t really know what the Bible teaches on the subject. Many of us assume that our gatherings can be any way we want them to be.1

But the Bible does provide guidance on what to do in our gatherings and who they are for. Look at one of the earliest church services, as seen in Acts 2:41–47:

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belong- ings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

This passage affirms, first of all, that the worship service existed almost exclusively for those who were already followers of Jesus.

Further, we note how the worship service is not really a program for individual Christians to get their weekly pick-me-up. Rather, it is a vital expression of the day-to-day “body life” enjoyed by the community of Christians in a given area. The big gathering was a more concentrated extension of their widespread “breaking [of] bread in their homes” (Acts 2:46). The gospel is reconciling news. It unites individual sinners to God and through that union unites sinners to each other. “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:41–42). Note how the personal sal- vation of verse 41 transitions to the interpersonal relations of verse 42, and then note how this connection circles back to even more gospel reconciliation through gospel witness in verse 47.

This suggests that for the early church the weekend worship service was vitally connected to the experience of Christian fellowship, which is to say, the weekend worship service was not designed nor intended primarily as an evangelistic event for unbelievers.

I believe this is one of the fundamental flaws of the attractional church paradigm. The whole enterprise begins with a faulty assumption, a wrong idea of what the worship gathering is and what the church is.

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul uses the word outsider (in vv. 16, 23–24) in reference to non-Christian visitors in the worship gathering. He says of course that our services should be clear to them in order to minimize the chance of confusion. He encourages hospitality and mindfulness about their presence in the service. But the very fact that he uses the word outsider should tell us that the unbeliever is not the primary audience of the weekend service.

Everyone who preaches should keep unbelievers in mind, addressing objections and questions that even skeptics might have to Christian truth claims. We ought to remember the preciousness of every unbelieving soul and seek to welcome them to the church service with grace and kindness. The Bible’s teaching on corporate worship does not allow us to put unbelieving visitors out of sight and therefore out of mind. Nevertheless, the Bible’s teaching on corporate worship also does not allow us to make unbelievers the focus of the service.

I know the seeker-focused approach to Sunday morning is widespread and influential, and I’m saying this is very unfortunate because it is also unbiblical.

The church is called to reach the lost, and we must be faithful. The church is called to be evangelistically hospitable and welcoming in its culture and evangelistically adaptable in its preaching and teaching. But the church’s primary worship service should be designed with the saved in mind, not the seeker.

What Does the Church Need?

Even if I haven’t convinced you yet, bear with me as I ask a couple follow-up questions. If Christians are meant to be the primary partic- ipants of the worship service, what do Christians need to participate fully? If we assume that God designed the church for Christians, what about our gatherings might be helpful or necessary for Christian believers?

What believers need from their churches, above everything else and in every element experienced, is nourishment from the Word of God. This is what drives my concern and criticism of the attractional model, and it is, at least in part, what makes the reduction of Bible use in attractional services so unhelpful. Reducing reliance upon the Bible or removing it from a worship service in favor of practical help or biblically inspired principles is a sure sign that you don’t know what a worship service is.

The church in Acts did not devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching simply because they found it culturally relevant or more interesting than other teachings. If that were the case, we could easily choose another philosophy that is just as relevant or more interesting to our imaginations. Instead, the church in Acts devoted themselves to the teaching because they knew that nothing could be more important than hearing from God.

And the early church believed, as Jesus said, that the only way to live is to feed on God’s Word (Matt. 4:4).

In 2008, Christianity Today reflected on the results from Willow’s REVEAL survey, commenting on one of the “revealed” dysfunctions in the church’s approach to discipleship: “The study shows that while Willow has been successfully meeting the spiritual needs of those who describe themselves as ‘exploring Christianity’ or “growing in Christ,’ it has been less successful at doing so with those who self-report as being ‘close to Christ’ or ‘Christ-centered.’”

Is it enough simply to get sheep in the pasture while leaving them thereafter unfed?

This occurs by design in the attractional church. I was once involved in a lively exchange on Twitter with an attractional church apologist, and he was making the case that we should treat the worship gathering like an evangelistic conversation with the lost. His case began, “Imagine you are in a coffee shop with an unbeliever.”

I responded (basically), “I don’t have to imagine that. I’ve been in that coffee shop and other places like it numerous times.” My point was that you don’t have to treat the worship service like a coffee shop conversation if you’re actually engaged in coffee shop conversations with unbelievers. Eventually, we both agreed that evangelistic conversations in coffee shops (or elsewhere) don’t need to sound like sermons. The point where we diverged was whether the gathering of the saints for worship should be reduced to a coffee shop conversation with a lost person. I argued that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the worship service is. This misunderstanding only breeds more errant practices, like the habit of conducting worship gatherings without any reference to the Bible, as if our very existence does not center on the power and authority of the Word of God.

People on all sides of this debate will agree that the message moves people. The pulpit is the prow of the church. Where it goes, the church will go.

Do we want the church to move in a direction that emphasizes that the church exists to meet their needs (consumerism)? Or do we want the church to understand the Bible as the central, most authoritative, most life-giving well of revelation available to them?

This is an excerpt from my brand new book The Gospel-Driven Church: Uniting Church Growth Dreams with the Metrics of Grace, which releases tomorrow, March 12. This is the final day to pre-order the book and receive free bonus resources. Go to thegospeldrivenchurch.com for details.