Monday, January 23, 2006

Should Pastors Target Their Preaching to Fix Their Church's Immediate Problems?

John MacArthur says no. In a Q&A from the series, "Insights into a Pastor's Heart: Convictions and Observations About Preachers and Preaching," he answers a question about how to cultivate a congregation's appetite for expositional preaching:
I would say do two things. Preach exposition that exalts Jesus Christ. Nobody will argue with that. So preach a gospel. Preach Hebrews. Preach Colossians. Preach particularly the gospels because the text is narrative largely, it has drama, it has pathos, it has interest. Rather than going in there and say, doing a series on the church or a series, you know, trying to change the church, preach Christ. Exalt Christ.

And secondly, preach material that is going to have a dramatic effect on their own spiritual lives. And if they see the power of the Word of God to change their lives, they'll be open to the power of God to change their church.
Exalting Christ is critical. It should be being done all the time anyway. And then I think emphasizing the things that change peoples lives before you go in and try to restructure the church, and I did that by getting into Ephesians. And Ephesians [shows us how] we were once dead in trespasses and sins and how the Lord had changed our lives, and now we need to walk worthy. And we got into all of that, and we saw the Lord begin to change some lives, and then they were eager to have Him change the church. And it was after that that I went into the book of Acts and showed how the church ministered. And then I went into 1 Corinthians to show them what the church needed to be, and we got more refined in that area.

So I would say, exalt Jesus Christ. Lift up Christ, and lift up God.


joy mccarnan | said...

Not so sure that no deliberately-targeted preaching is really what Bro. MacArthur is dismissing when he mentions "trying to change the church." I understand that trying to change the church should not be the preeminent goal -- God will take care of that (IF He wills, according to Hebrews 6:3), in the process of the preaching of Christ.

But I also don't assume that everyone tries to change the church in the same way. Some pastors feel burdened to address immediate issues with the tools they have been given for shepherding, no? I.e., Christ-centered exegesis, preaching through the Word and allowing it to do its job.

But I don't see a huge disparity between what Bro. MacArthur is saying and the only real reality of what pastors CAN count on when they have immediate problems in their church that indeed ought to be targeted (and ought to be targeted by right preaching).

Correct me, if I'm misreading into your words ("John MacArthur says no") a misplaced rendering of what he was saying. In my view, the two (exalting Christ/lifting up God AND preaching that targets churches' immediate problems) are NOT mutually exclusive if you have a proper view (like John MacArthur's as explained above) of preaching in the first place. He is speaking to how to cultivate in your people a taste for right preaching. I agree that he's not for topical preaching or secondary agendas, but I don't think he's saying we ought to avoid preaching that deliberately targets specific problems in the church.

We have a motto here at Morning Star: "The Word Works." Preaching Christ is the only truly effectual hope for any worthwhile solution to existing problems in a church.

joy mccarnan | said...

In short, I disagree with your assessment. I don't think John MacArthur is saying no to that question. I think he may simply be presenting an alternative to the human-agenda-driven or comfort-agenda-driven approach that does not acknowledge God's agenda and the Scripture's sufficiency.

Ben said...

Well, you might disagree with him, but I really think that is what he's saying. I've heard him speak to this point often enough to be convinced that his opinion and the overwhelming pattern of his preaching ministry is that you preach what is in the text as you encounter it as you systematically "unleash God's truth one verse at time." That's why he draws the distinction between preaching books of the Bible and preaching targeted series on the church or how to change it.

It's also why he said this: "And we got into all of that, and we saw the Lord begin to change some lives, and then they were eager to have Him change the church."

joy mccarnan | said...

Well, you are correct that I've never heard him speak to this point before and may simply disagree with him, rather than you. =} And I do assume too much often, so maybe I'm guilty again of assuming too much.

1. I thought I did know him well enough to know that if he were aware of an immediate problem in his church, he would acknowledge and address it. (I assume, of course, that you are referring to immediate problems of a public and church-wide nature that would be pulpit-worthy.) That duty to address and correct and prevent error is, after all, one of a shepherd's duties. It also seems quite Pauline. Gossip or immorality were not the main reasons he wrote particular letters to the churches, but he did not neglect them--he acknowledged them and applied the Gospel of Christ to them.

2. I would assume, too, that he would address any problems in his church with Scripture, and that rightly exposited, in the Christ-centered, Word-driven fashion explained above.

I would agree that cheesy topic-driven messages or series whose preeminent goal is to effect a particular change in the church. When he spoke of series or topic-driven messages, I assumed he was referring to those who would handle Scripture wrongly and fail to exalt Christ -- or make every passage of Scripture sound like it denounces a pet peeve of theirs or beats their favorite drum (music, creationism, alcoholism, politics, revivalism, growing the church numerically). I like to think John MacArthur had in mind these others when he says, "you know, trying to change the church."

I have a hard time believing that he would lump into that same category people like my pastor who openly acknowledge and occasionally deliberately target immediate issues, using the proper means--Christ-exalting exposition of the Word. I don't think he would have a hard time with a series that preaches straight through Romans 1-5 but that acknowledges a thematic relevance (the importance of truth in the lives of believers, and how truth is relevant and what it's supposed to be working in the heart of believers during trials). I just don't think Bro. MacArthur would see a disparity between what my pastor does on a regular basis and lifting up Christ or unleashing God's truth one verse at a time. It's the right kind of preaching (it does exalt Christ, it does exposit verse-by-verse), and it addresses current needs in the local body.

A matter of semantics? Maybe. Is "target" all that different from "address" or "acknowledge" or "correct"? Does "target" indicate that the series' sole goal is to tackle a problem at the expense of proper exegesis? Well, if that's the case, then you know I'd agree with your assessment of what he said. I just think it's funny that I agree with him about exalting Christ but that I disagree that it needs to be to the exclusion of dealing rightly with problems in the church. How ought public/church-wide problems in the church be handled, otherwise?

And I'm sorry I've written yet another dissertation on your blog. (I know, I know -- I should get my own, or something.) I just have a hard time fathoming that Bro. MacArthur would or did really mean to say (a) we shouldn't target existing immediate problems in the church (b) with Scripture faithfully presented. We wouldn't say Paul preached/wrote non-Christ-centered messages just because he dealt with specific, immediate problems. Paul dealt with problems in a Christ-centered way, which is exactly why it works for today's shepherds to preach through the Word and expect it to do its work.

Ben said...

I our disagreement may be semantics. I took MacArthur to be talking about preaching "Whack-a-Mole"® series about various systemic problems (attendance, giving, gossip, etc.) in a church in which a pastor senses a given problem, hits it with some Bible, then another problem pops up, so he has to hit that one with another series. Those kinds of issues can be addressed through systematic exposition since relevant principles appear throughout Scripture and can be applied specifically.

I didn't take him at all to be talking about immediate problems of a public and church-wide nature. That sounds more like a pressing/discipline kind of scenario.

joy mccarnan | said...

Well, and what about a series on the sovereignty and providence of God that responds to problems that a church congregation is currently undergoing or learning how to live in light of? A tsunami series would be a case in point. Or guiding a church along in the aftermath of a near-split. Or shepherding a church in a town where the main factories are laying off employees right and left and the majority of your congregation are suddenly unemployed or soon will be. Or your church takes in some new believers who are very different (either background-wise or culture-wise) and needs direction on how to include and disciple and love them. Or maybe people have slacked off in the area of showing hospitality to one another, or maybe they're reading books rather than reading their Bibles faithfully. Preaching is worship, I agree. But it is also to be corrective and applicable immediately. I guess that's where I'm coming from. I forget sometimes that I enjoy a unique situation and am not plagued by worst-case-scenario examples by default.

Jason said...

I think what MacArthur is espousing is similar to, if not exactly, what John Calvin did. When Calvin left his pulpit on Easter Day, 1538, he was bannished by the City Council. When he returned in September 1541, over three years later, he picked up the exposition in the next verse and continued therein.
One could question whether or not Calvin should have started a series on "Persecution" or "the Sovereignty of God" or "Prayer" or "What to do when your Pastor is bannished ;-)"... I have every confidence that Calvin could have preached those series accurately and the messages, no doubt, would have met a specific and immediate need for the whole congregation. However, I believe he saw the wisdom in the systematic, expositional teaching of God's Word.
My pastor has been in Romans for six years, and has given testimony to the fact that he has never had to depart from the "next verse". Because the Word does in fact, work... it has addressed and met every issue/crisis/struggle over the past six years without him departing from the sound expositional/exegetical teaching of Romans.

joy mccarnan | said...

I acknowledge that I'm picking at semantics. And I'm extremely glad another man (in addition to Ben) has joined the conversation. =}

My point, although I must be completely unable to articulate it, was simply that I don't see why "systematic, expositional teaching of God's Word" has to be put at odds with legitimate addressing of problems in the church. Seems to me that, done rightly, the two go hand in hand. There is no need to dichotomize.

"Systematic, expositional teaching of God's Word" does not mean you have to start in Genesis and plow through with no flexibility or change to accommodate the particular needs of one's congregation. You can still preach through a deliberately-chosen book, preach through it systematically, expositionally. And it's ok to acknowledge current needs and to allow the thematic content of the book through which you're preaching to address those needs.

I doubt Calvin preached a series on persecution or banishment--granted. (We are agreed, I'll reiterate, that series for the sake of series, and topical for the sake of topical, are bads.) But I've no doubt that he acknowledged reality (which is going to include problems) and brought his systematic preaching to application in matters immediately at hand.

I simply do not see how/why the two must be mutually exclusive. Shepherds are to watch out for their sheep. The only real solution to problems in their churches (i.e., the only way to rightly watch out for their sheep) is the Word, rightly preached. Can't you therefore preach the Word systematically AND have faith that it is just what your congregation needs for its particular problems? Hand in hand.

But maybe I'm just a crazy girl. And maybe Ben should exile me from the accepted-commenters list. =}

david said...

i've been following, but not commenting, on this discussion, partly because i can't figure out if joy and ben disagree. but i think joy has the right point.

the most recent example: on Sunday, pastor John preached a message that was basically just on finances and giving. he'd been in Luke 16 for like 3 or 4 weeks.

what many don't know is that about 3 years ago, they did a study thing that discovered 90% of the giving came from 15% of the people. the message was not foreign to the text, but it was certainly aimed at an issue in the church.

so in the natural exposition of the text, there was a place for some direct teaching on a known issue.

hopefully that example of what happened reflects accurately the philosophy: preach sequentially, and you will be targetting immediate problems. not because you target the problems, but because in your priority to the text you find problems targeted by the Word.

3 years ago, pastor john didn't divert to a series on giving. he just kept preaching Luke. when he preached on Sunday, he addressed an issue with the full blessing of the Text.

since i'm not entirely sure where the discussion went/is going, i'll just let you factor this in it as you will. :-)