God Exposed: Awkward Preaching in a Comfortable Age

At Southeastern Seminary, gospel-centered expositional preaching is at the center of the vision for pastoral ministry that we are attempting to cultivate among our students. In an age of gimmicky, atheological, man-centered, self-help drivel–and that’s just in the evangelical pulpits!–we believe that local churches will not be healthy without exegetical, theological, applicational, evangelistic pulpit ministries. To this end, SEBTS and IX Marks Ministries are partnering to co-sponsor a preaching conference at SEBTS on September 25-26 titled God Exposed: Awkward Preaching in a Comfortable Age. Lord willing, this conference will be the first of nine such conferences–one for each of the nine marks articulated in Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church and promoted by IX Marks Ministries. The speakers include Danny Akin, Thabiti Anyabwile, Mark Dever, C. J. Mahaney, and Mike McKinley. For more information, check out this link. We hope to see you there.

On The GCR Declaration, Part 4

Lord willing, over the next few days I will be blogging through the GCR Declaration in anticipation of next week’s SBC Annual Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. This is the fourth article in the series. As you read, please remember that while Between the Time is a group blog that includes a number of Southeastern Seminary professors, these articles (and every article I write) represent my own personal opinions. I speak only for myself, so please avoid imputing my views to any of my fellow contributors unless they have publicly spoken/written about these matters and you can cite their agreement. The comments are open, but because of the large volume of blogging I will be engaging in this week you will understand if I choose not to interact with many comments.

Article VI: A Commitment to Biblically Healthy Churches

I love this article. The first paragraph rightly notes that Baptists care most about being “New Testament”. May this never change! It also mentions our churches are threatened by, “worldliness, laziness, faddishness, heterodoxy, arrogant sectarianism, and naïve ecumenism”. Agreed on all points, though I suspect we may have some intradenominational quibbling about each of them.

A few examples will suffice. I think one of the areas we are most “worldly” is in the lack of redemptive discipline in our churches, but others hear “worldly” and the first things they think of are alcohol and rock music. When I hear “faddishness” I think of much of church growth methodology, but others think of any music that’s not Southern Gospel. When I hear “arrogant sectarianism”, I think of any form of obnoxious Bapto-centrism and classically fundamentalist definitions of “biblical separation”, while others think any commitment to Baptist distinctives or separation from worldliness is sectarian. When I think of “naïve ecumenism” I think of the National Council of churches, but others think of the interdenominational evangelical movement or conferences like Together for the Gospel or the Gospel Coalition. Let’s hope our quibbling is Christ-like!

The second paragraph gives a good, brief summary of Baptist distinctives. With the sole exception of congregational church polity, which is opposed by some proponents of plural elders and some megachurch pastors, I doubt there would be much disagreement here. But–and this is a crucial “but”–we must not assume these Baptist distinctives, lest we lose them. And losing them would be tragic, not because of any unhealthy denominational narcissism, but because most of us believe these practices closely follow those of the earliest Christian churches.

The second paragraph also mentions a number of areas wherein our churches can improve: “a more responsible baptismal policy, the recovery of a redemptive church discipline, a healthier relationship between pastors and their people, and a commitment to an every-member ministry”. I offer a hearty “amen” on all four counts.

The third paragraph speaks of the missional nature of the church. This is a crucial mark of healthy churches that is absent in the vast majority of the congregations with which I am familiar. You could even argue that this very issue is why we need a Great Commission Resurgence. Too many of us simply do not see our churches, by definition, as both missionaries to our given regions and mission-sending agencies to the uttermost parts of the earth. This is a great tragedy and the direct fruit of the programmatic nature of SBC evangelism and the shallowness of so much of our gospel proclamation.

There is a lack of urgency in evangelism among Southern Baptist churches of every size, region, and theological persuasion. There is widespread confusion of “evangelism” with “program” or “visitation” and “missions” with “WMU” or “Cooperative Program”. (One pastor I know even argued last week that the key to a GCR is giving more money to the CP–as if the CP is itself missions/evangelism.) There are calls for us to have more “revivals” and use more “harvest evangelists” in our churches, as if a special meeting will make our churches more evangelistic and mission-minded. There are gripes that too many churches no longer do evangelism through the Sunday Schools, as if some strategy holds the key to missional renewal. There are complaints about all those Calvinists, as if a few hundred churches are the reason that some of our biggest (and decidedly non-Calvinist) churches hardly ever baptize anyone who isn’t in elementary school or an adult Methodist who wants to become a Baptist. Smokescreens, all.

I could go on, but I don’t think it would be that profitable. The bottom line is that Southern Baptists, generally speaking, are not an evangelistic denomination in the early years of the 21st century. There are lots of reasons for this, sin being the biggest. But our misunderstanding of the intersection between ecclesiology and missiology also plays a key role in this whole thing. We better wake up soon, or we will have much bigger problems than those oft-cited declining baptism statistics.

Article VII: A Commitment to Sound Biblical Preaching

There is some good stuff here. I note that the phrase “expositional” was not used, which I actually think is a good thing. Let me explain. It’s not that I’m opposed to expositional preaching–with very rare exceptions, it’s the only way I (attempt to) preach. The real problem is that almost everyone among us, with the exception of some of the seeker-driven guys and those with man-crushes on Andy Stanley, claim to preach expositionally, but don’t.

It is self-evident that relatively few of us actually know what an expositional sermon is. If you have any doubt about that, just attend virtually any denominational “preaching meeting”, whether it is the SBC annual meeting, a pastor’s conference, a state convention annual meeting, or an evangelism conference. You are almost as likely to hear an endorsement of the Democratic Party as you are an old-fashioned expositional sermon. There are of course some glorious exceptions to my generalization, and I expect this year’s Convention and Pastor’s Conference to showcase more expositional preaching than any such events in recent memory .

The term “expositional preaching” has become a denominational shibboleth, so I couldn’t care less if we use it. Defining good preaching is more important than labels. And I like the way the GCR Declaration defines good preaching:

Authentic preaching must develop systematically the Bible’s theological content. It should understand both the Old Testament and New Testament to be Christian Scripture that together communicates one grand narrative about the world’s creation, fall, redemption, and restoration, with the person and work of Jesus Christ as the climax of the Bible’s storyline.

I can’t say it much better, so I will let the document speak for itself.

I also appreciate that the GCR Declaration mentions the importance of application and invitation in preaching. Biblical preaching always applies the text to the lives of as many of the listeners as is possible (application can be the hardest part of sermon preparation because, Lord willing, there are loads of different types of people in the audience who need to hear differing types of encouragement, exhortation, or rebuke). Biblical preaching always invites–no, urges–sinners to turn from their sin and cast themselves upon the mercies of Christ. Whether this includes an “altar call” or not is adiaphora because the Holy Spirit does not convert through “public invitations”, but through the preaching of the Word. The point is that the sermon itself should be an urgent invitation to embrace the gospel or it is sub-Christian at best.