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When it Comes to the Church, Only One Thing is Necessary

  • Jonathan Leeman
  • 2011 3 Mar
  • COMMENTS
When it Comes to the Church, Only One Thing is Necessary

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Leeman's new book, Reverberation: How God's Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People (Moody).

Like many children who grow up in church, I learned how to endure the blah-blah-blah of long sermons at a young age.

When you’re five or six, you survive them by scrutinizing everything within arm’s reach: the back of the head in  front of you, the misshapen ears, the offering envelopes which you fold into a tiny ball, the halflength pencils whose tips you break. Sometimes you poke your little brother, which provokes your mother and keeps things interesting.

When you’re fifteen or sixteen, you can listen to some of the blah-blah-blah, but your attention comes and goes. Maybe you daydream. Maybe you wonder what the other teenagers in the room think of you, introduction: especially the members of the opposite sex.

I also remember at this age watching the preacher walk around the platform. He would stroll to one side of the pulpit nonchalantly, as if he were walking up to you at a backyard barbeque. Then he’d amble to the other side of the pulpit, like he wanted to say hello to a family who just arrived. Sometimes he’d casually lean sideways with one hand resting on the pulpit. The whole thing intrigued me. It was so friendly and down to earth.

Of course, I wasn’t really listening to what he said. About the only thing I heard were illustrations about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. It was the 1980s, and the Bulls were on the rise. And we lived in a suburb of Chicago. Mention Jordan’s name and everyone would hop to attention. 

Yet let’s be honest. It’s not just the five-year-olds and fifteen-year-olds who struggle to avoid yawning in sermons. It’s adults, too.We all phase in and out. Maybe your brain gets stuck in a spin cycle about a conversation from yesterday. Maybe you start planning Sunday afternoon’s “to-do” list. To this day, I can catch myself tuning out, especially when the preacher mires down in some biblical lesson. But the moment that he begins telling a story, my ears perk up. Does that happen to you?

All of this causes a person to ask whether preaching is that important to the lives of Christians and churches.

The preaching didn’t make much of a difference in my life in high school, or in the lives of some of my friends and their parents. I left high school for college, quit attending church, and jumped into the party scene. So did many of my friends. By God’s grace, I came back to Christ and to His church after college. But many of those friends did not. Today they are stuck in agnosticism, materialism, alcoholism, and more. Many of the parents I looked up to are now divorced.

What good did all those sermons do?

Something with More Octane?

It makes you wonder: Isn’t there something with a little more octane for powering life and growth in our churches than a guy standing up front talking?

My guess is that many Christians today want sermons and songs that are true and broadly biblical, yet for many of us, rightly or wrongly, a strong ministry of the Word is not a top priority.When we first walk into a church, our attention fixes on other things, like the style of the music, the availability of good children’s programming, or even the look and feel of the room. Honestly, we can evaluate churches like people evaluate trendy urban restaurants—“how’s the ambiance?”

Meanwhile, church leaders, to the extent that they oblige our interest in other things, seem to have lost confidence in the ministry of the Word. Sure enough, the answers you’ll find in books and conferences for church leaders have them looking every which way. They’re told they need better lay visitation, more dynamic worship, holistic small groups, more participatory decision making, better personal accessibility, adequate parking, solid financial resources, attractive programs, the presence of the Holy Spirit, passionate spirituality, gift-oriented ministry, speaking in tongues, visionary leadership, strategic leadership, empowered leadership, loving relationships, contemporary worship, God-exalting worship, high-impact worship, creative worship forms, liturgical reverence, a vibrant public witness, incarnational ministries, missional living, contextualized outreach, a sophisticated knowledge of culture . . . and the list goes on.

Are any of these things bad? Not at all. Most are fine or even good. The question is, Where are we placing our confidence? As Christians, we believe God created the universe by His Word. We’ve heard about Ezekiel bringing dead bones to life with words. And we know Paul commanded Timothy to “Preach the word.” Yes, yes, we know all that. But . . .

Let’s be realistic. Our day is a day that’s captivated by images. It’s an age for the eye, not the ear.“Give us flat  screens and big screens,” the people say. “Give us satellite feeds and video-on-demand.” It’s how our brains are wired. My oldest daughter learned the alphabet when she was three from a family of frogs by watching a video called “The Letter Factory.” I didn’t mean for this to happen. But I hit “play,” and it happened. What can I say? She’s now been conditioned by video. It’s how she learns.

Church leaders are catching on. I remember learning about “faith” in one devotion by watching a movie clip with Harrison Ford, where he steps off a cliff and onto an invisible bridge to save his dad’s life. I can still remember the picture.

Of course it’s not just video clips that people want to see. They want to see good deeds in action. People today are enamored with authenticity, which means being something, not saying something. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a young Christian repeat those words attributed to St. Francis,“Preach the gospel  at all times; when necessary, use words.”

Surely images have more octane than words. A picture’s worth a thousand words, we say.And seeing is believing. Haven’t you ever found yourself midway through a movie, and sympathetic with the main characters, only to realize that you don’t know their names? But you certainly know their faces.

The Most Powerful Force in the Universe

How important, really, is preaching the Bible to the life and existence of local churches? Not important? Kind of important? One of several things that are important?

My guess is that, if you’re a Christian, you pay at least lip service to the idea that God’s Word is important. Yet my first goal in this book is to help you see theologically and practically how uniquely essential it is. I want to help you see that God’s Word, working through God’s Spirit, is God’s primary instrument for growing God’s church. In fact, God’s Word is the most powerful force in the universe. God created the universe through His Word (Gen. 1:3). He is recreating it through His Word (2 Cor. 4:6). And He sustains all things by His Word (Heb. 1:3).

God speaking involves all three persons, as the Father speaks through the Son by the Spirit. All three wonderfully conspire to pour forth their power through speech, to accomplish their single will through words.

What’s more, God creates and grows His church through His Word, which is the second goal of this book. God grows us as individuals and as local churches through our ears.

Then again, maybe you “know” all that. If so, it’s worth asking whether that confidence translates into how you choose a church, or how you try to lead, structure, and grow your church if you’re a church leader.

Let me put it like this. Picture in your mind some church you have known. Now, for just a moment, take away the programs. Take away the children’s nursery. Take away the parking lot and the musical instruments and the bulletins. Take away the building. Take away everything but the people of the church itself. Imagine all these members of the church standing together in a field. If you like, you can imagine it’s a sunny day and that nobody’s getting wet. Make the field as nice and flowery as you like. The point is, all you have are the people.

Once you have this church in your head, ask the question: What do we need to grow this church in both numbers and spiritual depth? Do we need the building back? Or the musical instruments or bulletins? What must we have?

Surely we need some water for baptizing people. And somebody needs to bring the bread and cup for the Lord’s Supper. Both of these things are necessary for constituting the church as a church. Some people might also say that particular ministerial offices are necessary for constituting the church as a church, but let’s leave that question aside for the moment. What’s absolutely necessary for life and growth?

Answer: God’s Word working through God’s Spirit. Somebody has to pick up a Bible and read it. And someone has to explain it so that people will understand it.When this happens, the Spirit begins to work upon people’s hearts, causing them to believe the words and give a proper weight to them. The people then repeat the words in their songs and prayers.They discover, most remarkably, that they can speak to God as guided by these biblical words. They also repeat the words of God to one another throughout the week. They  help each other discern His will for their lives. Then their lives begin to be shaped by the words, so that they begin to live differently at work and at home. They discover that these words are lifegiving, hope-giving, and love-producing.

So they run and call others who have not yet heard these words to hear them. Words produce actions, and then those actions and words work together to give witness to the power of God to salvation, a salvation that begins now and stretches into eternity.

Leaving aside, as I say, the issues of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and ministerial office, what do we see in this picture of these people standing in our imaginary field? We see the church forming and coming to life.We see it growing. I’m not saying that any of the things that we removed from the picture are bad, and that we should not use them. I assume that church buildings, musical instruments, nurseries, and maybe even a few programs are good gifts from the Lord. God can and does use microphones, charismatic leaders, bulletins, a pleasant ambiance, and sometimes, perhaps, denominational structures. The point is, none of these things is necessary, because none of these things is the source of a church’s life and growth. They’re all extraneous or instrumental, and we cannot let them jump to the top of the priority list.

What about obedient lives—aren’t they necessary? Surely, but the key is to recognize that God has a different  role for words and actions. Words create; actions are the creation. You see the same division of labor in Genesis 1 between words and physical matter.Words created; the physical universe was the creation. Now, apply that division of labor to the spiritual universe: spiritual words create spiritual actions.

True spiritual life is produced in the heart only when the Father speaks with creation power through the Son and by the Spirit. I’m not talking about reading magic incantations. I’m talking about the power of God for giving light to the mind, affections to the heart, and freedom to the will, which then move hands and feet into holy action.

Surprisingly, even lives of love and holiness are finally inadequate for knowing God apart from the spoken word, since words are necessary for “translating” or “interpreting” such love and holiness. People can talk about the “transformative power” of love, but apart from words about God, all such transformation is finally secular or godless. If you act kindly toward me, I’m going to praise you, not God. My opinion of God will not change one bit. You must say to me, “Don’t thank me. Thank God who is kind and teaches me to be kind.” Our invisible God is only known through His Word.

The same is true of baptism or the Lord’s Supper. Unless these pictures or symbols are explained, a person cannot know what they mean.Words must accompany them in order to give them meaning.

One Thing Is Necessary

“One thing is necessary,” Jesus said to Martha as she bustled away serving the party, unlike Mary “who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” (Luke 10:39, 41). Jesus’ rebuke of Martha catches us off guard, because it seems obvious that acts of service are better than words. Actions speak louder than words, we say. And talk is cheap. Yes, but Christianity begins not with what we do, but with the announcement of what God has done. Furthermore, it’s only words that can challenge our self-rule. Melodies or visual images can inspire us, encourage us, or cause us to grieve. But only words can command us to surrender control of our lives and yield them to Christ. We’ll discuss this idea further in subsequent chapters.

One thing is necessary in our churches—hearing God’s Word through preaching, reading, singing, and praying.

What about the power of sight? What about the fact that people today have been conditioned by an image-driven marketplace?

There’s nothing new here. People have always been driven by sight.The Israelites felt fear at the sight of Goliath. The lover feels attraction at the sight of his beloved in the Song of Solomon. The temple was decorated with bronze pomegranates and gold flowers. And the apostle John warns his readers about “the desires of the eyes” (1 John 2:16). Sight moves people. It draws them and repulses them. That’s how God created us.

At the same time, we live in the “age of the ear,” as my friend Mark Dever calls it, an age that extends from Adam and Eve’s eviction from the garden of Eden to Christ’s final return. After Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, God withdrew Himself from the sight of all humanity. He forbade His people from making any representation of Him. And He permitted His favored prophet, Moses, only to see His back. Christ did appear among men, but even here the only physical description we get comes from one Old Testament prophet’s characterization of what Jesus didn’t look like: He had no majesty or beauty that we should desire to look at Him (Isa. 53:2). The Gospels themselves give us nothing of what Jesus looked like. Apparently the  Bible doesn’t want us to focus on the sight of Jesus.

One day, of course, this will all change.The Lord Himself will descend from heaven, His people will be caught up with Him, and we will“see him as he is” (1 John 3:2;1 Thess. 4:16).Yet until that day, we cannot see God, we can only hear from Him, His prophets, and His apostles. We come to know him not through sight but through sound, the sound of His Word read and taught. 

I’m glad that we Christians affirm the authority of God’s Word in our theology books. But now we need to fight  for faith in His Word, particularly in how we approach what’s central in our churches. Church leaders need to  fight for faith in His Word. Christians need to fight for such faith. It’s all too easy to put our faith in the things which more visibly and immediately draw people.

Reverberation

At the same time, a loss of confidence in God’s Word is not the only error to avoid. If we shift our gaze to the more doctrinally selective churches, particularly of the Reformed variety, we will hear strong affirmations of the “ministry of the Word” and “building the church on the Word.” And typically these phrases refer to the teaching ministry of the Sunday morning pulpit. The problem here, however, is that God’s Word is not always  massaged throughout the life of the congregation, like yeast through dough. People show up on Sunday for the sermon, and often do little more.The ministry of the Word stops at noon.

This book, however, hopes to illustrate that the “ministry of the Word” indeed begins in the pulpit, but then it must continue through the life of the church as members echo God’s Word back and forth to one another. The word reverberates, as in an echo chamber. In a real echo chamber, sound reverberates off walls. In the church, it’s the hearts of people that both absorb and project the sounds of His effectual Word. Putting it like this first occurred to me when Tim Lane, director of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, was talking about the “ministry of the Word” in an interview I did with him for the 9Marks eJournal. Tim said this:

The ministry of the Word doesn’t stop [with the preaching]; it continues throughout the church. The discipling ministry, the children’s ministry, the youth ministry, the missions work, the worship ministry, the friendships and families—all of this operates on the same page by being Word oriented and Christ centered. Elders and deacons are taking the Word into their work. Parents are learning to bring the gospel into how they train their kids. Husbands and wives are thinking about the centrality of the gospel as they relate to one another. And the list goes on and on.

Hearing Tim’s words, I couldn’t help but think of reverberating words.

Picture it this way.The evangelist or the preacher opens his mouth and utters a word, God’s Word. But the Word doesn’t sound just once. It echoes or reverberates. It reverberates through the church’s music and prayers. It reverberates through the conversations between elders and members, members and guests, older Christians and younger ones. God’s words bounce around the life of the church, like the metal ball in a  pinball machine.

But the reverberating words shouldn’t stop there. The church building doors should open and God’s words should echo out the doors, down the street, and into the members’ homes and workplaces.The reverberations of sound that began in the pulpit should eventually be bouncing off the walls in dining rooms, kitchens, and children’s bedrooms; off gymnasium walls, cubicle dividers, and the insides of city bus windows; through e-mails, text messages, and Internet pages.

The goal of this book is to follow this path. We are going to take a theological and practical look at how God’s Word establishes the church and grows it.The Word grows the church as unbelievers are saved and baptized into it, and then it grows church members in their life together. My hope for church leaders reading this book is that they will grow in their conviction of what they must do to build a church. And my hope for all Christians reading it is that they will grow in their conviction of what they need and therefore require in their churches.

Nothing New Here

Many of the books being published about the local church these days are looking for something new—some  new way to engage with the culture, some new way to structure our churches, some new way to appeal to outsiders. And surely there is a place for such conversations. But I’d propose that churches become healthy and Christians become vibrant through the same things today as they did in New Testament churches: through evangelizing, preaching, teaching, singing, praying, and discipling one another with God’s Word. True life, kingdom life, exciting life, will be created in our churches through nothing new, but through something quite old.

My plan, therefore, is to point to stuff that is really old, really good, and really powerful. I begin in chapter 1 by introducing the topic with the evangelist, who is the first to speak God’s words of life-giving power. It might have made better sense to begin the book with a theological foundation of the Word, but I’ve held that off until chapter 2, because I want to start with real-life pictures of the Word in action before asking what’s happening behind the scenes.

With that foundation in place, the rest of the book follows the path of the reverberating Word. Chapter 3 traces it into the individual’s heart. Chapter 4 watches it gather the local church. Chapters 5 to 7 listen to its reverberations in the sermon. Chapters 8 to 10 follow the Word through music, prayer, and discipleship. Finally, we’ll cycle back to evangelism once more as we consider the church’s mission and its purposes in scattering.

As we trace this single theme, like a needle and thread through the different patches of the church’s life, my prayer is that Christians and church leaders from every polity will be strengthened in faith in the sufficiency of  God’s Word.

Publication date: March 9, 2011