Preaching in an Era of Spiritual Decline

From my youth, growing up in the church, preaching has always had a sort of glamour to me—the man of God ascends to the pulpit holding the congregation captive by the word of God. That image is riveting. However, the idealized picture of my youth has been tainted by much of what is considered to be preaching today.

  • The men of God seems to be in increasingly short supply. It seems each week brings new pastoral scandals of the increasingly salacious variety.

  • The pulpit to proclaim the word of God has been replaced in many churches by the barstool of self-help, as preachers usurp a verse of Scripture only to bounce off it like a diving board just to herald their own wisdom.

  • The congregation captive by the word of God is scarce, with far too many suffering from chronically itching ears.

Yet, this is not another blog post lamenting the state of preaching today. Instead, this post aims to find some comfort in the seemingly cyclical pattern of God’s people, going all the way back to Israel herself. Decline begins with a neglect of God’s word. Lacking discernment or wisdom, people accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions. God sends messengers of warning and calls for repentance, only for those messengers to be ignored and abused.

Jeremiah lamented his calling, even wishing he had not been born. His God-given message of warning earned him both derision and shame from his own people. In that sense, the word of God brought affliction to the preacher. He was given a message of judgment that earned him the ire of Israel, which boiled over in cruel persecution. In Jeremiah 15, he remembers how the word of God brought him great joy as he ate them—they were the delight of his heart. However, that word brought him isolation, rejection, and pain.

Ezekiel’s calling also replicates the of barren ministry pattern of the prophetic office. The Lord insisted that Ezekiel open his mouth and eat the scroll, a scroll filled with “lamentations, mournings, and woe” (Ezk 2:9). With the word of God in his belly, the Lord gives him a repeated command to preach that word faithfully even though “the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you” (Ezk 3:7).

These scriptural observations reveal a good deal about the nature of the ministry of the word; it is often barren and desolate, particularly during eras of spiritual decline. True preaching often brings suffering to the preacher as the people reject the true Word of God for the tickling words of false teachers. Yet, true preachers are called to preach God’s true words, no matter how they may be received. Silence is not an option, nor is twisting God’s word. Pastor’s are not privy to solicit marketing gurus to fabricate a message that will win them public appeal.

However, one would think the church of Christ would be different. After all, the church was birthed by the word of God. Yet tragically, the purity of Christ’s church has been so neglected post-Constantinianism that there are just as many in the church who recoil at the true preaching of the word as there are those who receive it gladly. The pattern of Jeremiah and Ezekiel is replicated in every church where there are more tares than wheat, goats than sheep.

When it comes to the western church, it’s no secret that we are in an epoch of spiritual decline. The size of the church is shriveling and the church’s influence wanes as the chaff of cultural Christianity is burned up by the inferno of secularization. Who knows how long this season of spiritual decline will endure. However, it’s during these eras of history that the men of God refuse to pollute themselves and continue to preach the whole counsel of God with fervor and zeal. We cannot manipulate the message to muster the masses.

Now more than ever, preachers must herald the word of God with greater intensity than ever. We must proclaim the wretchedness of human sin and the condemnation every soul is under. We must proclaim the spectacular love of God in the sending of Christ into the world in order to both bear the punishment of divine wrath and provide divine righteousness for fallen humanity. We must proclaim the necessity of the new birth, the response of repentance, and the necessity of faith. We must call the saints to holiness, obedience, and mission until Christ returns for his church. We must herald the surpassing beauty of God and the all-sufficiency of his grace provided to us in Christ.

Preachers who expound the word of God and proclaim this gospel may endure affliction, but such is the demand of all those called by God to herald the Word. It is a labor, but one in which we are compelled by the Spirit. “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). Christ has bid every believer to come and die. Why would the preachers of Christ escape this calling?

So preachers, may we keep a close watch on our life and our teaching. Let us not grow weary in the preaching of the gospel. Let us do it with love and patience, but also with boldness and urgency. If we long to see God bring a revival in our day, he will do so through preaching. It is the means by which God will build his church. May the Lord find us faithful in this most weighty of assignments, as we entrust him with the fruitfulness of it.

“Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” (Colossians 1:28–29, ESV)