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)

The Most Frustrating Thing About Being a Pastor

Shepherding a church can be an incredibly frustrating work. As a pastor you do your best to lead in accordance to God’s word. You seek his wisdom and his direction for his church. You preach your heart out week after week hoping to be catalyst for spiritual growth or even revival. Yet, the road to achieving that vision seems dark, lonely, and filled with bruises. Shepherding God’s church is not for the faint of heart. It takes guts, endurance, patience, and above all the work of the Spirit of God. I guess that is what I find the most frustrating thing about being a pastor. Despite all my efforts and all my labor, all I can do is plant or water the seed of the Gospel into the hearts of my people. I cannot cause the growth. In this since, the Pastor is impotent and unable to cause true revival and awakening in the hearts of his people, no matter how much he may long for it. The hardest part about leading a church is not the teaching, the meetings, the counseling, or the criticisms. The hardest part is waiting on the Lord.

Week after week, month after month, and year after year, the pastor stands before the people proclaiming the whole counsel of God to his people hoping that the seed scattered would take root and grow. Often God doesn’t work in our time table, but God works slowly over time. Revival is great and spiritual awakenings are wonderful but they are an extraordinary working of the Spirit’s work in a condensed amount of time. When it comes to revival in a local church, normally that revival comes slowly over many years of faithful Gospel teaching that exhorts, challenges, and admonishes.

The pastor cannot make spiritual growth happen anymore than he can direct the wind with a baton. The wind blows where it wishes, so it is with the Spirit. Perhaps God will move unexpectedly and profoundly in revival. Perhaps not. Yet, let us pastors not resort to gimmicks, fads, and entertainment in attempt to manufacture it. May we trust in those ordinary means of grace God has ordained to grow his church. Trust the Word to work and let the Spirit move in his time.

God’s sovereignty over the spiritual growth of our people can be so very frustrating, but so very hopeful. God’s work in our churches is not dependent upon our gifting, talents, or abilities, but rather on the omnipotent will of God. This truth brings us to our knees in prayer, trusting in God for growth not in ourselves. It gives us confidence to stand before our congregations each week and preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ not knowing that at any moment the glorious light of God might pierce through the darkened veil over our peoples eyes and grant them to see the excellency of Jesus. In our frustration, may we humble ourselves before God in prayer trusting in His Word to pierce the hearts of His people, all the while having confidence in God’s ability to work in us and through us.

Two Ways to Roar the Flame of Your Sizzling Heart

The human heart is a strange creation. Its beautiful yet so greatly distorted from the Fall from the creators intentions. How much of our emotions, feelings, and affections have been twisted due to sin? Within my own heart the struggle for holy motivation can be a perplexing struggle.  Like Paul in Romans 7, what I continually wish I would do I have no desire for. Though I rationally understand I should seek the things of God, my heart almost buckles in confused anxiety at the task. The roaring furnace of affections for Jesus seem to diminish to a cooling ember. The longer I live as a human being and the longer I live as a Christian, I find myself convinced of my own depravity. The more I grow in holiness the more I'm also aware of my own sinfulness. I'm convinced that I must desire God and long for him, but how can I force myself when I don't? Isn't that the bondage of ritualistic legalism? Can I conjure up desire for God when I feel apathetic towards him? Is the Christian life a continual struggle for desire?

I believe Jonathan Edwards was right when he argued that "true religion consists in great part in holy affections". Within my person the affections are what fuels my thoughts, actions, and motives. My affections are what propels me.  Because of my own sinfulness, left apart from Christ my sinful heart leads me to destruction, but thanks be to God that I'm given new affections alongside a regenerated heart!

Though I possess these new affections, as I've been born again, the old affections come up time and again. Regularly I find my desires for the things of this world creep into attempt to overtake my desire for Christ.  The fight for the Christian life is within – between the old man and the new.  To die to self is the great calling of every Christian, and it is a calling only able to be achieved by divine grace.

So what are we to do when the old affections seem to suffocated the new? How do we wage ware against the old man? Let me share with you two primary ways.

1. Get on Your Knees in Prayer

First, we must get on our knees.  Because our new affections for Christ come from a heart regenerated by the Spirit, we must pray for revival within our own hearts.  We must fall on our face and cry out for divine mercies anew.  Though we desire him not, we must call out to the one we hope to desire.  And he is faithful to help his poor children have hearts which long for him. The hungry poverty-stricken sinner is filled with the righteousness of holy affections a fresh.  Yet, prayer is the means God has ordained to give them to us, because the prayer of desperate and pleading faith glorifies God as we express our dependency.  God gives grace to the humble. Those who come to him empty-handed as beggars will quickly find their hearts revived yet again by divine grace.

2. Kindle Your Heart with the Scriptures

Second, we should kindle our hearts with the word of God. Though sometimes our hearts grow cold, we need them lit again. Though we cannot start the fire of passionate desire for God (only the Spirit can do such work), we can set the kindling of his word around us. Often when we begin to pick up our Bibles or read through the Psalms, the Spirit comes to set ablaze our hearts.  The Spirit works alongside the Bible. The Bible kindles our affections, preparing for the Spirit to renew and refresh our weary hearts.

So if you are struggling this day to desire God and if the old man seems to be overcoming the new, get on your knees and saturate your heart in the word.  You will find that as you do, in time God will send the fire of heaven to your soul to light your affections ablaze again.  The wind of the Spirit will blow upon the cooling embers of your heart and cause the flame to roar again.

The Unpredictable Holy Spirit

"The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." - Jesus (John 3:8) The Spirit of God is wild.  It cannot be tamed.  It cannot be controlled or manipulated.  It cannot be scheduled or planned.  The spirit blows where it blows, just like the unpredictable wind.  In the greek there is an obvious word play taking place as Jesus says this, because the word for wind and spirit are the exact same word.  Jesus is comparing the Holy Spirit to the mysterious wind.

The Spirit Cannot Be Controlled

We try so hard to control the Holy Spirit don't we?  We try to organize every aspect of our worship services so that emotions run high.  We plan out a dynamic change in our worship music at just the right moment in order to try to control the Spirit.  However Jesus makes it clear.  The Holy Spirit cannot be controlled.  He is wild and untamed.  The Spirit does what the Spirit wills.  Our pitiful attempts to try to control the Spirit is like trying to cage the wind.

The Spirit Cannot Be Scheduled

We like results instantly don't we? If we want our food, we want it now.  So fast food restaurants are every where.  If we want movies we want them now, thus the whole rise of instant streaming movies and TV shows.  However the Spirit of God doesn't work on our time tables.  However, so often we forget this and in great arrogance we try to plan a revival.  We set aside a week out of the year and tell everyone, "Okay this week the Holy Spirit is going to bring a revival, so be sure to be here because we have a great speaker and good music!"  The Spirit of God does often work powerfully during those weeks, but I suggest that he does not do so because we put it on the schedule, but because people come with a sense of expectancy as they hear the Word of God preached day after day.  However, at the end of the day, the only way a true revival is coming to any church or people is if the Spirit of God decides to show up. This could be at any time and any place.  The Holy Spirit cannot be scheduled.

The Spirit Cannot Be Forced

So often we attempt to force the Holy Spirit to work in someones life.  This gets incredibly dangerous when pastors begin trying to manipulate people in order to come down the aisle and make decisions.  We try to force someone to accept Christ, even though the Spirit hasn't done a work in their heart and mind to show them the beauty of Christ.  You cannot force anyone to become a Christian.  You cannot manipulate someone into following Christ.  You share the Gospel boldly and often, and pray that the Spirit would come and change their hearts.  The Spirit comes when the Spirit wills, and the Spirit works in whomever the Spirit wills.  It is a mystery of God how and we cannot force the Spirit to work in other peoples lives.

The Spirit is like the wind, it blows where it blows.  We might hear the sound of the Spirit.  We might see the Spirit work powerfully, but ultimately the Spirit of God is a mystery to us.  You cannot bottle the Spirit up and use it as you will.  May we live our lives in prayerful expectancy that the Holy Spirit would bring revival to our churches and to our communities.  The Spirit of God is powerful, and we never know when he might move.  In fact, the Spirit might work in your church or through you at the most unexpected time.  Pray that God would send His Spirit and then wait in eager expectation for the Spirit of God to come in power!