What Should You Do If You Don’t Think the Gospel Is Clearly Preached at Your Church?
Recently I offered posts on gospel preaching (here and here), including one piece that argued preachers should endeavor to be clear and plain with the most important message ever given to the world. “Almost” preaching the gospel or coming “close” is not good enough (see here).
Not surprisingly, that raises some questions for faithful Christians. One reader joined us on the porch with a few questions:
For one, practically, how is a church member to proceed if he or she realizes that the preaching in their church doesn’t meet these standards? Should they consult their pastor?
If so, what kind of ideas might this church member hear in defense of Biblical preaching that is not always explicitly gospel-centered? In other words, what are some of the reasons well-intentioned, well-educated, experienced, Christian preachers might give for not subscribing to these ideas?
And, finally, what if / when the congregant and the pastor/preacher don’t see eye-to-eye? (It’s somewhat difficult to imagine a pastor changing his entire approach to preaching based on a conversation with one member.) Do you then suggest that the member leave the church?
How to Proceed if the Gospel Isn’t Clear
First, assume the best. Assume the pastor intends to preach the gospel and intends to be clear enough that people may be saved. Too often we fall into the trap of assuming bad motives when, in fact, most pastors entered the ministry because they want to make the gospel known. So until you’re proven otherwise, assume the best.
Second, approach your pastor in person. Let them see your smile, hear the appreciation in your voice, and be reminded of your support over the years. This should be a conversation held between Christian family and friends. And in that spirit, approach at an appropriate time. The first time you raise this, don’t make it a public confrontation. No one wants to be accused of “not preaching the gospel”—especially when they had every intention of doing it.
Third, be gentle. Don’t say, “You don’t preach the gospel.” Keep in mind that a number of these near misses were efforts at communicating the good news. Instead, ask a humble, specific question. “Pastor, do you think the gospel was clear enough for someone who is unfamiliar with the Bible?” The specificity about clarity and audience frames the question in a way that assumes a good evangelistic motive and makes it more about winning people than criticizing pastors. So, be gentle in your approach.
Fourth, be ready to receive feedback on your listening. Remember: preaching is two-way communication. And your pastor has responsibility for tending your soul, a significant aspect of that is challenging you to hear better. So, be ready and willing to hear the pastor say that the problem might be, at least in part, with your hearing.
How Might a Pastor Defend Their Preaching?
Well, first, you gotta recognize that most pastors are sensitive about their preaching. It’s not because they’re prima donnas (always) or they think their preaching is perfect. It’s usually because we put a lot of ourselves into our preaching and we mean to “leave it all on the floor.” So preaching is a vulnerable act of faith—one man standing before many to proclaim the truth of God in a hostile world. That can make those few minutes at the door after the service a nerve-wrecking time! And the first response you get may be self-protective or defensive.
Apart from an initially defensive response, you’re likely to hear a simple, “Yes, I did.” Or and “I meant to.” Then there’s likely to be a reference to a part of the sermon where he alluding to Christ or the gospel as evidence of the gospel being there. Keep in mind: He intended those parts of the sermon to communicate the gospel. He may not recognize that the listener experienced it as a near miss.
Beyond the initial reaction, you may hear more thoughtful and theological reactions, too. Some pastors simply don’t believe the gospel must be preached in every sermon. They wouldn’t perceive a problem if a sermon omitted it. Other pastors maintain that preaching Christ or the gospel from every text is actually imposing Christ on the text. That’s a hermeneutical objection that, on the one hand, looks to be fair to texts in their context, but, on the other hand, fails to read the Bible the way Jesus did (see , for example). Christ is the ultimate point of the entire Bible.
Other pastors may argue that members should normally do the work of evangelism. There’s merit to that. But the two are not mutually exclusive. Or, there are pastors who have special programs, revivals and outreaches where they aim to do the bulk of their evangelistic work. Those efforts can be good. But, again, the two are not mutually exclusive. And if we’re not preaching the gospel during a sermon, what are we doing really? Still other pastors may say that they present the gospel separate from the sermon in an altar call. Many good men do that. But I think adding the gospel as a conclusion can suggest that what’s happening in the altar call is something different from what was happening in the 30-60 minutes of preaching, that the gospel is something being tacked on rather than the point of the passage. And I fear many times we train an audience—including the unsaved—to stop listening and close their Bibles when we present the gospel this way. It’s better to have them see Jesus in the scriptures.
Finally, perhaps a pastor looks out on a congregation that he considers to be entirely Christian and doesn’t think he needs to preach the gospel every sermon. That’s a failure to understand that Christians need the gospel for their assurance and sanctification as much as the unsaved need to hear it for their salvation.
What If You and the Pastor Don’t See Eye-to-Eye?
Recognize that he’s the one called to shepherd the congregation. As members, we’re not in a position to reform the church and we should be careful before we challenge our shepherds—especially those who are not opposed to the gospel but may have ways we’d hope to see them grow. I love the little quip that says, “If you want a better pastor, pray for the one you have.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that. An encouraged and prayed for pastor—though imperfect, as we all are—provides more to a congregation than the pastor churches sometimes imagine when they’re without a shepherd or unhappy with a shepherd.
While you’re being patient and prayerful, think about the difference between weakness and wickedness. If the pastor preaches another gospel or denies the biblical gospel, then says, “Let them be accursed.” That’s wickedness. Have nothing to do with such a teacher. The church should act to remove an unfaithful leader. And, if not, you should leave that church for the sake of Christ’s name, the gospel, your soul and the well-being of others who might otherwise continue under false teaching.
But if it’s simply a matter of understanding some things differently, then I think there are two possible courses before you. If the differences—though not heretical—are significant, then you may wish to graciously resign your membership and find a church more in keeping with your understanding. Do not be divisive. Do not sour others on the church. Peacefully communicate your appreciation for ways the Lord has used the church in your past, then find a gracious way to move to another congregation, hopefully with the pastor’s blessing.
If you can stay, then you want to patiently pray and wait. Don’t become a critic. Instead, encourage the pastor with specific comments about things you appreciate. Dwell on the evidence of grace in his life and ministry. And trust that the Lord may do slowly what you would rush. But don’t be faithless. Believe. Preachers do grow and change.
I love the anecdote one of my mentors, Mark Dever, often tells. He had just preached a sermon when a young member of the church, Bill, approached him at the door afterwards. He asked Bill what he thought of the sermon and Bill replied, “It was a good sermon. But I don’t think you actually included the gospel.” At first, Mark was certain that he had. But he went back to the audio, listened to the sermon, and sure enough he had not. He recommitted himself to making sure the gospel is clear every time he takes the pulpit. Many years later, Bill became an elder and they labor together with great unity and joy. Humble pastors receive constructive feedback and they grow as a result.
Give your pastor the benefit of the doubt. Serve him in kindness. Pray for him and his preaching. See what the Lord does. He may do more than you can even ask or think.
24:1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. 2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5 And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6 He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” 8 And they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, 11 but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.
13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” 25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, 34 saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
36 As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. 38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate before them.
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God. (ESV)
1:1 Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 and all the brothers who are with me,
To the churches of Galatia:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me. (ESV)