Why is it that there seems to be so little evidence of power in the preaching and teaching offered in our churches?
The question makes an assumption: Power is lacking.
The message might be biblical. And the Bible does say that the Word of God is powerful (Hebrews 4:12).
The lesson could be presented in a compelling manner. People respond positively. So, what’s the problem?
My answer is that our efforts seem to produce comparatively little change.
Granted, teaching has a cumulative effect. Yet, even factoring that in, for most of us life goes on and we function the same way day in and day out with little observable difference in our values or lifestyle.
Sometimes change is precipitated by a catastrophic event–a job loss, a major illness, a terrible accident. Such change can either draw us to God or push us away. And when the crisis is past the tendency is to revert to the familiar pattern disrupted by the trouble.
Here is another assumption: We need to change.
I fear that some, perhaps most, in the Christian community tend to think of change in the moral and spiritual realm as something that took place in the past. And the longer we are in the church the more likely it seems we will have such an attitude. Most of us are at best dimly aware of how much work God still needs to do to bring us to maturity, let alone the perfection he demands.
We could look at various areas in an attempt to come to grips with the problem.
For instance, the dominant culture has a profound affect on all of us. Christian people are far more tolerant of things like homosexuality and divorce than was the case a generation or two ago. As far as ministry is concerned, that has some advantages and disadvantages, for obvious reasons.
As a group we give generously compared to others but we are stingy relative to our wealth. Yet so many carry so much debt they wouldn’t think it possible to give more.
Materialism is so much a part of our value system that we have difficulty recognizing its presence. Preachers and teachers might make us feel guilty on occasion, but usually not guilty enough to make a significant difference in the way we live.
Then there is the “Christian culture,” which is expressed in concrete form in the church with which we are associated. We have our own brand of political correctness that encompasses everything from family and politics to education and entertainment.
Recently, my wife and I were invited to a “main line” denominationally affiliated church for a special Easter program. I had to check myself because I was fully prepared to be critical. It proved to be just the opposite. The production was one with which I would have been pleased to be associated. Yet I had to consciously refrain from looking for things I considered “wrong.” And that is just plain wrong. This sort of thing can be seen in many areas. If a democrat said it, it can’t be right. If a family has their children in public school there must be something wrong. Christian people watch movies today that their counterparts fifty years ago would have condemned. Use of alcoholic beverages has become commonplace.
At the same time, ministry to the poor has taken on great importance. Previous generations would not only have been less than enthusiastic, there would have been a strong suspicion that the church was compromising the gospel. We are more concerned about racial reconciliation than we ever were in the past.
Yet with all this I’m not hitting the target. We could legitimately write volumes about our inability to think biblically, our lack of desire to follow Christ wholeheartedly, the numerous ways we are regularly deceived – justifying that which will hurt us and shrinking from that which will help us. But rather than attempt to pile on the guilt, let’s think about this a little differently.
The Word is powerful. The Bible indicates that God’s basic way of getting that Word out is through proclamation. Yet there is something more. It is the Spirit of God who changes us as he applies the Word to our lives.
So if you preach or teach ask, “God, what do you want to say to me?” If we speak regularly it becomes difficult to let the Word through the Spirit work in us before we move on to the next thing. And the same thing happens with those who hear. The message is given and it seldom sticks with either the speaker or the listener.
With our hectic pace is it possible to slow down enough to let the Word simmer and then as the Holy Spirit might prompt to make it concrete in some way? It might be in a seemingly insignificant area. But if it’s something positive it could be picked up by a friend who has noticed the difference in us. Or it might become a challenge for a small group. In such ways we become conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.
That will make us attractive to some and cause us to be condemned by others. Peter talked a lot about suffering for doing good. The net effect will be that the Kingdom will grow.
When we enter the secular arena, whether it’s government, the ministry, business or school, we must be conscious of our own weakness. If nothing else it will help avoid a “holier than thou” attitude. Along with this we much become increasingly conscious of the way Christian values might influence what happens in our area of responsibility.
Think of the student who is teased because she’s still a virgin. Or the young man who refuses to help a friend cheat on a test. Such influences can propel us toward behavior we might otherwise shun.
What happens if you’re the person who befriends a person nobody else wants anything to do with? The risk is that you will be identified with him-an outcast.
We don’t need to think about changing a nation or even a church. We can pray that God will make us open to his Word and sensitive to his Spirit as we face the challenge of everyday living-the challenge of living with ourselves.