This is a follow up to my post and podcast about the high-profile defections of Christian leaders. This content is the opening chapter of a proposed book called Stunted. I’ve been around long enough to be considered a veteran pastor, and in this book, I’m dissecting 11 trends I see in the church that are keeping the church stuck in immaturity and vulnerability. Here is the first chapter of Stunted.
Trend 1: The Death of Expository Preaching
There were giants in the land. Crowds gathered. Hearts opened. The greatest message ever conceived among humankind pushed back the darkness and fueled generations of heaven’s ambassadors. Henrietta Mears, Ruben Archer Torrey, William R. Newell, Donald Grey Barnhouse, Harry Ironside, Ray Stedman, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, A.W. Tozer, Francis Schaeffer, Carl F.H. Henry. A legion more. Forgotten giants. They were nineteenth- and twentieth-century evangelical preachers and teachers of God’s invincible Word. They opened the Scriptures and invited audiences to open their Bibles with them. They brought forth treasures. Their listeners’ hearts burned within.
They were not known for charisma, humor, or eloquence. They did not promote themselves. They had no social media platforms. No gimmicks in their arsenal. Their clothing and style were conventional to a fault. Nothing hip. Nothing cool. They would describe themselves not as “visionary leaders,” but as expositors of the sacred Scriptures.
What each one had was a deep reservoir of theology coupled with a surgical ability to cut through a messy web of demonic lies, that they might stitch Scripture’s truth to the deepest part of their listeners’ souls.
Crowds did not follow them because they were glib story-tellers. Crowds followed them because they were fire hoses of doctrine, and the people were parched deserts, eager to be saturated with the living water of God.
They were Bible expositors first and foremost. They taught verse-by-verse, and sometimes word-by-word. They did not rush. They did not preach three messages in a row and call it “a series.” They lingered over great texts. D. Martin Lloyd-Jones preached 366 sermons on the book of Romans and 255 on the Gospel of John. His sanctuaries were as packed as his sermons.
They weren’t after a practical application that would last a few days and fizzle by Wednesday. They were simple without being simplistic. Nor did they manipulate emotion. They were after a slow, methodical transformation that would last a lifetime. They threw the Bible Bus into low gear, and churned up every inch of biblical pavement, slowly and methodically. Not hype. Not a pep rally. But the patient construction of a theological edifice in the soul that could withstand the storms of life, and uphold a beacon of the gospel in this tempestuous world.
They did not shy from the Scripture’s great theological vocabulary. When they ran across the word justification, they paused their exegetical progress to explain it. Not in a glib, simplistic fashion, but in its wondrous depths. They shifted the exegetical transmission into neutral. They traced out the all-important distinction between being declared righteous (justification, a crisis at salvation) and being made righteous (sanctification, a process post-conversion), thus preserving the only foundation for salvation by grace through faith. Having explained the word, they then explained exactly how it fit in the particular context of Scripture they were teaching. Their privileged listeners felt the wonder of what God had done for them. When finished, they put their teaching back in gear, and moved on to the next verse or phrase.
Meat, not milk.
They unfolded the glorious doctrines of redemption, propitiation, regeneration, and expiation. They painted indelible pictures of a God who was sovereign, omnipotent, and omnipresent. They reveled in the sacred vocabulary of faith, thus equipping listeners to read their Bibles with understanding, while simultaneously rehabilitating countless souls drunk on the devil’s lies.
They proclaimed Christ. They majored in the apostolic preaching of the Cross. They preached theology. They never shied away from deep truths, because they knew that it was only in the depths that their listeners would be “transformed by the renewing of their minds.”
Though they had great persuasive powers, these giants always pointed away from themselves to the authority of Scripture. “Don’t listen to me,” they said, “listen to God’s Word.” They put their finger on a word in Scripture, and said, “Look at that. Do you see what this means?” The eyes of their listeners looked down into their Bibles to find the truth, rather than up and to the speaker’s mouth. They were table-waiters, carrying a feast of God’s Word to hungry souls. “Thus saith the Lord, hear ye him.”
They gave more than three points on how to be a better husband, wife, boyfriend, or girlfriend. They ventured far beyond “practical” advice on finances or dating or personal success. They sent forth an army to change the world, but they equipped it first. They refused to deliver sermonettes, convinced these would only produce Christianettes. The invisible warfare demanded muscle, and they ran theological boot camps to build it.
When a church leader wondered aloud to the newly appointed pastor of London’s famed Westminster Chapel, G. Campbell Morgan, whether the people of his church would “tolerate” expository preaching, Morgan said, “They’re going to have to.”
They were giants.
We, by comparison, are stunted.
Today, the center of gravity has shifted. The church is top-heavy. She has lost her ballast. Some of the biggest names in evangelical Christianity developed their followings while possessing little theological training or study. They unintentionally undermined the authority of Scripture – by omission at best, but occasionally by commission – as they pointed more to the so-called “fresh” word than to the settled words of Scripture.
To their credit, some of these leaders have taken time to backfill their theological training. May God increase their tribe.
“Chapter and verse,” our grandparents’ generation demanded.
Suckled on tolerance, addicted to sweetener, committed to a good time had by all, suffocated by unrelenting calls to activism, today’s evangelicalism wades in the shallow end of the biblical pool, even as western civilization dies of theological thirst.
The main seminary degree for pastoral training is called the Master of Divinity (M.Div.). It is a jack-of-all trades professional degree, to prepare pastors for local church work. A little bit of leadership, counseling, church history, and a whole lot of Bible and theology. A generation ago, the M.Div. almost uniformly required studies in both Hebrew and Greek. Today, most seminaries only require one or the other, not both – if they require either at all.
We would not go to a doctor who could not speak the language of human anatomy – how much less should we entrust our souls to pastors who cannot speak, or at least access through sheer tenacity, the language of divine things in Scripture.
Yesterday’s seminaries required numerous courses in the numerous subjects of theology: Theology proper (the attributes and nature of God), Bibliology, Christology, Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), Hamartiology (the doctrine of sin and the Fall), Anthropology (biblical teaching on human nature, origins, and destiny), Pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit), Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church), Angelology (includes Satanology), and Eschataology (the doctrine of last things).
By the time I was in seminary, those many courses were clustered into three courses.
Today, many schools batch them into just one or two courses in Christian theology.
Imagine lawyers majoring in business with only one or two classes in law.
Seminary preparation has in too many cases become more about the process of theologizing – endless circling with questions – than about the content of theology – actually landing on theological terrain, staking out a position and supporting in scripturally, all the while understanding and remaining charitable toward those with whom we disagree.
There is a festering theological illiteracy in the land, and by land, I mean the leadership in the church today.
We are top-heavy. We have lost our ballast, our gravitas, and are in danger of being toppled in the next big storm.
I am not saying that a seminary degree is required to either pastor flocks or to be used mightily of God. Charles Spurgeon was self-taught. He possessed a voracious appetite for theology and doctrine, and he changed his world, and still influences it from the grave.
He studied himself full of gravitas. His library stands as a testament to both his theological appetite and his genius.
Too many of today’s leaders do no study at all.
They have good hair and great fashion.
They “borrow” pre-made sermon series, graphics included, from the celebrity preacher du jour.
They can preach sexy sermons that suck in crowds. They can wave their wands to produce an emotional high with a glory-cloud-chaser, topped with a bible-verse cherry.
They are charismatic personalities, inconsistent in their theology, preaching moralistic messages, emotional hype, and sentimental love notes to Jesus. They live on the mundane plain, never scaling the transcendent heights of Scripture, because they don’t even know the heights are there to scale.
Leaders more than teachers.
Inspirers more than instructors.
When was the last time God’s people flocked to a Bible Conference?
Where are the great teachers of the Bible? Where are those who bring the deep things of God to life? Who is preaching the great apostolic doctrines that turned the world upside down?
And where are those who couple such truths with evangelistic appeals where people actually – gasp – get saved?
God is weeping for his flock, and is not happy with his shepherds.
When I first entered pulpit ministry, I was taught to focus on nothing but preaching and evangelism for my first year.
We have too much “loving-on” people to do, and too much “leadership” to demonstrate to waste our time in the most loving form of leadership there is: prepping in the secret chambers to feed starving souls the life-giving Word.
We are in a perilous state, in this condition of stunted growth. Immaturity reigns.
Today, it’s about leadership, numerical growth, crafting “experiences,” superficial behavior-change, spending time with people, listening, loving on people, being accessible, Holy Spirit, Holy Spirit, Holy Spirit, cheerleading, organizing, strategizing, giving back, being practical, and bringing entrepreneurial skills to the leadership of the church.
We evangelicals call ourselves heirs of the apostles. Let us heed, then, the apostolic marching orders:
It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables… But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:2,4)
Christ should spew us out of his mouth.
Not because these endless rounds of pastoral activism are bad, but because they create addictive delivery systems for impotent content.
Back to the Bible! Back to the Bible in its richness and depth!
There are exceptions to this stunted condition, and no doubt you’ve been thinking of some as you read. Thank God.
But they are exceptions, and that’s the problem.
The one thing I am here to say to you is this: that it is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma [doctrine] does not matter; it matters enormously. It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is virtually necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism. And it is fatal to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a little encouragement to practice it. The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion about what the church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ. [Dorothy Sayers in Creed and Chaos].
“A hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism.” Hardly the language of today’s popular pastors.
Oh, they are hard, tough, and exacting in their legalistic imperatives – sacrifice, give, serve, go, do, commit – to be sure – but not in the rigor of their theological instruction. In matters of theology, it’s tepid cream of rice every single week.
Even worse, since those legalistic imperatives remain utterly divorced from the theological truth-system that, a) explains why they are important, and b) empowers them with supernatural strength, they only produce dead works of the flesh, which remain perpetually displeasing to God.
The people of God do not grow by being hen-pecked with how to behave.
The people of God grow by being fed the blood-red meat of God’s inerrant Word.
God, save our pulpits.
Save the church from itself.
Please, Lord, give us giants once again.
Reversing the Trend
“Expository preaching should provide the main diet of preaching for a Christian community. . . . [It] is the best method for displaying and conveying your conviction that the whole Bible is true. This approach testifies that you believe every part of the Bible to be God’s Word, not just particular themes and not just the parts you feel comfortable agreeing with.” (Tim Keller, Preaching, 32)
As newborns cry for their milk, so let the people of God clamor for their biblical exposition. It is time to regain our muscle by feeding God’s people the whole counsel of God. This can only happen when we let the Bible not only answer questions, but tell us what questions to ask, by preaching through whole books.
Otherwise, we are left with the “Meme-ification” of the Scriptures, as teachers turn the sacred text into sharable slogans divorced from their theological, historical, and canonical contexts, and therefore separated from their life-transforming power.
I do not claim that restoring expository preaching will fix everything that’s wrong in evangelicalism. But it is a non-negotiable start. It lays down rails for everything else. If we say we are Bible-believing at the core, then let’s prove it. Let the Bible speak for itself, and let the Bible set the agenda for what it speaks on.
Nor would I lay down any legalistic imperative that all preaching series must be expository. As Keller says, it’s to be “the main diet,” not the only diet. My personal practice has been to alternate New Testament books, with Old Testament books, with Topical Series—ideally timing the topical series for the sporadic summer crowd. Even so, with tongue in cheek, Walter Kaiser has suggested “preachers should preach a topical sermon only once in five years—and then immediately repent and ask God’s forgiveness!” (Kaiser, Toward an Exegetical Theology, 19).
Chuck Smith ignited a kind of west coast revival when he preached verse-by-verse through Romans at the original Calvary Chapel. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones transformed a blue-collar coal-mining community by preaching theologically meaty expository series through whole books of the Bible in Wales. Luther and Calvin produced verse by verse commentaries on the whole Bible, largely the product of their preaching labors. They changed the face, not only of Christianity, but of the world.
The Bible is powerful.
We should try using it.
Dear pastor, preacher, Sunday School teacher, small group leader, or seminary professor—open your Bible to Ephesians or Ruth or John or Ezra, and lead your group through it verse by verse. If you don’t have time to preach through larger books, preach through units, such as Romans 9-11 or the Joseph narrative in Genesis 37-50. You will be shocked how the Holy Spirit coordinates the timing of each message with the deepest needs of your people.
Perhaps the mother of all maladies of our stunted church is her nutritional deficiency. The sugar-rush of inspirational, topical preaching may draw a crowd, but it will never mature that crowd. For that, we need solid meat.
Lord, raise up an army of expositors, giants in the land who will feed your sheep.
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