3, No. 1
Chair, Church Ministries
Department, Northwest University of the Assemblies of God,
recent research project involved Assemblies of God churches
that had transitioned from sustained periods of numerical
and spiritual stagnancy to spiritual vitality. It revealed
several poignant insights about aligning preaching with tacit
project demonstrated that realigning a local church’s
ministry with its theology results in spiritual vitality
and numerical growth. While the focus of the research was
broader than preaching, the analysis identified several commonalities
among the preaching in these churches.
much of the research on turn around churches and church growth,
this research purposely did not focus on techniques. Having
been a pastor for 22 years, I am familiar with the shortcomings
of relying on growth techniques alone. Likewise, other pastors
have shared with me their frustration when mega churches,
with large resources and lots of personnel, are held up as
examples to inspire and fill them with creative ideas. Many
left those seminars feeling more frustrated than ever.
research project involved rural, bedroom, metro, small, middle-sized
and large churches. Each had experienced a prolonged season
of stagnation. These were not upstart churches. Church A
was founded in 1925, Church T in 1920, Church M in 1984 and
Church P was founded in 1933.
T’s attendance presently averages over 5,000. For 66
years, the church struggled with an average attendance of
less than 200. Now they baptize between 10 and 25 believers
each month, nine months of the year.
P has gone from 22 attendees to 110 in a town of 865 people.
According to the pastor, 80 percent of that growth has been
people from non-churched backgrounds.
A’s attendance has gone from 229 people to 400. The
pastor told me that nine of ten newcomers are from non-churched
M is approaching its twenty-first year. For a time it vacillated
between 20 and 50 members. There are some commuter adherents,
but most of Church M’s 530 members are local–nearly
6.5 percent of the city’s population of just over 8,200.
these churches transitioned and began to grow. They discovered,
or rediscovered, something that moved them to gain spiritual
and numerical momentum.
project focused on three theological rubrics: ecclesiology,
pneumatology and eschatology. It excluded a concentration
on sermon modifiers and types such as narrative , expository , textual or topical .
While there is far more to these churches’ stories
of successful and ongoing transition, research data revealed
several theological commonalities in their preaching. These
observations are not meant to be a template for preaching;
I believe no such template exists. Rather, like a relational
road map that takes the form of guided query and suggestions,
these observations may assist travelers in their progress
toward desired destinations. They are intended to nurture
spiritual formation through relational encounters among preachers,
congregants, the non-churched and the Holy Spirit that will
result in an incarnation of God’s redemptive mission,
the missio De i. With that clarification, I offer
five commonalities for consideration.
incarnational preaching is missional in nature. In these
churches, mission is not optional in church activity or preaching
focus. Rather, the missional focus is incarnational or, as
Darrell Guder says, “the result of God’s initiative,
rooted in God’s purposes to restore and heal creation.” That
mission continues today through the church’s witness
as we move toward final eschaton (“last” or “final
ultimate redemptive plan is owned by and incarnated in preacher
and congregant. Both see relationships through preaching
and service as missional in nature because the preacher and
congregant are missional by nature. Participants from each
church consider it their God-given responsibility to relate
caringly through preaching and service locally to their communities
and, if opportunities afforded, regionally and globally.
Pastors communicated their personal involvement by building
relationships in their communities.
leaders model incarnational preaching. Congregants see their
pastor(s) preaching and modeling intentional relationship
building within and outside the church. The message and the
messenger blend or, more accurately, fully integrate with
the Spirit’s ministry of shaping a vessel for honor,
sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good
work (2 Timothy 2:21, NASB). Again, this is not a technique
to motivate listeners. This is incarnational theology, what
Christians do by nature. Longtime professor of preaching
at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wayne McDill,
emphasized that who the preacher is as a person is as important
as what he or she preaches: “Christianity is such that
the messenger cannot divorce himself from the message. Neither
can he step aside and become invisible as he preaches the
message. You cannot be one kind of person and another kind
of preacher.”2 Preaching
in these churches places modeling at the heart of the matter.
Modeling is more than a fallback methodology.3 Modeling
is critical. “Our gospel,” laments Dr. Henry
Blackaby, “is canceled by the way we live.”4 It
would be good for all of us who are privileged to communicate
God’s message of good news to embrace the apostle Paul’s
admonishment to “Imitate me, just as I also imitate
Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, NKJV).
the preaching in these churches is pure in motivation. It
is truthful, supportive and caring, and these qualities are
not tied to reciprocity. The preaching is supported by opportunities
to grow through service. Prayer and taking time to get to
know the listener’s needs and his/her community context
precede proclamation. Of course, there is a clear desire
to inspire and influence people to encounter Christ. Nevertheless,
the preaching clearly focuses on building and maintaining
relationships without hinging those actions to an outcome.
to the data, preaching in the churches involved in this project
encourages godly service done with God’s strength (1
Peter 4:10ff) and unconditional love. Fellowship Bible Church,
Little Rock, Arkansas, has become a model of building meaningful
bridges to the community. Pastor Robert Lewis says tying
our service to whatever difference it makes asks the wrong
question. Lewis suggests, “We should ask, ‘What
stewardship has God called me to render?’ Period. This
is all that will mater in eternity.”5
Grenz, my mentor until his recent untimely passing, alluded
to the non-reciprocal nature of sacrificial ministry in the
mission of the church, referencing Luke 4:18,19. Grenz connected
the anointing of the Spirit upon our Lord to preach the good
news with the proclamation of freedom, recovery and releasing
service. Grenz asserted, “The Lord promised that his
followers would carry on that work (John 14:12).”6 No
where in the biblical text, nor in the data from this research,
will one find that service tainted with mixed reciprocal
churches involved in this research evidence an understanding
of ecclesiology that issues from God’s redemptive mission.
The preaching casts a vision for adherents to clothe themselves
with their communities. Understanding the nature of the Church
as missional living is not a foreign idea. Referring to the
local congregation’s missional commitment, Leslie Newbigin
said, “I believe that the major impact of such congregations
on the life of society as a whole is through the daily work
of the members in their secular vocations and not through
the official pronouncements of ecclesiastical bodies.”7
all four congregations, preaching exhorts congregants to
live out the life of Christ in a way that intentionally develops
relationships inside and outside the church. The research
data strongly supports what Newbigin was emphasizing. To
be like Christ is more than one’s congregational identity
or personal piety. It is redemption and personal sanctification,
personified in a believing community whose nature is to care
for and relate to people in the immediate community and beyond.
Simply put, the purpose of the churches in this study is
to become more Christlike, and the preaching has aligned
itself with that purpose. Participants understand that the
replication of Christ is more than an individual experience.
It is linked intrinsically to relationships outside the church
and to God’s ultimate redemptive plan, missio Dei , as
revealed in the Scriptures.8
this “realness” of the church, preaching resists
a natural tendency to “individualize the faith.”9 Preaching
in these churches prodded listeners to consider becoming
intentionally relational at a core level.
all four churches indicate a bond between the preaching and
the Spirit’s enabling power in building edifying relationships
within and outside the church. To the participants, Pentecostal
power is about more than a style of “having church.” It
is about being an intentional, caring, Spirit-gifted and
Spirit-enabled friend. One’s empowerment by the Spirit
is related to “witness” (Acts 1:8), and being
a Spirit-filled believer is enmeshed with, not isolated from,
one’s outward expression of the Spirit’s inward
addition to the Spirit-enabling, edifying relationships,
there is an eschatological element to the Spirit’s
ministry through the preacher. Like their Assemblies of God
predecessors, the participants in this project believe they
are living in the season leading up to Christ’s return,
and that conviction infuses their commitment to Christ and
ministry with a sense of urgency. Preaching supports the
belief that the Spirit’s enabling power to communicate,
participate in and accomplish missio Dei reflects
God’s redemptive nature and that plan is moving toward
final consummation. This is Spirit-enabled preaching issuing
from a preacher who starts the message where the people are
because he/she is Spirit-engaged where the people are and,
positionally in Christ, will be.10 That
sense of urgency predominately energizes a renewed focus
on relationship building, which brings us full circle to
the first commonality: incarnational preaching is missional
a guitarist with only one string, the data from the research
continues to support a central truth. Nevertheless, these
commonalities are not to be construed as technique. They
demonstrate what it means to be theologically incarnational
and to press beyond preaching programs to incarnational proclamation.
In his book, The Pentecostal Priority , Charles
Crabtree echoed similar convictions concerning the Church’s
evangelistic nature. He said, “If there is one thing
the Early Church should teach us, it is that evangelism is
not done by formula. You cannot find it in speech or method.
The Early Church was extremely mobile and flexible. The essentials
were to be [italics mine] witnesses, to preach,
to make disciples…but only one ultimate goal: to make
Jesus known to a dying world.”11
project peered deeply into the journey of four Assemblies
of God churches. Each has transitioned from sustained patterns
of spiritual and numerical stagnancy to renewed spiritual
vitality and impressive success in leading non-churched people
into a life-changing relationship with Christ and his redeemed
analyzing the narratives of these churches, I concluded that
the secret to their transformation was not a set of adopted
church growth techniques. Rather, discipline and coordination
of various parts were essential to taking steps forward and
sustaining that progress. In these churches, the transitions
were made possible through the coordination and alignment
of their ministry practice with their theology. The preaching
was incarnational at its core. I believe these commonalities
are worthy of contemplation for any church that earnestly
desires to experience renewed spiritual vitality.
L. Guder, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending
of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids,
Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 4.
V. McDill, The Moment of Truth: A Guide to Effective
Sermon Delivery (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman and Holman
Publishers, 1999), 24.
Lewis, The Church of Irresistible Influence, (Grand
Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001), 24.
Henry Blackaby, quoted in a speech at the Billy Graham Training
Center, May 22, 1999 (Leesburg, Va.: Intercessors for America).
Lewis, The Church of Irresistible Influence, (Grand
Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001), 107.
J. Grenz, Created for Community: Connecting Christian
Belief with Christian Living (Grand Rapids, Mich.:
Baker Books, 1998), 225.
Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand
Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 1989),
L. Guder, Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending
of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids, Mich.:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 3.
Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a
Post-Christian Society (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity
Press, 1996), 56.
Johnston, Preaching to a Postmodern World: A Guide to
Reaching Twenty-first-Century Listeners (Grand Rapids,
Mich.: Baker Books, 2001), 152.
Crabtree, The Pentecostal Reality (Springfield,
Mo.: Decade of Harvest Publication, 1993), 29.
Friday, June 16, 2006 10:22 AM