Every church that loves the gospel wants to put a high emphasis on evangelism. But there is always the lurking question of how much you should incorporate evangelism into Sunday morning preaching. Do you ever address the lost who may be sitting in your pews? Some will say that Sunday morning is strictly for sheep. Others, like Tim Keller, say, “If you don’t preach like there’s lost people present, there won’t ever be any.”
What books, sermons, or articles have helped you think through evangelism from the pulpit? To help us along with the question, below are few resources recommended by The Gospel Coalition:
- The Pastor & Evangelism, Mark Dever: Along with helpful guidelines to what evangelism is and isn’t, Dever gives particular helpful things that pastors can do in the sermon and outside the sermon to further evangelism efforts of the local church.
- Why Become a Christian, Bill Kynes: He gives a good example of a sermon that not only addresses the unbelief of skeptics but causes believers to worship by asking, Why wouldn’t anyone want to become a Christian?
- Evangelistic Preaching (1) (2), Alistair Begg: He offers solutions to challenges in evangelistic preaching, and gives two textual examples and how a preacher would approach each one evangelistically.
To help even further, we asked preaching pastors Ryan Kelly and Andy Davis: Is it appropriate for pastors to give evangelistic sermons or is Sunday morning strictly for the edification of believers?
First, from one perspective, I think it is right and necessary to distinguish between (a) evangelistic preaching of the gospel to unbelievers and (b) preaching to believers for edification. You certainly see this distinction in Acts. Some passages clearly describe Paul preaching the gospel to unbelievers, whether Jews (13:13ff) or Gentiles (17:16ff); others show Paul doubling-back to established churches in order to “strengthen,” “encourage,” and “teach” believers (it is worth listing all of these kind of references since they seem to get less attention: 14:21-28; 15:32-41; 16:5; 18:11, 23; 19:9-10; 20:1-31). Ephesians 4:11-14 and parts of the Pastoral Epistles clearly prescribe the aim of edification in the preaching/teaching ministry of the church. Thus, not surprisingly, several NT passages seem to assume that the church’s meetings will be a gathering essentially of believers (1 Cor. 5:4; 14:23; Heb. 10:25). When the “living stones” come together in corporate worship there is something of a special realization of the Temple-presence of God (1 Pet. 2:5). Of course, the above passages never forbid unbelievers from attending the church’s gatherings, nor discourage evangelistic preaching from taking place, but they do imply, at the very least, that purely evangelistic preaching is not enough for Sunday morning. Witness the contemporary church growth movement: It is possible for a church to so focus on the evangelization of non-Christians in corporate worship that many clear NT directives are eclipsed.
Second, it is, nevertheless, obvious from both experience and Scripture that unbelievers will be in the church’s gatherings. In 1 Corinthians 14:23-25, Paul not only acknowledges this, but gives instruction for it. He tells the Corinthians that unbelievers will not understand “tongues,” but they might understand “prophecy.” The hope is that an unbeliever might come to conviction, repentance, faith, and worship. But this will only happen through intelligible proclamation and worship. For most of our churches, the proper application of this passage has less to do with avoiding tongues in corporate worship and more to do with avoiding a kind of Christian-ese verbiage, which could be almost as confusing to unbelievers as tongues. Practically and specifically, this might shape a pastor’s preparation and communication in the following ways:
- By dropping many of evangelicalism’s common idioms, such as “invite Jesus into your heart,” “make a decision for Jesus,” or “it’s a real God-thing.”
- By defining biblical-theological words or concepts that, though they may be common in Scripture, are foreign to the secular culture—e.g., propitiation, atonement, substitution, etc.
- By knowing how certain biblical words or concepts are also used in the world, but in a very different way. For instance, the world loves stories of “redemption” where a misunderstood, seriously wronged down-and-outer pulls himself up by his bootstraps and comes out on top. But in the biblical concept of redemption, we are wrong, not just wronged; we are helpless, not just misunderstood; we need utter and complete rescue, not just a leg-up.
- By describing and illustrating biblical concepts in plain, even culturally aware, vernacular.
- By anticipating the common objections and doubts that unbelievers might bring to that Sunday’s passage, and answering those objections in patient, human, and clear ways.
- By tying the themes of the passage into the big picture of the Bible’s storyline. Of course, this is simply what we call biblical theology, but many of us preachers need to use this discipline less as a means of wowing the saints with new-found inter-canonical connections and more as a simple demonstration to unbelievers that the Bible is a whole and has a grand story.
- By explaining the parts of the service: what is happening in the service and why the church does this or that particular thing.
Third, I believe there is a way to preach the gospel to both believers and unbelievers since the gospel is what both believers and unbelievers need the most. In Romans 1:15, Paul relays that he is “eager to preach the gospel” to them—to Christians. This suggests that the gospel is not only to be preached to unbelievers as “the power of God unto salvation” (v. 16), but also to believers as the centerpiece of the Christian life. Similarly, Paul’s confrontation of Peter’s ethnic hypocrisy centered on the concern that this “conduct was not in step with the gospel” (Gal. 2:14)—i.e., it was inconsistent with the unifying purposes of the gospel. This concept, often called “the gospel for Christians,” is increasingly being enjoyed in articles, books, blog posts, and sermons, so I won’t belabor the point. But let me elaborate on the benefits this model of preaching has for believers and unbelievers.
As an able preacher exposes believers’ sins as a misstep with the gospel, and as he once again unfolds the hope, forgiveness, and freeing power of the gospel, non-Christians are listening in on it all. And they’re not only hearing the basics of the gospel, but are also getting a sense of what it’s like to be a Christian. They’re hearing the ongoing cycle of guilt, grace, and gratitude, which is essential to conversion and sanctification. They’re hearing the kinds of things that are expected of those who follow Christ, how they wrestle with temptation, and that the unshakable grace of God is greater than sin. Such preaching has an inherent protection from a Pollyanna gospel, which promises only peace, acceptance, and joy, since the struggle for sanctification is openly addressed. Such gospel-centric preaching also provides unbelieving listeners with an apologetic for the failings and hypocrisies of Christians they’ve known. Of course, at some point in the sermon, the preacher can more directly address the sin-sickness, pain, and rebellion of blatant unbelief (non-Christians). Then it will be useful to be more thorough and explicit about the facts of the gospel, how salvation was accomplished, and what precisely to do to receive his mercy. In all of this, the preacher has not only shown non-Christians what the gospel is and what the Christian life is like, but has also shown Christians how to talk to non-Christians about the gospel. He has also given his members a reason to invite their non-Christian friends to come next Sunday.
- Dennis Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures (Philipsburgh: P&R, 2007), esp. chapter 2, “Priorities and Polarities in Preaching,” which surveys several different approaches to this very issue.
- Tim Keller, “Evangelistic Worship” (essay from Redeemer Presbyterian Church, June 2001)
- Tim Keller, “Preaching to Believers and Unbelievers” (mp3 from Covenant Theological Seminary)
Andy Davis, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Durham, North Carolina:
My answer is going to be one of balance between two extremes. One extreme is to preach nothing but the simple gospel message every week; the other extreme is never to preach the gospel message because “Sunday is for the believer.” The answer lies between these extremes. Simply put, I believe the main focus of Sunday morning’s ongoing pulpit ministry should be the edification (building into maturity) of the believers through the consistent and systematic exposition of texts of Scripture. The Great Commission commands us to teach disciples to obey everything Christ has commanded. We are told to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of Christ.” (2 Pet. 3:18), and the ongoing ministry of the full counsel of God’s word is central to that growth. But it is extremely important to tell unbelievers who may come into your meetings (1 Cor. 14:24) how they may be saved. Charles Spurgeon as a teenager under deep conviction and desperate for salvation went to service after service, and though the pastors were godly men doing faithful exposition from this or that text, no one would tell him clearly how he may be saved. Therefore, every week I find some place in my sermon to plead with the lost to be reconciled to God through faith in Christ. In order to do that, I openly proclaim Christ as crucified make a direct appeal to the lost to come to Christ by faith. This also encourages believers in their own ongoing faith and in learning how to witness to others.
The task of edifying believers and pleading with skeptics to believe in a sermon is never easy. What resources have you found helpful to strike the right balance in your preaching and teaching?
See also in our series on evangelism: