GUEST POST: Josh Blunt

As a church planter in the early part of this century, I had been trained well at seminary to offer a workmanlike (here read, “including explicit indication that original languages had been thoroughly exegeted”) and pleasing (here read, “relatively short in length, delightfully delivered, and winsome in tone”) message each Sunday.  I had been educated in all the nuances and catchphrases that would help me avoid the hangups likely to be on the minds of listeners in my particular tradition.

Trips to conferences at seeker-focused churches confirmed these values and added the expectation that messages should include media, drama, accessible illustrations, and LOTS of trendy coffee.  I was encouraged to see proclamation as the nutrition unchurched people desperately needed but for which they hadn’t yet acquired a taste.  I was invited to envision preachers as skilled chefs who could artfully encapsulate bitter doses of doctrine in palatable spoonfuls of oration spiced with love and grace.

Much of this came across as good, logical advice – nobody wants to bore saints or seekers when talking about something as exquisite as the gospel.  The intent was to call proclaimers to be humble, excellent workers who would never besmirch the Good News by bad delivery.  The problem, though, lay in the basic, internal posture we were asked to adopt when bringing the Word to sinful, human listeners: deferential apology.  As in, “I’m sorry I have to ruin the moment now, but this IS church, and we DO have to mention sin, hell, and the cross of Jesus from time to time.  This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you…”

This was also true in worship, in evangelism, and in outreach.  Whenever the gospel was proclaimed publicly, we tended to focus on delivery and form, searching for the least common denominator of doctrinal complexity, moral polarity, and inflammatory absolutism.  The do-or-die scramble to build the congregation numerically made tickling ears an especially tempting objective for me.  While I believe the Lord helped me avoid blatant pandering, I know I was a timorous teacher at certain junctures, speaking the right things with uncomfortable reticence.

About 4-5 years in, something happened that changed my faith in unadorned preaching and evangelism.  There were finally enough true converts in our congregation (God had sovereignly used our clumsy proclamation to win believers) that I could track the sources of feedback I received.  The recently lost-and-found WERE frustrated with me – but for cutting messages short, trimming content, and watching the clock!  Those who had demanded curt, topical homilies were cradle-to-grave types.  Denominational veterans claimed to be shielding newbies from discomfort, but the newcomers were clamoring for biblical depth and blunt confrontation.

What was happening?  God was exposing a lie that had held us captive for years.  He was proving that his Word is fully sufficient, and that true converts thirst for it like a desert thirsts for rain.  Many who had grown up in the faith had hearts that were calloused toward the Truth.  Years of comfortable church had led them to hear the Word but excuse themselves from practicing it, steadily becoming self-deceived.  They projected this hard-heartedness onto newcomers, like the kids in the old Life Cereal commercials:  “Try teaching that to Mikey the Seeker – he HATES everything… Heyyyy…  Mikey LIKES it!”  Unfortunately, some never noticed or accepted that new believers were craving pure spiritual milk and even graduating to meat ahead of them.

So, halfway through our journey, we let go of our timidity and started to change things.  I steadily lengthened my messages from 30 minutes to 45 on average and intentionally addressed longer chunks of scripture.  We gained this time by ceasing our practice of allowing questions and comments (which sometimes devolved into rebuttals) after the message.  I adopted a more expository style, decreased the use of certain video gimmicks and technology, and planned fewer strictly topical series.  We increased the use of hymnody and began more public recitation of creeds, confessions, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Our evangelism methods focused more on long term service, deep relationship, and truth telling, rather than hit-and-run PR campaigns for our brand.  In other words, we began to treat God’s Word as our delight, his commands as anything but burdensome, and the Gospel as something of which we were completely unashamed.

I’d love to tell you it magically fixed everything.  It didn’t.  It DID give us a new and infinitely more biblically-defensible set of problems, and it DID initiate a protracted season of pruning and refinement that left a far more faithful and joy-filled remnant in the end.  You’ll hear more about how that played out in our life, relationships, and governance over my next two posts.