A casual observer might think Christians in our culture have more clout and vitality than ever. It’s true that the nation is dotted coast to coast with megachurches, despite a secular culture increasingly hostile to Biblical truth. There are pastors drawing 20,000 to arena-like settings each week and who have millions of people following them on social media. In the political arena, evangelicals are seen as a powerful voting bloc.
In reality, however, the world has had far more influence on the church than vice versa—because today’s evangelical churches enthusiastically borrow fads and absorb opinions from popular culture. That has rendered our collective testimony to the world almost totally ineffectual.
Incredibly, many evangelical leaders insist that what’s needed is even more of the same. One popular book for pastors even suggests that in the current political climate, the worst possible way to start a sermon is by telling people to open their Bibles.
Some Christians today act as if they are embarrassed by the Bible. The lead pastor in one of the largest churches in America recently suggested that Christians should stop saying, “The Bible says …” After all, he said, it’s an ancient text and most people today don’t take it seriously. He insists that pointing people to the Bible only makes our message sound less persuasive, hopelessly irrelevant.
That is diabolical nonsense. The Bible itself is eternally applicable, and it is infinitely more germane to the issues of life and godliness than topical humor, pop-culture references, literary analyses, viral videos or any of the other gimmicks people nowadays tend to think of as necessary tools of spiritual “relevance.”
More to the point, the idea that churches are giving their people too much Scripture is the very height of absurdity. Christians today are Biblically malnourished—severely so. A dearth of Biblical preaching is the No. 1 reason the evangelical movement is so spiritually anemic.
The Bible foretold times like these. The Old Testament includes this prophecy: “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord God, ‘That I will send a famine on the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord’” (Amos 8:11, NKJV).
The Apostle Paul likewise foresaw an era that would be marked by a severe shortage of God’s Word. He predicted that a time was coming when people in the church “will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
Paul might well have been speaking of our generation. Preaching is on the decline in a major way. Numerous churches—including several of the largest, most heavily marketed evangelical congregations—have relegated the pulpit ministry to second-class status.
Where preaching is still featured, it is short and superficial—and rarely Biblical. The trend is toward topical messages focused on timely issues, human relationships, success and self-help, recovery from addictions or even more lightweight themes—TED talks for the saints. The preaching of God’s Word has never been more out of season or out of style.
So what is the answer?
PREACH THE WORD
Notice: The strategy Paul commends to his young protege Timothy has nothing to do with seeking more inventive or entertaining means of trying to reach a new generation. In fact, Paul’s answer was a straightforward and unequivocal reaffirmation of the primacy and centrality of the Bible.
Scripture is, after all, the Word of God. It is therefore to be proclaimed fearlessly and faithfully—regardless of how the winds of fashion seem to be blowing at any given time: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).
“Preach the word.” It is significant that those familiar words come in the verse immediately preceding Paul’s prophetic warning about people refusing to hear God’s Word. That means before he even mentioned that a time of wandering and famine was on the horizon, Paul had plainly told Timothy what to do about it. Scripture is the only source of the spiritual nourishment people are starving for.
BUT DOES IT WORK?
Paul elsewhere acknowledged that from a worldly perspective, preaching seems a foolish strategy for reaching a world hostile to God’s truth. Preaching the Bible to people who have no taste for God’s Word is practically the polar opposite of “seeker sensitivity”—and that was no less true in Paul’s era than it is in ours: “For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23, NASB).
But Paul says God’s strategy for reaching this world is wiser than men in all their so-called wisdom: “God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21, NASB).
Indeed, this is the only strategy that actually does work—and it always works. God Himself says, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).
Those are especially important words for our generation, because we live in a time of intense and growing hostility directed toward the Bible. There is no shortage of strategists and innovators in the evangelical community who think they have better ways for reaching the culture than by preaching God’s Word.
But the answer is better and more Biblical preaching, not shorter, lighter, or fewer sermons, and certainly not entertainment instead of instruction and exhortation from Scripture. “The gospel … is the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). Human cleverness and slick PR tactics are no substitute for that, no matter how such things may garner accolades from the secular culture or from church people eager to have their itching ears scratched.
Moreover, the Word of God properly taught is more exciting, relevant, timely and applicable to every heart and life than any substitute message of self-esteem, self-help or human motivation could ever be.
ADVICE FOR THESE DIFFICULT TIMES
Speaking of “relevance,” Paul’s correspondence with Timothy includes a series of warnings that are disturbingly apropos for the church today. In 1 Timothy 4:1, the apostle writes, “The Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith.” Then in 2 Timothy 3:1, he adds, “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.” Then the closing chapter of the last epistle Paul ever wrote includes the passage where he warns one more time about people who “will not endure sound teaching [but] wander off into myths” (see 4:3-4).
Notice the progression. First, Paul said a time was coming when people would depart from the faith. Then he warned Timothy that dangerous times were coming for the church. Here he suggests that a time would come when even people in the church would not endure sound doctrine but would desire instead to have their ears tickled.
In such times, clear Biblical preaching is only more vital. When intolerance of the truth is heightened, the need for preachers to open the Bible and declare its truths boldly is greater than ever. Churches that tone down the message to accommodate the spirit of the age are playing into the enemy’s scheme.
Ear-tickling preaching is the very opposite of what Paul wanted from Timothy. When popular opinion demands preachers who are palatable to the tastes of the audience, faithful church leaders must not capitulate to the demand.
Feeding an appetite for glib and unbiblical teaching leads inevitably to spiritual catastrophe. People who crave ear-tickling messages always turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. Their own deliberate refusal to hear the truth predictably leads them into error.
NOT JUST FOR PASTORS
Paul’s dying charge to Timothy clearly sets the main agenda for the church for all times. Just two chapters before telling Timothy, “preach the word,” the apostle had instructed his protege to be sure to hand down everything he learned from Paul to future generations of church leaders: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).
So the duty of every church leader today is clear. Our calling is not to lead self-help seminars or be motivational speakers. Our most important responsibility is to proclaim the Word of God.
Of course, that is every Christian’s duty as well—not just pastors and church leaders. Christ’s Great Commission is a mandate for making disciples, and Scripture is the necessary tool for fulfilling that task. So every Christian, in whatever sphere of influence God has placed us, has a mandate from Christ Himself to proclaim God’s Word to a world starving to hear its truth. ©2019 Grace to You
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. the Scripture quotation marked NKJV is taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version. Scripture quotations marked NASB are taken from the New American Standard Bible.
John MacArthur is the longtime pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and chancellor of The Master’s University and Seminary. His preaching is heard worldwide through the media ministry of Grace to You, now in its 50th year.