Declining membership is a common challenge facing many churches today. Membership in most traditional Reformed congregations has stagnated, and in many it has fallen dramatically. Young people are disappearing at an alarming rate. At the same time, many large churches are growing even larger, their pews filled with young families and individuals. How can that be? Is it possible that much of today’s preaching over spiritualizes even the most practical aspects of Scripture? Is there too much theological what-to without enough practical how-to which encourages the personal want-to?
In 1994, I heard Rev. J. Eppinga make this statement: “Some get so over involved in the trigonometry of theology that they miss the simple arithmetic of faith and life.” The young writers of the Heidelberg Catechism were spot on with their heavy emphasis on a grateful life of service. SO WHAT does that grateful life of service look like? NOW WHAT should we do? The Heidelberg’s “sin, salvation, and service” outline anticipates those questions. . .God created us perfect and we sinned. SO WHAT? Jesus came to give us salvation. NOW WHAT? Live a grateful life of service to God and others.
The Bible overflows with common sense guidance for that kind of life. The stated purpose of Proverbs is “to teach people how to live disciplined and successful lives, and to help them do what is right, just, and fair.” God told Joshua to obey and he would be successful. Paul tells us to think about—and practice—positive attitudes and virtues. And his letter to Timothy says the Bible is useful for training in righteous living; that hard workers deserve good pay; and that God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Jesus said he came to give us an abundant life, and he taught about that life through parables.
In that context, consider the Parable of the Three Servants (Matthew 25:14-30). This popular parable is often “spiritualized” to the point of missing these obvious, very practical lessons it teaches: the importance of diligence and hard work by faithful employees, deserved recognition from their employer, and the resulting benefits for both, including their families, their faith community, and society. A powerful sermon series could be developed on the practical themes in this parable which certainly would fit into the grateful life of service category.
Therein, I believe, lies a clue to the growth of those large churches—a belief supported by opportunities to visit a few of them around the United States in recent years. Almost without exception, those churches were involved in a sermon series which, from a biblical perspective, helped folks deal in a practical way with some aspect of that grateful life of service. One church was doing a five week series on finances (Jesus talked more about money than any other topic); another was in a four week series on family; and one was in the last week of a relationships series.
Coincidentally, on the day we attended one of those churches, an announcement was made that the new members’ class had to be moved to the sanctuary because the room it was planned for could only hold 500! That kind of thing happens when the questions SO WHAT? NOW WHAT? about faith and life are answered in the preaching. Churches are growing where people get biblical answers to life’s tough questions as they seek to use their God-given abilities while trying to discern his will and way for their daily lives in a fallen and chaotic world.
There’s an old saying that “some folks are so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” Is it possible that preaching can be “so heavenly minded” that its “earthly good” is limited? The “earthly good” would be obvious if preachers answered the SO WHAT? NOW WHAT? questions in every sermon. The answer should always be a practical application that encourages and motivates the grateful life of service. Preach it and they will come!