As the pastor of a local church, I have to make decisions every day about where to invest my time and what to prioritize in the life of the church I lead. There are so many worthwhile activities vying for attention. If I didn’t have clear direction from God’s Word about what is most critical for building a healthy church, I might be swept away by the dozens of new church programs that arrive in my mailbox every month. Fortunately, God has promised to use one thing to give life and grow his people. And that one thing is the proclamation of his Word.
The Word of Life
Throughout the Bible from start to finish, it’s clear that God’s Word is the life-giving Word. When God brought the universe into existence out of nothing, he did so simply by speaking. When he gave life to Adam, he breathed into his body the breath of life. When the dry bones came to life (Ezek. 37:1–14), it was by God’s power through the Word of the Lord that Ezekiel prophesied.
Jesus’s own ministry also made this point brilliantly. Over and again, Jesus proved that his word had the power to heal and to give life. In Matthew 8, it was his bare word, “Go; it shall be done for you,” that healed the centurion’s servant (Matt. 8:13 NASB). In Mark 5, it was the power of his word, “Little girl, I say to you, get up,” that brought the synagogue ruler’s daughter back to life (Mark 5:41 NASB). In John 11, it was his word, “Lazarus, come forth!” that broke death’s grip on his friend and called the formerly dead man from his tomb (John 11:43 NASB).
No Other Viable Option—Anywhere on Earth
When God gives life—either physical or spiritual—he does so through the power of his Word. This means pastors who want to have a life-giving ministry have no viable option other than the preaching and teaching of Scripture. Yes, small groups, fellowship, and various programs can be good tools for discipleship and evangelism. But none of those should be done to the exclusion of faithfully preaching God’s Word.
What this means, practically, is that if people are going to come to Christ and be saved—whether we’re talking about people who live in the West or in the majority world, anywhere on this earth—they will do so only by hearing God’s Word.
As Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ” (NASB). Also, 1 Peter makes it clear that believers are “. . . born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring Word of God . . . and this is the Word, which was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:23, 25 NASB).
“If we want our churches to be filled with vibrant spiritual life, God has told us how he does that. It’s through his Word!”
Additionally, if Christians are going to mature and grow as followers of Christ, they will do so through God’s Word. First Peter 2:2 commands believers, “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the Word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (NASB).
Pastors, if we want our churches to be filled with vibrant spiritual life, God has told us how he does that. It’s through his Word!
The Preached Word Should Be Central
It comes as no surprise that Christians throughout history have made the preaching and teaching of the Bible central in the life of the church. In the earliest days of the church, the emphasis on the preaching of the Word was nothing short of scandalous. Christians were slandered as being “atheists” because the focal point of their faith was the spoken word, rather than statues of their gods.
The centrality of the preached Word is still scandalous today. Nobody accuses Christians of being atheists, but people chafe at the fact that—in an age where the visual dominates and dialogue is king—Christians still value sitting and listening quietly as one man preaches the Bible to them for an extended period of time. Regardless of what people prefer—or even think they need—the truth is, people need the Word of God opened for them, explained to them, and applied to their hearts and wills.
Benefits of Making God’s Word Central
On any given Sunday in our church, every part of the service—from the songs, to the Scripture readings, to the pastoral prayer—everything flows from the text of Scripture being expounded that day. Planning like this requires intentionality, discipline, and hard work, but it’s worth it when the whole service comes together like a laser beam and the truth of Scripture is applied powerfully at every point of our time together.
Although it’s important to faithfully observe the Lord’s Supper and baptism, I believe the most attention-demanding element in the service ought to be the sermon. Here’s why. When a congregation sees the preaching of Scripture being made central week after week, it trains people’s hearts to be inclined more to the Word of God than to selfish preferences (Psa. 119:36).
It also makes Christians into more discerning thinkers. Faithful shepherds desire to see people in their care become like the Bereans, who “. . . received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11, NASB). We don’t want our people to become like those Paul warned about—those who turn away from the preached Word (2 Tim. 4:1–4).
Lengthen Short Attention Spans
Sometimes it’s argued that making the sermon the centerpiece of the worship service demands too much of those who attend. They’re not used to sitting under one man’s voice for so long. I can certainly sympathize with that argument.
It’s true that listening to a sermon may take more energy than watching a baptism or participating in the Lord’s Supper. But a lack of attentiveness is not a virtue in Christians. In fact, the ability to engage with the Word of God preached is one of the things we as pastors should teach our congregations and should come to expect of them.
Church leaders would actually do well to raise people’s levels of attentiveness instead of “dumbing things down” and “meeting them where they are” in this age of 280-character-only, lopped-off-at-the-knees attention spans. I don’t mean that we should preach poor sermons and just tell people to listen. Rather, we ought to preach excellent sermons and instruct church members to work hard at listening to the preached Word, even as we work hard to prepare and proclaim it well.
In all of this, the ultimate aim is to see our church members grow to maturity. We greatly want to see them learn to love God more and to love each other more in Christ. In short, we want them to be spiritually alive. That’s what God’s Word does. It convicts, it encourages, it challenges, and it awakens faith. In a word, it gives life.
Greg Gilbert is the senior pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He earned his bachelors from Yale University and his MDiv from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of What Is the Gospel? and the coauthor of What Is the Mission of the Church?, Preach: Theology Meets Practice, and The Gospel at Work: How Working For King Jesus Gives Meaning and Purpose to Our Jobs. Greg is married to Moriah, and they have three children. Follow him on Twitter @GregGilbert.