By Chris Philbeck
One of the “Core Four” strategies for living out the vision and mission of Mount Pleasant Christian Church, where I’ve been the senior pastor for the past 20 years, is “Serving others across the street and around the world.” A few years ago, that strategy gave birth to a unique multisite model focused on underserved and underresourced neighborhoods in and around Indianapolis.
The Message paraphrase of John 1:14 says about Jesus, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”We have followed that example by expanding the ministry and influence of our church by acquiring two declining churches that were about to shut their doors, and by planting a third church. All three have become satellites of MPCC through what we call our IMPACT Ministry.
We don’t use video sermons in these campuses because I believe the people in these neighborhoods need an “incarnational” presence in the pulpit. They don’t need someone they see once a week on a screen, they need someone they can know and interact with personally.
Each week, I share the sermon manuscript with the campus pastors, along with guidelines about what they can and cannot change. In addition, I meet with the campus pastors each Monday, and preaching is one of the things we talk about most often.
Recently we talked about the importance of making the “gospel” a part of our weekly message. The gospel’s primary context in the New Testament is the good news that Jesus came into the world to offer all people the opportunity for a new and better life because of who he is and what he accomplished in dying on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin and then rising from the dead.
When we preach the gospel, we strive to talk about who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and how you can experience that new and better life through him.
Zero for Thirty-Six
The conversation was prompted by an article I read by a man who wrote about listening to four sermons each from the nation’s nine largest evangelical churches (accessible at www.9marks.org). Colton Corter wrote, “Let me begin with the most important observation: In 36 sermons, the good news of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was unclear 36 times.” A little later he wrote, “I don’t mean to say various elements of the gospel weren’t occasionally mentioned; they were. . . . But none of those elements are articulated or explained.”
I want to say very clearly that I’m not quoting this article as a judgment or condemnation of any of the churches listed. That’s not something I would do. I’m not familiar with all the churches, but there are churches and pastors on the list that I admire and respect.
What most caught my attention was the final paragraph of Corter’s article: “My main take away, I believe, is to soberly reflect on the sermons we give and the sermons we listen to week in and week out. May God grant us and our churches mercy to clearly proclaim the gospel, edify the saints, and invite unbelievers into the greatest joy imaginable—life with God in Christ.”
How to Include the Gospel
After reading the article, I went back and reviewed several of my own recent sermons. And while many of them had a reference to the gospel (“who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and how you can experience that new and better life. . .”), many did not.
How do we include the gospel in the messages we preach? Here are four suggestions.
First, and most obvious, preach a gospel text. Sometimes in our effort to be relevant with our messages, we forget there’s nothing more relevant than the need all people have for the new and better life Jesus offers. We need to routinely preach about the separation of sin, the substitutionary death of Jesus, and the free gift of salvation that’s available through God’s grace. That provides us with opportunities to reach non-Christians who are listening while also teaching Christians how to share the gospel with others.
Second, strive to connect what might be considered a non-gospel text to the gospel. Every text of Scripture we preach fits into the overall narrative that points to Jesus. Preach the text and make the application, not just to people who are followers of Christ, but also to people who have not made that decision. Do this in a creative and compassionate way, but above all else, do it in a way that shows urgency and concern.
Third, incorporate personal testimonies into your preaching. Few things are more powerful than a story of how Christ changed someone’s life. In my early days at Mount Pleasant, in a “Membership Inquiry” class, I met a couple who told me that after trying several different things to bring healing to their marriage, they had reached the point where divorce was their only option. At the last minute they decided to try one more thing and visited our church. That visit exposed them to the gospel and a brand-new life in Christ which brought healing to their marriage. They were at the class that night to commit to being members and discover how they could continue to grow in their faith. Sharing a testimony of that sort in a message on marriage would be incredibly powerful for couples who are about to give up.
Fourth, close your message with a short, simple gospel presentation that calls for a response. That might sound a little dated, but some things never go out of style. When we preach, we need to trust the Holy Spirit to do what Jesus said he would do in John 16:8—convict the world of sin, of God’s righteousness, and of coming judgment.
Let’s make the most of our opportunities and influence by making the gospel a consistent part of our preaching.