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Preaching is Up, So Why Isn’t the Church?

Tuesday Re-mix – This is a popular post from last year, updated and resubmitted for your consideration and comments.

My impression is that the church in America is getting LESS Biblically literate, not more. I don’t have any scientific data to support that impression. Maybe the Barna Group or someone like that has researched it. I’m just saying that, when we compare the evangelical church of today to the one that existed 50 or 100 years ago, I have a distinct impression that our understanding of the God of the Bible is not deepening–rather, it is getting shallower. I believe we are becoming a Biblically illiterate church. I would welcome your impression on that issue.

If I am right about that, then here is what is really mind-boggling: I suspect we are graduating more students from our theological institutions than ever before. I mean, I strongly suspect that there are actually more theologians among us today than we have ever had among us at any other time in the history of the church. Moreover, the church in America has groomed and perfected the art of preaching beyond measure. We have truly amazing, gifted teachers and preachers in the American church, and their lessons and sermons have never been more accessible than they are right now. Anytime I desire, I can go on line or tune into the radio and listen to Charles Stanley, Andy Stanley, John Ortberg, John MacArthur, Max Lucado, Chuck Swindoll or any of hundreds of other great preachers. You want choices? The church in America has choices galore!

So here is the critical question: how is that we have so much fantastic preaching and so many really smart theologians in the church today but we are actually less Biblically literate than ever?

Let me add another perspective. Again, this is just my personal experience working with churches–no hard data to back it up. I have traveled to churches in Ukraine and Romania in recent years. In either of those places, the churches have significantly fewer choices in terms of preachers than we have in the American church. I’ve been in little churches in Ukrainian villages who have no choices at all. They have one preacher and most of the Christians in those villages will live and die without ever hearing anyone else preach. And that one preacher is, in many cases, only marginally theologically educated. And yet, the Christians I meet in those churches know so much more scripture and have such a deeper understanding of God than we in the American church do.

So, to what do we owe this disconnect? I have a theory (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?).

I don’t think the church’s knowledge of God and His ways (and His Word) is tied directly to our preaching, because I don’t think listening to preachers is the best way to know God or even to learn scripture. I think we have overestimated the art form that we call preaching, and I think we have underestimated the importance of gathering together in small groups around the Word of God and speaking its truths into one another’s lives.

Jesus’ teaching changed lives. I’m not so sure the preaching we are teaching our seminary students to do is really the best vehicle for changing lives. Maybe that’s not the point, I don’t know. I certainly have an appreciation for preaching (it’s my favorite part of the gathered worship service). But for Spiritual transformation, for really coming to an intimate, personal understanding of scripture and for experiencing the power of God’s Word in my life, I think small groups have it over preaching hands-down.

So, as we chart the course of the church in America over the coming years, and we have to decide whether to spend more time and energy on preaching or on small groups we just need to decide whether Spiritual transformation is really what we’re after or not. At least that is the way I see it. How do you see it?

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