The Most Important Thing
If you are looking for a good church, the role of the preacher of God’s Word is the most important thing to consider. I don’t care how friendly you think the church members are. I don’t care how good you think the music is. Those things can change. But the congregation’s commitment to the centrality of the Word coming from the front, from the preacher, the one specially gifted by God and called to that ministry, is the most important thing you can look for in a church.
Preachers are not called to preach what’s popular according to the polls. People already know all that. What life does that bring? We’re not called to preach merely moral exhortations or history lessons orsocial commentaries (though any of those things may be a part of good preaching). We are called to preach the Word of God to the church of God and to everyone in his creation. This is how God brings life. Each person who is reading this—and I, the one who has written it—is flawed and has faults and has sinned against God. And the terrible thing about our fallen natures is that we are greedy for ways to justify our sins against God. Every single one of us wants to know how we can defend ourselves against God’s charges. Therefore we desperately need to hear God’s Word brought honestly to us, so that we don’t just hear what we want to hear but rather what God has actually said.
All of this is important, remember, because God’s Holy Spirit creates his people by his Word.
This is why Paul told Timothy to “form a committee.” Right? Of course not! “Take a survey”? No! Paul never told anyone to take a survey. “Spend yourself in visiting”? “Read a book”? No! Paul never told young Timothy to do any of those things.
Paul told Timothy, straight and clear, to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2). This is the great imperative. This is why the apostles earlier had determined that, even though there were problems with the equitable distribution of financial aid in Jerusalem, the church would have to find others to solve their problems, because: “We . . . will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3–4). Why this priority? Because this Word is “the word of life” (Phil. 2:16). The great task of the preacher is to “hold out the word of life” to people who need it for their souls.
The Ancient Way
Today some critics suggest that we need a less rational, more artistic, less authoritarian and elitist, more communal and participatory way of communicating God’s truth than this ancient method of one person standing up front and talking in a monologue to others. We need video clips, they say, and dialogues and liturgical dance. And yet there’s something right and good about this ancient method that makes it appropriate, perhaps even especially appropriate, for our culture today. In our isolatingly subjectivist culture where everyone is just into their own thing, in this anti-authority culture where everyone is confused and confusing, it is appropriate for us to gather together and listen to one who is standing in the place of God, giving his Word to us as we contribute nothing to it other than hearing and heeding it. There is an important symbol in this process in and of itself. The sermon as monologue—one person speaking with others sitting with mouths closed and ears open—is both an accurate and a powerful symbol of our spiritual state. One person speaking God’s Word—reading it and explaining it, illustrating and applying it for the benefit of the hearers—is a depiction of God’s self-disclosure and our salvation being a gift.
We desperately need to hear God’s Word brought honestly to us.
Of course there will come a day when faith will give way to sight and sermons will be no more. And let me tell you there is no one who looks forward to that more than I and most of my fellow preachers. When you don’t need faith anymore because you can see the Lord— that’s the climax of the Bible. “They will see his face” (Rev. 22:4). At that point this old cane of faith can be cast aside as we run and see him with our own eyes.
But we’re not there yet. We’re still laboring under the results of the sins of our first parents and of our own sins. On that day, faith will finally give way to sight, but for now we are in a different time—but by God’s grace this is not a time of total despair. He gives us his Word and he gives us faith. We are in a day of faith. And so, like our first parents before us, like Noah and Abraham, the Israelites and the ancient apostles, we rely on God’s Word.
This article is adapted from Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever.
A healthy church member is deeply committed to and practices particular disciplines within a local church.
Your ability to do your job as a church member depends on pastors or elders doing their jobs.
A call to ministry is a call to die—to self, to sin, to selfish ambition, to idolizing your own success, and to enhancing your own image.
The most important things about a Christian church are always the things that make it a Christian church. The things that are unique about your church or mine can never be the most important things about it.