One of the most common philosophies for ministry argues that a church must be relevant to attract a crowd. Of course, relevancy is defined in this approach by the desires of the unchurched and not by the Bible. In response, a church must follow Walmart’s lead by gathering data on their consumers to find trends in their purchasing habits. Then, the church implements the non-Christians’ preferences. The downside to this approach is that it requires keeping up with the trends of culture. An unbeliever’s desires for a church in 2017 will look differently in comparison to 2027. In summary, this type of church trusts in the magnetic power of relevance to attract sinners to Jesus instead of Jesus Himself.
What does the Bible say? In John 12:32, Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Jesus speaks these words a few days before his crucifixion. Some of the Greeks who gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover asked Philip if they could meet with Jesus. Based upon Jesus’ response, they apparently asked about the way of salvation. In the dialogue that followed, Jesus tells us that His death on the cross will draw people to Himself.
In this passage, the Greek word for “draw” means “to pull or drag, requiring force because of the inertia of the object being dragged” (Louw and Nida, 207). Christ’s death will pull people. It will drag people to Him. Why? They will see their wicked sin before a Holy God. These sinners understand their desperate need for a Savior. When they look to Christ, His beautiful death as the innocent God-man for the ungodly is attractive. It is at the cross where they will find forgiveness of sins and peace with God. They are drawn by Jesus’ sacrifice to Jesus.
Notice that the sinners are not drawn to a thing. They are not primarily drawn to a church building, body, or program. They are not pulled to a denomination. Their hearts are grabbed by their maker. His glorious sacrifice brings the lost sinner to Him.
Here is a quote from Charles Spurgeon which summaries why sinners are drawn to Jesus.
A part of the attraction lies in the wonderful blessings which come to us through Christ’s death. We were drawn to Him because we received pardon through His wounds. We came to Him because we found eternal life through His death upon the tree. Jesus bore the sin of His people, He died in our place and, by doing so, He put away all our iniquities, blotted them out, cast them into the depths of the sea! Only as He was lifted up upon the cross could that be said to be the case. But when He was crucified, He finished transgression, made an end of all, and brought in everlasting righteousness. Beloved, this is a great attraction to perishing sinners—it is a drawing of love to which they must yield. When Jesus thus attracts us, we run to Him because pardon and eternal life are to be found through His lifting up on the cross. (Sermon No. 2338)
Does your church believe that Jesus Christ is powerful enough to draw sinners to Himself? Or does your church trust in gimmicks, inventions, marketing, and consumer research to draw a crowd? Has your church replaced Jesus Christ as the main attraction of the service?
Spurgeon warns us again to keep Jesus as the center of our worship services.
No man ever comes to Christ unless Christ draws Him and the only magnet that Christ ever uses is Himself. I do believe that we slander Christ when we think that we are to draw the people by something else but the preaching of Christ crucified. We know that the greatest crowd in London has been held together these 30 years by nothing but the preaching of Christ crucified. Where is our music? Where is our oratory? Where is anything of attractive architecture, or beauty of ritual? “A bare service,” they call it. Yes, but Christ makes up for all deficiencies! Preach Christ and men will be drawn to Him, for so the text says, “I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me.” They are held back by Satan, but the cross will draw them. They are held back by despair, but the cross will attract them. They are held back by lack of desire, but the cross will breed desire. They are held back by love of sin, but the cross will make them hate the sin that crucified the Savior. “I will draw them. All sorts of men I will draw unto Myself,” says the crucified Christ. (Sermon No. 2338)
Magnets work by having opposites attract. If Christ is a holy savior, then He will attract individuals who see themselves as desperate sinners in need of cleansing. However, if a sinner sees himself as basically good, then he will not see the appeal of Christ. Then, how will the church attract this unchurched man? The leadership has two options. First, they can wait upon the sovereign Lord to change the self-righteous sinner’s heart by the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit. Or, second, they can change magnets. Instead of using the crucified savior to attract people knowing that it will repel the self-righteous, the church uses the magnetic field of relevance to draw people into the building.
We can learn from this passage that the magnet a church uses to draw someone is at the same time the object to which a person is drawn. If your church trusts in Christ to pull sinners to the services, then they will be drawn to Christ. At the same time, if a church uses entertainment, rock concerts, giveaways, watered down preaching, etc., then the sinners will not be drawn to Christ but to these gimmicks.
By putting one’s trust in relevance to fill church buildings, a pastor dishonors Christ. He actions are saying, “Jesus is not powerful enough to attract sinners.” This comment undermines the words of Scripture and attacks Jesus’ character. Is Jesus omnipotent? Then, we should trust in preaching Christ crucified and not trust in having wooden pallets leaned against the back of the stage with candles and mood lighting to create a rustic atmosphere to attract sinners. By not trusting in Christ to build His church, a pastor is saying, “Christ is not beautiful enough. He does not have the glitz, glamour, or cool factor to bring in a crowd. We need to have other attractions in addition to Jesus.”
Friends, this is like a father who desires for his son to have friends. His son is a high schooler, but he does not get along with the people in his class. The father decides to talk to some of the boys to see if they will hang out with his son. When he approached two of his son’s classmates, he said, “Will you please be friends with my son?” One of the boys retorted, “No way! He is hard to be around. I don’t like him.” The Father sweetens the deal, “If you start coming over to our house, I will make it worth it. I will buy my son a Ford Mustang. I will let both of you drive it. Also, our farm has 4-wheelers. You will be able to come over and ride on them. Our house has NFL Sunday Ticket. You can watch the games in the basement on the 6 plasma screens. We will also have pizza. You can have all of this if you will be my son’s friend.” The boys look at each other and see that it is worth it. They become friends with the lonely son.
Did the boys become friends with the son because they liked the son? No! They started to hang out with him in order to satisfy their desires for material possessions. By offering the bribe to the classmates, the father was saying, “My son does not have an attractive enough personality to friends on his own merits.”
In the same way, churches are treating Jesus Christ like this son. They do not think that He is attractive enough through the beauty of His sacrificial death to draw people to Himself. Therefore, the church offers bribes which aim at the sinners’ fleshly desires to bring them into the building.
What are preachers to do? Heed Spurgeon’s advice. Trust in the gospel to draw sinners.
But if you say, “Now, to get a congregation, I must buy an organ.” That will not serve you a bit. “But we must have a good choir.” I would not care to have a congregation that comes through a good choir. “No,” says another, “but really, I must alter a little my style of preaching.” My dear friend, it is not the style of preaching, it is the style of feeling! People sometimes begin to mimic other preachers because they are successful. Why, the worst preachers are those who mimic others whom they look upon as standards! Preach naturally. Preach out of your hearts just what you feel to be true and the old soul-stirring words of the gospel will soon draw a congregation! “Where the body is, there will the eagles be gathered together.” (Sermon No.139)
Through medical advancement and specialized care, death has been segregated in our society. Most of the individuals in first world countries expect to live into their 70s and 80s. When a person is diagnosed with cancer or dies in a car accident in their teens, we are shocked that death has interrupted our expectations for a long life. In the event that a person does reach their eighth or ninth decade, usually their declining health requires them to be sequestered in a nursing home where death’s approaching day is out of sight and out of mind of the community.
Our culture’s expectations about death are a recent development in human history. In the medieval period, the people in Europe lived with sub-par medical care in the midst of the black plague. Death saturated their culture. Timothy George writes about how the preachers at this time used the fear of death to insist that the congregation be spiritually prepared to die.
A Franciscan friar, Richard of Paris, once preached for ten consecutive days, seven hours a day, on the topic of the Last Four Things: death, judgment, heaven, hell. He delivered his sermons, appropriately enough, in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents, the most popular burial ground in Paris. Hardly less dramatic was his contemporary John of Capistrano, who carried a skull into the pulpit and warned his congregation: “Look, and see what remains of all that once pleased you, or that which once led you to sin. The worms have eaten it all” (Theology of the Reformers, 23).
The most dramatic displays in the modern era would be preaching at a funeral with an open casket for all to see the reality of death. However, the increasing popularity of cremation and closed casket viewing has helped to scrub out the stench of death.
Despite the insistence of our culture to think that “death touches everyone but me”, the church must preach on the subject. Even if many of the young people dismiss the topic, pastors must plead with them on the relevance of being prepared to die. It is like a banker warning someone about their excessive college, car, credit card, and mortgage debt. If the man does not change his habits, then the bank will repossess his car and home. However, the man does not take it seriously because someone has always bailed him out. He does not think the rules apply to him.
In the same way, the church is most relevant when preachers preach that death is real. You will die. Here are five reasons from Scripture on why preaching death is relevant.
1. Life is short.
James warns his readers that we should not sin presumptuously by assuming that we will be alive to perform our plans for today or tomorrow. He writes, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”
Every person needs to be warned that our lives are temporary. They can suddenly end without us planning on it. Therefore, we must be prepared to die today since tomorrow is not promised.
2. Sin is the cause of physical death
What could be a more relevant question than, “Why do people die?” Theologically, we die because of the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. Adam as our representative sinned on our behalf. Therefore, the sin nature is passed down to every single human being.
Besides this inherited sin, we die due to our actual sins. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death…” Through our willful disobedience, every person has earned death through his law breaking. James 1:15 says, “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” Our desires lead to actual sins which will bring the consequence of physical death for both saved and lost.
3. Death is followed by judgment.
Hebrews 9:27 says, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” All of us are like a milk carton. We have an expiration date. The difference is that we do not know what the date is. When that day comes, we will be judged by God. We will either go to heaven or hell. Hence, it is imperative for every individual to think about death now before it is too late. Therefore, if the church loves her neighbors, then we should warn them about the judgment to come even if it is not popular.
4. Salvation comes to those who look to Christ.
In Acts 7, Luke writes about the first martyr who is named Stephen. Before the mob rushed at him to throw stones, Stephen looked to the sky. God gave Stephen a glimpse of heaven. He saw Jesus Christ sitting on the throne. This narrative is an example to follow. Pastors should instruct sinners to look to Christ in life and in death. He is the only hope to avoid the judgment of condemnation to hell and later the lake of fire. We are only saved by trusting in Christ’s atonement on the cross to pay for our sins and grant us eternal life.
5. Christ’s resurrection guarantees resurrection for the believer.
By bleaching the pulpits from all references to death, the pastor fails to offer the hope of the resurrection. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:20-2). The brethren need to be reminded that the sting of death has been removed by Jesus’ resurrection. He has defeated death. Therefore, we have hope of eternal life in both the spirit and the body.
This message prepares the cancer patient, who has been given only three months of life, to die. He may face death with his hope set on the unfailing promises of God. 2 Timothy 1:10 says, “and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel…” Since Christ defeated death and promises eternal life to all who believe in Him, then the cancer patient can praise the Lord as he passes from this life to glory. However, how is a Christian to be prepared to die if the pulpit is silent on death?
One of a pastor’s responsibilities as a shepherd is to prepare the flock for not only their death but the death of a loved one. What is more relevant than teaching a widow on how to grieve in a godly way? She does not grieve for her deceased believing husband as one who has no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). Yet, she should not be a stoic who tries to push away all emotions. Jesus gave us an example by weeping for Lazarus (John 11:35). Instead, she should grieve knowing that her husband lives because Jesus’ tomb is empty.
Brethren, preach on death, because the Bible teaches on it. Besides taxes, death touches every single life. Therefore, be relevant by saturating the pulpit with urgency and reality of death. Then, you will be faithful in preparing the saints and in calling lost sinners to faith and repentance in Jesus Christ.
Pastor Brandon was born and raised near Springfield, IL. He graduated from Illinois College in 2007 with a B.A. in History, from Moody Theological Seminary in 2010 with a Master of Divinity, and a PhD in Historical Theology in 2021 from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. He is also an ACBC certified Biblical counselor. He is married to Karise with whom they raise Ian, Elizabeth, and Patrick. He is interested in history, especially Charles Spurgeon, and has a heart for street preaching and evangelism.