Recently I was reading about the amazing numbers of people that came to Christ following the day of Pentecost. I couldn’t help but wonder why they saw so many come to Christ and we, by comparison, see a relatively small number. I mean they saw 3000 come to Christ in one day. Just a short time later their numbers had grown to around 5000 men. This didn’t even count women and children. Wow, from church plant to mega church in a matter of days. So, what was different about them?
They were familiar with scripture. Many of the people that Peter preached to following Pentecost were Jews. These were people that grew up hearing the stories and teachings of what we now call the Old Testament. This was not new to them. They had a familiarity with scripture, but lacked a relationship with Jesus.
They experienced suffering. At this time the Jews were under the rule of the Romans. They may not have been slaves as they had been in Egypt, but they certainly were not free. They suffered under the rule of the Romans. They longed to be delivered. When Peter preached the gospel they heard a message of freedom.
Peter preached the gospel. He did not preach on 7 ways to grow closer to God. He preached the gospel. He did not preach on 3 steps to living life to the full. He preached the gospel. He did not preach on 27 ways to have a better marriage. He preached the gospel.
The Holy Spirit showed up. With all other things being equal these things could not have happened without the moving of the Holy Spirit. Peter himself said that. When the lame man was healed, Peter said that what was done THROUGH him was not done BY him but BY God.
So, what about us?
We are familiar. Our churches are filled with people that are familiar with scripture, but lack a relationship with Christ. Many of them have grown up in the church. They are familiar with the stories and teachings of scripture, yet have not been saved. They may even appear to have been. Some may think they have, but haven’t.
Have we experienced suffering? America is a very prosperous nation. The poor among us are rich by global standards. This can make it hard for them to receive the gospel. Jesus said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. When we feel as if all our needs are met it can be hard to feel the need for a savior. Even with this I would say that many of us have suffered more than we are willing to admit.
Is the Holy Spirit present? The same Holy Spirit that was in Peter and the others lives in us. However, in many of our churches we haven’t invited the Holy Spirit into the service. In fact we have made it pretty clear that He is not welcome. Is it any wonder that we don’t see God working?
What can we do?
Promote familiarity with scripture. The Jews that Peter preached to had a familiarity with scripture. This was a foundation that helped them come to Chris when the gospel was presented. Programs that help people become familiar with scripture may not bring people to Christ, but they can have the same foundational effects seen among the Jews in the book of Acts.
Provide a safe place for the suffering. Part of the reason that many people will never speak of their suffering is because they don’t have a safe place to do it. I love corporate worship. There is something powerful about being in a room with a large group of people all in agreement, worshiping God. But, this is not the place to share my junk. When will I do it? During the singing? Maybe during he message? Clearly these are not times to turn to my neighbor and tell them about what I’m struggling with. This sort of authenticity happens in the context of relationship. This can be in a small group setting. This can be one on one. But, this can’t happen in a room with 400 of my closest friends.
Invite the Holy Spirit. I am born and raised Southern Baptist. In spite of us being the butt of many jokes, especially from “non-denominational” pastors and leaders, I am proud to be Southern Baptist. However, there is one thing that we have missed the boat on in many of our churches and that’s the Holy Spirit. We don’t invite Him and even go so far as to exclude Him and set up our environments in such a way that He is not welcome. Most would deny it, but consider these questions:
- When was the last time you deviated from your usual service structure?
- Planning is great and we should do it. After all, God is a god of order. But, if every single Sunday looks exactly the same, then the Holy Spirit probably isn’t present.
- When was the last time you chunked the “plan” DURING A SERVICE?
- Again, planning is great, but some of the best things God has done in my ministry is when I trashed a plan I had spent lots of time working on and went in a direction I hadn’t planned, but felt He wanted me to go in. You have to be open to changing direction, maybe even in the middle of a message, as led by the Holy Spirit. I remember times at my last church when I could tell that the Holy Spirit was leading Pastor in a direction other than what he had prepared. But, he felt bound by the note sheet he had handed out to the congregation. Sermon notes are great. They can help certain kinds of learners, but we CANNOT be held hostage by them. There is nothing wrong with looking at your congregation and telling them to chunk the notes cause God is leading you in another direction. They might even find it refreshing.
- I remember another time when he was in the middle of a series. I think he was preaching through Philippians. In the middle of the series there was a message that just didn’t seem to fit. He preached on the passage that followed what he had preached the week before, but it seemed clear to me that God had led him in a different direction, but he felt bound by the series he was preaching. It’s ok to take a week or two off from the series you planned to follow where God is leading. God’s leading has much more power than your planning.
- When was the last time you did something unexpected? Do your people know exactly what to expect from week to week… all year long? If your people are never surprised then chances are your services are more a result of your planning than the Holy Spirit leading.
- When was the last time something unexplainable happened in your church? When Peter and the others received the Holy Spirit and acted on that filling, they spoke in languages they did not know. That’s the power of the Holy Spirit. People tried to explain what was happening by saying they we drunk. Hmm… In my 16 years in the ER I saw lots of drunken people. None of them were suddenly given the power to speak a different language because of the alcohol. Heck most of them could barely speak any language. If you have to think hard to remember the last time something unexplainable happened in your church, the Holy Spirit may not be present. If you can remember it but much time has passed, then the Holy Spirit may not be present. If you find yourself looking back and talking about the great things that God has done but not about the things He is doing, the Holy Spirit might not be present.
Preach the gospel. Whenever I preach or teach I always try to connect whatever I teaching to the gospel. I try to bring every lesson, sermon or message back to the gospel. This is a good thing to do. BUT, sometimes we just need to preach the gospel. I am sinner. I deserve nothing more than death and hell. Jesus offers salvation from my sins and their consequences. Sometimes people need to simply hear that. When was the last time you simply shared the gospel with your congregation? There are good church people filling your pews or chairs every week that are heading to hell. They are familiar with the scripture. They may even have some good spiritual habits. They can talk the talk and appear to walk the walk. But, THEY NEED TO HEAR THE GOSPEL. In spite of it all, some of them are still going to hell.
Preacher, preach the gospel.
Preach it clearly.
Preach it passionately.
Preach it urgently.
Preach it frequently.Matt Norman
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