Preaching and the Successful Local Church

Part of the Tell Me What To Write series.

A few weeks back, I asked you all to tell me what you wanted me to write about and the response was pretty amazing. Today I’m kicking off the series with what I hope will be an easy one:

Can a local church be successful solely focusing on preaching the gospel?

So how about it? Is preaching the gospel enough make a church successful? I guess that depends on a couple of things:

  1. What is the place of preaching in the worship gathering?
  2. What does it mean to be a successful local church?

Let’s take a (hopefully) quick look at both.

The Place of Preaching

What is the place of preaching in the worship gathering? Throughout the Old and New Testament, the public proclamation of the Word of God is held in extremely high esteem. In an exceptionally quick survey of the New Testament alone, we see that:

  1. Jesus was a preacher (Matt. 4:17)
  2. The apostles were commissioned to preach the gospel (Mark 3:14; 1 Cor. 1:17)
  3. No one will be saved without having the gospel preached to them (Rom. 10:14)
  4. Paul exhorts Timothy always be ready to preach the word and to contend for sound preaching (2 Tim 4:2; 1 Tim. 1:3)
  5. Paul warns that any who proclaim a false gospel are cursed of God (Gal. 1:8)
  6. The final person to preach the gospel before Christ’s return will be an angel (Rev. 14:6)

Just from these few examples, it’s sufficed to say that the faithful preaching of sound doctrine is really important. And when we look at history, we see that arguably all of the greatest movements and revivals within the Church centered around the faithful preaching of the Word.

The 16th century Reformers rallied around Sola Scriptura—putting Scripture in its rightful place as the Church’s highest authority. The Great Awakening was ignited largely through the faithful preaching of men like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Spurgeon—often referred to as the Prince of Preachers—regularly drew thousands to hear his astoundingly gifted preaching (he pastored a mega-church in 19th century England!). Martyn Lloyd-Jones similarly drew crowds of thousands during his ministry throughout the middle decades of the 20th century. And the list goes on and on. Within all of these movements, the proclamation of the Word was placed at the center of worship.

We also see that whenever the faithful, consistent preaching of the Word is sidelined within the corporate gathering, the Church tends to get off track. While its desire was well-meaning, the seeker movement that dominated the 1970s-90s spent less time teaching and more time trying to give people a good experience with church. Sermons became shorter and tended to focus more on dealing with “felt-needs” as opposed to exposition of any particular text. Sadly the result has been a generation that is functionally biblically illiterate and one in which wolves thrive.

Fortunately, we’ve also seen in recent decades a resurgence of faithful preaching via men like John Piper, James MacDonald, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Mark Dever, and John MacArthur, along with the countless “ordinary” pastors who have continued to faithfully minister to their people with the Word week in and week out. They’ve been careful to (as best as any of us are able) to put the Word in the center of their ministries and the Holy Spirit will always do exactly what He intends through the text.

My family and I are a part of Harvest Bible Chapel here in London. At our church, all of our ministries center around the Scriptures. In the adult services, we open the Word week in and week out, having completed a nearly 2 year study of John’s gospel back in June and now beginning a study of Colossians that is likely to take us through several months. In our children’s ministry, the curriculum is designed to give the children a solid grasp of the redemptive story and take them through the Bible in its entirety before they turn twelve. Our student ministry centers around the preached Word. Our men’s ministry events involve the opening of Scripture. It’s virtually impossible to find a ministry where the Scriptures are not being examined (maybe the parking lot ministry, but I don’t know what they’re doing before people show up :)).

And by God’s grace, we are seeing phenomenal growth, both numerically and otherwise. We’re kind of the accidental mega-church, with everyone looking around and saying, “How did this happen?” People are getting saved, people are becoming serious about sharing their faith and understanding God’s Word. Enormous (although often appearing incremental) personal growth is happening. Much fruit is being born.

Success = Fruitfulness

And fruit is what matters. As important at preaching is, if it doesn’t bear fruit, it’s not successful. Piper, speaking about how he defines preaching, says the following:

Preaching is not the totality of the church. And if all you have is preaching, you don’t have the church. A church is a body of people who minister to each other. One of the purposes of preaching is to equip us for that and inspire us to love each other better.

What he’s getting at here is the necessity of bearing fruit. Faithful preaching is a servant of the Church. Faithful preaching equips us to serve and inspires us to greater love for one another in response to the glorifying of Christ. It transforms its hearers as the Holy Spirit works through the Words He inspired to be written. If there is no fruit, there is no success.

We have to be careful here to also understand that numerical growth is not a sign of faithfulness. Lots of cats draw crowds of thousands, but are preaching irreverent, silly myths. One has a church of about 30,000 people, but he preaches utter nonsense. Meanwhile there are many who preach faithfully and fearlessly whose churches never see more than about 50 people attend on a given week.

Fruit is not so much numbers as it is character. If people are revelling in and marvelling at Jesus, that’s fruit. If they’re increasing in their desire to see others know Him, that’s fruit. If they’re consistently looking for ways to serve others in response to the love He has shown, that is fruit.

Answering the Question

So can a local church be successful by focusing solely on the preaching of the gospel? Yes and no. The fruit is what determines the success of a church, but a church cannot bear good fruit without faithful preaching.

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  • Don Barton

    I profoundly disagree with the conclusion of this post

    Faithful preaching often does not bear fruit.  This reads to me as a very Arminian (ie wrong) theology.  If Isaiah was assessed on fruit he would not be in our Bible (Isaiah 6:9-10).  Neither of course would the other prophets, or Jesus for that matter, who quoted those verses in Isaiah about his own ministry. 

    Fruit is up to God.  Faithfulness is up to us.

    • Aaron Armstrong

      Hey Don – thanks for this feedback; y’know, as I wrote this post, I definitely didn’t spend enough time on the conclusion. It’s something I’m going to revisit later this week as it’s not nearly as fleshed out as I’d like. Thanks for calling me on it!

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