Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

A recent Gallup survey explored the major reasons Americans gave for attending church.

Now, mind you, this was a survey of churchgoers – not would-be churchgoers. It’s why the “already convinced,” if you will, attend.

But with that in mind, the results are important to consider. The two top responses, separated by a single percentage point, are:

  1. Sermons relevant to life (75%)
  2. Sermons teaching scripture (76%)

Headline? Three out of every four choosing to attend church do so because of the message. The survey found other factors are compelling as well, to be sure, but these two are paramount in people’s minds (followed by what is offered for children and teenagers at 64%). 

So what is involved in relevant, biblical teaching?

More than mere exposition.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of, if not preeminence of, expository preaching. If you’re not familiar with that term, it means delivering messages that take sections/books of the Bible and teaching them verse-by-verse, “expositing” the meaning of the text.

It’s a wonderful way to teach the Scriptures. It’s helpful to those who are on the listening end. I am currently doing an expository series through the book of Philippians, myself.

But contrary to some circles of opinion, it is far from the only way to teach. And, even more to the point, far from the only way to do it biblically.

To my point, here are four thoughts about biblical preaching, particularly in light of the current pressure to make it merely expositional:

1. Jesus never preached expositionally. Not the way it is suggested to be done today (I’m not sure there are many examples of anyone doing it in the Bible.). If I had to categorize His style, I would call it topical preaching – proof-texting various passages, sometimes offering careful exegesis of a single verb – but more often laced with story after story, illustration after illustration. 

The irony is that if I used that description of a contemporary individual, there would be howls of protest of compromise and biblical shallowness.

Oh wait… Jesus was criticized that way, too, in his own day.

Some might counter: “We can’t make Jesus’ style uniform. He was unique and could teach that way with authority, independent of much Scripture.” I would agree that He was unique in every way, not the least of which His authority, but I would disagree that we can’t emulate His style in terms of use of story. He came to model both life and ministry. 

2. Topical preaching is often criticized as if it is not biblically based. For example, topical preaching would be a series on parenting, or a series on marriage, or a series on finances. But why isn’t this considered biblical? Topical preaching at its best is the best of biblical theology. And isn’t that what we’re after?

Biblical theology is looking at the Bible in its entirety for its comprehensive teaching on any given subject. This is the goal of all preaching, even expositional preaching. If I am teaching through Philippians, I will need to teach it with an eye toward all of Paul’s writings – not to mention the canon itself. The best model of interpretation is to let Scripture interpret Scripture. So the best expositional teaching is going to be based on a wider biblical theology. 

But that is all topical preaching is: biblical theology, based on solid exegesis. So let’s quit making it a derogatory classification. It’s one of the most important tools in our belt.

3. There can be a menu of styles and approaches, allowing a wide range of topics to be addressed optimally. In fact, if you want to be an effective communicator of Scripture, this is what should be pursued. 

When I prepare a teaching schedule, I consider several dynamics: the life of the church I lead and its unique needs; the questions and concerns being posed by the wider culture and, specifically, the unchurched community; areas of leadership that need to be addressed through the language of leadership; “hot” topics of interest that present spiritual questions being met by spiritual confusion; areas of discipleship that have been exposed as collectively weak… and so much more.

Each series tends to lend itself to a particular biblical source material. Perhaps a book of the Bible speaks uniquely to the need, and thus an expository series is at hand. Other times holistic biblical theology needs to be pursued through a topical series that draws together the relevant biblical teaching on a particular subject. Other times a specific sub-section of a book of the Bible is called for, such as the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount.

Each topic can also lend itself to a particular style. Some are more narrative in nature, others more didactic. Some are laced with stories, some are much more bullet-point by design. The bottom line is that there should be – even must be – variety in teaching and presentation in light of the subject at hand.

But all with one foundation.

4. All sermons should be biblically based (specific scriptures), biblically informed (in light of the full canon of Scripture), with the aim of applying biblical truth (relevant).

And this is the real point that all should drive home. Not whether one style is better than another, but the importance of every style being biblical. When you examine messages contained in the New Testament, you do not find any uniformity in terms of style or approach, personality or structure. Whether Jesus or Stephen, Peter or Paul, there was variety. Even within the teaching of one individual, such as Paul, there was variety. 

The one commonality was that they were biblically based, biblically informed, and biblically applied.

And that’s what relevant, biblical preaching is all about.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Lydia Saad, “Sermon Content Is What Appeals Most to Churchgoers,” Gallup, April 14, 2017, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Assault on St. Catherine's

After taking the flights from Dubai to Cairo and from Cairo to Sharm El Sheik, and then the 2½ hour drive into the barren Sinai desert surrounded by equally barren and rugged hills, my one thought made me feel guilty: If the Israelites wandered 40 years in this, no wonder they grumbled.

But with a destination like St. Catherine’s monastery, it was worth every effort. There is no other place on the planet you can visit that transports you as far back into redemptive history. For here we have the place where, second only to the incarnation itself, God made Himself most clearly known – first, through a burning bush on the side of a mountain and then, later, descending in power and glory on to the top of the mountain itself to write His law onto stone tablets for humankind.

The construction of St. Catherine’s was commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 530, though Christians had been coming there to escape persecution or as anchorites in pursuit of a monastic life, since the 300s. It was built as a result of its proximity to Mt. Sinai, but also to protect Christians in the area and what is purported to be the bush that drew Moses to his first encounter with the living God. It is very much like a castle, with high walls and a fortress-like appearance. Mt. Sinai itself is just behind the side of the mountain on which St. Catherine’s is built, reached by a winding trail behind and to the left of the monastery. The trail to the top is often taken by pilgrims at hours of the day that allow reaching the top by sunrise or sunset. Local Bedouins eagerly offer camel rides to those less inclined to make the long walk, particularly the final 3,750 Steps of Repentance carved by monks.

The famed bush (whether the actual one or not) is certainly there. It lies within the oldest part of the monastery in a small, roped-off courtyard at the end of a narrow walkway. Intriguingly, it appears dead on the bottom but alive on top. It looks something like a large hanging plant. I’ve been told that its age has been determined to be in the hundreds of years, and that no cutting from it will take root. I won’t comment on the bright red fire extinguisher in the corner next to it. 

The oldest and most sacred part of the monastery is the small chapel built next to the bush, the Chapel of the Burning Bush, which dates back to the 4th century. It is filled with icons (it is an Orthodox monastery) and hanging candle lamps with ostrich eggs on top. I’ve never seen anything quite like them; they are truly beautiful. St. Catherine’s is also home to an incredible library, closed to the public, but second only to the Vatican in terms of treasures and ancient manuscripts, particularly iconography. While I was there, I was able to see on display two of its treasures: the “Christ Pantokrator” and the “Codex Sinacticus.”

The Christ Pantokrator dates back to the first half of the 5th century and is the classic picture of Christ that dominates ancient Christianity and, to this day, Orthodox faith.

The Codex Sinaiticus, which dates from the mid-4th century, is among the oldest manuscripts of the Bible and the source for modern translations to this day. The one I viewed is thought to be one of the 50 sent to Constantine, who likely donated it to the monastery upon its founding. The original codex, considered at the time to be the only copy, was taken by the Russian entrepreneur Tischendorf in 1844 and 1849 under dubious pretenses through trusting monks, who then sold it to the British Library in London where it remains to this day. Certain folios were found later by the monks but, needless to say, they continue to want their codex back. 

You may wonder how St. Catherine’s has survived with all of its treasures, particularly as a Christian stronghold in the midst of the heart of Islam. Thank Mohammed himself. The monastery is protected by the “Patent of Mohammed,” which Mohammed granted to the monks in 623 giving it rights and privileges in perpetuity. A copy of the patent still hangs prominently in the monastery to this day.             

This is why I was so concerned to learn of an attack last week by a group of gunmen on a checkpoint on the road near St. Catherine’s. One security officer was killed and four others were injured. The Islamic State group has since issued a statement claiming responsibility.

It seemed part of a coordinated series of attacks on Christians, coming just over a week after suicide bombers attacked churches on Palm Sunday in the Nile Delta city of Tanta and the coastal city of Alexandria, killing 45 people. 

If so, it signals a shift away from lashing out at the West in general and toward Christians in particular.

Perhaps the Patent of Mohammed will prevent attacks on St. Catherine’s Monastery itself. I will certainly pray to that end.

But my larger prayer is for those Christians who do not live within its walls, and seemingly have little or no protection at all.

James Emery White

 

Sources

James Emery White, A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom (InterVarsity).

Jane Arraf, “Gunmen Attack Popular Religious Tourism Site in Sinai,” NPR, April 18, 2017, read online.

 

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

With culture in such a rapid state of flux, with the dominant headline being the increasingly post-Christian nature of our world, many churches are uncertain how best to respond in terms of outreach. They know they aren’t reaching the unchurched as effectively as they would like, but they don’t always feel comfortable trying to emulate the fast-growing models they see and hear so much about.

More specifically, they don’t feel they can. You walk through a megachurch children’s ministry and see a built-in climbing wall in a first-grade room, and it’s hard to know what there is to feel except envy.

Fair enough.

So here are five outreach shifts that almost every church should be able to make – regardless of style or structure, tradition or denomination – that will help situate your church toward greater effectiveness at reaching the unchurched. And each one can be followed no matter your church size and no matter your budget. 

1.  Change Your Outreach Focus from Easter to Christmas Eve.

Here’s something that isn’t often talked about, but I’m prepared to say is a new principle: Christmas Eve is the Super Bowl of outreach, not Easter. 

There are many reasons for this, and none of them have anything to do with the church. Here are two: 1) an ever-increasing number of schools and colleges schedule their spring breaks around Easter, making Easter weekend one of the biggest “suitcase” weekends (travel/vacation weekends) of the year; 2) Easter has been effectively secularized into little more than the bunnies and egg hunts.

So why is Christmas Eve better for outreach?

First, unlike Easter and the resurrection, it continues to be primarily related to the birth of Jesus. Second, it is not a “suitcase” night – if people travel, it is to gather with other family members, not vacation. Third, unlike the “weekend” or Sunday-centric nature of Easter, Christmas Eve services can be scheduled for multiple days leading up to and including Christmas Eve. Fourth – and most important –  there is a larger number of unchurched people present at Christmas Eve, undoubtedly due to attending being more of a family event than Easter (which is viewed as more of a spiritual event).

At Meck, we routinely have larger attendance figures for our Christmas Eve services than we do our Easter services. Easter weekend is big, to be sure, and is our second-largest series of services. But it’s not as big as Christmas Eve.

Lesson? Quit putting all of your eggs in the Easter basket and get serious about Christmas Eve. 

2.  Drop Direct Mail and Move to Social Media.

When I started Meck, nothing was better than direct mail. That was, of course, 25 years ago. It’s not better anymore. In fact, it’s often a waste of Kingdom money. It can still be effective if targeted toward new residents, or specific demographics, but the more specific direct mail becomes, the more expensive it becomes.

(And please, don’t even think about an ad on the “church” page of your newspaper. You are after the unchurched, right?)

A better use of your marketing efforts is online, such as ads on Pandora or, even better, through targeted pop-up ad responses to Google searches, or banner ads on the websites of local subdivisions, or the vast opportunities that exist on social media.

Speaking of social media, prepare things that your attenders can share on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

And the good news for small churches? So much of this is not simply cheap, but free, with technology almost everyone already owns.

Lesson? No matter what style your church may be, there is no excuse to be out of style with media.

3.  Let Them Belong Before They Believe.

The most common way of thinking about outreach is that you get someone to believe in Jesus, and then you get them to belong to your church.

What if I told you the new reality is the opposite?

Today, people want to belong before they believe. They often have a lengthy adoption process as they move from spiritual and biblical illiteracy toward an understanding and acceptance of faith. So evaluate your outreach strategy in light of offering “belonging” opportunities that enable a movement toward believing. If you think I’m fishing for instituting a “seeker” service, think again.  

Yes, I believe that the front door of the church is still the weekend service.

Yes, I believe that biblically (e.g., I Cor. 14:23), we should make sure our services are understandable to those far from God.

But no, a full-blown seeker service strategy (which no one really does anymore, anyway) is not what is at hand. But that doesn’t mean you can’t provide lots of opportunity to belong before believing.

Examples might include “exploring” small groups, low-key serving opportunities that don’t require the embrace of the Christian faith (much less membership), as well as a simple atmosphere of acceptance for those who simply with to come and see, come and hear, come and explore.

Lesson? Believing is at the end of the process, not belonging.

4.  From Reach the Woman to Reach the Man.

For decades there has been a reality that no one owned: the church was designed for women and, as a result, that’s who they attracted. The service was for women, the music was for women, the décor was for women. I’m not saying this was intentional; it’s almost as if it happened by default. And don’t get me wrong – I am completely for women in the life of the church. Just not women as the life of the church in such a way that men are alienated.

So if the church has been unduly feminized, we shouldn’t wonder why there are so few men in attendance. Just like an African-American walking into a lily-white congregation might not feel comfortable returning, a man walking into a service decorated in pastels and flowers and “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs may not either.

Coupled with this is another truth that is seldom discussed related to how the dynamics of family outreach work. I don’t have a definitive study to back this up, just three-plus decades of being in the game: if you reach the man, you reach the rest of the family. But if all you do is reach the woman, you don’t tend to get much further in that family beyond the children. And without a supportive, involved, attending father, you don’t often keep the kids long after puberty. 

Lesson? The absence of men from the life of church is legendary; work on their presence, and you can change the size and scope of your church.

5.  From “You Build It They Will Come” to “You Create It They Will Invite.”

The old “Field of Dreams” mentality was that if you build something… like a great weekend event… they will come. Meaning crowds of unchurched people looking for a church home.

Um, no.

At least, not anymore. And it hasn’t been that way for a long, long time.

But if you create something that your current attenders intuitively sense would be perfect for their unchurched friends, they will begin inviting them to attend.

Yes, this may mean some changes to your current service on the front-end, but you might be surprised (and relieved) at how many of them are simply qualitative, and not necessarily stylistic.

At Meck, yes, we hear that people like our music and style of communication, but we just as often (if not more) hear that they appreciate our parking team, our signage that guides first-time guests, security within our children’s ministry and, most of all, friendliness.

Lesson? You can’t “build it” and have them come, but you can “create it” and have them be invited.

So there are just five things, among many others, that any church can take advantage of. 

No matter your size, no matter your budget.

James Emery White


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

The Monday after Easter (2017)

This is a blog with a very specific audience. I know it may exclude some of you, but it may be healthy for you to eavesdrop.

This is for all the church planters and their volunteers on post-Easter Monday, struggling to make it from week-to-week, and for the leaders and members of established churches that are anything but “mega” – well below the 200 threshold in terms of average attendance.

I don’t know how Easter Sunday went for you, but I have a hunch. 

It was bigger than normal, but less than breakthrough. It was good, but not great. Your attendance was large, but not staggering; worth being happy about, but not writing home about. You are grateful to God, but now that Easter is over, there’s a bit of a letdown. You wanted so much more.

It was, in the end, a typical Easter Sunday.

And you are normal.

When you lead a church, you can't help but dream – and dream big. I think that’s one of the marks of a leader. But for most, it’s not long before the dream comes face to face with reality.

When I planted Meck, I just knew the mailer I sent out (We started churches with mailers in those days.) would break every record of response, and that we would be a church in the hundreds, if not already approaching a thousand, in a matter of weeks or months.

Willow Creek? Eat our dust. Saddleback? Come to our conference.

The reality was starting in a Hilton hotel in the midst of a tropical storm with 112 dripping wet people, and by the third weekend – through the strength of my preaching – cutting that sucker in half to a mere 56.

Actually, not even 56, because our total attendance was 56. This means there were 15 or 20 kids, so maybe 30 or so people actually sitting in the auditorium. 

(As a good church planter, I think we also counted people who walked slowly past the hotel ballroom doors in the hallway.)

Yes, we’ve grown over the years. 

But that’s the point. 

It’s taken years.

It usually does.

I know the soup of the day is rapid growth, but please don’t benchmark yourself against that. It’s not typical. It’s not even (usually) healthy. So stop playing that dark, awful game called comparison. It’s sick and terribly toxic. 

Really, stop it.

I don’t care who you are, there will always be someone bigger or faster-growing. So why torment yourself? Or worse, fall prey to the sins of envy and competition, as if you are benchmarked against other churches?

(Rumor has it the true “competition” is a deeply fallen secular culture that is held in the grip of the evil one. Just rumor, mind you.)

The truth is that on the front end, every church is a field of dreams. After a few months, or a year or two, it's morphed from a field of dreams to a field to be worked, and your field may not turn out as much fruit – much less as fast – as you had hoped.

That’s okay.

You can rest assured that it probably has little to do with your commitment, your faith, your spirituality, your call, or God’s love for you. 

I know it’s frustrating. We’ve got a lot of the world in us and thus look to worldly marks of success and affirmation.

But what matters is whether you are being faithful, not whether you are being successful. You’re not in this for human affirmation, but a “well done” from God at the end.

Did you preach the gospel yesterday?

Then “well done.”

Did you and your team do the best you could with what you had?

Then “well done.”

Did you and your church invite your unchurched friends to attend?

Then “well done.”

Did you pray on the front end, have faith, and trust?

Then “well done.”

Ignore the megachurches that tweet, blog and boast about their thousands in attendance.

Yep, even mine.

It’s not that we don’t matter. We do, and we’re very proud of the hard work of our volunteers and the lives we have the privilege of changing. There’s a place for us.

It’s just that you matter, too.

And you may need to remember that.

And perhaps most of all on the Monday after Easter.

James Emery White

 

Editor’s Note: This blog was first published in 2012 and has been offered annually on Easter Monday since that first publication.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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