Living Out Theology to the Utmost, Part 3: A Church That Preaches the Gospel Every Sunday Morning
This is third post in a weeklong series relating the experiences and observations of a Chinese house church pastor visiting, evaluating, and learning from an American church. These posts were originally posted in Chinese on his personal blog with the aim of helping and encouraging his fellow pastors. Check back every day this week for new posts in the series.
We must first answer two simple questions.
First, if someone who had never encountered the Christian faith came to your church on Sunday, heard a sermon, earnestly listened and took notes, would he then be able to clearly know what the gospel of Christ is by the end of the service?
Second, when our brothers and sisters witness [for Christ] at their jobs or share about their faith in their circles of friends such that those friends and coworkers are willing to discuss matters of faith, how many of these brothers and sisters have enough faith in their church to say to their friends and workers, “Come to our church this weekend?”
At this point, in order to avoid the misunderstanding that this is an Emerging Church, let me first talk about the Sunday sermon.
TPC’s yearly preaching schedule is very rigorously composed, generally made about half a year in advance; even guest speakers must be part of this schedule and preach according to the designated passage. We were just in time for a series on the Book of Ephesians, on which each preacher would speak for ten to twelve services. The series was titled “The Many and the One: Studies in Ephesians” and the topic of each sermon was based on the theme of what we have in common - a common story, a common hope, a common shame, a common life, a common identity, a common witness, a common love, a common goal, a common darkness… this was clearly the result of a lot of study and hard work.
On the Sunday that I was in attendance, the sermon was the third [in the series] on Ephesians 2:1-3, “A Common Shame.” The sermon took 35 minutes and though short, it was direct about what mankind has in common: sin. It pointed out the commonality and inevitability of sin, pointing to many traditional and postmodern points of view, using reductio ad absurdum on them (making this [sermon] relevant for the local Christian families and UVA students). Once the pain and tension of each point was described to the extreme, the pastor then lead everyone to Christ, describing how Christ took care of the matter of sin on the cross, and brought the great comfort of the gospel. There were hardly any wasted words in these 35 minutes; [the sermon] was evidently a labor of love that was the result of quite a bit of hermeneutics and contextualization.
My assessment of this sermon is as follows. It was faithful to the original text, unafraid of addressing the sin in men’s hearts, and used a clear [presentation] of the gospel to bring the comfort of salvation. This is not easy to do in the current American society; I believe that they can because of their faith and loyalty to the power of the word of God. I hear that this church’s Sunday attendance ratio is rather high [compared to other churches]. At least as far as this sermon went, both the Christian and non-Christian would consider it both cutting and comforting.
This should be a reminder to all of us preachers - when there are problems everywhere in the church and we are beset on all sides by ministry pressures, the absolutely necessary, perhaps even sole necessary task is to faithfully and correctly handle the word of truth. If your church has one or several preachers who are willing to put deep roots into hermeneutical preaching and raise high [the name of] Christ, then I am truly thankful to God on your behalf!
“Whatever subject I preach, I do not stop until I reach the Savior, the Lord Jesus, for in Him are all things.” – [Charles] Spurgeon
Today, ideas such as Christ-centered preaching and hermeneutical preaching are gradually influencing the pulpits of China’s city house churches. Regrettably, we have also encountered the [phenomenon] where an excellent speaker preaches a Christ-centered sermon, but for a variety of reasons the audience can only absorb 60% of the content, with only 40% left after lunch, and one is lucky to have retained 20% of it by Monday.
In three details of this Sunday’s worship, I saw how TPC strives to make the sermon enter into the congregation’s hearts.
The worship with hymns is one of the major factors in conveying Sunday’s message; I have experienced this in person during many worship services, and even seen several Sundays ruined by unsuitable hymns. I don’t mean that the singing is bad or that the music quality is low, but that the selection is incorrect, or in an order that doesn’t make sense. Everyone should know that the importance of hymns is second only to the sermon in terms of conveying any Sunday’s message. Christ-Centered Worship is a book that every worship leader and preacher should study diligently, as it is one of Bryan Chapell’s major works.
TPC’s hymns have gone further than the foundation of “Christ at the center.” In giving thanks to God, one of the hymns called “What the Lord Has Done in Me” left a deep impression. The hymn was done four times - first, a solo from a sister in English; second, a solo in Spanish from another sister (I was surprised because I thought Spanish was big only in California); the third time featured only music, with a disabled sister using sign language to perform the lyrics; the fourth time, the entire congregation joined in. When I thought such a presentation was strange, I remembered that the theme for this series on Ephesians is “The Many and the One;” this was no show, but another way of conveying the pulpit message! While we of the church in China may not yet be able to reach this level, we can put more thought in arranging the various aspects of the Sunday service so that the congregation can focus better on the sermon message.
- Adult Sunday School
Previously, I mentioned how many overseas Chinese students come to this church on Sunday, many of them brought by their friends. As students who have English as a second language, it is quite difficult to listen to the sermon, especially since Pastor Craig’s vocabulary is by no means simple; I even heard him using some flowery rhetoric. And so even if they could pick up anything, the students who were left in a bit of a fog were invited to attend Chinese adult Sunday school. This is similar to the small group discussions and prayer we have after our own meetings, but better organized and with clearer goals.
First, the leader selected a hymn that was sung [earlier] and had Chinese lyrics. That day, the hymn [picked] was “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and in singing together, all sense of unfamiliarity disappeared.
Then, the leader reviewed the entire sermon in Chinese, and recommended a commentary on Ephesians (that the leader wrote himself and even signed), hoping that those who freely took it would be able to read it. [The leader] also invited everyone to share what he or she got out of the day’s sermon and even gave the verbatim English manuscript to everyone. This was quite shocking to me. As every preacher knows, it is two different things to preach from the pulpit and write a manuscript worth giving to people. The paper was very well written; I could probably use it to study for the GMAT. I believe that some students likely read it when they got home, [as] I myself have read it over once again. Finally, we split into smaller groups to discuss the sermon’s personal application and share things to pray about. We then prayed together.
My response to this section is that as one who is more serious about preparing a sermon and the hermeneutical process during a sermon, I’ve always felt that 45 minutes is not enough time to preach. I always wish I could have 40 minutes to analyze the scripture alone, but that does not leave much time for application, not even the most basic principles thereof. When it comes to limited preaching times, there is a lot of tension between clearly explaining what the passage conveys and how to apply this to the different circumstances in the congregation’s lives. What I never hope to happen is that I try to teach the congregation what to do before I have explained the passage clearly.
Another major problem that exists for one who is earnestly listening to the sermon is that it takes a lot of thinking, and most of this happens in the brain’s short-term memory. If not reinforced that day, it will basically be forgotten. On top of that, no matter how clearly, accurately, or simply the preacher spoke, the one listening will always lose some of the message, either because they were not paying attention, or in the very process of thinking things over.
So it is important to proactively look back on a sermon and let everyone know what one got as well as what one missed. This also allows people to share what aspects of the sermon they focused on so that the congregation can minister to one another and discover [who has] the gift of teaching. While we are worried about finding those who are interested in the Bible and can teach, perhaps this practice can reveal such people. This is similar to how after watching a movie (I’m only making an analogy, as I have no intension of saying that church is [simply] like going to the movies), a group of friends gathers at Starbucks to drink coffee and discuss what they got out of the film, helping each other have a deeper knowledge and understanding of it.
The small group’s discussion continued the topic of the sermon and went deeper into personal application; it was even able to set up accountability for one another for the following week while they put [the sermon] into practice. Comparatively, the small groups in China’s churches often leave topic when they pray for one another, turning into a small group that only complains and has a to-do list of who needs jobs and who has problems at home. For this reason, I call the small group at TPC one that [not only] hears the word, but also analyzes scripture. So long as God’s word is preached among the body of saints, then inner and outer change will be possible.
I spent Monday at the church to see the elders and staff members, getting to speak with some members as well. I discovered an interesting point of commonality - they were still excited about the previous day’s sermons. They said things like, “Just [as] our pastor said last Sunday…” Truly, the culture of hearing the word has been established at this church, and the congregation is willing to let the word of God reform their hearts and actions.
Wang Jianguo is the collective pseudonym for a group of Chinese house church pastors writing and thinking critically about issues related to the spread of Christianity in their nation. They are committed to preaching a grace-centered gospel, developing resources for the church, and loving China’s urban centers.