Rev. John Marshall Crowe, D.Min.
Based on chapter 7 of my book, Church Health For The Twenty-First Century A Biblical Approach.
Called and Ordained to Proclaim.
The pastor as a church’s spiritual Sabum-Nim (instructor) is called to proclaim the biblical vision of a healthy church through both preaching and teaching. Nothing rekindles the spark of health within a church like catching a biblical vision of what Jesus Christ wants to accomplish in and through a church (Warren, Purpose 81). As Warren says, “Where there is not vision, people leave for another parish!” (Warren, Purpose87). Also, an unhealthy church will not only lack vision, but also repeatedly finds itself short on cash (202). A biblical vision arises in a church from hearing biblical ecclesiology proclaimed.
My interest in healing and wholeness in Christ had been a major part of my concern as a Christian even before entering the pastorate in 1983. While attending Asbury Theological Seminary during the early eighties, I took a course on “Healing and the Christian Faith” and read Frank Stanger’s book, God’s Healing Community. The book contained a brief testimony about a pastor applying biblical healing steps to a church body through preaching (122). The story of this pastor preaching on the steps of relaxation, purging, clarification, consecration, anticipation, and appropriation to bring healing into the corporate life of the church served as a seminal experience for my doctoral project.
Preaching is one of a pastor’s most valuable opportunities to enhance the wholeness of the congregation. A sermon series can cast a vision of a healthy church in hopes of preaching a church to where it needs to go. Very often, the depth of a congregation’s understanding of the Christian faith largely depends on the quality of the preaching that the people hear. In addition, the quality of volunteer leadership in a local church and their vision of what church is and does reflect the pastor’s preaching ministry (Lindgren 99).
Biblical preaching is an instrument for teaching the Church about being the body of Christ. Therefore, a pastor can serve as a change agent through grace-empowered vision casting. Sermons about healthy persons, church leaders, loving relationships, spiritual gifts, spirituality, and abuse prevention naturally lean toward a narrative style. Such communication not only addresses the heart, mind, and behavior but also relationships and spirituality.
The theology of John Wesley calls for building up the body of Christ through living the faith, proclaiming the pure Word of God, and administering the sacraments. Wesley believed that three things were essential to a living church:
First: Living faith; without which, indeed, there can be no Church at all, neither visible nor invisible. Secondly: Preaching, and consequently hearing the pure word of God, else that faith would languish and die. And, thirdly, a due administration of the sacraments, —the ordinary means whereby God increaseth faith. (“Works, Vol. 8” 38)
One can deduce from Wesley’s view that the Church lives by the pure proclamation of the Bible. John Albert Bengel, Wesley’s contemporary, wrote,
Scripture is the foundation of the Church: the Church is the guardian of Scripture. When the Church is in strong health, the light of the Scripture shines bright; when the Church is sick, Scripture is corroded by neglect; and thus it happens, that the outward form of Scripture and that of the Church, usually seem to exhibit simultaneously either health or else sickness; and as a rule the way in which Scripture is being treated is in exact correspondence with the condition of the Church. (1:7)
For pastors to preach and teach as those who stand under the apostolic authority of the New Testament is crucial in developing healthy churches. Such proclamation of practical ecclesiology reminds congregations that we all stand under the authority of Scripture. Therefore, many denominations ask those coming for ordination if they receive the Christian faith as contained in the Bible.
The United Methodist Church ordains and authorizes its pastors to a ministry of Service, Word, Sacrament, and Order (Book of Discipline194). Those whom God calls to this ministry have a mandate to order the life of the church in a spiritually healthy fashion. It involves much more than obeying the polity of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. United Methodist pastors are required to “order” the life of the community of faith. Pastors accomplish this by the due administration of the sacraments, the preaching of the Word of God, and leading the community of faith in ministry to others.
Offering Our Best to God In Proclamation.
Churches need preaching with quality and excellence. Such preaching is far more complicated and difficult to do than the deductive preaching of a previous generation. Today’s unique difficulty in performing a sermon with skill for the sake of ministering to people involves communications style. Both churched and unchurched people find themselves bombarded by quality communication all week long. Whenever pastors preach sloppy and careless sermons, they lose both personal integrity and much spiritual influence. God calls those who preach to live a life actively pursuing personal spiritual integrity, doctrinal faithfulness, and effective communication.
Preaching today calls for a relational style. As Calvin Miller writes in his book, Market Place Preaching, “A well planned extemporaneous sermon that has done its homework will serve best” (47). Otherwise, a preacher will lose the relational force that is not available to the manuscript preacher. As Miller proposes, “Extemporaneity welds audience and communicator together” (49). Narrative preaching is a unique but simple form of preaching. Essentially, it uses stories to drive home the message. Its relational style calls for preaching conversationally without either notes or pulpit. Preaching without notes or pulpit strengthens the conversational delivery style of narrative sermons.
At present, people are seeking to improve their communication skills. When God sent the ultimate communication of his love and grace, he sent his Son in the flesh. When God inspired the writing of the New Testament, the Holy Spirit moved people to write in everyday koine instead of academic Greek. God desires to communicate his truth, grace, and love to every generation. Those called of God to preach carry a like passion for communication. Those who seek to communicate the truth trust the Holy Spirit to use communication aids in the act of proclamation.
The Inner Dynamic of Proclamation.
Today’s postmodern culture calls for a return to the spiritual foundation of pastoral ministry through preaching and worship. Our modern culture led many to ignore and others to forget that pastoral ministry is a spiritual business. With the post-modern media impact of “Star Trek” and “Star Wars”, people are more open to the ideas of spirituality and spiritual warfare.
Before Jesus ascended back into heaven following his resurrection, he told his disciples to wait until the Holy Spirit empowered them to be his witnesses throughout the world. Those who preach and lead worship in today’s culture need the Holy Spirit’s empowering, indwelling, inspiration, and instruction for effective ministry.
Jesus also told his disciples that as the Father had sent him, so sent he them into the world. The Bible tells us that the Father sent Jesus into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it. It is crucial in this postmodern age that our preaching and worship leadership shares this same compassionate focus on salvation and not the judgmental focus on condemnation.
One day in a synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus read from Isaiah 61:1-3. The same Spirit of the Lord who anointed Jesus for his earthly ministry also anoints us who preach and lead worship. We need to ask the question, “What can we expect God to do through our preaching and leadership of worship in these postmodern times?” We can expect the Holy Spirit to provide our motivation to proclaim God’s Word in evangelism, worship, in teaching opportunities, in pastoral counseling, in visitation, and in church business meetings. The poor, captive, blind and bruised of our postmodern world is our market both within and outside of the church. We can expect Jesus to minister through us to bring release, sight and liberation to others.
So for the joy of fulfilling our heavenly calling in the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the positive impact our ministries will oftentimes have by his grace, let us endure the hardships, pains and sacrifices of ministry in a postmodern world. Otherwise, position, salary, prestige, or power will become our focus. When that becomes our focus, then us pastors and worship leaders will become embittered by the impossibility of the task of ministry, by the loneliness of leadership, by the lack of commitment among church members, by the resistance to creative leadership, by the lack of Christian love within some churches, by postmodern opposition to the gospel, and by the pain of empathizing with broken, bruised and hurting people. Such bitterness will lead preachers and worship leaders to become religious functionaries. As the late Dr. Frank Stanger said once in class at Asbury Theological Seminary, “One’s personal spiritual life will determine one’s effectiveness for that which is in our hearts will be in our ministry.”
Preachers and worship leaders with a vital spirituality perform ministry as a stewardship from Jesus Christ and not as an earned possession. Thus, spiritually healthy people who preach and lead worship live with a joyfulness and peacefulness within themselves that is not tied to worldly security. Such a healthy spirituality empowers them to be wholesome spiritual guides who separate their ego identity from their ministry roles.
Nurturing the pastor’s and worship leaders’ spiritual life is foundational to a theology of preaching and worship in our postmodern world. Given the rise of a team approach to worship and preaching within the emerging culture, the healthy spiritual development of the entire worship/preacher team is crucial. With the current emphasis on spirituality and the increase of broken people in society today, postmodern people hunger for authentic spirituality in those who preach, play music, or lead worship. Such a postmodern theology of preaching and worship calls not only for pastors to be spiritual guides of their own souls, but also of those on the entire worship team (Liesch).
Calvin Miller, in his book, Marketplace Preaching, correctly states that few modern books on preaching say much about the spiritual life of the pastor. This focus is also missing from books about worship that I have read in the past and even for this course with the exception of Dawn’s book. As this is true in preaching, it is also true in worship. The pastor’s and the worship leaders’ spiritual life supersedes ministry techniques.
However, holding together personal spiritual integrity, the faith once delivered, and effective communication techniques is the narrow road that God calls us preachers to walk. Biblical performance means preaching using the techniques of speaking without rest one's trust solely in them. For pastors to powerfully perform sermons with skill that meets people’s needs, we must draw deeply from both our spiritual calling and culture of our society.
Proclamation Applied and Tested.
My view of Scripture as the Word of God and preaching as the proclamation of God’s Word was the foundation for my expectation that a sermon series on church health would facilitate change in the subjects as whole persons. This affirmation is expressed in the worship services of the of many United Methodist churches. Before the Scripture reading and the sermon, congregations join in the Prayer of Illumination. In this prayer, we ask God to open our hearts and minds by the power of the Holy Spirit so that, as the Scriptures are read and God’s Word proclaimed, people might hear and apply in their daily living what God says to them.
This prayer means that the Holy Spirit, through whom God inspired the written Word, speaks through the proclaimed Word. Through the instrument of preaching, God speaks to the hearts and minds of those who hear the Word proclaimed. The goal is not only to hear it, but also to apply it in daily life. The Word of God read and proclaimed seeks our transformation more than giving us information or inspiration alone; therefore, an increased exposure to the church health sermons translates into an increased opportunity for the Spirit of God to work within the heart, mind, and will of the worshipers in developing a healthy church.
My church health sermon series followed the overall flow of Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians (see chart below). In the first division of Ephesians (chapters 1-3), Paul desires for Christians to know their high calling in Christ. The primary theme of knowing their high calling involves the formation of the new community in Christ—the Church (1:22-23). While the focus of the first division is on Christ as God’s instrument of reconciliation, division two’s focus is on the Church as Christ’s instrument of reconciliation. In Christ, this new community reconciles people separated from God and one another (2:19-22; 3:6). Throughout Ephesians, Paul is concerned that the readers not separate Christology from ecclesiology. While these themes are found elsewhere in the New Testament, Ephesians contains the early church’s most complete statement of ecclesiology.
Drawing from the flow of the epistle to the Ephesians, each sermon focused on applying ecclesiology to one or more of the congregation’s subsystems mentioned in my first article. The goal is to prepare sermons that communicate the message of the given biblical passage in a manner designed to invite the response of each person’s behavior, emotions, mind, relationships, and spirit. My own pastoral experience in preaching a series of church health sermons demonstrated their impact as a wake up call for the congregation.
I preached a series of eight sermons designed to raise the awareness of the congregations I serve to the issues surrounding the emotional, behavioral, cognitive, relational, and spiritual health of those congregations. The survey and interview data together from my limited-time preaching project reflected a base change in the developmental process of becoming a healthier church. In light of both the survey and interview data, the sermons may have led respondents to a more informed and honest appraisal of themselves and their respective congregation. The survey data reflected the three areas where the subjects probably gained the greatest reality check were the three statistically significant areas of affect, behavior, and spirituality. I believe the survey data of Gibson Memorial UMC also reflect development in terms of that congregation catching a vision or passion to get on with the journey of church health.
A greater response on the church health scale with the increase in number of sermons heard demonstrated that individuals mature in faith over time. As the personal wholeness of each person is integral to church health, it also strengthens in maturity over time. In this study, the preached Word invites the subject to a more mature life of healthy attitudes, behavior, relationships, and spirituality within the context of his or her relationship with God built upon the cognitive knowledge of ecclesiological teaching found in the Word.
I was not surprised that Positive Emotional Appeal registered the most significant change of the four sermon elements. This scale could also be called the “Gospel-Driven Emotional Process!” My commitment to present church health in a positive light grew out of an important recognition. The Gospel of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ is central to church health. In addition, the Gospel is God’s good news in a bad news world. This choice also reflects the commitment to a whole person approach. A negative or bad news approach easily leads into work righteousness, escalated conflict, shame and condemnation and sometimes increases the very pathology in need of healing.
The approach to preaching previously discussed serves to strengthen the church health sermon as well as weekly preaching. An important issue in preaching on church health encompasses the integrity of both the preacher and the proclamation. One can ruin the preaching of church health principles by offering them as a quick fix rather than as tools for the healing process. Also, legalistic motives inflict much damaging shame and blame upon a congregation. Selfish motives that seek something other than the glory of God and the building up of his Church spread spiritual cancer. To have such selfish motives would be the greatest of shams. Pastors can avoid such a sham by first hearing any sermon on church health themselves before preaching it to others.
Approaching church health in this manner communicates that growing a healthy church involves an ongoing process. Such a series of sermons could lead people through the whole panorama related to each dimension of church health within a biblical/systems church health model.
A biblically based, systemic, and organic approach to church health through preaching addresses the whole church body. Such preaching seeks the response of each member’s behavior, feelings, relationships, spirituality, and, as well as thoughts. How one is able to inculcate the various aspects of church health within the context of their Christian discipleship is arguably more important than outward behavior. Focusing on any one of these elements (behavior, feeling, relationships, spirituality, or understanding) to the exclusion of the other four, disciples people in something far less than a healthy response of loving God with one’s whole person.
Guilt or shame often governs preaching in the context of worship; consequently, unhealthiness increases as relationships are sacrificed and frustrations elevated. This is the inherent danger in the old approach to building healthy churches, for it ends up separating the healthy intimate relationship process dynamic from producing the characteristics of a healthy church. Growing healthy churches calls for a holistic approach.
Leading a church toward better health through narrative preaching divides into two parts: the sermons themselves and the impact upon the lives of those who hear them.
My dissertation project stretches one’s view of narrative preaching as more than just an effective communication technique to address the whole person. Biblically speaking, stories, more than lectures, are effective means of gracefully proclaiming biblical truth for a whole-person response in developing a healthy church. Thomas Oden goes so far in his book, The Transforming Power of Grace, to say that the truth of God’s grace is best communicated through stories (22). This study indicates that sermons on church health have a positive impact when they focus on God’s grace in addressing the whole person through stories.
The narrative sermons over eight weeks demonstrated what I wished to demonstrate, i.e., preaching matters, and it has impact in the lives of the people and the system of a congregation. Thus, a healthy church for this project is one shaped by Christian teaching concerning being and behaving as a biblical church in every subsystem as a living organism or system in Christ.
While God works through preaching as a wake-up call concerning church health and even create a positive desire for it, more intimate pastoral ministry is called for. Such maturity in grace comes better in small group and one-on-one discipleship than through mass discipleship. As Wayne Oates’ book, Behind the Masks: Personality Disorder in Religious Behavior, states pointedly:
The mass approaches to religion, as well as the mass approaches to the rest of the education of the individual, lacked the power of personal confrontation, the concern with transformation, or the wisdom needed to discern that anything was really out of the ordinary. (108)
Therefore, before looking at equipping harmonious group life, forming a healthy leadership team, shaping people for their ministry, and the necessary fire of the Holy Spirit, we will focus on a pivotal call of Christ’s Holy Church. Many brothers and sisters in Christ are Extra Grace Needed persons to a greater or lesser degree. Their Christian discipleship in both holiness and wholeness through Jesus Christ is the focus of my next article.
My Church Health Sermon Outlines.
Bengel, John A. Gnomon of the New Testament. Ed. Andrew R. Fausset. Edinburgh: Clark, 1857-1858. 5 vols.
Crowe, John M. “Preaching for a Whole-Person Response in Developing a Healthy Church.” Diss. Asbury Theological Seminary, 2001.
Liesch, Barry. The New Worship. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996.
Lindgren, Alvin, J. Foundations for Purposeful Church Administration. Nashville: Abingdon, 1979.
Miller, Calvin. Marketplace Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995.
Oates, Wayne E. Behind the Masks: Personality Disorders in Religious Behavior. Louisville: Westminster, 1987.
Oden, Thomas C. The Transforming Power of Grace. Nashville: Abingdon, 1993.
Stanger, Frank. God’s Healing Community. 1978. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Publishing House, 2000.
The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2000. Ed. Harriett Jane Olson. Nashville: The UM Publishing House, 2000.
The Holy Bible: The New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978.
Wesley, John. “Works, Vol. 8.” The Master Christian Library Version 5. CD-ROM, Ages Software, 1997