I keep getting a lot of hits on my posting in which I asked: Why Should I Go to Church? In the comment section, I promised to write a multi-part essay on my idea of the perfect church. So, here goes.
Let’s start with the sermon (part 1). What constitutes the perfect sermon for me?
I’d leave the sermon with my mind fixed on God. Somehow the preacher would so lift the Trinity up, I would find myself in awe of God in some new way. How often do we leave church this way? How often is God so extolled that we leave church with our minds in heaven, so to speak?
A wife of a pastor friend of mine once said that the best sermons start with everyone holding a pencil, but end with everyone listening intently, pencils down. They start with information and end by grabbing the listener’s heart. This particular pastor has for years ended every sermon by focusing on the gospel. How can you not think about Jesus when you’ve just heard once more the great love which drove Him to suffer and die for you?
In my opinion, a sermon reveals God’s glory most when it presents an orthodox view of God. Many trends in evangelicalism are subtly leading away from such a view, but that discussion is for another blog. Suffice it to say, I prefer sermons that reveal a God who is sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent, immutable, both fully just and fully loving (the definition of love); a God who became human, understands my life, suffered out of love for me and submission to the Godhead, credited his perfect record of obedience to me, and died as a substitutionary sacrifice in my place.
Convicts with Grace
But I’d also leave with some conviction of sin. It for sure wouldn’t be that ugly shamed feeling, but that dual sense of the utter awareness of the terrible treason of a particular sin — at the same time a feeling of liberation, freedom, newness.
Such conviction is like a knife through the heart. Clean. Quick. Immediate results. Human-induced shame and guilt hang around forever. They become self-centered puddles of self-loathing that achieve nothing.
At one of the churches we recently attended, I thought, “Hm, this pastor is pretty good.” Then he said, “When you get to heaven and God shows you the plan for your life, how would you feel if — by your lack of love — you missed that plan.”
I jabbed my husband in the ribs as if to say: This ain’t the church for me. That’s what I mean by a sermon that shames you, one that makes you worry about missing out.
I personally believe that when Ephesians 2:10 says “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do,” He is promising that I will do those good works! What a promise! And Philippians 3:13 says: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
Sermons that level guilt-trips at us are simply not a part of the gospel which says:
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Hebrews 10:22
The conviction that comes from grace preached is something entirely different. I call a counselor friend of mine the “velvet hammer.” After spending time with him, I feel both convicted and loved. Jesus was the same way. And so are good sermons.
Does a Few More Things
Finally, the perfect sermon (for me) has a few more features. In good sermons, the preacher:
is teaching himself as he teaches me. The sermon is fresh. The preacher is real, humble. There’s no sense that I’m being talked down to
shows enough intelligence that I’m not embarrassed to bring unbelieving friends to the service
is balanced the way I think Jesus would be: not committed to either the left nor the right, but to the truth (which typically offends both)
goes below the surface. By this I mean that the sermon isn’t a bunch of To Dos, but shows a deep understanding of why we Don’t. The preacher recognizes that beneath some of our most “righteous” works — and certainly under our obvious sins — lurks a deeply invested sin machine. The sermon echos the truth that in many cases we can’t simply decide To Do the right thing, but that our unconscious sinful commitments (the flesh’s idolatries) must be revealed and addressed, a job which takes time and the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit
has a high view of Scripture (believes it’s inspired by God) and either preaches straight from the Bible or using principles from the Bible
Oh, Lord: I know I ask for a lot. And I’m willing to take less in a sermon. Please lead our family to the church You have in mind, no matter how perfect… or not. Amen
Stay tuned: The Perfect Church, Part 2: Community