Preaching that does not transform behavior has failed, whether we are preaching to our established members or to potential converts.
Mike Bellah says, “More than anything else, this generation needs biblical teaching. Our minds need to be renewed with expectations born not in the culture, but in the Word of God. . . .Potential believers need to know that all truth is not relative, and experience is only one test of truth—often misleading in the short run.”1
We are good at exposition, but are we as good at transformation? Far too often we assume that because something has been stated well, it has been thoroughly comprehended. This is not the case.
Repetitive instruction is essential
Michael Green argues that the instruction of new members through preaching must be more than just proclaiming truth. It must take root in the heart and be lived out in the life.
We tried to do this in a variety of ways. One was by having carefully planned courses of sermons: sometimes topical, sometimes following the church’s year, sometimes expository. We tried to be sensitive to what the needs were at the time. Gradually we learned how foolish we were to dart from subject to subject each week. We needed to go on teaching on a particular topic until it is learned and acted upon. With this in mind, we organized a nine-month course, examining what it meant to be an alternative society in a world that is falling apart. We spent a whole month on each of nine aspects of this theme, and teaching took place at all levels in the church. The team preached on each topic for a whole month. The fellowship groups and prayer meetings discussed its application. Slide-tape sequences were produced for each topic. And we even made a loose-leaf guide book to the whole nine-month series, with opportunities for members to add materials of their own.2
Speaking specifically to grounding new believers into the church, Ellen White admonished Adventist preachers: “If those who knew the truth and were established in it were indeed in need of having its importance kept ever before them and their minds stirred up by the repetition of it, how important that this work is not neglected for those newly come to the faith.”3
Information, alone, is insufficient
However, a reliance on knowledge alone—conveying correct information into the comprehension of the new believer—may contribute to the church remaining a closed community more than we have realized. If we conclude that information alone disciples individuals, then we are in danger of spiritual haughtiness similar to that of the Corinthians who concluded that superior wisdom equaled superior spirituality.
I have known dozens within the church whose theological comprehension was accurate but whose lives did not reflect the life-changing differences the gospel expects. Clearly something was needed beyond accurate theology. They needed not only a knowledge of “the truth,” they needed a personal relationship with Jesus Christ—the Truth!
Transformation is required by the gospel
Roger L. Dudley and Des Cummings say, “If we have nothing more than textual proofs for our distinctive beliefs, we will not begin to earn a hearing, for the world wants to know what meaning and relevance our message has for their lives.”4
John R. W. Stott puts it well:
In addition to integrity, our preaching of repentance and of Christ’s lordship requires realism. It is not enough to call people to repentance in vague terms, as if conversion could take place in a kind of mystical vacuum out of which all real life has been sucked. When John the Baptist preached his baptism of repentance he insisted that people responding must “bear fruits that befit repentance.” Nor did he leave it there. He went on to specific issues. The affluent must share their surplus wealth with the deprived. Tax collectors must replace extortion by probity. And soldiers must never use their power to rob people, but rather be content with their wages (Luke 3:8, 10-14). . . . We need to spell out in realistic and concrete terms the contemporary implications of repentance, conversion, and the lordship of Jesus Christ.5
So what is the role of instruction for new converts and its relationship to assimilating the new believers into the life of the church? The answer is simple, yet direct and challenging. Our preaching must transform believers— whether established members or new converts—into worthy citizens of the church (experiencing the fellowship of the saints), worthy citizens of society (living in the world as salt and light), and worthy citizens of the soon approaching kingdom (preparing to meet the Lord).
This is teaching that transforms.
1 Mike Bellah, Baby Boom Believers (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1973), 143.
2 Michael Green, Freed to Serve: Training and Equipping for Ministry (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1983), 124.
3 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1970), 334.
4 Roger L. Dudley and Des Cummings Jr., Adventures in Church Growth (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1983), 33.
5 John R. W. Stott, Christian Mission in the Modern World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1975), 118.