I gathered with several friends this past Monday evening to study the Scriptures from the Greek New Testament. It’s my way of keeping up with my biblical Greek. While there, one of my friends asked me, “What are you teaching now?” I responded, “2 Peter,” to which his eyes grew wide with amazement and he quizzically asked, “Weren’t you teaching that last month when we were together?” I said, “Yes, I’ve actually been teaching it since August, and I’m almost finished with chapter two.” He shook his head in amazement and chuckled as I explained that I believe that a faithful expositor of the Word will attempt to explain the text thoroughly and apply it effectively, and a book with such a rich and important message as 2 Peter should not be brushed over quickly.
As I thought about that conversation later, I was reminded that most churches in America do not provide the in depth instruction in the Word that builds strong believers who know what they believe, why they believe it, and how to apply it to their lives. Pastors and Bible teachers have fallen into the trap of taking the infinite riches of the Word and skimming over it in shallow sermons and lessons that skirt by the difficult or controversial issues and only highlight the major themes. Consequently, many of the people in their pews cannot clearly explain the details of any major theological doctrine, let alone the basics of the Gospel.
I refer to this kind of teaching as the “Sesame Street” approach to instruction. That famous television show for children teaches topics in 20-30 second segments. They hit one subject after another with things changing every half minute. There is no real depth of explanation for the subject being taught, and no effort to stretch things longer because the presupposition is that children’s attention span is too short and they will lose interest if the topic goes longer than that brief period.
Our churches have done the same thing. Pastors skim over passages and limit their sermons to 20 minutes (rarely more than 30) because they are told, “Nobody will stand for it! They won’t sit that long and listen to a sermon!” This kind of mentality has created in an entire generation of American evangelicals who think that Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life, is deep theology. My point is not to criticize Pastor Warren’s book, but rather to point out that because much of the Bible teaching in our churches is so superficial and shallow, a book as basic and simple as The Purpose Driven Life is considered by many American evangelicals to be theologically mindboggling.
And the assumption that “people can’t sit that long and listen to a sermon” simply isn’t true. The same people who say they can’t sit and listen to a 30 minute sermon because it’s too long will happily sit on a hard bleacher seat for three hours to watch their favorite football team, and what’s worse, they’ll even pay outrageous prices for the privilege of doing so! And those who attend college routinely sit through class lectures for an hour-and-a-half at a time, all the while taking notes on the subject.
The issue is not the length of the sermon, but the commitment of the pastor and his parishioners to the sound, in depth instruction of the Word of God. Those who truly want to grow and change to be more like Christ will willingly put in the effort to do so, both in sermon or lesson preparation and in carefully listening in order to more fully worship the God who wrote the Scriptures they are studying.
I thank God for the church I attend and the class I teach. Each week our pastor preaches sermons that are 45-50 minutes long. Each one mines the depths of the riches of God’s Word to pull out the gems of God’s wisdom so that we, the listeners, can clearly understand what God wanted to communicate to us. He has been teaching Matthew for over three years and has finally reached the middle of chapter 15. Only 13 more to go! And week after week, over 500 people show up to listen to the in depth, clearly articulated teaching of God’s Word, and many of them are busily taking notes the entire time!
My Sunday School class is also a wonderful thing to behold. Each week a group of 30 or so people gather to fellowship together with coffee and bagels, share prayer requests, and then they give me the privilege of leading them through a study of God’s Word for about 50-55 minutes. And throughout that time, they ask questions and we dialogue back-and-forth about issues related to the passage we are studying. I feel tremendously privileged to shepherd a group which considers knowing, understanding, and applying the Word of God to be a priority in their lives.
Let me encourage each of you to raise the study of the Scriptures to the same level in your life that you would if you were studying for an important promotion at work or for a college class that you must pass in order to graduate. If you are in church leadership, encourage the pastor to spend more time in study and less time in other activities so that he can communicate God’s Word more thoroughly and effectively. If he doesn’t faint from hearing that, you can also tell him you want him to preach longer sermons that really dig down into the depths of God’s truth.
If our churches are ever to fulfill their God-intended purpose of glorifying Him by clearly and thoroughly explaining the text and exhorting believers to obedience, we must make the proclamation of the Word the priority of our worship rather than music. Music is a wonderful part of our praise to our Lord, but based on the emphasis placed throughout Scripture on the importance and significance of the word, it is clear that God is most exalted and glorified when His book is taught clearly, explained thoroughly, and applied effectively.