How a Belief in Regenerate Church Membership Should Impact Preaching

“Wesley, if six weeks in one place, would preach myself and the people dead.”

Those words are from John Venn, a contemporary of Wesley. Alongside other members of the Eclectic society, Venn was discussing the apostles method of preaching. His point was that the local church pastor has a different ministry than a traveling evangelist, like Wesley. The apostles were more like traveling preachers than local church pastors. Therefore to preach like Wesley, week after week, would not lead to healthy sheep.

This is something I must keep in the forefront of my mind as I read through the sermons of Puritans, Edwards, and other Great Awakening heroes. Their congregations were markedly different than the one that I serve. One major difference is that people who are in attendance are here because they want to be (excepting the handful of children dragged here by parents). Those present do not face imprisonment or social shame for not attending.

I love reading books for pastoral ministry that are hundreds of years old. I’m often amazed that these men of old face similar issues that I face in the twenty-first century. Their thoughts, so often grounded in the gospel, are timeless and beneficial. It’s helpful to me to see the same types of issues hundreds of years ago, as it anchors me in eternal truth in the midst of the present streams of culture. But if I’m not careful I can start preaching to a congregation that is not my own.

What I’m meaning to say is that as a Southern Baptist I believe in regenerate church membership. That has to mean something for the way I preach on Sunday mornings. It means that while I expect to have unbelievers in our midst a vast majority of my listeners are going to be those who are followers of Jesus. This is markedly different from those who lived in Puritan England or even in the Deep South of the 1950s.

Revivalistic preaching in previous eras was far more effective because a vast majority of those gathered were Christian by name only. They were there because either social or governmental pressure required their attendance. Thus preaching mostly evangelistic messages about conversion was entirely fitting. But a steady diet of this type of preaching to believers will lead to a shallow and colloquial faith.

If we truly believe that our members are regenerate then we ought to preach in a way that is focused upon feeding the sheep and equipping the saints for the work of ministry. This is not to mean that we are not sensitive to outsiders. Nor does this mean that we do not proclaim and clearly spell out the gospel in every sermon. But it does mean that as we walk through the Scriptures our points of application are not solely focused on how a person is to be saved, but rather how believers ought to live out the Christian life.

If we are constantly trying to get our members saved then we’ve dropped the ball somewhere. I have a suspicion that the real problem is that many professing believers look a bit too much like the world, but rather than treating it as a discipleship problem we treat it as an evangelism problem. And so we keep going with revivalistic preaching and make the whole of the Christian life about where one spends eternity. It is true that we never graduate from the gospel but it is not true that we never graduate from the question of whether or not we are saved. To continue trying to get our members saved and making that the entirety of our preaching ministry will leave our sheep malnourished. And we also had better stop telling people we believe in regenerate church membership.

Shouldn’t a belief in regenerate church membership have an impact on our preaching ministry?

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  1. So I’m confused. How would this be different from what should happen in a Presbyterian Church? What does being a Baptist have to do with your argument?

    • My point is that as a Baptist I believe in regenerate church membership (RCM). Not saying that other denominations do not. I’m not really making a denominational argument. I’m simply saying that as Baptists we are supposed to believe in RCM, but we tend to be more prone to revivalistic preaching. I think that’s a bit backwards.

      How this fits within a Presbyterian church, I’ll have to leave that up to my Presbyterian friends.

      • Right – I’ve just never encountered an evangelical church that practiced “non regenerate church membership.” Is that even a thing? We’re all always preaching (in the grace of God) to build-up believers and prepare them for heaven and at the same time preaching to convert the lost. It should never be one or the other. I get what you are saying – in the SBC the tendency is to over-focus on the unbelievers. That makes sense! May God bless you in your ministry.

  2. I generally agree with this article. The one footnote would be as we preach for “regenerate” believers, we must always keep in mind, visitors, and false converts, and I really appreciate my former pastor who always shared the gospel at the end of the message, or at least had an invitation to receive Christ. I asked why he did this, the main reason he said, “because this is what all Christians should be involved with,and keeping it in front of them every week”. This, I believe, is keeping the main thing, the main thing..people coming to Christ!

    • I would agree with this. Not only do we have to be sensitive to outsiders but the power to change, etc. in the life of the believer is also the gospel. So, I’m not arguing for moving away from the gospel or Christ-centered preaching, but rather a move away from revivalistic preaching where the key to every message is whether or not you are saved and how to be saved. I think that’s going to give folks an unbalanced diet.

      • Mike, I completely agree with your reasoning. I would add that preaching with a regenerate audience in mind can be a powerful evangelistic tool for unregenerate visitors. Jesus prayed in John 17:21 that believers would be one “so that the world may believe that You sent Me.” The Holy Spirit can convict unbelievers of their need for Christ by making them realize that they are eavesdropping on the message that God’s herald has prepared to strengthen believers.

  3. I’m glad the Holy Spirit is active through the preaching of the Word. He does what I cannot do, regardless of how much thought I put into my sermon. And, that thing He does is to bring God’s Word to bear in the way most needed in the mind and heart of each hearer.

    Thank you for the though provoking article.

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