The son of a pastor and now a pastor himself for 45 years, David Jeremiah has seen churches blossom from a handful of members to thousands, while reaching many new believers. In simple, New Testament terms, Jeremiah, senior pastor of Shadow Mountain Community Church in San Diego and founder of the international Turning Point broadcast ministry, spoke with Decision about the temptation many churches face in seeking relevancy in an increasingly pagan culture.
Q: When one looks at the first-century church, what timeless principles of “doing church” do you see?
A: The early church, as given to us in Acts 2, had a very strict and strategic program. They worshiped together, they broke bread together, they studied the Word of God together, they prayed together, they fellowshipped with one another, they took care of one another and met each other’s needs.
We do many of these same things today. But there are some missing ingredients. The most crucial one is that the Word of God doesn’t seem to be as central now as it was then. And throughout the Book of Acts, over and over we keep hearing how the numbers grew and people were added daily unto the church, that they were saved and they were baptized.
We have a lot of emphasis on the number of people who attend church. But I wonder if that’s the same thing as “being added unto the church.” The people in the early church had life change—there was transformation. And they walked out of a comfort zone into a zone where they were going to be persecuted for what they believed and how they lived. I think if you examined our church today against the early church, the dynamism of the services, the life change in the people, and the centrality of the Word of God, much of that has been lost.
Q: What concerns you most when you peer across the modern church landscape?
A: I recall one person saying that the worst sin a pastor can commit is to bore his people, and I want to tell you—that’s not the worst sin a pastor can commit. Certainly, we should do what we do with an air of excitement and engagement. I’m not for boring anybody. But what challenges us most is that we have become very good methodologically and technologically in getting people to come to church and in building great numbers, but the question then is, what do we do with them once they are here?
The entertainment factor has become more important to some people than teaching the Word of God. I would say the greatest sin a pastor could commit is to bring people to church and not give them the Word of God. Without God, we don’t have anything to offer these people. Without His Word, we’re no better than the psychiatrist down the street in solving their problems.
Some of the young guys have been sold a bill of goods that the Bible is not interesting, that you must not bore people with the Bible. The result of following that philosophy is going to leave the church, in the words of my old professor Howard Hendricks, 100 miles wide and an eighth of an inch deep.
Q: Paul seems to commend being culturally astute (“all things to all men,” etc.). How does a pastor or a church attempt to create a rapport with those on the outside, yet resist the temptation to accommodate the culture?
A: I think what we are talking about is the war between style and substance. If you have all of the style, if you have all the “wow factor” but lack substance, then I think you have a problem. We should be as culturally relevant as we can be, and we should interact with the problems people are having today, but our calling is to take them to the Scripture, to take them to the cross.
If you came to Shadow Mountain, there aren’t too many churches in this country that are more technologically astute than we are. We have the very best of every kind of technical equipment you could imagine. We’re into video venues in churches all over San Diego County, and we send the television program all over the world. So I’m not saying that anything new is bad, or that anything that is modern is liberal. I’m saying the most important thing is taking our hearers to the Scripture. If we don’t do that, we beg the issue of our very existence, which is one of the reasons why I think we are seeing such loss in the church today.
Q: What are we to make of the term seeker-sensitive?
A: I don’t think the term is a bad term. But how you use it makes all the difference in the world. You have seeker-friendly, seeker-sensitive, seeker-driven. A person who says I am in a seeker-driven church or a seeker-sensitive church often means, “I’m willing to do anything to engage the people who come here.” They will do anything—ride a motorcycle down the middle aisle, do whatever they need to do—so that they can engage with the people. And here’s the problem: If you engage the people and give them nothing, why go through the effort?
I know many people who have very vibrant, culturally relevant, what they might call seeker-sensitive, churches who do a good job at both ends of that, and let’s give them credit. They may be better on the front end than they are on the back end, but they certainly give both the invitation to come to church and the invitation to Christ. If you don’t do those two things, it seems to me that it’s an exercise in futility.
Q: Across evangelical churches, baptisms have declined in proportion to population growth in North America. What is wrong?
A: Baptism is a derivative of a transformed life. If people are saved, the Bible tells us they ought to be baptized. I really believe that for me not to do that is disobedience on my part. Others do this as well, but you cannot be baptized at Shadow Mountain unless you give a verbal testimony. So what happens when you have baptisms and people give their testimonies? That’s another way for people to find out about the Gospel. We try to have a baptism in every service. We can’t always do that, but as much as we can, we make baptism a big deal because that’s the testimony that people give after they’ve come to Christ, and it’s really amazing how vital those testimonies are.
In my estimation, through your invitation, through your baptism, through your preaching, you’re constantly reminding and illustrating to people the importance of evangelism, and you have to practice it yourself. You have to be an example, and they have to see your evangelistic heart.
Q: What’s the best pastoral leadership advice you ever received?
A: When I was a student at Dallas Seminary, I had the wonderful opportunity to get to know, a little bit, W.A. Criswell, who was the pastor of the great First Baptist Church there. He had a very dramatic way of talking, and I’m sure he said this to a lot of guys, but this is what he told me: “David, give your mornings to God and you can stay in any church you want to for as long as you want to.”
What he was saying is, if you make your study of the Word of God the priority of your life as a pastor, you won’t have to be going from church to church every two years. You will build a deep reservoir of the study of the Word of God.
Now, to say that you can stay for a long time doesn’t mean you stay without trouble. The early years of my time here in San Diego were very, very hard. It wasn’t a reign of peace by any means. But you have to dig your feet in and realize God’s called you to that place.
I believe that anybody who will study the Word and really ask God to give them discipline and diligence to mine the truth of the Word of God and prepare the best they know how in an interesting way for their people—people today are so hungry for the Word of God—if somebody will do that, they can stay and pastor a church for a long time. ©2014 BGEA
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