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«by David V. Silvernail, Jr. Potomac Hills Community Church, PCA Leesburg, Virginia A MINISTRY PROJECT / DISSERTATION SUBMITTED TO THE FACULTY OF ...»

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David V. Silvernail, Jr.

Potomac Hills Community Church, PCA

Leesburg, Virginia









This study considers first the problem of why new evangelical churches in Loudoun County, Virginia, were not able to sustain numerical growth: second, it explores the relationship, if any, between church growth and the preaching practices of these pastors. The purpose of the study is to explore the preaching practices of these pastors to discover if there is any discernible relationship between the type of preaching employed and the growth or non-growth of these churches.

The literature review focuses on changes in preaching as the culture shifts from modernity to postmodernity, with attention given to recommendations concerning how preaching can remain effective in a postmodern context. The findings that came out of the research demonstrate clear patterns as the pastors interviewed for the study answered the following

research questions:

What are the preaching practices of evangelical pastors in Loudoun County?

• Why are these the preaching practices of evangelical pastors in Loudoun County?

• Where did evangelical pastors in Loudoun County learn these preaching practices?

• What models are evangelical pastors in Loudoun County using in their preaching?

• Finally, the conclusions drawn from the literature review and the research project highlight the need for pastors ministering in a postmodern context to consider expository preaching, blended with apologetics. Postmodern people respond positively to detailed explanations of what Scripture says, coupled with why it says it.



This study began by considering the problem of why new evangelical churches in Loudoun County, Virginia, were not able to sustain numerical growth and to explore if there was any relationship between church growth and the preaching practices of these evangelical pastors.

Based on my own experiences and observations as a pastor of one of these new churches, I believed that one of the primary reasons newer churches were not able to sustain their initial growth was a dearth of systematic expository preaching through books of the Bible. Going into this project, I believed that the topical preaching that prevailed in most of these churches was hindering church growth for two reasons.

First, people simply were not being taught the content of Scripture in enough depth to be able to formulate and adopt a Christian worldview that would enable them to grow into spiritual maturity.

Second, the dominant population of Loudoun County, Virginia, is one of people in their 20s and 30s (often referred to as “baby busters,” “Generation X,” or “postmoderns”) who have uncritically adopted the tenets and presuppositions of postmodernism. Yet I believed that most of the newer churches here were using a model of ministry and preaching that was designed to reach people in their 40s and 50s (“baby boomers” or “moderns”), which meant that many churches were using a preaching model based on assumptions that postmoderns implicitly and inherently rejected.

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in the newer churches in Loudoun County, Virginia, actually were. First, I wanted to determine what style of preaching they employed, what process they went through in preparing to preach and in actually delivering the sermon, why they had chosen that particular style of preaching, and what influence, if any, the postmodern culture had on choosing their style of preaching.

Second, I wanted to determine what impact their style of preaching had on the numerical and spiritual growth of their church members. I looked at where they learned these preaching styles and who influenced them most in their preaching.

Finally, I wanted to encourage them to consider preaching expository apologetic sermons as an effective way to reach postmodern people today.

To start, I researched a variety of written material that would give me insight into these concerns. I read several hundred articles and dozens of books to try to understand what people of all different theological traditions were writing about preaching today. I also tried to read extensively on how postmodernism was affecting the church today, with particular emphasis on how it influenced preaching.

Having completed the review of the literature, I set out to interview twelve evangelical pastors of newer churches in Loudoun County, Virginia. Each of these churches has been planted in the last twelve years. All of the pastors interviewed were between 35 and 52 years old and each of them had significant ministry experience. Most of them had Master of Divinity degrees.

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The initial findings of my literature review supported my assumptions that much of what had been written about preaching was written with modernity in mind, regardless of the claims made by the author. Likewise, most of the criticism directed towards preaching was targeted toward a seeker-sensitive model of preaching that had been created specifically for baby boomers, now in their 40s and 50s, and was largely ineffective at reaching postmoderns.

My research largely confirmed the results of a survey Robert Webber conducted which


There seems to be a general reaction against the contemporary style of worship developed in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. 87% of those surveyed listed ‘entertainment’ worship as a style that least interested them. 48% registered a negative attitude toward contemporary worship and the style of music generally associated with it.

On the other hand, the survey demonstrated that the twenty-something evangelical leaders

of tomorrow are characterized by the following interests:

1. The strongest and deepest desire of the twenty-something worshiper is to have a genuine encounter with God (88%).

2. This longing for an encounter with God is not merely individualistic, but one that takes place within the context of genuine community (88%).

3. It follows that there is a high concern to recover depth and substance in worship (87%).

4. There is a deep desire to return to a more frequent and meaningful experience of communion. Here is where a deep, substance-filled encounter with God is most fully experienced on the personal level (86%).

5. Worship in the future will be more participatory. Worship is not a lecture or a concert done for us. Authentic worship is done by us. We are the players; God is the audience (73%).

6. Another significant way we are encountered by God shows up in the demand for challenging sermons (69%) and more use of Scripture (49%). 1 1 Robert Webber, “The Crisis of Evangelical Worship,” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity: PaleoOrthodoxy in the 21st Century, 152.

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church today, and in particular with preaching, there was very little agreement as to how preaching could become more effective in reaching postmodern people. It became clear that the variety of approaches to preaching presented in the literature was so dramatically diverse that they were bewildering to most pastors. The result being that most pastors had done very little reading on the subject of preaching since seminary and they relied on the tried and true, i.e.

“what works,” for their own preaching practices. Based on the interviews conducted, I have come up with six conclusions concerning the findings articulated in chapter four.

My first conclusion is that preaching is the primary reason, but not the sole reason, churches sustain growth over time. Very few, if any, churches are able to sustain growth without a strong preaching ministry.

I identified thirty churches planted in Loudoun County, Virginia, within the last twelve years. Of those thirty, four (including my own) maintained sustained growth for over two years, sustained growth being defined as a growth rate equal to or greater than the growth rate of the county for a period of time covering at least the last two years. All four of these growing churches have very strong preaching ministries, and in each case, preaching is one of the defining characteristics of the church.

My second conclusion is that pastors in growing churches, with a few notable exceptions, practice expository preaching from the Bible. Three of the four growing churches had pastors who regularly preached expository sermons through books of the Bible. While not always the initial reason people visited each of these churches, all three pastors specifically

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have concluded that expository preaching does not necessarily attract large numbers of people initially, but tends to keep the people it does attract and lends itself to sustained numerical growth.

… Furthermore, of the … pastors who preached topically, all had seen initial growth that was very strong, and early on had attracted quite a number of new people to the church.

However, over time, these numbers seemed to dwindle, with four of these five churches sustaining numerical losses of 30% to 56% of the congregation. The remaining … church, which had lost 23% of the congregation, had regained significant numbers of people after the pastor switched to a mix of topical and expository preaching. Therefore, I have concluded that topical preaching is able to attract people in the short-term, but not keep them for the long-term. Topical preaching, with a few notable exceptions, does not lend itself to sustained numerical growth.

Ironically, this was predicted by Os Guinness in his insightful little book, Dining with the Devil, when he wrote, “Modernity simultaneously makes evangelism infinitely easier but discipleship infinitely harder. The problem is not that Christians have disappeared, but that Christian faith has become so deformed. Under the influence of modernity, we modern Christians are literally capable of winning the world while losing our own souls.”2 Michael Horton decries what topical, felt-needs, moralistic preaching has done to the

church at large:

So much of the moralistic preaching we get these days presupposes the error that somehow principles, steps for victory, rules, guidelines that the preacher has cleverly devised (i.e., the traditions of men?) promise spiritual success to those who will simply put them into

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My third conclusion is that pastors who are passionate about preaching and have a positive expectation for preaching, regardless of style, have a great impact on the growth of their congregations. All … of the pastors who had growing churches communicated great excitement about preaching. Each of them had thought through their style of preaching in an in-depth manner and was able to clearly articulate it. When describing their preaching, each of them became quite animated, not about what they were doing, but about what they believed God was doing among the members of their congregation. They each felt genuinely blessed that God would use their preaching to affect change in the spiritual lives of others. This matches what R.

Kent Hughes, Pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, has written, “Scriptural preaching demands a passion that flows from the conviction that what you are preaching is true.”4 … Ravi Zacharias emphasizes this point when he says, “What our culture needs is an apologetic that is not merely argued, but also felt. There has to be a passion in the communication. There must be a felt reality beyond the cognitive, engaging the feeling of the listener.”5 However, expository preaching will not rescue the ministry of a pastor who lacks passion about preaching. There were … pastors who preached expository sermons but still saw 3 Michael Horton, “Preaching Christ Alone,” 2.

4 R. Kent Hughes, “Restoring Biblical Exposition to Its Rightful Place: Ministerial Ethos and Pathos,” Preaching 17:5 (March/April 2002): 13.

5 Ravi Zacharias, “The Touch of Truth,” in Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 42.

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interest in his own preaching. … Neither was able to communicate to me that they felt their preaching was affecting change in the lives of the church members, or, in fact, accomplishing much at all. Style of preaching was clearly subservient to personality type. I was reminded of Phillips Brooks famous quote, “Preaching is the bringing of truth through personality. It must have both elements. … It is in the defect of one or the other element that every sermon and preacher falls short of the perfect standard. It is in the absence of one or the other element that a discourse ceases to be a sermon, and a man ceases to be a preacher altogether.”6 … I was truly struck by how powerful a role the pastor’s personality played in preaching and in church growth. The pastor sets the tone for the church by being an example of the dynamic he is seeking to instill in his church members. I had not really anticipated this at the beginning of my project, but it became more and more obvious as I conducted the interviews that if the pastor is excited about the effect of preaching in the lives of his people, as well as his own, then it seems to follow that the people of the church will be more likely to take the message to heart and be more willing to share what is going on in their church, and in their own lives, with others.

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