The phrase, “preaching to the choir,” is an idiom which speaks to the practice of a minister who spends his time and energy trying to convert those who are already in agreement with what he is teaching. It is an American take on a much older English expression, “preaching to the converted.”
Preaching to the converted is not completely unnecessary, and sometimes the converted are the only ones willing to listen. At the same time, if the goal is to continue to make new converts, preaching to the converted is never going to accomplish that goal. And, if the goal is to make new converts, then refusing to preach to anyone but the converted is downright counterproductive.
Jesus, we might note, though He spent a great deal of time teaching His disciples in private, spent just as much time reaching out to whoever else might listen. He was willing to converse with the religious, the irreligious, the poor, the rich, Jews, Samaritans, and whoever else might be available to hear God’s word. There were times when those around Him did not understand why He would deign to talk to this person or that. But Jesus had His reasons. When, for instance, the Pharisees questioned why Jesus would spend time with obviously sinful people, Jesus replied, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9:12-13; ESV)”
The reason that Jesus spent time with sinners was because they were the ones who needed to hear His message of salvation. More than this, Jesus’ willingness to try and convert sinners from the error of His ways was a reflection of the love and mercy of God. Being unwilling to reach out to those who needed the message most would have been unkind, unloving, and therefore displeasing to God.
Jesus, we further observe, desired His disciples to have the same approach to reaching out as He did. He sent them out to preach to whoever would listen. Only when men refused to listen were they to move on (cf. Matthew 10:14), but they were to move on so as to attempt to reach others who needed to hear, not so as to isolate themselves from all those who were unlike them, or not already in agreement with the Gospel message.
When the apostles went out to preach, they learned this lesson well from their master and teacher. The apostle Paul wrote concerning his own endeavor to reach out to others, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (Galatians 5:19-23; ESV)
Paul was perfectly willing to preach to the saved when called upon to do so, encouraging and strengthening them (cf. Acts 14:21-22), but he still sought out every opportunity that came his way so that he might bring the lost to Christ, for he wanted all men to be saved (cf. Acts 26:29). In this endeavor, rather than forcing other people to conform to his pattern of behavior, Paul went out of his way to make himself agreeable to them, all for the purpose of winning them to Christ so that they might be saved.
Those of us who are followers of Christ are called to imitate the love which compelled Him to seek and to save the lost (cf. Luke 19:10). When we who have the words of life isolate ourselves, by our own choices, from those who disagree with us on various issues, or who are unpleasant to our sensibilities, or in some manner offend us, we are closing a door on an individual soul who needs to hear that message. Even worse, when we act in a manner designed to offend others so as to turn them away from us, where is our concern for their well-being?
Yet there are many today claiming the name of Christ who seem to be doing just that. Cutting off relationships with those who disagree with them about various issues, often political. Mocking perceived enemies. Demanding others conform to their manner of thinking or living before they will deign to discuss anything with them.
Such behavior seems counterproductive to the actual cause of Christ.
Jesus went out of His way to teach the unteachable. We should do the same. Paul, in imitation of Jesus, tried to be as pleasing as possible to as many people as possible in the hopes that some few might listen to the truth. Do we think that Jesus wants us to do less today? Christians need to be looking for ways to reach “beyond the choir” with the message of Christ, not looking to make the “choir” an ever-smaller circle of like-minded acquaintances.
The church of Christ warmly invites everyone to worship and study with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise, if you have any questions or comments, we invite you to share them with us at chapelhillchurchofchrist.org.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.