September 21, 2020

Mondays with Michael Spencer: February 29, 2016

Cranberry Table Sketch

On Mondays we’ve been looking at several things that Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, wrote on the subject of preaching. Today, here is an excerpt from a post in which Michael describes an experience that confirmed what he wrote in a classic article called, On Christless Preaching, and gave him further reason for staying on the post-evangelical path.

Past posts:
• Part 1: The sermon’s too long
• Part 2: The sermon’s boring
• Part 3: The sermon — I don’t understand it
• Part 4: The sermon — it isn’t practical
• Part 5: The sermon — More stories please!
• Part 6: The sermon in the Evangelical Liturgy

• • •

The Sermon that Needs No Jesus

Recently I was traveling to a conference with a friend, and I listened to a sermon. Preached by a Christian, a Baptist, a minister at a church, a graduate of a Christian school training ministers to serve and communicate Jesus.

This preacher gave a message that he had worked hard to prepare; a message he had presented before. A message he deeply believed in.

It was a message well organized, passionately delivered and completely sincere. It was a message with an application about having a purpose in living that many people need to hear.

So why am I writing about that sermon? Did it change my life?

I’m writing about that sermon because it was a perfect illustration of Christless preaching.

There was not a single mention of Jesus. Not once. Not in any way. Nowhere.

It was as if Jesus had never been born. It was as if Jesus never existed.

Jesus made no difference, made no contribution, determined no truth, solved no problem, offered no hope, performed no miracle, never interceded, never atoned, never taught, never lived the truth. Jesus made no claims, offered no invitations, defined no choices.

In fairness, the sermon was on an older testament story, but I am holding the preacher responsible for somehow preaching a Christian sermon, not a motivational talk. Christian preaching, no matter where it comes from, is necessarily oriented to the person, work and gospel of Jesus Christ in some way.

This was a talk about human motivation, with no more salvation than knowing God wanted you to change your own life, find a purpose and accomplish more in the future than you did in the past.

In short, here’s what we heard:

  • Your big problem is that you are not doing much with your life.
  • What you need is a passion for what you can do with your life.
  • God wants you to trust him so that you’ll have a dream and a purpose.
  • The story of Joshua illustrates this.
  • And the premise: I’m going to tell you how to have a great life.

“Great life?” Sound familiar, anyone? Think “blinking teeth.” Think “Best Life Now.” Think “Becoming a Better You.”

People ask me all the time why I call myself post-evangelical. Reformed watchbloggers routinely refer to the term “post-evangelical” with contempt. Many others seem to prefer some other term to more accurately map themselves on the journey of faith. Are critics of the term “post-evangelical” paying any attention to evangelicals?

Let me suggest that if the sermon I heard represents what we have to look forward to in evangelicalism, then being post-evangelical means that Jesus matters, the Gospel is the Biblical good news and faithfulness to either requires an intentional removal from what is happening in evangelicalism. Post-evangelicalism is a place to stand in the midsts of a tide that has washed everything out and left the flotsam and jetsam of a crumbling, degraded culture on the beaches of a vacillating, deluded church.

When a preacher can stand in the pulpit, hold the Bible, represent a significant church and the training of a major school, claim to expound the meaning of the Bible and never even once mention Jesus or the Christian good news at all, there is something monumentally wrong at work.

“Houston, we have a problem….Jesus has left the sermon.”


  1. Preaching Christ might at the very least separate out those who want to know and follow Him as opposed to those looking only for a moral coach or a general for the culture wars…

  2. Akin to the “Christmas” carol, “It came upon a Midnight Clear” wherein Jesus, Christ, Son of God , etc, is not included once, only a couple euphemisms dance around it.

    • On the other hand, often we can find Jesus in those ‘euphemisms’ even if He is not mentioned ‘by the Holy Name’ . . . one example of such a hymn is ‘Be Thou My Vision’ . . . it’s almost as if the 8th century A.D. Celtic author was praying to Our Lord with great longing for Him:

      “Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
      Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
      Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
      Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

      Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
      I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
      Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
      Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

      Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
      Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
      Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:
      Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

      Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
      Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
      Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
      High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

      High King of Heaven, my victory won,
      May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
      Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
      Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.”

      • “Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
        Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.”

        Highly interesting, Christiane. Not sure if it qualifies as a dancing euphemism, but it surely is a 21st century cutting edge concept, or would be if we replaced “son” with “child”. Of course it wouldn’t rhyme then. The Romans and then their official Church spent a lot of money and blood trying to wipe out Celtic religion, which possibly got going with the prophet Jeremiah bringing a Hebrew princess to Ireland back in the mists of time. Highly interesting.

        • Charlie,

          if you haven’t read “How the Irish Saved Civilization” you might give it a look. It’s not a “religious book”; it’s part of a very readable popular history series, written by a serious academic. According to the author, the Celtic people of Ireland were ripe for the harvest, so to speak, because of the cruelty of their religion. There were not that many that rejected Christianity, and there was actually not money and blood spent to wipe out the old faith – Saint Patrick simply showed them a better God. The whole island was converted within his lifetime.

          Interestingly, there was a strong link between Celtic Christianity and the sensibilities of the Desert Fathers/Mothers of Egypt. The Irish priests and bishops went to southern France for their training, and it was a relatively short and easy sail between Marseille and Alexandria, so there was a lot of influence there from the monastics of the Egypt and Palestine. The Irish Christians were quite amenable to desert monastic spirituality and also gave it their own spin.

          Remember that Christianity was one for a long time; there was only a difference in “flavor” between the east and the west until well into the 700s, at least on the surface of things. After 250 years, Rome did bring in the big ecclesiastical guns (but no soldiers – although Saxon power plays were certainly part of the picture) to the Synod of Whitby in 664, when the church in the British Isles was persuaded to adopt Roman liturgical practices. There was increasing contact over the ensuing years with the RCatholics on the Continent, but it wasn’t until the Norman invasions that the Christianity in the Br. Isles became fully “Romanized.”

          The Prophet Jeremiah thing is really strange – hadn’t heard of it.


          • Yes, Dana, that’s my understanding, too. The Irish Celts jumped wholeheartedly into Christianity from soon after its introduction to Ireland, and little to no coercion was exerted to make them do so. It was love at first sight, so to speak. The Irish never seem to have had second thoughts about there complete and utter conversion to Catholic Christianity, until perhaps the last few decades, when many young Irish have been seriously disillusioned with the abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church there.

          • Plug for Calvary, one of the best and most important movies in the last few years.

          • “How the Irish Saved Civilization”

            Read it quite some years ago but from what I recall, it was the Irish monks the author credits with saving much literature and history. It was an interesting read.

      • Beautiful hymn, by the way. One of my favorites.

    • The classic Danish Christmas carol Skyerne Gråne sounds very Nordic, standing with a torch in the gloomy snow and thinking about another year off the clock, waiting for the coming of spring (and even mentioning Baldur by name!) until the last verse:

      The Child of Bethlehem in the crib,
      This is the eternal Spring.
      The believers’ hearts have perceived it:
      Christmas makes the new year joyful.
      Therefore we bear torches with joy.

      • Point being, even though it doesn’t name names, it illustrates the Christian hope quite strongly nonetheless, I think.

    • Indirect references work fine in a culture where everyone shares the same understanding and experiences, so I wouldn’t criticize “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” Today we really do have to spell things out more.

      • Exactly: “High King of Heaven” or in a non-Celtic context, “King of Kings” closes “Be Thou My Vision” with a crescendo rich in theology.

      • Christiane says

        Hi DAMARIS,

        Yes! you are right about this . . . for someone who is not a Christian to hear ‘Be Thou My Vision’ would be more cryptic than obvious . . .

        excellent point!

  3. Without taking the time to pinpoint, I believe both Moses and Joshua after him proclaimed a message from Yahweh to the gathered children of Israel which basically said, “I’m going to tell you how to have a great life,” the gist of which was that you had to choose who you were going to serve. I believe Bob Dylan wrote a song along those lines, tho I don’t recall him mentioning Jesus by name either.

    I don’t recall Jesus saying much about how to live a great life either. unless you want to claim that picking up your cross is a great way to live your life, which at bottom is what he meant, but it’s not exactly what most people would call good news. This doesn’t seem to me to be quite as simple as Michael would make it. I do know that having to listen to someone who interjects Jesus into every conceivable conversation, well, I would like to have the alternate choice of licking a frog.

    Most people, given the choice between picking up their cross and not picking up sticks on Saturday, would choose the latter. I do believe there are many layers to this dichotomy, one complex enough that Jesus spent three and a half years trying to peel it down for people. I’m not so certain that mentioning Jesus resolves the dilemma, especially because Jesus seemed to be pointing us toward God the Father of us all, and not himself. I’ll grant Michael this, if Jesus came back today and used an old yellow school bus to carry his disciples around, it probably wouldn’t say “Have a Great Life!” on the side.

    • –> “I do know that having to listen to someone who interjects Jesus into every conceivable conversation, well, I would like to have the alternate choice of licking a frog.”

      Agreed. But Michael wasn’t talking about interjecting Jesus into every conceivable conversation, he was talking about interjecting him into every SERMON…LOL. I’ll support that notion!

  4. As Christians, we have been given new hearts and new minds–the mind of Christ. I think we know, or should know, how we are to relate to one another, both inside and outside the church. What we need in a sermon is the proclamation that Jesus Christ is Lord and through His death and resurrection have received redemption and been restored to a right relationship with God the Father. A sermon can include many types of messages–teaching, admonishment, exhortation, etc.–all are good and right and have their place in shepherding but if the sermon doesn’t proclaim the Gospel as of first importance it may be many things but it is not a Christian sermon.

    I have heard too many sermons that tell us how to live as Christians, that give us “biblical principles” and then send us out the door exhorting us to try our best to do better–that way leads to despair because we will all, inevitably, fail. A Christian sermon should instead send us out the door with the hope we have in Jesus Christ, both the author and the finisher of our faith.

    • Well said, Scott! I need to know that I can “try” to be a better Christian, and that when I fail Jesus has me covered. That’s the God I worship.

  5. While I appreciate Michael’s point, I think he missed something here. In my sojourn among the “reformed” Baptist, I did not hear Jesus preached in one. Single. Sermon. Oh, I heard “the gospel” lots. Jesus was reduced to a mathematical Formula. In fact, the Formula was so important, that even Jesus’ acts and words were not allowed to speak for themselves (in the rare case that they were even mentioned) – they had to fit the Formula. So I don’t disagree with Michael here, but I don’t think he goes far enough either.

    • Yes. And there are times when the Jesus I hear preached is much different than the one I see in the Gospels. I heard this claim the other day: “If God opened your eyes to who Jesus really is you would be fearful.”

      I get that “He will come to judge the living and the dead”; but the Jesus we see in the Gospels is a God of grace and mercy. As the catechism states, “He is my only comfort”. It’s hard to find comfort in a Jesus who makes you tremble with fear. I don’t understand what motivates someone who claims to know the risen Christ to preach Him in that manner.

  6. I gave up drinking and drugging for 16 or more years. Hurt so bad inside and out physical and spiritually I picked then up Easter Sunday many years ago now. I remember saying to myself something has got to change and I’m going to change it. Boy did it change. The physical hurt seemed to do better but the spiritual got so bad I was hanging from a rope inside my garage. Just couldn’t figure out how to tie my hands behind my back completely, Sometimes now I wonder if it isn’t worth another try the hurt being so bad from all over. Oh the hell with you all saying there he goes again, piss on you. The good old chap saying drinking isn’t a sin. Well he is right you know. There are lots of things that aren’t. Working on fifth and a half per night and that’s not enough not fill me and the pain killers that help me walk since my hurting my knee I certainly am ready to get out of here. Something pulls at me and wants me to stay.

    I see my grandfathers in nightly dreams. I see those that have past routinely. I’m scared at times. Well most times. Just being honest. I hurt alot. One thing that keeps me pushing and trying is this Jesus who would do that for me on a cross and I know now I would for Him. It would be hard but given this knowledge I have from Him I would without a word.

    I don’t know if I can make it through this one. 15 years clean then 10 now not certain although I pray a lot. Yours would help. I feed the cats at the mountain and I keep s;slipping. I’ll keep trying because of this man named Jesus, the only reason I cannot stop

    • W,
      You’re right. Jesus is the reason not to stop. Keep connected. I’m praying for (with) you.

    • Hang in there, w. Keep keeping on, keep climbing the mountain and feeding the cats, God knows they need to be fed. No matter what, even if you give up on yourself, Jesus will not let go of you.

      Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, lifter of every burden, lover of every suffering son on a cross or under a mountain, giver of life and crusher of death, save your friend and follower w from the dark, sucking emptiness and pain that dogs him, lift him up into the light of your presence, help him to laugh with you in the kingdom of your bright fullness, be with him in all things now and forever–

    • Christiane says

      Hi W,

      God Bless you for caring for the cats on the mountain . . . sometimes I hope that God will remember our kindness to His creatures in this world rather than our weaknesses

      May God give you the strength to endure so that you can continue caring for them for years to come.

  7. W, I am so sorry for your pain. Your struggle reminded me of words that Michael Spencer wrote in his essay “When I Am Weak”:

    “…my fight is never finished, because my sinful, messed-up human experience isn’t finished until death and resurrection. That fight- acceptance and battle- is the normal life of the believer. I fight. Jesus will finish the work. I will groan, and do battle, climb the mountain of Holiness with wounds and brokenness and holy battle scars, but I will climb it, since Christ is in me. The Gospel assures victory, but to say I stand in a present victory as I “kill” sin is a serious wrong turn.

    What does this fight look like? It is a bloody mess, I’m telling you. There is a lot of failure in it. It is not an easy way to the heavenly city. It is a battle where we are brought down again, and again and again. Brought down by what we are, and what we continually discover ourselves to be. And we only are “victorious” in the victory of Jesus, a victory that is ours by faith, not by sight.”

    I pray that you find comfort in knowing that no matter what, nothing–no pain, no sorrow, no sin, no, not Satan himself–can separate you from the love of Jesus. Jesus is holding onto you; you hold onto to Him, brother and keep caring for those cats.

  8. I agree the Christ-less sermon is popular and is a serious problem. I remember when Michael posted this the first time, and it is no less applicable today.

    I do believe a Christ-less sermon can actually mention Jesus quite a lot. There is always the Jesus-my-leadership-example; the Jesus-moral-example; the Jesus-the-selfless-hero-example; etc. But there is another very popular and well-established Christ-less sermon. I heard it over the weekend: Jesus died for you (sounds good so far); you don’t deserve it (still ok); in response to His mercy, you need to do something (uh-oh). It has been discussed here at length and ad naseam: the law-grace-law model.

    • Robert F says

      This is what Barth disliked when he once heard Billy Graham preach. Barth disagreed with Graham’s preaching “You must repent!”; he believed that it is enough in a sermon to proclaim what God has done in Christ. To lay a demand on those listening is to put a barrier between them and God that God has not put there. Graham insisted to Barth that, since the phrase is biblical (which Barth did not deny), Graham would continue to preach it. But I think Barth was right.

      • Robert F says

        Correction: What Barth objected to was Graham’s preaching to his audience that “You must be born again”.