April 25, 2019

Three Obstacles to Good Preaching

loudBefore I talk about preaching, a bit of context for new readers.

1) In the course of my job, I hear, at minimum, 6 sermons a week. (Monday – Thursday, then two on Sunday.)
2) At least two of them, sometimes 3, are preached by me.
3) These sermons are preached to an audience of approximately 350, mostly students, fairly evenly divided between unbelievers and marginally professing Christians on the one hand, and fairly serious, committed believers on the other.
4) These sermons come from a Southern Baptist context and culture in regard to preaching.
5) The intended topics of these sermons vary widely, from textual exposition to moral exhortation to evangelism and apologetics to contributions to the culture war.
6) Before long, I will have preached my 3,000th sermon, so this is something I actually care about.
7) At this point in my life, mentoring preachers is important work for me.

It seems to me that most of the preachers I hear face three major obstacles regarding preaching itself.

1) If the context is not the familiar confines of the local church, many preachers are unsure of how to approach those who will hear them. In other words, the questions of introduction and communicative common ground are difficult to answer.

Most preachers seem to immediately “feel” for the solid, predictable ground of the church pulpit and a friendly congregation where introduction of the message is not a particular challenge. For example, I recently heard a sermon that started with the reading of a rather obscure Old Testament story, then immediately took off with the assumption that the audience was fully on board. In actual fact, at least 80% of the room, conservatively speaking, had no idea what had just been said, who the persons were that had been introduced or what possible way any of this touched their own lives.

The preacher was on safe ground, and that seemed to be immensely important to him. The audience was clueless and quickly hunkered down into “survival” mode.

How can a preacher establish common ground? I don’t believe this is a technique as much as a mindset. Can a communicator put himself in the position of those hearing the message? Can he find those places where the message touches upon the likely experiences and concerns of those who hear?

In fact, the common ground is our common humanity and the audacious belief that God has established common ground in Jesus. The incarnation establishes common ground, and the preacher has the privilege of revealing how we have a savior who comes to us in our own humanity to forgive, redeem and restore our humanity.

For many preachers, the problem is that they have lost touch with their own humanity. They’ve become too involved in theologies of ideas and they are seeking to sell concepts and alter behavior. The preacher is involved in an explicitly spiritual work, but it is premised on the simplest foundation: One human being talking to another about what is true. It isn’t a sale or a cheerleading session. It is a communication of God’s word in human words.

2) Too many preachers deal with the obstacle of relevance by either creating a false kind of alternative relevance, or they abandon true relevance completely and simply deal with the message as a demonstration that what is obvious and meaningful to them is obvious and meaningful to everyone.

False relevance comes in many forms, and it needs to be plainly pointed out. A joke that moves a talk onto topical common ground is not relevance. A film clip with topical similarity is not relevance. Personal narratives and anecdotes are not relevance. Relevance occurs when the truth is plainly seen to fit with life.

Evidence is not relevant because it is amusing or entertaining or on a similar topic. Evidence is relevant when it obviously fits into the case being considered. Otherwise, it is out of order.

A parade of amusing and entertaining evidence may guarantee extensive media coverage and a packed courtroom. But the purpose of the presentation of evidence is to establish guilt or innocence by way of the truth, not to ensure ratings.

At a deeper level, I often wonder how a preacher’s approach in a message could possibly be relevant in his own life. Innumerable times, I have listened to messages and concluded that the preacher was, in the act of preaching, doing nothing more than performing a kind of religious ritual which he believed had inherent value. In actual fact, there was no real coherence between the message and the speaker’s own life, and the coherence presented in the message was cartoonish and illusory at best.

One of the worst sermons I ever heard came from a young preacher enamored of the exegetical preaching of a particular evangelical preacher whose name we all know. The young man took to the pulpit, read a passage from a New Testament letter, began a 20 minute commentary that could only be appreciated by a seminary class in exegesis or theology, then made no application at all. Throughout, he reeked of a kind of superiority to his audience that made me wish I’d brought at least one tomato.

Now this was a good person with a serious commitment to Christ, but he had determined that establishing relevance was an insult to the inspiration of the scripture, so he was simply going to exegete it and let the Holy Spirit do the rest. As a result, he could have done much the same talk if he were reading a manual on servicing jet engines or a study of defaulted loans among Cambodian immigrants.

Like good attorneys, we have the job of showing that the truth matters IN THIS PARTICULAR CASE, that case being the human lives before us, both now and eternally. Relevance can’t be faked, avoided or assumed without dire consequences; consequences for which we are fully responsible.

3) The purpose of preaching is to present Christ and the Gospel through the medium of verbal communication. Yet in these post Christian times, more than a few preachers seem to be suspicious of the value of preaching itself. I sense that more than a few preachers are struggling with whether preaching matters.

Now I am not just talking about your youth director who wants to be a stand up comedian. I am talking about grown men who have decided the proclamation of Jesus through the scriptures and by the means of preaching is of little real practical value.

Frankly, I’ve grown weary of listening to the redefinition and denigration of preaching that goes on within the Christian community. If I have to hear one more person contrast the meaningfulness of music or film with the tedium and boredom of preaching, I may wind up needing a high-priced defense lawyer. Church: preachers could use a little encouragement from you. Yes….you.

The failure isn’t in what preaching is, but in the loss of enthusiasm for and commitment to preaching that follows the Biblical pattern of being passionate about the Gospel, Biblically relevant in ways that speak to the deepest concerns of all persons and Christ exalting so that the energy of preaching is the wonder of Jesus Christ himself.

It grieves me and, frankly, confuses me to meet preachers who regularly take the path of moralism, legalism and the culture war instead of explaining the riches of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t surprise me that preaching is in a poor state, because I hear few preachers who understand what Paul meant when he said the Gospel of Christ crucified was the singular means of God’s saving, redeeming and resurrecting power.

Preaching is a constant test of whether we believe the Gospel, believe that Jesus is the key to life and believe that God’s appointment of preaching is an expression of his wisdom. The current disregard for preaching Christ is a symptom of the deepest sort of sickness in the evangelical body.

An advocacy of Christ-exalting preaching isn’t a rejection of the value of the many other ways the Gospel can be communicated and illustrated, but the place of preaching in the life of the church is not a matter of choosing this option or activity over that. It is a mark that a congregation or ministry values the Christ-centered, Christ-exalting, New Covenant Gospel of grace as its one message.

(This is one reason I am so persuaded that the Luther’s balance of preaching and Eucharist is essential in the church, and why I believe Luther practiced that balance much better than many of his descendants.)

So we have much preaching, but little Christ centered, Christ energized preaching that makes the presentation of Jesus in the Word and words a moment of encounter with God.

Comments

  1. Do you think that perhaps part of the problem of pseudopreaching is the fact that today’s audience has been conditioned to expect 1. entertainment, 2. education, or 3. personal enrichment instead of a call to examine ourselves and Christ’s claim on us as believers? We value pop culture and anything that benefits ourselves far more than we value the way of the cross.

  2. Another excellent and very perceptive post Michael! The missing coherence between the message and the preacher’s own life may have a number of reasons. There’s first of all the experience gap between the truth proclaimed and the degree of understanding and actual application in our personal lives – unless you would want to limit all preaching exclusively to content that reflects truly the maturity of the preacher or to confessions of our personal struggles and limitations when this is not the case. And if I’m not mistaken, losing self-awareness in the process of preaching without losing our authenticity can be a very difficult balancing act at times.

  3. Michael, Congratz on the upcoming 3,000th sermon. This was a good post to think about as I prepare for my own Sunday morning.

    Kat, Those expectations may be more vapor than solid, the problem is they are projected as real. Sure for some it is their key to success, but those who want to hear it will flock there. This does not mean everyone wants it. The problem is that some have too much media exposure and make everyone feel like this is where preaching is at. It is not. The preacher needs to find their self-confidence in preaching obediently the true gospel. So yes, I think it is a problem, but I think it is one we have made for ourselves.

  4. When I used to get to preach (about twice a year) at my old church, I always approached the topic by asking two questions: 1) What has God been teaching me lately (so that the congregation could maybe learn from my mistakes)? 2) What is the Church dealing with that needs to be addressed but hasn’t been? Even though my default mode is to be a people-pleaser, several times I had to be the guy to give general rebukes, ‘cuz no one else would. This was usually on matters where legalism was manifesting and the Gospel was getting ignored.

    One thing that taught me, though, is that the regular preacher has a HARD task… I mean, sure I can hit a home run twice a year, but he’s gotta be “on” most every week! Sometimes more often!

  5. A little bit off-subject: many, many preachers start out in youth ministry of some kind because they’re initially ministering to those just younger than them. And the kind of preaching that occurs in more than a few youth group contexts is seriously lacking in gospel fundamentals.
    Somewhere to begin answering this might be making sure those teenagers / young adults in our care hear gospel-centered preaching and get a good grip of the mechanics. If we miss it there, it becomes a game of back-tracking later (at best).

  6. I experienced something like this when I graduated from Bible College and was asked to lead the membership Bible Study one Sunday morning. Fresh out of Exegetical classes, I went over the various views and arguments concerning the scripture at hand, and what some of the Greek Words meant; and at the end of the study left half a dozen people reeling. They had no idea what I was talking about, it was extremely confusing, and left half of them questioning if they even wanted to join the Church. Our Church Secretary wasn’t too happy with me, and I was never invited back. I learned a very valuable lesson that day. In May I’ll be trying to go back to leading a Bible Study, this time with College Students. I’m hoping I’ll do a better Job, and make help make the scripture applicable to the folks who are going to be there.

  7. I’m saying this with all sincerity: I have no idea what you are trying to say in the first three paragraphs under point 2. Are you trying to say that it is bad to share a story or use humor in preaching? (I’m not talking stand up comedy…just humor.) Perhaps a specific example would be helpful. I mean, I get the sense that you have a particular preacher in mind when you say “A parade of amusing and entertaining evidence may guarantee extensive media coverage and a packed courtroom. But the purpose of the presentation of evidence is to establish guilt or innocence by way of the truth, not to ensure ratings,” but I have no idea who that might be, thus its not helping me grasp your point.

    I’m one who preaches fairly regularly and takes the responsibility seriously and feel like there may be something for me to learn here, but I’m not getting it. Anything you could offer that might help me understand this better will be appreciated.

  8. I remember an old Andy Capp cartoon that had two vicars talking.

    First vicar: ” I seem to be losing my touch with my congregation.”

    Second vicar: ” Oh, don’t worry. We’re bound to have a parishoner fall asleep on us once in a while.”

    Fisrt vicar: ” Do you have one who heckles?”

  9. Michael, your three points sorta indicate that the students really don’t understand the point behind a sermon in the first place. And really, that’s what I see in a whole lot of students at my local Christian university (some of whom go to my church, and some of whom are occasionally allowed to preach). They think the point is to show off their public speaking or exegetical skills.

    They forget it’s about sharing Jesus—in particular, the Jesus they know personally, who is currently working on them in one way or another. The scripture text is something that’s quickly quoted and discarded in order to prove a point, rather than being the very fulcrum of the point. The appeals to cultural relevance are never connected to why the speaker finds this relevant, or how the Lord is dealing with this particular issue in them (in part ’cause they don’t have the humility yet to admit they struggle with this issue too).

    And when the sermon has no impact—’cause why would it?—some blame the medium rather than their mishandling of the medium. But the kids I deal with usually blame the hearers for being cold and dead inside… despite the fact that we hearers really never heard a living Word come out of them, so we can hardly be expected to be animated by it.

  10. Most of my students aren’t Christians, though some come from culturally Christian places.

  11. Jesus manifested Himself to me in physical form at age nine. In my twenties, in a vision at night, He said, “Carolyn, follow me.” His messenger visited me at age 16…in my home…as I came in from school. Over the years….visions from Him have been so numerous…it’s hard to list them all. But they are burned into my being. They are alive and not dreams. So why am I not ‘preaching?’

    I taught adult church classes, I shared my experiences with Christ….for years. Basically, people aren’t all that interested in ‘meat’ of the gospel….Jesus.

    Three years ago…The voice of Elias spoke to me at my home…in an audible voice…in the daytime while I was wide awake. He told me, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make his path straight.” He was serious. He was real. And he was spoke urgently.

    Matthew 10:27 “What I tell you in darkness that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops.” Well, you can bet I have never ceased to openly, passionately, proclaim the truth of God and His Christ. But basically….people still are generally not interested in such things. Even ‘church folks’ find it ‘strange’ and get uncomfortable at hearing such accounts of ‘spiritual encounters.’ After many years and continuing ‘visits’ with the real invisible….I understand that most every experience was just for me…to prepare me to be ultimately as Christ when He said, “If you don’t believe my words, believe the works I do.” He has prepared me to ‘STAND’ in these last days.

  12. Point of the first comment….good preaching comes from God. He opens when no man can close and He closes when no man can open. The message of salvation from sin through God and His Christ…is the gospel. But to feel a need for salvation…one much be convicted in his heart that he truly is a sinner. We just don’t see much of that in our generation.

  13. Well my preaching doesn’t contain any accounts of Jesus appearing or voices speaking.

  14. Brian:

    I’m simply saying that delivering something that’s entertaining or stimulating isn’t wrong per se, but if a preacher assumes that those with more jokes, anecdotes, cool cloths, film clips and pony shows is more “relevant,” he’s misdefined relevant. Relevant is truth that fits. The “interest” level has a part in judging good communication. No argument there. But equating “entertaining” with “relevant” is a mistake.

    I’ve seen all kinds of preachers use film clips to make points and almost completely abandon the Bible as the center of the sermon. A lot of people would say the preacher is being “relevant” by using the film clip. I think that’s a serious prejudgment.

  15. 3000 sermons. Praise God. I am 1/10th as experienced. Questions for you my elder.
    Does it get easier?
    Does it take less preparation time?
    Is it still as exciting?
    Do you ever finish a sermon and wish you could have a do over as there was just so much to share in a chapter/verse/parable?
    Does sharing the Word still seem like the best thing you could ever do and the pulpit seem like the right place to be?
    Have you done re-runs in the 3000 and if so do you think it was better for the experience or worse for wear?
    My first sermon was 30 years ago. I worked on it feverishly for two months. I finished this epic in 7 nervous minutes. Felt like eternity. Brother Bullet stood up and said,”I appreciate a concise sermon, let us have more song today!.” God bless him.

  16. 1) Yes in most ways, but not in all. I used to think I knew a lot more than I do now. Now I do know some things, but I also know how hard it is to communicate well.

    2) Prep time for me is a product of the schedule I keep in my community. I teach and do many other things. I have limited prep time for sermons. About 2 hours each unless it’s something very unusual. I multi task well, read a lot, reflect a lot and am constantly writing down ideas for sermons and posts. I work at a constant rate, but I can’t give 20 hours to a sermon.

    3) Is it still exciting? No….not all the time. Weariness is a big enemy for me as I get older, and I enjoy the breaks when I don’t preach. but being in the pulpit itself is exciting. I really enjoy the process of communicating once the audience is there.

    4) If there’s too much to do in a sermon I stop and continue. I respect my audience’s attention span and try to stay in the 20 minute range at school and 30 minutes tops at any church. I usually am OK with what I preach. I do pick on myself a lot for small things in my delivery.

    5) Preaching is the only reason I can imagine that God leaves me here. The pulpit is my fave place to be and I miss the church pulpit so much it hurts. I love writing but preaching is my thing.

    6) I destroy all sermons after doing them, but I have done some re-runs because of the lectionary and the Christian year. And I re use illustrations every couple of years as my audience changes. I don’t ever re use an entire sermon. Never.

  17. This is an excellent post Michael. Strong medicine. Thank you.

    Maybe you’ll disagree, but two things occur to me. First, much of the issues you describe here have to do with being faithful to the hard work (and it is hard work) of preparation. Yet today’s professional senior ministry positions leave little time for saturation in the task of preaching.

    Second, in my opinion rhetoric is a much rarer gift than administration, leadership, or even musicianship (I think this partly explains video venues). I’m very concerned that the level of entertainment that is expected from the pulpit has seriously undermined the solid blue-collar preaching that needs to occur on a much wider scale. Not everyone can be a stellar rhetorician; but many can and should preach faithfully to the best of their gifting.

  18. Thanks

  19. I am thankful for your insights as I prepare to give only my second sermon ever to our youth group on Sunday. Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned in 3,000 of them.

  20. Imonk,

    Thanks for the clarification…and I agree. Rob Bell said something along the lines of “yes, I certainly do want to engage people- I have something to say. But I’m not interested in amusing them. (A- muse: without thinking.)”

  21. This was a very good post and I thank you for exposing what may be a blind spot for me as well as other preachers.

    I have a question for you as I think about establishing relevancy with the people I am blessed to preach to. (saying “preach to” sounds like I could be saying “talk down to”… but I definately do not mean that. I am blessed to share the riches of Christ with them weekly)

    Question: Do the following two short statements/actions, done as an introduction, establish relevancy?

    1) Giving a short background about the context of the particular passage, explaining why it was written…

    2) Making a short statement regarding belief in the innerrancy of Scripture and that this was God’s Word concerning this matter for us…

    Read text

    Get into Body of Sermon

    I know it depends on how well I bridge the gap between original context and current audience, but do you think those two things, done well, serve as relevance? I’m looking for a practical answer to help apply this in my preaching.

    Blessings,
    Bill

  22. Bill:

    In my opinion, announcements of what we believe about scripture can serve as a starting point, but we have to realize what we are doing there. We’re saying “I’m not going to explain this to you. I’m going to assert.”

    Then we have to do one very important thing: We have make the message substantiate the assertion. Of course, only the HS can ultimately do that, but we have to work in that direction.

    Tomorrow morning I am preaching on he came to his own, but they did not receive him, but to those who did receive him….etc.

    I’m going to introduce this talking about the resistance all people have to various claims and implications of believing in God. Then the message will say: the Bible recognizes why we are so resistant to God and tells us the larger story of our unbelief, God’s grace and the alternative in the Gospel.

    My intro will establish relevance with my unbelievers. I’ll talk honestly about unbelief. My use of scripture will illustrate the truth of scripture by its description of our condition.

    On your other question: I don’t over do background. That’s for the study. I give what’s necessary to preach the passage coherently. I try, over time, to develop a shorthand history of Biblical events that I can refer to, and of course, I teach Bible to most of my audience if they get to high school.

    peace

    ms

  23. BILL >>>Tomorrow morning I am preaching on he came to his own, but they did not receive him, but to those who did receive him….etc.

    Bill, I sincerely feel one reason people are not open to Jesus is due to misunderstanding concerning ‘he came to his own and they received him not.’ A feeling of ‘why should we value him as Messiah when those who knew him best…did not receive him as Messiah.’ So relevant is the REASON his own didn’t receive him. The reason is recorded in Isaiah….closing of their ability to ‘receive’ at that time. He came to die…..and ‘his own’ were appointed by God to play a huge roll in Jesus as Messiah.

    God bless! “beautiful are the feet of them………”

  24. GranpaJohn says

    Thanks for another masterpiece. In the last 30 years I have preached around 1500 sermons in churches, schools, rescue missions and schools. I have had the privilege of delivering several in your school. I confess I struggle with this each time I get into that knee knocking place called the pulpit. I don’t always succeed. Although the entertainment paradigm is not part of my repertoire, THE purpose is to persuade people of Christ is. I feel I don’t always get real relevance because I often fail to connect with my audience’s perspective. Who are these people anyway and why do they think I have real and effective answers?

    Your study habits are being continually in the Word, challenged to repeat truth and given unbearable circumstances in your private life. You may put it together in a couple hours but it’s a lifetime of preparation.

    My greatest desire is for real honest feedback from those I speak to. Not every message but occasionally. And yes, I have had the church member go out the church door trumpeting how wonderful it all was and then heard him/her 30 minutes later in the next booth at the restaurant having roast preacher (more than once). But sincere truth delivered in kindness; humble pie for me as well as gracious appreciation. If what I have delivered is effective in relating them to Christ or His Word or in any way, I often do not see it because I feel like I didn’t get closer then eighteen inches from reality.
    Keep it coming because we all need mentoring.

    SMHG John

  25. IMonk?

    Will we ever get to a place in our SBC’s where the Lord’s Table get’s to be a central part of our services again? At least once a month?

  26. I think a lot of younger pastors in evangelicalism are turning the corner on this one.

  27. I hope to start next month with a montly communion service.

    Pray that all goes well.

  28. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Well my preaching doesn’t contain any accounts of Jesus appearing or voices speaking. — IMonk

    With her accounts of “Elias” (Elijah?) speaking audibly to her and references to “these last days”, Carolyn still sounds like she’s running a Left Behind Fever of around 106. (Not that uncommon in these days of general End-of-the-World Zeitgeist, just the Christian expression of it.)

    And her comment on “conviction of sin”; these days “preaching conviction of sin” can all too easily mean going Fred Phelps in their face. When you mix “convicted in his heart that he is a sinner” with worm theology, things can turn into a very vicious putdown party very fast. (And when they reject your resulting obnoxiousness, you can mine their rejection for “Persecuted for Righteousness’ Sake” warmfeelies and never learn from your experience.)

    I’ve seen all kinds of preachers use film clips to make points and almost completely abandon the Bible as the center of the sermon. A lot of people would say the preacher is being “relevant” by using the film clip. I think that’s a serious prejudgment. — IMonk

    Chesterton (or was it Lewis?) wrote that the Church throughout its history has been tempted to attach the Gospel to a passing fad, binding it to a particular time. And were this to happen, the Church would become just another fad of that time, to become old-fashioned and forgotten in turn as that particular time passed into history. (Think on the construction of the term “Post-Modern?” Since “Modern” means contemporary or “the latest”, how can something be “Post-Modern”, or “later than the latest”? Did the Modernists think history ended with themselves — After Me, Nothing?)

    Nothing gets stale faster than over-relevance. Except pretentious over-relevance.