December 2, 2020

What’s Wrong With The Sermon? III: “I don’t understand it.”

preachguy1.jpgThe third in a series of posts examining the basics of good contemporary preaching.

This post is not about people whose communication skills are too poor to get the job done. If you are ignorant, or mumble or can’t get a talk organized in any sort of comprehensible way, the road for you is clear and striaght ahead: Get to work improving your skills. Take a class in communication or speech. Get mentored. These obvious problems can be addressed relatively simply if you have the humility to admit you need work.

We’re going to go a different direction.

The longer I preach, the more I am convinced that preachers operate in two “rings” of comprehension.

The first ring includes those familiar with evangelical language, dialects and rules of communication. These are the people who understand preachers because they know the Bible, the vocabulary and the methods of communication we typically equate with preaching. Most of us who are sitting in church listening to sermons are in this circle.

The other circle is everyone else. They listen to the same sermons and in many, many cases they have no idea what the preacher is talking about.

They don’t know the Bible. They don’t know the in-words. They don’t know the unspoken assumptions. They don’t buy into all the intellectual shortcuts. They don’t buy into the universe of answers that the inner circle takes for granted.

This audience–often young people and the chronically unchurched–are truly puzzled by what they are hearing. What sounds familiar and important to us sounds silly, confusing, even bizarre to them.

It’s at this point that something interesting happens. A bold response arises in regard to those who do not understand.

All over America, there are young “preachers” doing talks that those of us who are “trained” and “prepared” preachers find amateurish, informal and inadequate. Some of them are theologically rough around the edges, or worse. It doesn’t sound like preaching. Some embrace the label preaching for “talks.” It grates on our nerves, and it bothers us because these preachers seem to be implying that the way the rest of us are preaching doesn’t make it across the communication divide between the two rings.

They may be right, by the way.

These young preachers have shifted almost totally to the outer ring, and have largely left the inner ring on their own. Often they explain this as their purpose, but sometimes you simply have to figure out what is happening. They are attempting to communicate the Gospel in a way that deconstructs the whole idea of preaching to exclude “inside” communication and to take great pains to communicate simple and practical lessons to the unchurched. It feels, to many Christians, like “baby steps” all the time, and they don’t care for it.

Now I am not claiming that these preachers are succeeding. I think the results are a very mixed bag that depends on a lot of factors I can’t address here. What I am going to commend is a shift in thinking away from only being comprehensible to a smaller and smaller group of insiders–an approach that really is more about teaching and discipling than about proclamation anyway–to an approach that seeks to speak as directly to the non-believer, non-“insider,” as possible.

America and the West are becoming a mission field. These young preachers understand this, and we need to pay attention to that insight before we decide they are all betrayers of what is true and important (which some may be.)

Watching and listening to this shift has caused me to ask very hard questions about my own preaching. I preach to hundreds of unbelievers. I am very conscious of the fact that if I do a typical sermon from my own Southern Baptist tradition, the kind that all the Christians will like, I will be incomprehensible to many of my students. At times, I have sat with the students, listened to guest preachers, and tried to hear the message as a complete outsider would hear it.

The results are sobering. We really do speak in a total environment of incomprehension for many people. So much is assumed. So much is unexplained. So many of the questions, answers, stories and difficulties are assumed or ignored. While we are talking about Christian beliefs that we all take for granted, many are hearing a completely mysterious, unknown, almost bizarrely irrelevant presentation.

Now this raises clear choices.

For some, the mandate is plain: be understood at all costs. No matter what must happen, what must change or what must be done, communication with the unchurched audience is the priority. Into this option we could list all kinds of creative and catchy tools that turn sermons into “talks” about “principles” and “lessons.” Grabbing and holding attention is a preeminent concern. Simplicity and practicality are unsurpassed qualities. The Gospel? Well…..we may have a problem there.

For many, this appears to be an abandonment of the sermon as the church’s unique proclamation and a surrender to the culture. The content of the Gospel seems to be perilously and cavalierly at risk in this approach. The end result often seems to be unrecognizable as Christian preaching. These are real concerns, and I don’t have a problem with anyone who is critical of the risk some young preachers are taking.

This deconstruction of preaching in the name of communication is an important challenge. It doesn’t just want to come out from behind the pulpit. In many ways it wants to eliminate the pulpit, and even the church building itself. It is a deconstruction and rebirthing of preaching and the context of communication that seems perilously uninterested in the “great preachers” of the past, and very interested in emulating secular models of communication from advertising to MTV.

On the other hand, many traditional preachers respond to this same challenge by not only getting back behind the pulpit, but elevating it to new levels. There is a call for a return to classic, theologically driven preaching aimed squarely at the church and not at the unbeliever. It is not unusual to hear advocates of this approach make absolute statements: only exposition is real preaching; large amounts of scripture should be used; an advanced theological vocabulary is to be used in order to precisely describe Biblical truth; systematic theology should never be avoided.

The idea here is to make the church’s communication centered on the preservation of the Gospel and not on communication with those in the “outer ring.” The results, in my opinion, may be very good and necessary for the church, but there is a real danger here as well: abandoning the missional nature of the church. The church of Jesus is a cross-cultural movement. To stop and entrench our communication with those who already understand the Gospel is to take the path of the Pharisees, and not the path of Jesus.

Jesus is the key to this dilemma. And it is on Jesus that my advice for preachers will center.

How can our sermons communicate the Gospel more clearly?

1) We must be clear about the Gospel itself, in all its aspects. At this point, I believe that concern about some emerging and seeker preaching models is well placed and appropriate. We must have the truth of the Gospel clearly and deeply in our minds and hearts if we are going to talk about it in any way. We do need theologically driven preaching, and we do need to develop the ability to talk about the Gospel in Biblical language.

I am concerned about some strains of the emerging/seeker church, because the Gospel appears to be compromised. I do not believe this is universal or inevitable, but there are reasons to take a look in junior’s room and see what he is up to.

2) For this reason, I believe that preparation and study of Christian theology and Biblical exposition is crucial. A communicator will have confidence to communicate to the extent that he/she has mastered the critical, essential material. We cannot hold the Gospel loosely and communicate it well.

I do not believe, however, that this means worshipping the past or persons in the past. Contemporary Calvinism has become a personality enamored club of fanboys. Our study of theology and Bible isn’t a study of “Which reformer got it all right?” If the reformed are concerned about the loss of serious theology in some churches, the reformed need to be just as concerned at their own endless fawning and fanclubbing. Many evangelicals give obesience to their heroes that would rival any demonstration of adoration for the pope.

Get over it. I mean, does anyone else find it amazing that we have a huge Spurgeon fan club in the reformed world, but instead of emulating Spurgeon’s creativity and innovation in the pulpit, we have people wanting to READ SPURGEON’S SERMONS TO THEIR AUDIENCE? Gack!

3) The key point for preaching, however, is not the mastery of theological categories, but mastery of the Bible as literature/story. The Gospel is God’s story, with Jesus as the final word. God has not given us a systematic theology. We wrote ALL of those. God has given us scripture as a story; a narrative. He has given us teaching based upon that narrative and explaining the central theme of that story. It is important that everyone called to be a pastor or teacher master that narrative and its meaning as much as possible.

It is in the Biblical story, I believe, that we will resolve this dilemma. We will never solve it arguing systematic theology, but we might find we can talk about Jesus with some clarity.

4) I can affirm the efforts of recent communicators to speak clearly to the unbeliever. I believe this is what Jesus did, and what he models for his followers to do. Jesus was not an expositor. Jesus was a preacher/teacher who showed mastery of a variety of communication techniques in order to speak to ordinary people.

5) Jesus’ use of parables and explanation of those parables to his disciples sets an interesting and exciting model. Often the parables were NOT understood–by intention (Mark 4:33-34). Yet Jesus is using parables constantly as a specific way to communicate with and provoke interest in the “outer ring” of hearers. (And among the religious, as well. Mark 12.) At the same time, Jesus is explaining the parables to his disciples. In other words, Jesus engages in both provocative communication, and specific discipleship oriented teaching.

6) This suggests to me that a Jesus-style preacher will be able to go to various levels of communication, being aware of all different audiences. We are not given permission to leave anyone out in our presentation of the message of Jesus. We are to determine the audience and to approach that audience with the best strategy possible.

Why can’t a preacher, on a given Sunday, do a children’s sermon, a sermon for seekers, and an exposition with application, all from the same text?

7) There is good reason to believe that the Bible itself challenges us to do communication in a flowing, lively process that begins with basic illustration and story, then moves on to more explicit explanation and teaching. The goal is not to just speak to one kind of person, but to move all persons through a process of “basics on up.” This takes time and preparation, but it allows both seeker-sensitive creativity, and serious application to be “OK.”

Jesus did it.

8) This means that the preacher may be using provocative and non-traditional approaches at one point, and then more “inside” explanations and teaching at another, all the while connecting these methods together.

I think it is important for us to remember that the message of Jesus never comes with an age-specific or culture-specific label. We are communicators to everyone! An expositional preacher who never goes “down” to the level of the unbeliever has failed. An evangelist who never goes into depths on questions of Christology or application has failed as well.

We cannot take full responsibility for the complete comprehension of all who hear us preach. The Holy Spirit’s work is illumination and regeneration. Comprehension is an important matter, but God does amazing things with all our less than perfect communications.

The crucial ingredient is genuine love for people and genuine passion for God and the Gospel. That love then spurs us to work hard at the business of communicating like Jesus. We don’t “dead end” into doing what feels safe or right for us. We look at the sheep in front of us, and we bring all our abilities to the work of showing them the Great Shepherd.


  1. It’s kind of like how in the 1800’s, many of the hymns we now see as canon were old drinking songs, rewritten by missionaries wishing to reach a culture dark to the Gospel. Now, they are wonderful still, yet sometimes cannot convey their truths to a new culture. I love how you bring up Spurgeon’s innovation, yet today the same holds true – Spurgeon’s sermons, though dripping with truth, lack the ability to reach a new culture. The Gospel, like the Lord himself, is truly a paradox; it is literally the mystery to end all mysteries, yet we must come to it as a child, so it must be the simplest thing in the world.


  2. Steve, can you name one hymn from the 1800s which was originally an old drinking song? I think a little investigation will show that this popular story is a myth. Also, it was supposed to be Luther re-writing songs from the pub. Please see
    for clarification of this old chestnut.

  3. I think that if we change “drinking song” to “common folk melody” the observation stands.

  4. Thanks for addressing this issue. I’ve gone to church just about my whole life (although I was not a Christian for many of those years). I know the language of the church. My young pastor does not use that language. He preaches clear, simple messages in American English. He’s not an invitationalist either. Our church has almost doubled in size, with the majority of new converts being in their 20’s. The older crowd doesn’t like his preaching, and I suspect they will try to get rid of him ere long. Sad.

  5. Our church is searching for a new senior pastor, ignoring the current young talented pastors already there. These people aren’t old enough, so they must not be good enough… This seems to be the thought. What if, just what if, they brought in a 26 year old new seminary grad? What if this guy talked just like a normal person? What if he prayed using everyday language? Would the old guard be upset? Probably.

  6. “What if, just what if, they brought in a 26 year old new seminary grad? What if this guy talked just like a normal person? What if he prayed using everyday language? Would the old guard be upset? Probably.”

    This could bring up a whole different topic. If you are just hiring a guy to stand in the pulpit and preach/teach, then that is probably all the “old guard” is considering. However, if the senior pastor has other duties as well, I’m sure the “old guard” is carefully considering whether a young kid fresh out of school has the experience and maturity for a senior pastor position. For example, how much actual marriage counseling has he done? How many times has he sat at the bedsides of dying people and helped minister to them and their families? Is his household truly in order, and how can you determine that if he doesn’t have any children yet or only a baby or two? What godly advice, born from experience, could he give to the parents of a young adult killed in a tragic, self-inflicted accident? How well does he minister to the needs of everyone in his congregation, of all ages?

    We just went through a pastoral search process, so this is fresh in my mind. I’ve also been around the block enough to know that, if you are going to hire a completely inexperienced senior pastor, you had better have some really strong and experienced men in your church who can mentor this young fellow and pick up the ministerial slack while he learns and matures.

    Nothing against young pastors…but when I was going through the rough past two years of my life, I was really thankful that there were pastors in my life who had also experienced the crushing blows of grief, who had counseled the dying and their loved ones, who had been in the trenches so to speak, who had walked with God long enough to experience the rocky, messy, ugly aspects of life, and who could give me hope not just from Scripture but from their own life.

    Which brings me back to the topic at hand…I sometimes think the problem with some of the sermons that are incomprehensible to those not in the in-crowd is that the pastor only hangs with the in-crowd. I recall hearing a young pastor (not that long out of seminary) who was doing an evangelism training class. He actually suggested we begin our gospel presentations with an overwhelming, theologically heavy description of the trinity and creation. We were a pretty astute crowd, but his sample gospel presentation was a bit on the overly intellectual side, even for us. I doubt that anyone, other than seminary students, would have found it engaging. It made our eyes glaze over. I think any unbeliever would have run off as quickly as possible.

    He simply had no idea how to communicate to those who did not come from where he came from — since his teens, he had been engaged in deep, theological study.

    But I also know pastors who actually spend time hanging out with their neighbors, who volunteer in the public schools, who coach their kids’ sports teams, and who are out and about, rubbing shoulders with those who don’t darken the doors of a church. And these guys tend to learn to talk about the gospel in a way that doesn’t require a lifetime of church attendance to understand. And, frankly, the more these pastors have experienced personal brokenness, the more compelling they are when they talk about Jesus.

    My father, who has spent years in the pulpit and who has been known to use the word “propitiation” in a children’s sermon (he doesn’t believe in talking down to kids and he did define the word) also has the amazing ability to talk about Jesus to anyone, anywhere, and to make it comprehensible. If he just kept himself locked in his church study or just hanging out with church people, I doubt that he could preach understandable sermons to the wonderful, eclectic bunch of people he now has in his church.

    And, after all he has seen and experienced, he truly can speak with authority about the good news of the gospel.

  7. “Our church is searching for a new senior pastor, ignoring the current young talented pastors already there. ”

    -Wow– you have talented pastors who are young? Amazing. I need to get out more. I haven’t seen a pastor in a very long time, especially any younger ones, who could communicate worth squat. Forget about preaching– I’d settle for simple coherence.

    OTOH, many of the older ones I see are stuck in the very rut that Michael describes. They aim for the seniors, who lap it up, and criticize anyone who doesn’t approach it from their favorite angle.

    Our senior pastor, in his mid-40s, communicates well, but his exegesis (i.e. application of the actual meaning of the actual scripture) leaves a lot to be desired. Good thing he’s a decent and loving shepherd of his sheep, or I’d be outta there.

    Yeah, I’m kinda fed up. Sorry to be ranting. Well, not really! 😉

    -JIkm Bob

  8. I think you’re right on, provided that those who preach stick close to a couple of your key points: “We must be clear about the Gospel itself, in all its aspects.”, and “preparation and study of Christian theology and Biblical exposition is crucial.” The whole idea of a (expository) sermon is to convey the meaning of the Scripture. That doesn’t have to be done in seminary-ese.

    I take a bit of exception (not a lot, but a bit) to the idea of molding things to seekers. Sermons can be appreciated by non-Christians, but they shouldn’t be aimed at them. This is back to the age-old debate about what a worship service is for – “seekers” or believers. The worship service should be compelling enough to cause them to desire Christ, but not so much aimed at them as to neglect the spiritual nourishment of the believer.

    It is true that “God has not given us a systematic theology. We wrote ALL of those. God has given us scripture as a story; a narrative.” However, “systematic theology” is nothing more than a rigorous, formalized overview of the same kind of story that a preacher will convey to the congregation. So by preaching a message, one is usually delivering a message that is little more than a “Readers Digest Condensed Version” of some aspect of a systematic theology. But again, it need not be delivered in a cryptic fashion.

    Even though I definitely dislike most aspects of the Emerging Church, I did read Dan Kimball’s book (“The Emerging Church” – I liked much of the book, I’m just not fond of the movement) and was taken by one of his points. He says that those in the Emerging Church have “A new hunger for depth and theology”. He states that preachers should not “…insult people’s intelligence or desire for spiritual depth”. In this section, he relates the following:

    “One time, when preaching on Romans 6-8, I felt like I was teaching an English class, because I walked the audience through the definitions of sanctification, comdemnation, imputed righteousness, and other terms. I put together extensive sermon notes to hand out, and that night we actually ran out of them and had to print extra sheets for several weeks afterward because the demand was so great. Emerging generations are starving for deeper teaching, and our job is to respect them enough to give it to them”

    It’s the old addage: “know your audience” (which is, in essence, what you say in item 6). In the case of worship, there are two audiences: the congregation, and the LORD, and of course the latter is the One we need to pay closest attention to…