December 2, 2020

What’s Wrong With The Sermon? IV: “It isn’t practical.”

successbook.jpgThe Gospel leads us to practical discipleship, but it doesn’t create a religion of simplistic success principles. Good preaching leads to practical application without obscuring the Gospel itself.

To gain some idea of the state of contemporary preaching, survey what is being preached at any ten successful megachurches in your state, or any ten churches who very much want to become megachurches in the future. Compare these sermons to the sermons of any group of “great preachers” of the past, or well-known expositional, exegetical preachers today.

In other words, compare Ed Young, Jr or Joel Osteen with Jonathan Edwards, Martyn Lloyd-Jones or John Piper. The differences are more than just pronounced; they are stunning. Aside from the fact that someone is talking, it can easily appear that these sermons have no similarity to one another at all.

There will be many differences. Length. Titles. Use of illustrations. Theological depth. Use of the Bible. The effect of technology. Foremost, however, among the observed differences will be the focus on “practical,” “How-to” messages in contemporary churches. Contemporary preaching, especially in the successful megachurches that are populating the western landscape, has become primarily focused on “practical,” “How to be” and “How to do” messages.

Many of these practical sermons are the heart of a church’s appeal to its seeker, market driven, target audience. These would include sermons on how to be a successful parent, how to deal with stress, how to find a mate or have a happy marriage, how to manage money, how achieve goals and so on. The similarity of these messages to the titles of self-help books or the results of surveys on “what would you like to hear at church” is no accident. Today’s practical preaching is very intentional in its approach, and what is successful in one church will be mass produced- right down to the illustrations and outlines- for hundreds, even thousands, of other preachers.

The New Testament is a practical book. It is a discipleship oriented book. Jesus taught his disciples through an intensive kind of training that covered “how to pray”, “how to enter a community and minister”, and “how to cast out demons.” Christianity has always valued spiritual guidance, mentoring and practical wisdom. The premise of wisdom literature- and especially Proverbs- is the practical nature of the Godly life.

So I am not at all surprised that there is a recovery of a concern for practical discipleship and application. In many ways, this recovery is necessary, healthy and welcome. Somewhere in any church, there should be someone talking about these “real life” issues. The New Testament’s pastoral letters, both in their description of the qualifications of leadership and in their admonitions about general church life, assume this level of teaching is going on.

One might even suggest that Paul’s pastoral ministry had fallen short of the ideal because of the fact that he had to spend so much time going back over practical matters with his young churches. Look, for example, at how much time is spent in the discussion of whether to eat meat offered to idols. Much of that discussion sounds very familiar to anyone who has been around young Christians. It is the “how far can I go?” and “what can I do?” questions that are the focus of so many practical sermons today.

One of the most important lessons that I learned in my New Testament studies concerned two different kinds of material in the text. The first was kerygma, or proclamation. This was the “Biblical story” told with a focus on Jesus as messiah and Lord. It is what we see particularly in the book of Acts, and it is what Paul is often referring back to when he is talking to churches in his epistles and reminds them of what they heard from him (or others) when they were converted.

The second type of material was didache, or instruction. This is the teaching material that we find primarily in the epistles and the gospels. It is not a proclamation of the Biblical story, but application and practical teaching regarding life lived as a Christian. (Sometime I need to write why the term “Christian Life” is singularly unhelpful.)

But if we examine “didache,” we discover something interesting about the connection of application to the Biblical story. Look, for example, at Colossians 3:1-17, one of the greatest of the New Testament application passages.

Col. 3:1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your* life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Col. 3:5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you:* sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming.* 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self* with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. 11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
Col. 3:12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

What is easily discernible to any student is the fact that didache is a subset of Kerygma; application is a continuation of the proclamation. The practical and the theological/doctrinal are not separable. The life Paul describes is a direct result of understanding the exaltation and ascension of Jesus. It is a continuation of the Biblical story into the lives of Jesus’ followers.

It is also plain that didache isn’t ANY kind of practical advice. It is teaching specifically focused on the life that belongs to Jesus. It isn’t about getting a better parking space as a sign of God’s favor. It is about being a light in the world so that Christ is evidenced and glorified.

The implications for preaching are obvious, I believe. There are two errors lurking here. One is to ignore the practical in favor of the theological and doctrinal. The other is to allow the practical to consume the message without reference to the Biblical story.

Practical preaching that isn’t related to the bigger picture of God, the Gospel, Grace and the Kingdom of God becomes a an encouragement to moralism rather than a connection to Jesus. A steady diet of application without the theological context of the Bible’s own emphasis on the story of Jesus risks creating a church centered around values and behavior; pragmatism and concerns of the “culture war.” That was the program of the Pharisees, and Jesus not only opposed it; he was amazed at its shallowness.

A few years ago we had a “marriage amendment” vote in Kentucky. James Dobson told all pastors to preach against homosexual marriage the Sunday before the election. Thousands of preachers preached against homosexuality that day for the pragmatic reason of passing the marriage amendment.

How was this preaching connected to the story of Jesus and the story of our salvation? Is it part of a general denunciation of “sin” or opposition to “immorality?” This preaching was politically “practical”, but theologically incomplete, as it proclaimed the message of the law, but in most cases, never proclaimed the Gospel. Is the story of Jesus’ Spirit-empowered community the story of passing marriage amendments? It may be, but if it is, where is the connection.

Much Christian “worldview” preaching runs the risk of displacing the Gospel with applications, and often with applications that leave a Bible student scratching his head and turning pages.

I would suggest that practical, “How to” preaching, no matter what form it takes, has an appropriate place in the total Christian approach to preaching. Here the Puritans were good guides. Their sermons were purposely structured to be theological in a first movement, and applicatory and practical in the closing movements.

Practical preaching that strategizes the use of “how to” messages to gain the interest of seekers runs a serious risk of removing the contextual content of the Christian story, and an even more serious risk of pandering and deception. Those of us who listen to the modern seeker preachers and wonder if the Gospel has been displaced and obscured by accident or on purpose probably have an answer: this is an attempt to gain a hearing by moving what most needs to be heard down the list, and moving what people want to hear up the list.

I am more concerned with the message that exists between the lines of “practical” preaching: the message that God is about making our lives “better”. Is it the Biblical message that we have secret, practical knowledge others don’t have? Are our marriages always better? Are our children happier and more obedient? Do we have better finances and less stress? These implied “outcomes” are serious departures from the Bible’s message.

In fact, loyalty to Jesus has the frequent result of causing temporal difficulty. We may have less money and more stress. If our family is not the typical Christian family, we may have family conflict. Jesus predicted all of this in unmistakable detail. Paul’s career as a missionary apostle was highlighted with suffering, trouble, rejection, burdens, risks and losses. It was all worth it for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the church, but Paul was not telling anyone the message of Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now.

Many of today’s practical preachers are more than subtly influenced by the prosperity Gospel and the secular motivational speakers and gurus. The similarity between many of these presentations and Oprah Winfrey is not accidental. The problem can be stated simply: Some preachers will preach whatever they know will attract a crowd, and the secular world offers a constant array of tactics to gain that crowd.

One must almost admire the sheer, unmitigated greed of men like Joel Osteen in completely abandoning the Gospel and appealing directly to the desire of Americans for money, houses and success. His nationwide following attests to the power of preaching prosperity rather than Christ. One must also say that if Paul’s admonitions to Timothy to faithfully preach the Gospel of Christ are the Word and will of God, then men like Osteen are defying the Almighty right down to the specifics.

Practical preaching need not go down this dead end. There is a place for the didache. There is a place for application. There is a place to talk about life and the many problems human beings face.

But the proclamation of the Gospel is always an announcement of the story of Jesus, and the implications- be they practical or not- must be seen in the light of Jesus. When Jesus promised his followers “life abundant”, we must affirm that Jesus’ own example shows us what the abundant life looks like in this world where Jesus turns everything upside down.

We don’t define abundant life with cultural definitions. Jesus defines that life. That’s why he can ask a rich man to sell it all and follow him. He knows what is real life and what isn’t.

God’s people need practical instruction. They need it wedded to the “cost of discipleship” and the Lordship/example of Christ. “Seekers” may need to hear many things, and the church may find a way to be helpful and serve people with classes and instruction, but to those without Christ our primary ministry and message must be the Gospel itself. That is not to say that the Gospel must be the subject of everything we do as Christians, but it is to say that whatever we do, teach or preach, it must be the Gospel that brings everything else into focus, and gives significance to whatever we are doing.

Suggestions for preachers:

1. There is a strong temptation to imitate the “how to” preachers who are drawing larger crowds by talking about things other than the Gospel. Be faithful. Preach Christ. At the same time, be clear that Christ redeems everything, and there are applications of our faith to every kind of situation and problem.

2. Follow the example of the Puritans in putting specific applications either into your message or accessible in handouts or web sites. (No, the Puritans didn’t use web sites, but it sounds cool.) There is nothing commendable about impractical preaching, and we must not overreact to the errors around us by committing another error ourselves by offering little or no application.

3. Remember that you may be able to have several sermons with different emphasis; some more theological and some more practical. This could also be done with follow-up in small groups. Marriage, for example, is a subject where specific application should never be ignored, because the scripture puts practical application and theological foundations together.

4. Remember to help your people see their problems and concerns in the true light of the Gospel. The Bible has principles for parents, but its message of universal sin and depravity makes it clear that we can expect our children to act like sinners. The temptation of many good Christians is to believe that “principles” from the Bible will provide insurance or a way to “fix” what is broken. (I see this everyday as people bring their children to our school and say that they can be fixed by religion.) The Gospel is about loving a wayward child more than it is about insuring there are no wayward children. In other words, much practical preaching simply ignores the true implications of the Gospel that may involve suffering with God in a fallen world.

5. “How to ” messages are famous for simplifying what is not simple. There is no way for a marriage to succeed with 5 or 8 or 10 “Simple” steps. This is a particular kind of American idolatry that the church should be busy rejecting. The Gospel makes us into people who see and follow Christ. It is not a collection of “how to” steps. The Christian publishing industry has often put Christian authors into the category of “inspirational” messages. We should remember that salvation is not a matter of knowing some “inspirational” thoughts to help us get through the day.

6. Preaching practical topics may be an occasion where some in a congregation find much fault with a preacher for not being as practical as other sources of “inspiration.” The preacher may feel inadequate, or feel that he is letting down his congregation by not being more helpful. If this motivates the preacher to provide more practical resources and to think in practical terms for subjects such as prayer, family devotions and the use of money, then good can come from those concerns.

7. Many preachers are reluctant to preach practical application because their own house is not in order. They do not talk about the devotional life because they do not have one. They do not talk about money because they are up to their necks in credit card debt. They do not do application on marriage because theirs in in desperate straits. If this is the case, then it is the pastor who needs the Gospel and practical discipleship, beginning with honesty, repentance and restoration.

8. Applicatory preaching is an invitation to pastoral care. When we begin to apply the faith, our people will come to us with their problems. There is no escaping this. Our people are not as good as they look. All is not as well as it appears on Sunday morning. Some preachers do not come “down to earth” because it is in those earthly valleys that real hurt and complex human brokenness dwells. We should not complain if our people turn to other “healers” if our presentation of the Word heals them lightly or not at all.

Christianity is a both practical and highly impractical. God’s wisdom and the answer of the Gospel to our dilemmas are not in the same category as the human wisdom many want when insisting on “practical” preaching. The greatest error is to ever move away from Christ and his Gospel by emphasizing what we can or should do over what God has done for us in Christ.

At the same time, we should ask “How does this look in real life?” Paul’s letters are full of practical instruction, and this is often neglected by preachers who are more comfortable in the more theological parts of the Bible. If the theological, the Biblical and the practical are properly related in a congregation, that church will produce disciples who know, confess and worship, but who also live, choose and follow.


  1. Mike, I wish every pastor at the last 10 churches I’ve been to would read this. When they start yakking about my marriage or my money, I just totally zone out. If I want advice like that I’ll go to a Christian marriage counselor or financial counselor, or I’ll just read Proverbs. What I need from a preacher is understanding God’s plan for humanity. Since I am part of humanity this is also his plan for me. I want to know my role in His eyes and in the universe that he created. THESE are the big life-changing questions people have, the answers we long for. Understanding the answers to these questions makes everything else easier to answer. As you say, it brings it into focus.

  2. brotherterry says

    A great post.

    This series has really given me a lot to think about.


  3. Excellent post again on a subject close to my identity and heart. Dr. Bruce Winter used this phrase at Beeson during my seminary days: “A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.” This keeps coming to mind as I read through your preaching posts here. Understanding what a passage of scripture meant (in understanding and in application) for the original writer and receiver is crucial for today’s preacher and hearer. It’s this quote that keeps me balanced in my preaching scripture for knowledge and for life. Thanks for your posts!

  4. This phrase from your post struck a cord with me.

    “Much Christian “worldview” preaching runs the risk of displacing the Gospel with applications, and often with applications that leave a Bible student scratching his head and turning pages.”

    For decades, I was always amazed at the applications and information preachers got out of a passage of scripture. I figured it was their training, etc., that made it impossible for laymen like myself to ever understand the Bible and “get that much out of it.”

    Then a few months ago, my Bible study group listened to a video-led study by Rick Warren on James. As I listened carefully, I noticed often his points on James appeared to be really in left field. There was no way to get what he was getting out of the text and at times the text went the opposite direction from what he was saying.

    In short, the pastors were “getting so much out of the text” because none or little of what they were saying was in the text in the first place. It just wasn’t in there. And often all those tangents lost the real message the text was saying.

    It was a revelation. No longer could I regard the Bible as a closed book except for the experts. I knew I had to be a “Berean” and really look at the book myself.

    Which led to my next discovery. No paster, no matter how much he claims to the contrary, wants a “Berean” in his congregation. Especially one whose Berean studies do not coincide 100% with the message given.

  5. I’ve lurked for a while on your blog, but this post made me want to register and ask a question.

    I was interested to read about your distinction of kerygma and didache. Kerygma as found particularly in Acts, and didache as a subset of kerygma, found in the gospels and epistles.

    Could you expand on this? Specifically, I was wondering what differences you see between Acts and, say, Mark’s Gospel (which I pick only because it is the one with which I am most familiar), which make the former fall mostly into the category of kerygma, and that latter mostly into the category of didache.

    Many thanks.


  6. RobertusTheophilus says

    My first comment on the iMonk, so hello everybody! Hello Mike!

    Great series so far and thank you Mike for this true-to-scripture site that you run! This 4th part has given me the right structure for the sermon I have to do this Sunday. Even though I’m known as a scripture fanatic in our not-so-bible-hardcore church (Vineyard, Germany) the temptation is there to focus on application to get the attention of the folks listening. Sometimes it feels like the same thing has been said over and over again (I always get back to “seeking God in private” and “love God, love others”, seemingly regardless of the topic) and one wants to bring something “new”, some “oh” and “ah” to the people. But if the central message is ommitted this is simply wrong.

    Our leading (and founding) couple just left the church and now an unexperienced team of four (including me) are trying to run the show, and we look for new ways, like de-centralized work loads in the preaching and other areas. This of course brings new dangers and stuff like this series guides me in this, to be careful not to “renew” necessary parts out of our church life. I read your series on worship this morning (older set of essays regarding the hymn/ccm issue) and this gave me interesting thoughts as we plan on doing a metal subchurch (additional, not instead of the “normal” service for our conservative folks) and I would love to praise God the “hard” way … well, but this belongs somewhere else. 🙂

    Anyway, thanks again Mike for seeking the biblical truth, and publishing it.

    God be praised!

  7. I share your enthusiasm for Wright’s work. His work has changed my life, my ministry, and my preaching/teaching. I also am a particular junkie for Mark’s gospel.

    I know what you are saying about Wright’s eschatology challenging traditional end of world views. My college education in Bible was opening my mind at the same time that I discovered Wright, and so that helped, but it was still a struggle to even just follow him for the longest time. Then finally it began to gel.

    I first read Wright’s WHAT SAINT PAUL REALLY SAID. In that book, Wright makes the case that GOSPEL is a royal announcement rather than a system of salvation – like I had always believed. Once that part finally gelled, I was hooked and his work would just not let go of me. I had to continue to wrestle with him, and I still do. But It just keeps being soooo very worth it.

    Yes, Jesus is now really actually relavant to the world, and not just pie in the sky…. My Christian faith has more to do with KINGDOM/RULE of GOD and all that goes with it, than with BELIEF V. DOUBT or some convuluted vague ideas about GRACE VS. WORKS or how can I really know I am saved etc. And I really owe Wright for decimating all that for me, clearing the clutter of such jumbled hand-me-down faith out of my way so I have a straight path that actually makes sense of the world I really live in.

    Good post. Thanks.

    Many blessings….