The Importance of Preaching
In the life of the church, preaching plays an important role. This is especially so in the Protestant tradition where the key component of corporate worship has been the preaching of the scriptures to the body of believers. On a typical Sunday, preaching takes up close to half of the worship time. For many Christians the preaching of the Bible from the pulpit is their primary, if not only, form of teaching that they receive. Preaching informs, encourages, inspires, rebukes and convicts. Some may believe that the traditional practice of one individual standing up to give a unidirectional message to a group of people is an outdated church tradition. Despite this and all the changes the church has experienced over the years, preaching remains a key part of the life of the church.
Much has been written and discussed about the art and science of preaching that one would think nothing more needs to be said however, there have been a few trends that raises concerns about this ancient means of teaching the Word of God. These trends are producing sermons that are bland, unfocused and distracting from the scriptures. Oddly, many Christians think such sermons are wonderful and believe they represent good preaching. Are they right?
The Failures of Preaching
Preaching is suffering in many churches across North America. The quality of sermons has been on the decline, characterized by banal preaching, poor subject matter and lots of fluff with little in the way of solid food. The scope of preaching has become fragmented with many preachers having little in the way of coherent messages that tie into larger themes. Here are some of the causes that are leading to the poor state of preaching.
Too Much Topical, Not Enough Expositional
One major cause is the almost exclusive use of topical preaching by the majority of preachers. On a typical Sunday in a typical church, one will be listening to a sermon that is based on a particular subject. The next Sunday, one will hear a message that is based on another subject. In all cases the sermon will contain a passage or two from the Bible that the preacher will expound from. However, it is the subject at hand that determines the biblical text and the scope of the text; from a single verse, to set of scattered verses to an entire chapter. Subjects range from love, to suffering, to kindness, to evangelism, etc. It could even be a subject about something in the Bible such as the sufferings of the apostle Paul, or the kind of relationship Jesus had with his disciples. But in all cases, it is the subject that determines the sermon and the scriptures. This stands in contrast to expository preaching where a specific biblical text is examined and expounded upon from the pulpit with a view to discovering what the text is saying.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with topical preaching. It is a very important form of preaching that addresses the needs of the church. The problem with topical preaching is that it is overused to the point where few sermons are preached anymore on just the Bible. Few preachers are taking their flock through a verse by verse study of a particular book or set of major chapters to discover what the scriptures are saying. Instead, topical sermons are given where the Bible is used to support the topic at hand with less examination on what these Bible texts may be saying outside of the topic of that Sunday.
The lack of expository preaching has led to some unintended consequences in the life of the church. The first is that it contributes to the problem of biblical illiteracy. Recent surveys claim that many evangelical Christians, whose faith is supposedly based on what the Bible says, know little of what the Bible says. Many Christians have not read their Bibles from cover to cover. Even more have a poor grasp of the content and structure of the Bible. Most would probably fail a basic Bible quiz. Given this back drop, the continuous use of topical sermons does little to reverse this situation. Preachers need to start going through books of the Bible with their congregations in order to improve their basic knowledge of the scriptures.
A second unintended consequence is that it reinforces the idea that the Bible is boring, so boring that preachers dare not preach from the same book week after week for fear it will bore their listeners. The feeling is that one needs to have fresh, new and exciting topics week after week. Doing a series of messages on the book of Leviticus spells the kiss of death. But this is false premise. It is not the book that makes for the boredom but rather the lack of skill or interest of the preacher to bring the freshness and excitement in the text to the listeners. Topical sermons are “easy” in that the preacher controls the subject matter. Expository preaching requires more skill as the preacher has to address the text at hand whether its content is easy, hard or seemingly boring.
Too Many Stories, Too Little Bible
This may seem crazy to say but stories and illustrations are killing good preaching. But wait, didn’t Jesus use parables in much of His preaching? Yes He did and to great effect, leading Him to become history’s greatest storyteller. But Jesus did not use His stories to entertain His audiences. He often used them to shock and shame them into repentance and to warn them of God’s coming wrath. He often used stories to show people that they were not as good before God as they thought themselves to be. Jesus used stories in a careful manner to cause people to pause, think and be convicted about the deep truths of the kingdom.
One of the major failures of contemporary preaching is the overuse of stories in sermons. This trend can be found in many sermons where stories are taking up more preaching time than the actual message or scripture being preached. It is not unusual to find a preacher spending 50 percent of his time telling all kinds of stories and not having enough time to finish the main body of the sermon! Stories and illustrations are good and even critical in successful preaching. Any sermon that doesn’t have them suffers. But like any good thing, the overuse of storytelling ruins the sermon.
Preachers who like to tell stories often spend too much time talking about their Aunt Bessie’s car breaking down in order to illustrate their point about trusting in God’s provision. Then they go back to their text but in a short time they launch into another story about their Uncle Bob’s life as a tradesman in Chibougamau, Quebec. Many stories from the pulpit may sound good but they are often too long, irrelevant, distracting and are often poor illustrations of the point the preacher is trying to get across. Preachers need to make sure their stories do not displace the scriptures, that they are short, to the point and that they actually add value to the message. The temptation is to use stories to entertain the audience in order to keep their attention and less on challenging them with the biblical text. Stories are good but they must not override the main task at hand: the exposition of the Bible. Too much story telling is feeding junk food to the flock.
Too Much Dumbing Down, Too Little Biblical Challenge
The dumbing down of the western mind is all around us. The culture of the short attention span, the Reader’s Digest version of almost anything, the lack of the ability to think critically and the lack of thoughtful reflection are hallmarks of contemporary society. Unfortunately the art of dumbing things down is present in the church where the push to oversimplify and be content with spiritual baby food has become de rigueur in what passes for discipleship. This is something the writer of Hebrews told his readers about in Hebrews 5:12-13:
In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.
The readers of Hebrews should have been feeding themselves on solid food but instead they were content to live on baby food. Unfortunately, this is what many preachers are content to do with their listeners, keep feeding them dumbed down spiritual baby food and never leading them into the deeper and harder truths of the scriptures. It seems many preachers are afraid to speak of difficult biblical issues or are dismissive of them. Preachers should not think that they have to dumb things down or talk down to their audience when it comes to preaching on deep theological matters. Christians need to be on a solid path towards maturity. Sermons filled with fluffy baby food does not help matters.
The Reformation of Preaching
Most preachers in evangelical churches today are godly servants of God who want nothing more than to lift up and encourage the saints. Many of them spend hours in the Word preparing their messages. Many have taken courses on preaching, theology and ministry and have learned the craft from seasoned veterans. For this, they are to be commended. Unfortunately, many have gone the way of topical overuse, story overuse and the dumbing down of their sermons. So what can preachers do to reverse these failures?
The first step to avoid these failures is to get back to true expository preaching. As they say, it is time to preach the whole counsel of God and this means going through the Bible, verse by verse, chapter by chapter with the saints, Sunday after Sunday. Preachers need to bring topical preaching down a few notches in use and focus more on those obscure books of the Bible that few preach on.
The next step is to make sure one is feeding the saints real solid food. Part of this means tackling the very difficult and controversial sections of the Bible that many Christians have questions about but few preachers are willing to address in their sermons. This is never easy but it is necessary if Christians are to emerge out of their spiritual infancy into maturity.
The third step is to do the hard work of finding those hidden gems in the scriptures, especially within the familiar passages, and hauling them out for the congregation to feast and wonder over. Preachers will need to hone their biblical skills and depend on the Holy Spirit to extract the gems in those obscure or difficult books for their listeners to receive. The Bible is a vast treasure trove of spiritual jewels. It is the preacher’s job to mine and refine those jewels for all to see.
Preaching needs improvement. It is not yet in a crisis situation within the church but it is coming close. Getting back to biblical basics and cutting out unnecessary and unhelpful fluff are the key principles that preachers need to follow in order to stay the course. These will help keep their sermons fruitful for the saints, for the edification of the church and for the glory of God.