On Preaching

About five or six months after I became a senior minister with regular pulpit duties, one of the college students at my church came up to me before service and said, “I have a question. I’m in a public speaking class, and I need help. Are you any good at public speaking?”

As the deacon in the pew behind me fought valiantly not to laugh, I responded, “You tell me!”

Hopefully my preaching has made more of an impact since then; after all, public speaking is a significant part of my job. So significant, in fact, I answer these days to “Preacher” like a first name instead of a title or job function. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the act of preaching itself. It’s not just delivering another speech. It’s not a motivational talk, a lecture, or any other type of oration. It’s preaching, the unique act of delivering a sermon to those assembled together in worship. And that distinction should never be lost. Therefore I personally define preaching as “the act of orally proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (I tried to make that fully Trinitarian a while back, but I kept feeling like I was throwing a bone to God the Father. Father, Son, and Spirit are of course all involved in preaching.)

Let me unpack that a bit. My definition has two key elements: proclamation of Jesus, but proclamation in the Spirit. First, then, is Jesus. If I do not share the death and resurrection of Christ my Lord, I haven’t preached. If I haven’t shared the message of salvation from sin to a life of discipleship, I haven’t preached. Those things may get mentioned to varying degrees, but they must still be there. Why? Because those are the functions of the word of God, and preaching is the verbal proclamation of that word to accomplish what the word itself sets out to do: teach, rebuke, correct, and train in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). That means talking about sin and salvation from sin. That means mentioning heaven and hell. That means sharing encouragement for daily life and motivating people to love and serve their neighbors and their God.

All of these things must be done in the explicit name of Jesus. If Christ is not preached, don’t call it a Christian sermon. Call it one of those other things I said sermons were not. Whether you preach New Testament or Old Testament — and those are your only permissible primary texts — preach Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). He is the source of the new covenant (Luke 22:20) and the one whom the old covenant proclaimed (Acts 3:22-24). He is the originator of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) and the fulfillment of the Law (Matthew 5:17). No matter your text, no matter your topic, preach Jesus, and preach him by (his holy) name.

This must be done in the power of God, as the second half of our definition says. Only through the power of the Holy Spirit can one properly preach. You’ve been in enough church services, I’d wager, to know the difference, too. Think of the worst sermon you’ve ever heard. Could you feel the Holy Spirit’s presence in that message? Probably not. Now, the word of God never fails to accomplish His purposes (Isaiah 55:11), but sometimes that’s in spite of and not because of the preacher. And you can tell. What’s more, the preacher can tell, too.

The worst sermon I’ve ever given in my life was preached at the church of my former youth pastor. I had just begun preaching, and he asked me to fill in for both the morning and evening services that day. My topic that morning was the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6, and I wanted to hammer home the need to forgive others based on the two verses immediately following the prayer: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). As I began, however, I very clearly felt God say to focus on the opening lines of the prayer instead, specifically “hallowed be Thy name.” Well, that wasn’t what I had planned, so I gave the line just a minute or two of extra attention and moved on, self-righteously ignoring the Holy Spirit so I could tell those sinners they needed to learn how to forgive.

Six people came back for the evening service.

My preaching that morning came from my own power, not the power of the Holy Spirit in me. I could tell, and the congregation could certainly tell. All preaching simply must be done in the power of the Holy Spirit or it is pointless. Why? Paul said it best: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). Human words are just noises strung together to become comprehensible; they only have meaning when they point to something beyond themselves. When they point to Jesus with the backing of the presence of God, they’re enough to move mountains.

At this point, I have to confess something: my preaching is nothing like I was taught in seminary. My process for putting together those words would probably get me a failing grade in any preaching class in any school. I rarely do sermon series, and I only use the lectionary passages during Advent; my week usually begins with a prayer on Monday morning asking God what my flock will need to hear the next Sunday morning. (And even then it occasionally gets changed the morning of, much to the consternation of my tech crew.) My sermons are never a fixed length gained by rehearsal and repetition; I preach until the Spirit says, “That’s enough.” Manuscripts are reserved solely for weddings and funerals, and sometimes I don’t even use an outline or notes. Yes, I prepare throughout the week. I study, exegete, consult commentaries, etc. But my sermon is my offering, and in the moment of preaching, I give my study to God and say, “Here’s what I have, Lord. Speak through me to use it for Your people.” And you know what? He does.

If God speaks through preachers, then the people must be given a chance to respond. Again, listen to Paul: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on the One they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the One of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:13-14). The point of preaching isn’t to showcase the intellectual or rhetorical prowess of the preacher; the point of all preaching is to bring people to a (deeper) relationship with God. If that’s the reason we preach, so people can be saved by believing and calling on the name of the Lord, then it is mandatory we, as preachers, give the congregation a chance to respond to the preaching. I personally point-blank refuse to preach without a period of response, which for me is the revivalistic “altar call” style of invitation. No invitation, no sermon.

There are of course many types of responses, most of which pre-date the altar call. Holy Communion is a historical time of response, as is time devoted to prayer and reflection. Whatever is effective and appropriate in your context and denomination, do it. But that gift of an opportunity to respond immediately after the proclamation can make the difference between heaven and hell for an immortal soul. It’s just that important.

One final note I want to say is addressed to all of us who have the privilege of preaching: don’t you dare step behind that pulpit unless you are called to be there. Paul continues in Romans 10 to say this: “And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'” (v. 15). I’ve never had my feet called beautiful at any other time, but I am certainly sent to bring good news. Indeed, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16). Sadly, this is not the case for all who preach. God has called all of us to work for the kingdom, but not all of us are preachers — including more than a few who fill a pulpit every Sunday. Some may see it as an easy job, some may see it as a platform for their own voices, some may see it as a quick way to fame, and some may see it as just another career path. None of those are true, and they all betray a deep ignorance of preaching and the work of the preacher.

Unless God has called you to the fields and sent you out to the harvest as one who can orally proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, serve God in another capacity. He will call you to service somehow; go and do, but do not preach.

I say that because preaching is the act of orally proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. May we preach with faithfulness to God, love of our congregation, and reverence for the Holy Bible. Most of all, may we preach so someone might hear, believe, call on the name of the Lord, and be saved.

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The Bible Fireside Chat

Any man will tell you: when a woman utters these four words in this exact sequence, his stomach drops, his heart skips a beat, and he immediately begins mentally reviewing his sins over the past decade:

“We need to talk.”

Friends and readers of both sexes, I don’t mean to alarm you. I don’t wish to frighten you. All I want to do is have a nice fireside chat with you for a moment. But with that said,

We need to talk.

I want to begin by acknowledging it’s always dangerous to begin a blog with a second set of four words, but I’m also going to say them, too:

It seems to me . . .

It seems to me our churches don’t take the Bible very seriously.

Before you close this tab in righteous indignation, let me explain what I am not saying. I’m not saying we think it’s trivial or insignificant. I’m not saying we try to marginalize it, demythologize it, or otherwise de-value it or empty it of content. And I’m not saying we don’t (on the whole) try to reorient our lives around its message.

What I am saying is we simply don’t know what it says and that its full proclamation is sadly lacking in many churches today. By “many churches,” I mean congregations throughout the entire spectrum: Christian Church churches, United Methodist Church churches, Episcopal Church churches, Baptist Church churches, all of them. All of us. I fully realize the gravity of this charge, so let me state my case.

My first real hint of the level of biblical illiteracy rampant in our pews came during seminary. A required textbook, Barna’s Futurecast (2011), gave me these research statistics:

  • 45% of all adults believe the Bible is accurate in its principles (p. 132)
  • 63% believe David killed Goliath with a sling and stones (p. 134)
  • 60% believe Peter walked on water (p. 134)
  • 44% read their Bibles at least once per week (p. 171)

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s pretty bad, but Chris, these are issues of belief and practice, not knowledge of content.” So let’s have some more stats, this time from the 2015 edition of the American Bible Society’s annual State of the Bible report (pp. 68-70):

  • Only 74% of practicing Protestants could correctly identify Abraham’s son of promise from a list of four names
  • 35% of adults ages 18-30 believe Mary has a book of the Bible named for her (Esther was given as a possible response)
  • Only 61% of those ages 31-49 believe the Bible strongly encourages serving the poor

If you’ve ever played a round of Bible trivia with your friends (or watched the average Jeopardy! contestant fail miserably in Bible-related categories), you can come up with many more (and more personal) examples.

We simply don’t know our Bibles anymore. And it seems the younger you are, the less you know (even relatively speaking; it’s a generational thing).

Why? Perhaps because we think singing vegetables, fantastic though they may be, can teach our children everything they need to know about Scripture. We’ve exchanged worshiping together as a family in earshot of a sermon for children’s church programs requiring far more props than Bibles and featuring more games than reading. (Some programs are good; many are not.) Parents no longer disciple their children at home, the one place they should personally spiritually invest in their children the most.

And we ministers have failed far more people than just children.

How much Scripture is read during worship? Do we include a variety or just the sermon text? When you announce your text from the pulpit, can people find the book under discussion, or would they spend an awkward few minutes trying to locate Hezekiah 4? Do we choose songs which let us sing our Bibles? The psalms are songs, after all, and many hymns offer an abundance of Scripture. How are our Christian education programs doing? Are they well-attended? Do they teach the Bible first and foremost, or are they primarily topical discussions with a few prooftexts thrown in? Will someone learn biblical truths or attend for years and still think Moses built the ark and Deborah was a baker of delicious snack cakes? Bible studies are exactly that: studies of the Bible. Are you spending time studying and discussing the Bible, verse by verse if necessary, or are you having short speeches on The Controversial Topic of the Day Which Doesn’t Appear in This Chapter We Didn’t Really Read Anyway®?

Of first importance to me is the sermon. First, let’s talk content, and then we’ll discuss styles. I begin with a caveat: if you never preach about Christ and his atoning death on the cross in your sermon, all you’ve done is deliver a well-crafted lecture or inspirational speech. It is not a gospel sermon. But you can and should build everything around that core of the gospel — and that means drawing on the entire canon. Preach Titus. Do a series in Deuteronomy or Lamentations. Preach the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible. Yes, you should, as a pastor, constantly be reading other books and sharing those theological insights with your congregations. But the church is not a book club: if you’d rather preach Calvin supplemented by Paul instead of Paul with commentary from the Genevan on Sunday mornings, get out of the pulpit and get yourself booked on Oprah. (Although I’ve never seen her add an orthodox theology text to her book club reading list.) Preach the text — the text illuminated by other texts. Bring in John’s gospel to help teach his epistles. Use the Aaronic and levitical priesthoods in Leviticus to shed light on Christ’s role as high priest in Hebrews. Use the Bible to preach the Bible.

There are a variety of preaching styles, and any one of them can do this effectively. I’m an expository preacher, meaning my sermons delve into the passage and stay there; I try to explain — to exposit — those verses to the congregation. I do this because I believe it is the best way to preach the text of the Bible. But narrative and topical preaching have their roles, too — just keep them anchored to the text. Without wanting to disrespect the preachers who have gone before me, I admit I’m currently discovering an entire generation of preachers whose sermons are nothing more than a series of illustrations held loosely together by a select thematic verse or two. Don’t do that. If you preach only extra-biblical stories and anecdotes, then your congregation will learn only extra-biblical stories and anecdotes. But if you systematically preach Scripture, then your congregation will learn the Bible. There is a place for sermon illustrations, yes, but they complement the text, not the other way ’round.

My seminary’s motto is “The Whole Bible for the Whole World.” Christians, that’s our mission: taking all of the Bible to all of the earth. But to do that, we have to know it. We have to preach it. We have to teach it. We have to read it on our own in our homes. The only way to fix the biblical illiteracy of our churches and our larger culture is to once more become a people of the Book. Of one Book: the Holy Bible. Write its words in your hearts that you may help others to do likewise.

We cannot be obedient to God if we don’t know what He said.