On Preaching


A teammate of mine recently asked for my thoughts on preaching. I suppose it was warranted as I first asked him to tell me his thoughts. The discussion stems from something I've mentioned here before, my frustration with preaching seeming to be the center of Sunday morning worship meetings, but so few lives seem to be changed by sermons. How many sermons do you genuinely remember in your life? I remember maybe two or three, which is sad considering I've pretty much been a church goer my entire life.

With that said, here are a few of my thoughts on preaching.

Expository vs. Topical

It seems like a recent thing to me (and maybe I'm just new to the scene) that people hail expository preaching as the best thing to happen to the church since the invention of the oak pulpit. The argument that I typically hear seems to revolve around the concept that if you preach topically it will be like giving your child a steady diet of deep fried butter, that is to say, you'll be depriving your people of some sort of needed vitamins (or teaching, as the case may be). Apparently preaching through the word in an expository manner will keep this from happening (more akin to feeding your kid a healthy diet by running the gamut of vegetables, even brussels sprout occasionally).

The issue I have with this thinking is two-fold. First of all the preacher working methodically through different books of the Bible is just as likely as anyone to miss things. Even expository preaching only preaches one interpretation of the scripture as it works through books. God can easily teach two or even ten different things in one verse. The preacher is going to see what he is ready to see in what he teaches, and that will be what he chooses to expound in his sermon. Secondly, the preacher who doesn't preach what is on his heart (because he's stuck in a 52 part series working through the book of Matthew at a pace of 7.2 verses each week) is missing something essential. The Lord puts things on his heart, at least occasionally, and he should preach what he is passionate about when he has the opportunity.

Also, I should mention that one of the most powerful sermons I've ever heard was topical. I was attending a training in the Middle East for Arab Christians who were about to be sent out to the hardest parts of the Middle East. The likelihood of martyrdom for these guys was extremely high, and therefore the burden on the teacher was significant. The guy preaching was an Egyptian man who for three days in a row stood at the front of the classroom and held open his Bible and taught in a way I've never seen before. He would make a point in Matthew and then flip to Exodus to explain the background for his point. Then that would remind him of something he had read that morning in Micah and he'd flip there and draw a diagram on a whiteboard which would require two or three supporting texts from Paul's epistles. This guy knew the word like no one I have ever seen before or since. He let the word make his points, but he jumped around like a crazy person. It was topical, but incredibly biblically based. And his heart was wrapped up in every point he made, which is why I remember it. He spoke passionately about his love of the Lord and the Word. He spoke in a way which shook me to my core because he knew the weight of what he was saying, and the significance of the men to whom he was addressing. He knew he could not change these men's lives, or fates, but that God could change their lives.

I'm not intending here to argue against expository preaching, but I am arguing that it is no more sacred or inherently superior to topical preaching than Hymns are to "Praise Choruses" (I still cant believe people actually call them that). Sermons are only as great as the Pastor's love for the Lord, regardless of the methodology for teaching.

On a related note, recently I read an article in favor of preaching without notes, it seems to suggest that you stay within the text and not jump around to different scripture so as to keep things simple for the congregation and to ease the memorization burden. I have to question anything which limits your ability to teach the word like that. Expository preaching shouldn't mean you don't tie the Word together to other places which relate. The whole Bible does tie together, and not just a little bit, don't make it seem like it doesn't, just so you can appear better prepared.

Unchanged Lives — The Fault of the Preacher or the Listener?

If preaching really isn't changing lives, who's fault is it? Or rather, who bears the responsibility for teaching to change lives? I don't think this falls fully on the shoulders of either the preacher or the listener, but I do think that should be qualified a bit. In my recent frustration about attending so many Sunday mornings and having so little of it actually affect me, I decided I would start to take notes — in my Bible — about what I was hearing. This is a skill I learned much too late in seminary. The notes I took on the papers the professor handed out, would never be referenced again. But the notes I took in my Bible were there when I taught, and wonderfully useful (In another post I'll complain about how far you can get in to a seminary class without opening your Bible, but that will have to be for another day).

Taking notes in my Bible did affect my memory of the sermon and it offered me useful notes that would actually be referenced again later. However, useful notes and life-change are two different things.

But more important than this, while I do believe some of the burden lies on the shoulders of the listener, I think the preacher should take responsibility as a shepherd for leading his sheep. If the sheep never learn that there is a pattern to where he is leading them, or never learn how to head in the right direction themselves then the shepherd might be failing at his job. In the same way a leader takes responsibility for the failure of those who work for him, the preacher is responsible for bad listening. What if we taught our people how to listen? What if we actually spent a sermon or two each year talking about our need to hear and apply the word? And then what if we taught people how to take notes? Or what if a church actually encouraged people to bring their own Bibles?

I strongly believe that choosing to not put the verse on a powerpoint will encourage people to bring their own Bibles. Turning the pages of a real book and finding out where things are in reference to the whole is a good skill for the congregation to have. And the awkwardness of the newcomer having to consult the Table of Contents to know if 1 John is in the New or Old Testament is a good thing. Not knowing the Word of God should be embarrassing to a man (it certainly is embarrassing to me how poorly I know it).

Funny vs. Boring

I'm not actually sure why this topic is discussed as much as it is. Of course preaching with humor is not a sin. I think I may agree with the camp that says that the Word of God is profoundly interesting and the preacher who preaches week after week in a way which makes people think the Word of God is boring may be sinful.

That said, the formulas you hear from some folk (yes they actually give a formula sometimes) about how many minutes you should place between each joke, this is just sad. If you want to grow a church void of the Holy Spirit it can be done, and humor will probably help. But do you really want to do that?

My beef with this comes from the reformed circle from which I am getting my seminary degree. A good friend of mine and a Westminster grad was telling me about the difference between a teaching and a ruling elder in the presbyterian system. I have to say that I find some problems with the qualifications of the former. The latter they seem to have nailed, but the teaching elder needs to have a seminary degree. That in itself is worthy of having taking some issue with, but the bigger problem is that just about anyone who completes a seminary degree can claim that they have "a calling to the pulpit." Even my friend (bless his soul) is a terrible speaker. He speaks so slowly and dully he can put anyone to sleep. He spoke for an hour and a half at a friend's wedding when they wanted him to give a brief evangelistic message. Unfortunately anyone who might have heard the gospel feel asleep before the second of his 13 points.

There is value in preaching the truth with love, and preaching it in a way that communicates just how valuable of a gift the word of God is to us is not a little thing.

20 mins vs. 60 mins

The root of this question is as ridiculous as many of the problems over which we have divided denominations.

Video Venues

I have a lot I would say about this. I have a strong opinion against them in general. That said, I have a friend whom I greatly respect who works for a church with this model and he isn't opposed to the idea inherently. I have too much respect for him and his views on ministry to therefore outright oppose it.

That said, this article made some great points. The question, I think, is appropriately asked, "What are the arguments in favor them?"

The Bottom Line

There are a million more things I could cover on the topic of preaching. It's hard to wrap my head around the topic. I do know that I think the preacher should view preaching as just one aspect of his shepherding. I do think the large there church the more difficult actual shepherding would be. You may be able to teach great, you may be able to gather a crowd, but are you really leading people to Christ, or are you drawing them to yourself? Can you save people?

If the answer is no (and .... um... it is no), then there is probably an appropriate amount of fear in which you should be living.

The bottom line is this: the pastor needs to be ridiculously in love with the Lord. Enamored with His power, love, grace, sovereignty, and salvation. If the pastor knows how small, sinful, and worthless without a savior he is then he will be pointing to Christ with all his heart. He will be preaching of the God who saved him, and he will do so with overwhelming and visible gratitude. This will lead others to Christ. He will then be involved in the lives of his people because he will be afraid to not be. The congregation who knows their pastor personally is capable of calling him to account. The congregation who sees their pastor as entertainer can find the same worth in downloading a few stand-up comedians from iTunes.

Preaching with humble passion comes from passion for the savior. Preaching with humor, great hair, or fireworks comes from a very different place. That place may not be inherently sinful, but it may be from a passion to grow a big church (or the biggest church in town). And that passion may be realized. But how is your pastor acting when he's the second biggest church in town (or the nation)? Is he threatened? Disheartened? Where is his value found?

For the advancement of whose kingdom is your preacher preaching?

I fear we know the sad truth of the answer to this question far too often.