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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Preaching

I first left the church of my youth, a Plymouth Brethren assembly, in 1999. I had come to Reformed convictions through a few years of thought and study, and, after trying for awhile to be Reformed and remain in the Brethren church at the same time, I picked up my hungry soul, pulled up several years of roots (ecclesiastically speaking), and went in search of a church where I could plant myself and be nourished for some time to come.

I have been in my current church for over two years now and, while it isn’t really Reformed, I believe for the moment it is where I should be. I still visit other churches on occasion, though, where friends of mine attend. Between leaving the Brethren and the present day, I’ve been in a number of churches of a variety of theological traditions: Presbyterian, Lutheran, Evangelical Covenant, Christian & Missionary Alliance, Baptist, and Anglican. And through this experience, I’ve learned that one problem exists across the denominational perspective: there is a serious lack of good preaching and teaching.

I’m no pastor. And I’ve only taught on a handful of occasions. In spite of this, I recognize that preaching is a difficult job. In order to do either right, one has to spend hours of time preparing by reading Scripture, commentaries, and other theological literature. A properly trained pastor, I believe, should know Greek and Hebrew, and therefore be able to look at the relevant passages in the original languages. And then there’s simply the matter of time praying and meditating in conjunction with the sermon or lesson one is preparing. When one thinks of doing this in the midst of other pastoral duties and the other responsibilities of life, it is enough to make one want to pass the job on to someone else.

I’ve also never studied the theology and practice of preaching, so I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. And if I ever have the opportunity to preach, I might end up resembling my own criticisms here. Nonetheless, I think the lack I’ve noticed is real. The problems vary from church to church, and the confessional stance can play no small part in the problems. If a church is Dispensational, for instance, the pastor in that church will almost inevitably misunderstand any passage directly related to eschatological matters. During the time I was in a Presbyterian church, I heard enough sermons about election that I didn’t care if I heard another one in my life. Also, no pastor knows everything. It’s easy for a theology wonk like myself to throw tomatoes, thinking he’s so much smarter than the pastor. We often aren’t as good at seeing our own faults as we are the faults of others. Through the years I’ve learned, I hope, a small measure of humility in approaching questions like this.

All this considered, I’ve come up with a couple of questions that I look for to be answered in each sermon I hear. For me, this isn’t the type of thing where I’m holding up cue cards and rating each sermon I hear. This is far more personal than that for me. It’s about whether or not I leave the church satisfied that I’ve been fed on Sunday morning. Because I consider it so important, these questions are ones that I believe each pastor should ask himself as he prepares his sermons.

1. “Am I saying what the text says?” or “What does the text say?”

This probably will seem on the face of it to be so obvious as to make you wonder why I would even mention it. And the reason is that so often the minister in question doesn’t do it. I’ve noticed this in churches I’ve been to, and in most of the preachers I hear on Christian radio. I was speaking with a friend about this this afternoon. He named a particular local preacher that has a radio show and who broadcasts his sermons on public access television. The fellow, like so many others, claims to teach the Bible “verse by verse”. But it is a false claim. I’m sure he thinks he is doing it – I wouldn’t try to impugn the man’s character. But he skips over verses as he is teaching, only seeking to bring out the points that serve his purpose, whatever that may be. The other mistake connected with this is the tendency to use the text simply as a launching point from which the pastor jumps into talking about whatever topic he wants to teach on. I’m not a big fan of so-called “topical sermons” for that reason. This is common in the Evangelical preachers I hear on the radio. Rather than talking their way through a passage of Scripture, difficult passages and all, they start in one text and move on to several after it in succession, using Scripture as a series of disconnected wise sayings. It is a result of American Pragmatism and the fragmented way of thinking we’re all guilty of. This is also a problem in Reformed circles, where we have a tendency to think of Scripture merely as a justification (pardon the pun) for our abstract theological systems. One of the most important things for us to learn in our day is that if God had wanted to give us either a systematic theology, or a book of moral instruction, He would have done it. But he didn’t. While the Bible has theology, and moral instructions, the book God gave us is bigger and more complex than that. If we don’t begin by preaching the way it speaks, then we’ve already begun on the wrong foot.

2. “Where is Jesus in this passage?”

There is a school of biblical interpretation called the Redemptive-Historical School that is known for placing this question at the center of its emphasis. For any who might be wondering, I’m not attempting to side especially with this school in bringing up this question since, as I mentioned before, I haven’t really studied preaching formally. Yet I think the Redemptive-Historicists are at least right in saying that this is a question that every sermon should answer. If Jesus could show his disciples on the road to Emmaus how Moses and all the prophets spoke of him (Luke 24:27), then that means he’s in there, wherever we look. This, in fact, is the point of the New Testament. Jesus fulfilled all of the Old Testament, and the New Testament writers spend all their time explaining that and showing how that shapes all of life. But pastors often seem scared of Jesus. This happens with those who preach in Fundamentalist form, where the emphasis is on my sin and my need to “make a decision for Jesus”. But Jesus’ attributes and work are almost incidental in sermons like this, because the sermon is really all about me. Then there is the tendency of pastors to gravitate toward the latter portion of each epistle, where the “practical” teaching is, and skipping over the first halves, which are more difficult to explain and understand, and which deal particularly with Christ’s person and work. But this is a case of our fragmented thinking again. When the NT writers wrote, they intended the first portions of their epistles to create the framework in which the latter portions should be interpreted. If we don’t read them that way, then we fail to understand fully what they were trying to teach.

I keep hoping one day to hear a sermon that’s just about how great Jesus is, but maybe that’s wishful thinking on my part. In lieu of that, I can still hope that preachers will begin talking more about Jesus. For my part, I get practicality all day long, because the world around me is full of it. Pagans love anything that will improve their lives, because all they really care about is themselves anyway. But it’s Jesus Christ and him crucified that I need to hear and see, if he really is to be the object of my faith. The fact that it’s him the world hates should probably tip us off to the fact that it’s him we should be obsessed with.

In closing, let me say that this is a fairly unread blog. I don’t know who reads it. And maybe out of those who do, not a one is a pastor. But whoever you are, let me ask you: do you think that I’m right in what I’ve written here? If so, I’d like to know. But if you don’t feel comfortable commenting, consider passing these questions on to your pastors or your elders. Unless someone starts the conversation about this, nothing will be done to improve things.

2 Comments:

Blogger Chris Huff said...

Right on. I'm a recent graduate of Southern Seminary, and soon to be pastor. I've been preaching occasionally at my church, but will soon be preaching two to three times per week. Every message I prepare is a journey. I read it over and over and over. I wrestle with what it means, and how best to convey that meaning. Even when the text is clearly instructive, I must be careful to avoid moralism, but rather seek to understand how the text points to the cross.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Kerry Lewis said...

Thanks Chris. I appreciate the affirmation. While I was raised Plymouth Brethren from first grade on, the denominational background of both my parents and most of my extended relatives is either Southern or Independent Baptist. So I've had some experience with Baptist churches, and sadly have had the same experiences with them as with churches of other denominations. Therefore I find it refreshing to find a Baptist minister who takes these things into consideration. After decades of brow beating, the Baptist church, like so many others, is a mess. But be encouraged in your work. We need more men who are doing what you are doing, and in doing these things you will be a good example, both to other ministers and lay people.

4:28 PM  

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