Preaching that lacks, urgency, guts, and a cutting edge
Evangelical church meetings are built around preaching, it is rightly the centre piece of what we do (1Timothy 4:13). And yet, to be honest, in many of our churches the preaching week by week is less than riveting. It could even be said (and let me actually mention the elephant in the room) sermons are boring. In fact the elephant is asleep. This seems to be stating the obvious, but my question is, why are we so unwilling to name it, and address it?
I know I’ll be in trouble for being unloving, or impatient. I know I will be told that God does his work through his word, even through a boring sermon. True. But why is it that we are content for people in our churches to be bored so often, and why does it seem that we expect God to work in spite of us, rather than with us?
Boring people with the Bible is a serious problem.
Over half a century ago the German preacher Helmut Thielicke explained why:
“This is the point it seems to me, where the secret distrust of Christian preaching is smouldering. Behind all the obvious and superficial criticisms – such as that the sermon is boring, remote from life, irrelevant – there is, I am convinced, this ultimate reservation, namely, that the man who bores others must also be boring himself. And the man who bores himself is not really living in what he so boringly hands out. “Where your treasure is , there will your heart be also” – in this case the treasure of the heart seems not to be identical with what it is commending to others. The attractions by which his heart is moved seem to come from some other source. So we miss the very thing that my teacher of Theology was talking about, 'The peculiar, personal tone. For that peculiar tone will be immediately audible if the speaker himself is in what he says, if hegives of himself and put his whole heart into it.'”
– Helmut Thielicke – The Trouble With The Church – Hodder & Stoughton Great Britain 1966
To simply deliver an accurate exegetical lecture week by week is not enough. The exegesis must happen in our studies, it’s the foundation of what we do, but it’s not enough.
There are many things that could be said about preaching and the lack of engaging people’s hearts and minds. Let me pick up just two: our method of delivery and taking ‘giftedness’ seriously.
The method of delivery
Firstly, if our content and our manner of delivery (of speaking) don’t line up with one another, the audience won’t believe us. It is possible to speak about matters of life and death, and be ignored. I’ll give you an example we’ve all seen, and we all ignore. Why does no one listen to the safety briefing given by flight attendants before every plane flight? After all they are speaking about matters of life and death. Why? Because it’s obvious from the way the information is presented and the demeanor of the attendants they don’t believe any of these things will ever happen, certainly not today. They are just going through the motions, so no one listens. Imagine an ashen faced flight attendant, with quivering voice interrupting part way through a flight, with info on life jackets. The level of attention would rise.
Haven’t you heard preachers preach on sin without sorrow, on the cross without heartache, on the resurrection without excitement, on hell without fear and on heaven without joy? If we do this the audience will not believe us. I’m not saying fake it, or deliberately dramatize what you’re speaking about. I’m saying believe what you are speaking about, and let people see it.
People want to be moved, challenged, engaged, as the word is opened. They need the truth, but they don’t need a lecture. The preacher is pleading weekly for the souls of people, for Christ’s sheep. It is a matter of life and death, of joy and heartache. Are we preaching about real life, engaging with where people are the other 166 hours of the week? Are we understanding their heartaches, their struggles with sin, their doubts, their worries?
But someone will say, some of us are just natural communicators, others of us struggle to do that. Yes, of course. Which leads to the second point…
God gives different gifts to different people (1Cor 12). Some are given musical ability, others not. I cannot sing in tune, or sing and clap at the same time. It’s a no brainer that I should I never volunteer to lead singing or play music. It’s not my gift, and it would not help the church to grow (be edified).
However very often we have men who aren’t really gifted as preachers who have preaching as their main job, and the church suffers as a result. So we see congregations with teddy bear eyes during sermons, or the faithful enduring the sermons for the sake of other positives about this man’s ministry.
Giftedness and growth
If people love their minister/pastor, and have a strong relationship with him, they will keep coming to church even if the sermons are boring (i.e. there’s another growth dynamic in the congregation). But the congregation will only grow in size up to the point that the minister can have strong relationships with people and not beyond that. The relational threshold is generally between 100-200.
I know this is not an easy problem to solve. I know God made a lot of average men, and only a few great preachers (and I don’t include myself in this short list). My point is simply for us to take the teaching of God’s gifting seriously and to stop appointing men who don’t preach well to a ministry where their primary role will be preaching. It inevitably strangles them and the church they are appointed to.
And if we have men in this position, let’s have the courage and faith to work at moving them to a ministry they really are gifted in. The problem is that almost none of us think we are boring preachers. Perhaps it’s time for some truth spoken in love.