‘A famine: When preaching is not preaching’
A few weeks ago a church member asked me to read a book, titled The Shack, that she and several other women in the church were reading. She wanted to know if there was anything dangerous about it.
As I began reading the book I was struck at how well the author presented his theology. This story, purported to be true by the author, is actually an argument for a particular view of God. That view is in conflict with the view of God presented in Scripture.
The question that comes to mind is this: Being so inaccurate, why is this book so popular, even among Christians? (Ranked number one in paperbacks on the New York Times bestseller list as of March 17.) Why are so many believers drawn to the god of this book without seeing the theological danger it presents to their souls? The answer lies in the spiritual malnutrition of American Christianity. Our culture has become almost dismissive of the Bible as irrelevant and boring. As a result, books like this one rise up to answer the questions about life, God, and eternity. Is the Bible irrelevant to our contemporary culture? Should we abandon the Bible as the source of truth about life, God and eternity? No. Scripture has never been irrelevant to any culture. Preachers are the ones who proclaim irrelevant sermons. The Bible is eternally relevant because it was written with a particular purpose to a particular people at a particular time in history. Humanity does not change and the questions about God, suffering and purpose that plagued the original audience are the same questions that plague us today.
Books like The Shack are popular because they are attempts to speak to the questions haunting people’s everyday lives. People are hungry to know what God has to say about life. Yet, when they come to church they do not hear the Word of God proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit addressing those questions. People are swallowing the sweet-tasting poison of bad theology because they are not hearing true preaching. People are spiritually starving to death in American Christianity, and the blame lies primarily at the feet of pastors. The Word of God which creates and nourishes life is not being preached (1Peter 1:21-2:2). Could it be that the reason the church is dying in this country is because she is starving to death?
I fear that many preachers will read this and refuse to realize that their own preaching is not preaching. Brothers, if we stand behind the pulpit and do anything other than read a passage of Scripture and explain its meaning as it relates to the specific situations in the lives of our congregations, we are not preaching. This point is eloquently made by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky., in his 2008 book, He is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World.
When the point or points of our sermon is not the point or points the original author was making to his original audience, we are not preaching. For a more in-depth discussion of this idea see Sidney Griedanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature. I have heard much “preaching” that proclaims many ideas, none of which have anything to do with the point being made by the biblical author of the passage read by the preacher. When a preacher abandons the theme of the text, the original intent of the author, he has abandoned his authority and power. He has ceased to preach the Word which begets and nourishes spiritual life.
People are starving because they are not receiving the nourishment provided through the preaching of God’s Word. As a result, churches are dying, people are not being saved, and church members are turning to the poison of pop theology like that in The Shack for spiritual food. According to Ezekiel 37:1-11, the means of resurrection among God’s people is the public proclamation of His Word. It is no surprise that Paul charged Timothy to “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:1-2). If God’s Word is the means by which God causes spiritual resurrection and spiritual growth, then why do we foolishly insist on preaching our ideas, our programs and our stories?
Do not preach about God’s Word. Do not preach your ideas and agenda using God’s Word as a launching pad. Do not simply tell story after story after story with a few Scriptural thoughts scattered throughout and call it preaching. Do not preach a running commentary. Do not preach a biblical history lesson. Do not preach how-to-do-it-yourself messages that have nothing to do with the author’s intent. Do not preach five steps to … or three keys to a … when the clear focus of the text is to reveal the excellencies of God, not to provide anthropocentric behavioral laws. To preach the Word is to discover the theme of the passage and make that the theme of your sermon by addressing a specific contemporary situation in the life of your congregation that is analogous to the original situation in the life that prompted the writing of that passage.
When a heart surgeon begins surgery he does not pull out a butcher knife and start hacking away. No, he uses the scalpel and skillfully, carefully applying the blade to the specific contours of that patient’s body. Fellow pastors, in some sense we are surgeons of the soul. We have been given the scalpel of Scripture but too often we abandon it for the butcher knife of our own agendas. Rather than study carefully the method of using the scalpel as well as the specific bodies of our patients, we simply hack away and prove ourselves to be irrelevant and out of touch with both the Word of God as well as the congregation to whom we preach. Do not allow your people to starve to death by refusing to preach the Word. It takes hard work to study the text and to study your congregation. Yet, if we do not, they will continue believing the poison of the world and die of malnutrition. Preach the Word for their lives depend upon it (1 Tim. 4:16). (Phil Bray is pastor of First Baptist Church, Puxico.)