I’ve discussed with others and heard some prominent evangelical leaders such as Michael Easley mention the decline in effective preaching today. Most preaching that I’ve been hearing lately tends to lack an adequate introduction, an adequate exegetical foundation, a confident, passionate and loving delivery, an effective organization, a clear explanation of the gospel or a clear anointing of the Holy Spirit. I don’t share this to be critical but to call for a return to effective preaching in modern evangelical churches. Here are the common problems that I’ve seen.
The introduction needs to give some reason to pay attention to the sermon and a brief but accurate background on the passage. Sometimes it’s no more than, “Open up your Bibles to <Book> <chapter> <verses>. Now, <first verse>.” If it’s a series, there may be no connection to previous sermons in the series with this approach. Even more, it does not hook the casual or indifferent hearers into listening to the Word. For many, this kind of introduction comes across as dry, passionless and routine. What they may hear is, “Prepare to be bored with a lecture.” This comes mostly from pastors who have been taught that expository preaching is this kind of verse by verse running commentary and interpretation. If they would look at the great preaching of Christian history, such as Jesus in in synagogues of Nazareth and Capernaum (Luke 4, John 6), Peter on Pentecost (Acts 2), Paul in the the synagogue and in the Areopagus (Acts 13, 18), Ambrose, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and on and on, they would find that this modern Targum style of preaching only came about in the past generation or so. This Targum style was in fact more the style of the rabbis up to the time of Jesus. The example of Jesus and the apostles, and the style afterwards, was quite different than this kind of verse by verse running commentary, and no one could effectively argue that it was less Biblical.
The other style of introduction tends to be the constant recounting of some kind of personal experience of the pastor, whether recent or in the past. Certainly there is a need for the preacher to disclose his personal experiences in the pulpit as illustrations and in introductions, but this tends to treat the introduction as part of a running blog. Moreover, this seems to be a part of an overemphasis on personal disclosure and opinion in the sermon today. Often there are much more effective introductions to a sermon. Some brief stories or pithy quotes often do. Not only does this kind of introduction tend to focus too much on the pastor’s opinions and experiences, it also tends toward the strange subjectivity and historical isolationism of much of modern evangelicalism. Christian history is full of strong, effective and relevant illustrations that can serve as introductions or pepper the message with illustration throughout. More variety in the introduction can also reinforce the understanding that my spiritual experience as a believer is not my own little solipsistic thing, but is something that I share with millions across the world and throughout time, and that there is much that I can learn from other believers who share the same Lord and the same Bible.
For the introduction then, it comes down to the time honored method: hook the people into listening, and introduce the passage. Avoid making it a weekly display of what happened to you this past week, or your commentary on local, national or world events of the past week. Give the people a reason to listen, and you may gain more attentive hearers from the beginning.
Inadequate exegetical foundation
There are many sermons that I’ve sat through from pastors whom I know have a Bible college or seminary education, and whom I know have heard many fine Biblically based sermons over the years, but who show very little evidence of having opened a commentary or done any digging into the meaning of the passage. Some even have seemed to be parroting the notes in the NIV Study Bible when they give background or interpretation of the passage. I honestly wonder whether any who had any education in Greek or Hebrew go back to the original Greek and Hebrew text on any more than an occasional basis. For anyone who already has an NIV Study Bible in the service, or who has done any previous digging into the passage on his or her own, this comes across as extraordinary carelessness and lack of seriousness in study of the Word of God and preparation for preaching the Word of God.
It’s hard to say what the source of this is. I know that few in this situation actually have ever had the time demands that would prevent adequate exegetical preparation. My conjecture is that these individuals may never have really developed the kind of study skills during their Bible college and seminary education that carried through into being able to exegete a passage in sermon preparation, or that their education never connected effective exegesis and sermon preparation. They probably do not, or may not have received the suggestion, to read a Biblical or systematic theology text, a chapter at a time, annually or biannually, to keep their theologies in check and in growth. I tend to think that there’s probably also a failure to read and study the Bible consistently on their own for their own walk with Christ as well. With the preaching of serious exegetes such as Michael Easley and Chuck Swindoll available on the radio and elsewhere, my belief is that congregations notice when there is an inadequate exegetical foundation on a regular basis in the sermons of their pastors. And when this happens, I think that they turn even more to preaching and teaching in the media and Christian books to get Biblically based preaching and teaching.
Pretty much every guide to sermon preparation stresses the need for blocking off time to study the passage for the sermon and to prepare the sermon. This was in fact more difficult in previous years when there were many more churches holding Sunday morning and evening services, and the sermon for the evening service was normally different than the sermon for the morning service. C.H. Spurgeon would normally begin his study for the next weeks sermon on the afternoon or evening of the Sunday before. I myself would often arrive several hours before the evening service to begin the exegesis of the passages for the next week’s sermons. It’s never too early to let a passage begin to flow through the preacher so that it can flow out in the sermon.
I think that putting in the time for exegesis, to come up with the message of the passage, will also tend to basing the weekly sermon on shorter passages of scripture. Occasionally it is legitimate to preach on a whole chapter, but generally a pastor who is putting his time in to understand a passage will rarely base a sermon on a selection of scripture beyond a paragraph, or several verses, or even, in some cases, a single verse. He will discover that there is more material to communicate effectively in briefer passages than in skimming over larger swaths of scripture.
Lack of effective organization
This is the pattern that I’m seeing more and more in the preaching of the Word. First, there’s some kind of introduction. Next comes the running commentary on the passage from beginning to end. Finally, the preacher attempts to apply the passage in a long and drawn out conclusion. It’s often not easy to find the connection between the passage and the long drawn out conclusion. Even more, the preacher often rambles away from the passage, and inserts his own opinions and experiences. Sometimes it becomes more of a running personal commentary on the state of the congregation, on the lives of unnamed individuals and on evangelicalism as a whole.
This pattern reinforces two unfortunate tendencies. The first is the seeming tendency of some pastors to see themselves as having a pastoral authority outside the guidelines of the Word of God, to take up an air of self importance, and to give an undue weight to their own ideas, experiences and directions apart from the Word of God. This can often be seen in the manner of the preacher as well when he is spiraling downward from being a preacher of the gospel to a religious blowhard. The second tendency is that of the undue subjectivity, personal self importance, spiritual self absorption and scriptural disconnection and dissonance of belief and conduct of modern believers, which is reinforced when they see the same tendencies in the preacher.
Moreover, sermons in this pattern of introduction, extended commentary and extended application tend to apply primarily the last verse or verses in the passage in the extended application. In these cases it seems like the introduction and the scriptural passage are like more an introduction to what the pastor really wanted to say. The problem, though, comes up where there are great and significant truths and commands which appear earlier in the passage, and which are left out in when the passage is applied. Much of the potential benefit and, indeed, much of God’s message through the passage is lost when this happens.
Almost every guide to preaching stresses the need to outline the passage for the sermon. It’s part of understanding the message of the passage and providing an organized structure for the sermon, and this is why a good outline comes from Bible reading and exegesis. It provides a way for the preacher to expound on and apply the entire passage for the congregation. But even more, it also forms boundaries for the sermon, to keep the preacher within the bounds of scripture. It avoids the non-sequiturs that surprise, annoy and irritate the congregation when the pastor steps outside scripture and begins to assert authority in ways and matters in which scripture has not given him authority.
Lack of a clear explanation of the gospel
Many, many sermons leave anyone in the congregation who is not saved with no clear understanding of the gospel. The assumption seems to be that everyone who hears has received eternal life through faith in Christ. This is by no means a safe assumption. For instance, I know of several instances of believers who faked conversion for years by simply listening for and repeating the accepted catchphrases. It was an unexpected shock to many when they really did come to powerful conversions when God dealt with the deceit of their lives and they stopped faking it. There may also be first time and occasional attenders who have not genuinely put their faith in Christ for salvation as well. It’s possible for a person to attend the services of many churches for an extended period and never hear an explanation of the gospel, of the death and resurrection of Christ, and repentance and faith in him to receive eternal life.
This does not mean that there needs to be an invitation in every sermon, though. Rather, one of the subpoints of the conclusion of the sermon can legitimately be an explanation of the gospel, and it’s usually not hard to tie this into the application of practically any Biblical passage, even if the passage is from the Old Testament. What is necessary to express is that gospel is the primary message of the Bible to everyone today, and it’s fundamental to understanding and applying any truth or command in any passage. It can then be underlined that any teaching from the Word of God in the sermon will ultimately be useless for anyone who has not taken this fundamental step to receive eternal life through faith in Christ.
If the passage already contains substantial content on the Biblical gospel, this could be explained both for the believer, for assurance and depth in the gospel message, and as necessary content for the unbeliever. One the reasons that many believers do not witness is, I believe, that after they receive salvation, they do not hear the gospel preached often enough and clearly enough to instill the message in them so that it becomes a constant part of their lives.
Lack of a clear anointing of the Holy Spirit
I’ve read how the power of the Holy Spirit seemed to go like an electric current through those who listened to Evan Roberts at the time of the Welsh revival. D.L. Moody spoke about preaching the same sermons before and after he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and the power of the Holy Spirit made all the difference. I’ve wondered whether modern congregations would recognize or sit still for the kind of Spirit anointed preaching of a George Whitefield, or a John Wesley. The content in these sermons may be familiar but when the power of the Holy Spirit is there, God is putting his life changing and life transforming power into the preacher and through the sermon into the congregation. There is a life changing power all out of proportion to the content itself. This is the kind of Spirit anointed preaching which is most prominent in a time of revival, but which can be evident throughout the ministry of a man who seeks it regularly, week by week.
One of the things which both astonished and grieved me was the number of my seminary classmates who could not attest to having been filled with the Holy Spirit and who knew the power of the Holy Spirit in their preaching. Some later came to realize that they could not continue to try to minister in their own power and ability any longer. It takes putting in the time to get alone with God and pray passionately for God’s power to come through the preaching of his Word. It takes the humility to become a clean vessel for the Holy Spirit through confession, repentance and, in some cases, restitution to others of finances and reputation when they have been robbed of either. The lives of men and women who come to hear the Word of God are worth this kind of personal investment in seeking to be filled with the Holy Spirit for each and every time you preach the Word of God.
Lack of confident, passionate and loving delivery
There’s an old expression that it’s a sin to bore people with the Word of God. Much of this may come when the preacher himself does not really seem to have much of a reason on why he is preaching on the current passage other than its place in the book on which he is preaching. Or he may not seem to have much of a reason for preaching itself other than the place in the order of service where it says, ‘Sermon.’ Or, he seems to be more delivering a sermon as a part of the routine of the job of being a pastor. So, because the preacher does not seem to have much of a reason for his preaching than it being a part of the routine, his preaching lacks confidence and passionate delivery. He is a man bringing a talk, and not a messenger with a message.
Unfortunately, though, the delivery of the sermon may also be confident and passionate in the wrong way. An irritated, annoyed and resentful pastor will display these characteristics in his preaching. In other words, his preaching will not be loving. It will rather contain spiteful jabs at individuals within the congregation and mocking parodies of people and ideas with which he disagrees. It’s also unfortunate that there are often a number of people in the congregation who find this entertaining but a regular diet of this feeds divisiveness and contempt for others within the congregation. Both the pastor and elders of the church need regularly to watch for when this happens. For the pastor, simply listening to himself as recorded from time to time will help to keep this in check.
Passion for the message of the passage comes from understanding, believing and living it. It comes from the power of the Holy Spirit. Christlike passion therefore will come from letting the living Word of God speak through his written Word in the heart of the man who has let its message fill him.
This morning I looked up on the Internet to see if there were any web sources of the classic book on preaching which influenced generations of preachers in America: John A. Broadus’s On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons. For the most part it is necessary to purchase the book to get the full text, since Google books has a partial, but still substantial, preview. I think that a return to the time honored patterns of preaching would do more for the spiritual health and growth of our churches than most of the programs and fads that come up every few years.
Moreover, I think that there needs to be a heightened awareness of the awesome responsibility and difficulty of effective preaching. It’s far too easy to take it too lightly and to invest too little of oneself in preparation for preaching nowadays. It’s also far too easy to underestimate the growth in knowledge of and personal application of the Word of God and of prayer that is necessary in the years during and after Bible college and seminary to become an effective preacher. For instance, it’s almost comical to read how inept Billy Graham was during his first sermons, yet God honored his prayers and persistence. It’s often forgotten that the man whom God used to preach the gospel to more people than any other person in the history of the world was not an instant success and had a prolonged period of struggle and learning. The same is true of many who later went on to become strong and effective preachers. But for those who wish to glorify God in their lives and ministries, it worth the time and effort.