4 Problems I See with Preaching Today

I grew up hearing preachers. I’ve heard so many sermons in my life that I’ve completely lost count of how many I've heard. Not only have I heard many preachers over my life, now I am one myself. Yet, I believe that the greatest need for the true is the recovery of true and biblical preaching. Much of what is being called preaching today is weak. Simply put preaching is a man standing before the people who proclaims and applies the truth of God’s word. Yet, much of what is being considered preaching looks more like a TED talk than anything we see in the book of Acts. Much of preaching is but as a guru on the stage espousing his own wisdom. This is not preaching, at least not in any biblical sense. Although I still have a long ways to go in my own personal growth as a preacher (My church would tell you that's an understatement), I have begun to identify four concerns I see with preaching today.

1. The Emphasis on the Preacher not the Message

The American obsession with celebrities has been imported into the church. Although, it is not a bad thing to have men of great reputation with great fame even in the church, the danger is when the focus is on the man and not the message. In many circles or churches the preacher becomes more of a cult leader as the people blindly follow unquestioningly whatever the preacher says. The emphasis in the preaching is on the man – his humor, his eloquence, his vocal dynamics, and his intelligence. Although all those things are important, we must be careful not to create idols out of the preacher.

Rather than combating this idolatrous celebrity culture that can develop, many foster this culture unknowingly in their preaching. When every illustration revolves around the preacher and when he is the hero of all his stories, the preacher may be reinforcing himself as the focus. The task of the preacher is not to draw attention to himself, but to stand before the people pointing always to God. The preacher should stand as an arrow pointing to heaven not an arrow pointing to his own ego. People should not be leaving the service impressed with the preacher, yet apathetic towards God. The goal of true preaching is for the man himself to fade into the background as he joyfully celebrates the truth of God’s word, pointing the people to the Jesus.

2. The Emphasis on Application without Exposition

Another concern I see is the separation of application and exposition. In today's age of short attention spans and 140 character tweets, people want preaching to be less like a 4-course dinner and more like a McDonald’s drive through. There is no patience for the careful exposition of God’s word. Knowing this. many preachers just simply apply while neglecting the teaching of the Bible.

Now most preachers use the Bible at some point in the sermon, but how is the preacher using it? Is he just using a verse to jump into whatever topic he wishes? Is the Bible just a diving board into the preachers own wisdom and opinions? Or, is the content of the preaching demonstrated from the Bible? Better yet, is the content of the preaching derived from the Bible? Is the preacher pointing to an authority outside of himself in the revealed word of God?

Sure people may ask for sermons that are immediately helpful apart from the Bible. They may want to hear your sermon called “5 Ways to Get Your Kids to Obey You”, but doing so on a consistent and regular basis is like giving your toddler candy for every meal. Sure, they will love you for it, but you’ll rot their teeth and spoil their stomach. As preaching strays away from the central focus of the teaching of the Bible, we will continue to propagate a generation of Christians who are biblically illiterate and spiritually anemic.

3. The Emphasis on Illustration without Purpose

Often in replace of Biblical exposition, illustration begins to take a a central focus in the sermon. The best preachers become the best story tellers. They are engaging, humorous, and easy to follow. Illustrations are incredibly important in preaching. Illustrations help people connect to the teaching of the Bible in a practical and experiential way. Yet, I’ve heard too many preachers use illustrations without purpose. I’ll hear a preacher tell a funny story about his children ridding a bike or something, and I stop, wondering what in the world did that story have to do with the text? Illustrations are great tools in a preachers tool chest. Some of the greatest preachers have been the greatest illustrators (i.e. Charles Spurgeon), but a sermon filled with illustrations with no teaching is simply all flash with no substance.

4. The Emphasis on Exposition while Ignoring Application

On the flip side some preachers concerned with the lack of bible teaching react so strongly to the wide-spread weak preaching of the day that they ignore applying the text at all. The pendulum swings to far the other direction. They get up and give an academic lecture, but never call people to repentance and obedience. Although preaching is centered on the Bible and the teaching of the Bible, preaching is not complete if we don’t help people see the relevance of God’s revealed world. We cannot simply teach them about the Grand Canyon without inviting them to go and experience the beauty of it themselves. In the same way, if we instruct people about God, but don't invite them to experience the glory of the Lord, its not preaching.

In addition, preaching should not be boring, dry, and dull. There is nothing more exciting than the redemptive love God displayed in Jesus Christ! The Gospel is anything but boring, to make it so is sinful.

A Recovery of Biblical Preaching

Preaching is an ordained means, given to us by God to help save the lost and build up the church. Perhaps the reason the church in America appears so frail is because pastors and preachers have been refusing to give people the whole counsel of God. The preacher stands before his people as the mouth piece of God. That is a huge weight and responsibility that should lead every preacher in holy terror every Sunday morning. It’s a weight I feel each week. More than ever, I believe we need a revival of true preaching. We need more pastors who shepherd their churches with the rod of God’s Word and who understand the glorious weight and responsibility of expositing and exulting over God’s glorious truth. If your not a preacher, pray for your pastor and for the weight and responsibility he carries each week, not only in caring for the flock of God but proclaiming the Word of God each week.

Do you agree with these concerns about preaching today? Are their concerns that I missed? Share your thoughts with us below in the comments.

5 Tips for Preaching through Tough Passages

Recently I’ve been preaching through the Sermon on the Mount with the people of Forest Hills Baptist Church. So far it has been a wonderful series working through some of Jesus’ most well known teachings. However I knew when the Lord led me to this series that there would be some difficult passages to come up. The two I was least looking forward to was on lust and divorce. As a pastor some times you must teach on some difficult passages of Scripture.

The Bible doesn’t always tell us what we want to hear, nevertheless they are all profitable and useful for the building up of the body. Much like the prophet Ezekiel, as a pastor we eat the sweet scroll of God’s word even though it is often a bitter word of judgement (Ez 3:3). All of God’s word is honey to our lips. Yet, the Scriptures function as a mirror. As we hold up the mirror of God’s word to our own hearts and to the hearts of our own people, sometimes we do not like what it shows us about ourselves. The word of God pierces our hearts and exposes our sin (Heb 4:12). It can be an uncomfortable endeavor but yet it is the task of the pastor to teach the whole counsel of God.

Although I am still a young preacher and have much to learn, having recently taught through both lust and divorce from the sermon on the mount, I offer these five helpful principles for preaching through tough passages of scripture.

1. Practice Expository Preaching

In order to preach difficult passages you must get to difficult passages. With the absence of expository preaching it is tempting for pastors to pick hobby horse passages or passages that will merely tickle the ears of the congregation. As a result, consciously or not, many pastors skip over difficult or controversial passages.

Walking through sections of scripture verse by verse is so helpful because it forces us to encounter and deal with difficult passages. My people know we are walking through the Sermon on the Mount and they would notice if we skipped Jesus’ teaching on divorce. No matter how difficult it may be or though I may not desire to preach it, the accountability of my people force me to deal with difficult texts.

Yet, expository preaching can be a safe guard. When you deal with difficult passages in a expository series, it keeps the difficult sermon from sounding like a personal attack from the pastor. No one in the congregation is saying “I wonder why he picked a passage on lust this Sunday? I wonder who was in the counseling room this week?” The church knows this passage is next, so it removes any perceived hostility people may read into the pastors sermon. Thus the sermon becomes less of the words of a perceived vindictive pastor and more the prophetic, authoritative voice of God.

2. Preach in Humility, as a Man Under the Authority of the Scripture.

When I was preaching the sermon on lust, I tried to set the tone for the sermon at the beginning. I knew I was going to be having to deal with some difficult truths and that it was vital for me to be filled with conviction over sexual sin. I knew that many would perceive as strong word as judgmental self-righteousness, which would be the furthest from the truth. So before I got into the meat of the sermon I said,

This morning I plan to proclaim to you harsh truths that you may perceive are announced in judgement and self-righteousness. Hear me carefully before we begin. I speak as a man who is not above this text but stands condemned underneath it. I am a man who is a condemned sinner redeemed and restored by Jesus Christ. As I read Jesus’ words here what shame and dread come upon me. For which of us can here can read these words and not be condemned?

These words helped remind me and my people, that as a pastor I am a sinner who is saved by grace. The only power that enables me to stand in that pulpit without cowering in holy fear is that I’m clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

3. Speak Clearly and with Conviction

Set God’s word loose on your people. Do not be timid or fearful on difficult truths you know your people might not want to hear. So often our fear of men causes us to be timid lambs in the pulpit when we must be roaring lions. When it comes to the sexual immorality of our culture or the no-fault divorces that happen every day, it is necessary to bring a strong word of judgement against sin. However as you do, highlight the Scripture as your authority and not your own opinions.

4. Share Briefly Multiple Interpretations

The teaching on divorce was exceptionally difficult for me, not just because it is a hot-button issue, but because the text is a hermeneutical gordian knot. Many Christians wrestle on what the Scriptures teach on divorce and many books have been written on the subject. The greatest struggle for me was:

  • How much should I share about the debate?
  • Do I want to only share my position and act like the others do not exist?

Those were the sort of questions that plagued me as I was preparing for that sermon.

If you are preaching on such a text it is wise to briefly mention the debate around this text and briefly highlight some of the other views. But spend the bulk of your time proving your position from the text. The pulpit is not the place for an academic lecture on the precise definition of porneia. In fact most of the congregation doesn’t even care, they just want to know what the Scripture says. They don’t want a seminary dissertation on the subject.

5. Give Grace and Preach the Gospel

My great fear in preaching a sermon on lust or divorce is that I sound like some self-righteous right wing bigot. Although there are sections of those sermons where I must come down hard on what God calls sin, I must always point people to the Gospel. Pastor, if you hold up the mirror of condemnation to your peoples hearts you better point them to calvary before you close in prayer. Sins like lust are so pervasive and are hidden deep within our hearts. When you bring those things up to the surface and expose them to the light, it can get uncomfortable and often guilt begins to take over. Yet, I do not want my people to leave my sermon feeling badly over their sin, but gloriously in awe of a God who would save them despite their sin.

I want to leave them with Jesus. I want to point them to the savior who fulfilled the righteous requirements of the Law in their place. I want to point them to the suffering servant who was nailed to that tree for the forgiveness of our sins. I want to point them to the liberator who frees sexual captives and the God who never divorces his adulterous wife. He is the always faithful God who is ready to forgive and restore. When you preach these difficult sermons give your people what they need the most, Jesus.

If you would like to listen to these to sermons you can listen to my sermon on Lust and Divorce. (I'll put up the link to the sermon on divorce as soon as its uploaded)

Pastors, how have you dealt with difficult passages? How do you handle texts that you know will elicit controversy? Share your wisdom in the comments!

A Pastor's Prayer

As I was in study and prayer this past Sunday morning, I came across this beautiful prayer in "The Valley of Vision". As a pastor and teacher of God's word, I connected with this prayer entitled "A Minister's Preaching".  If you are not a pastor, read this prayer to learn how to better pray for your pastor.

My Master God, I am desired to preach today, but go weak and needy to my task; Yet I long that people might be edified with divine truth, that an honest testimony might be borne for thee; Give me assistance in preaching and prayer, with heart uplifted for grace and unction. Present to my view things pertaining to my subject, with fullness of matter and clarity of thought, proper expressions, fluency, fervency, a feeling sense of the things I preach, and grace to apply them to men’s consciences. Keep me conscious all the while of my defects, and let me not gloat in pride over my performance. Help me to offer a testimony for thyself, and to leave sinners inexcusable in neglecting thy mercy. Give me freedom to open the sorrows of thy people, and set before them comforting considerations. Attend with power the truth preached. and awaken the attention of my slothful audience. May thy people be refreshed, melted, convicted, comforted, and help me to use the strongest arguments drawn from Christ’s incarnation and sufferings, that men might be made holy. I myself need thy support, comfort, strength, holiness, that I might be a pure channel of thy grace, and be able to do something for thee; Give me then refreshment among thy people, and help me not to treat excellent matter in a defective way, or bear a broken testimony to so worthy a redeemer, or be harsh in treating of Christ’s death, its design and end, from lack of warmth and fervency. And keep me in tune with thee as I do this work.

Battling Spiritual Exhaustion

You cannot give what you don't have. That statement rings true when it comes to Christian teaching. Many Christians are involved in teaching ministry, perhaps as a Sunday School teacher or a small group leader. Pastor's are especially engaged in the teaching ministry as the preaching of the Word is one of their primary responsibilities. Although I love to teach, I've come to the realization that it is a labor of love. The constant demand of preparing lessons, messages, sermons, blog posts, and the like are draining. They are not only taxing on the mind but also taxing spiritually. As teachers, if we are not careful our reservoirs of spiritual vitality can begin to get low as we give and give to others through our teaching ministry.

The great danger of Christian teaching is spiritual fatigue and exhaustion. As teachers if we are not resting and pouring into our own spiritual lives we can quickly find ourselves hating the very thing God has asked us to do. As a pastor I've experience this sort of spiritual fatigue first hand. There have been weeks where I have had three or four messages to prepare for that week. So how do we deal with spiritual exhaustion?

1. Take a Sabbath

Sometimes in teaching you just need to take a break for a week. Sometimes we expect ourselves to out do God never rest. We must sometimes rest to recharge our batteries. Confession time, this is difficult for me. So often I sinfully equate resting with laziness. There is nothing wrong with resting our minds and our hearts from having to constantly produce teaching material. Take that day a week to just rest and relax your mind and refresh your spiritual batteries. Spend extra time in the Scriptures seeking after God. Go for a long walk and just talk with God. When I begin to since spiritual exhaustion creep in, I quickly take an hour or two and just commune with God in prayer. It is amazing how the living water can quench our dusty throats.

2. Always be Learning and Studying

As a pastor, there are not a lot of people in my church who are teaching and instructing me. When spiritual exhaustion sets in, it is easy to get lazy in our thinking and just rely on personal hobby horses to get us through the next teaching engagement. Here I have learned the wonderful value of reading and studying. A good book is like a good conversation with a great mentor. You get to learn from other's wisdom and experiences. You get a fresh perspective and it stretches you spiritually. Another way I've begun to always be learning is through audio podcasts. Through the miracle of technology I am able to listen to some of the best preachers and teachers of our day. As I do I am able to be fed by other great pastors and teachers and I become encouraged in my spiritual life.

3. Find Great Community

Spiritual exhaustion thrives in isolation. Pastors and teachers need to learn to build community with other pastors and teachers who can pray for and encourage one another. Community is vital to our spiritual growth and is necessary in our lives. So often many teachers live in isolation although they may be surrounded by people. Developing good friendships with other teachers even outside of your church can be helpful in preventing spiritual exhaustion.

4. Remind Yourself of the Gospel

As a teacher it is so easy for me to begin to find my worth and identity in the content I produce and not in Christ. When this happens I must remind myself of the Gospel.  God's acceptance of me has nothing to do with my performance but everything to do with Christ's performance. The moments I am most spiritually exhausted form the teaching ministry are the moments in which I begin to rely on my own strength and power as some twisted way to earn God's favor. In my spiritual exhaustion I must remind myself of my dependency on the righteousness of Grace and preach to myself the life giving good news.

Teaching is the greatest joy and the greatest privilege. It was Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who said, "The work of Preaching is the highest and the greatest and the most glorious calling to which anyone can ever be called." He is absolutely right, but it is also an incredible labor. When spiritual exhaustion begins to set in we must be quick to respond with the remedy of Christ's restoring grace. As we rely on His strength and His power the Word who became flesh will give us the words to proclaim His majesty, glory, and beauty.

2 Tips on Preaching from the Old Testament

This past Sunday I just finished the preaching through the book of Haggai. When the Lord first laid this little book on my heart, I was uncomfortable preaching through it. For one, I didn't know much about this little book. In addition, figuring out how to preach this book would be a great challenge. Questions immediatly began to come up. How do you preach OT prophecy as Christian Scripture? How to I make this relevant and not just sound like a historian? How can I preach the Gospel from Haggai each week and still remain faithful to the text? These are the sort of questions I had to wrestle with and over the past month I've learned a few tips to add to my homoletical tool kit through this series. If you are a pastor or teacher I pray this tips might be as helpful to you as you preach through books in the Old Testament.

1. Understand the Original Audience

When it comes to teaching the Old Testament, you have to really do the hard work and research of understanding the historical setting. This means getting some good commentaries and studying the history of Israel. A big area of focus is understanding the time line. As I was studying Haggai, I learned how huge the timeline was for understanding the book. Haggai is very specific about the time of each of his four messages. Understanding the Jewish Calendar and understanding the emotions of the post-exilic community greatly aided in understanding Haggai's message. So if your going to take on preaching the Old Testament, make sure you do your homework.

2. Develop a Robust Biblical Theology

Having a Good biblical theology will greatly help connect the passage your studying to the rest of the Bible. Knowing that the Bible tells one story and one message is key. Seeing the parts of the Bible and being able to find their place in the whole meta-narrative of scripture is an indespensible skill for any bible reader, but especially for a preacher of the word.  Know the plot line of the Bible: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration.  There are a few huge themes that run throughout the whole Bible. These themes serve as easy "on ramps" to get to Christ, the Gospel, and the promises of God for 21st century people. Here are a few examples:

  • Covenant Promises
  • Temple
  • God's Soverignty
  • Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7)
  • Messiah

As we study the Old Testament, finding thematic on ramps greatly aids the preacher to seeing how all the Scriptures point to Christ.(Luke 24) I'll give you an example from Haggai. In Haggai the theme of temple is huge as Haggai challenges the people to rebuild the temple. As we get to Haggai 2:9 we find a startling prophecy and promise, "The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former". How to we handle such a startling promise as this? Through a robust Biblical theology we can see that the temple is fulfilled in Jesus Christ when God comes to tabernacle among us in the flesh (John 1). In the New Teatment the church is described as the temple of God. (Ephesians 2) However at the second coming we see the New Jerusalem is described as being one giant temple in which God's people will dwell in one giant Holy of Holies in the presence of God. You see jumping onto the thematic on ramp of temple puts you on the high way to Christ and even to the eschatological fulfilment of the temple in the New Jerusalem.

I struggled for the longest time in how to handle the Old Testament between faithfully studying it in its own context and also interpreting it as Christian Scripture. On the one hand I don't want to sound like a Jewish Rabbi but I do not want to dishonor the text. It is a tension I continue to wrestle with, but a good Biblical theology greatly aleviates the tension. Seeing the Scriptures as God's progressive revelation and as a unity empowers the pastor to teach from any portion of the Scriptures with confidence and Gospel intentionality. In some ways preaching from the Old Testament can be more difficult, but it is incredibly rewarding. Don't devoid your people of the blessings and treasures that can be found in the Old Testament. All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable, even obscure two-chapter minor prophet books.

Are there any tips you have for preaching from the Old Testament? Share them with us in the comments?