One of the dirtiest little secrets about preaching is that many preachers are using what we used to call in radio “a service.” There are, or at least there used to be, businesses that sell jokes and one liners and gags and the like to “radio personalities.” We referred to these business as “a service” as in,
“Wow, his show is terrible.”
“Well, I’m not surprised, he uses a service.”
If a “personality” needs a service he isn’t really much of a personality is he?
Read Kim’s blog but not just before a meal or you’ll lose your appetite. The tragedy that is American evangelical preaching continues.
Imagine if lawyers used a service:
“Good morning your honor, hey it’s good to be with you this morning. Hey, your bailiff is looking sharp this morning. It’s 22 minutes past the big hour. Hey, did you hear about the precedent in Hooch vs. Turner? Well it seems that….”
Or a physician,
“Well Mrs Jones it seems that you have inoperable cancer but hey, that reminds me of the story about the two viruses…”
If such things are inappropriate in court or in the physician’s office, how are they appropriate for the pulpit?
I’m not calling for artificial solemnity in preaching. Authentic preaching entails reflecting on the whole range of human experience as appropriate to the text of Scripture before the minister. The minister’s job is, as R. B. Kuiper used to say, to preach “the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text.” R. B. also used to say, “Gentleman, in every sermon there are three points: the text, the text, the text.” (HT: Derke Bergsma).
In the comments that follow I am not reflecting on ANY PARTICULAR congregation and certainly not my own. We are blessed to have Pastor Chris Gordon as our preacher and our members are saints for putting up with me for as long as they have. They are evidence for Bob Godfrey’s claim that most Reformed congregations are very patient with (my) mediocre preaching because they value the Word of God so highly. In what follows, I’m reflecting on experience as a preacher and teacher over the last twenty years.
Why do congregations put up with it? I know this is controversial, but I wonder if congregations get what they demand. If congregations demanded to hear the Scriptures preached faithfully that’s probably what they would get or at least they would get more of it. The truth is that American Christians vote with their feet. They swear membership vows before God and man and when something happens that they don’t like, they walk to second church where they are welcomed with open arms, no questions asked. So, American ministers tend to be responsive to parishioners, even if they aren’t always aware of it. Yes, we can discipline “walkabout” members after the fact, and, in most cases, we probably should, but the reality is that they are still “gone.” That fact puts pressure on the minister.
At the same time, there is an unspoken conspiracy between the congregation and the minister. When the minister does what congregations regard as “preaching,” which usually entails giving advice about how to be successful or perhaps a good scolding about how naughty they are and how they ought to be better persons, they tell ministers, “That was a really good sermon pastor.” Preachers are human beings. When they preach a carefully crafted, exegetical sermon (i.e., one that follows the text closely) they probably don’t get a lot of positive reinforcement so, subconsciously, they begin to conform to the implicit message: more advice, more about us and less about, well, you know, that biblical stuff. People have said as much to me directly.
Most parishioners aren’t even aware of it, but it’s what they do and that feedback, over time, is influential. That’s why I call it an unspoken conspiracy. The minister doesn’t tell the congregation how he’s giving them what they want and they don’t tell him explicitly to give it to them but there it is. The sermons become more and more about “how to…” and the like.
In many places it seems that “biblical” preaching simply means quoting a passage and then the airplane taxis down the runway, rotates, and lifts off and away we go into the homiletical ether.
In all this mutual approval, of course, there is a party who has been omitted: Christ, the Lord of the church. He has not ordained his ministers to be “men pleasers.” This is a provocative illustration, but imagine if an ambassador to another country only told that country what they wanted to hear? What kind of ambassador would he be? He would certainly be a liar.
The congregation, on the other hand, is also a wholly owned subsidiary. Inasmuch as they have been baptized the name of God has been placed upon them and they are not free agents. The church of Christ is not a democracy. It is not a free market. The Word of God is not a product to be marketed. The congregation belongs to Christ just as much as the minister belongs to Christ. As baptized members of Christ’s church, they are culpable for not demanding that the minister preach the text (law and gospel) and as the text leads us to Christ, for not preaching Christ.
We are all more like the Northern kingdom than we like to think.
[This post first appeared on the HB in 2008 and has been slightly revised]