“Why do you preach the way you do?”
When I was asked this question recently, I hesitated before answering. Not because I didn’t know my answer, but because I was unsure how to express my preaching philosophy in “normal” conversation. And I knew that the question arose because my preaching is markedly different from what is considered “normal” for our part of the country. So, I stumbled through what I thought was a confusing and meandering explanation. To my surprise, my friend said that it had been helpful and maybe I should write it down. So, (with significant editing for clarity) I did.
Why I Preach the Way I Do
I want people to focus on Jesus
I generally don’t preach sermons with titles like “7 Biblical Tips for Handling Money” or “3 Goals for a Godly Marriage.” It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with such sermons or such titles, but I believe that a steady diet of such preaching gives the impression that the purpose of the Bible is to help individuals get ahead in life. That’s not what the Bible is for: it is intended to point us to Jesus. I want to avoid taking the focus off of Jesus and putting it on the hearer’s self-improvement. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that attempting to use the Word for any other purpose than seeing Him is futile and won’t produce the life God desires for His people:
You don’t have his word residing in you, because you don’t believe the one he sent. You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, and yet they testify about me. But you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life.John 5:38-40
Instead of preaching sermons that reinforce our culture’s obsession with the self, the supposed source of satisfaction, I want to preach sermons that counter-culturally put all of the attention on Jesus, the true and only source of eternal life.
I want people to get wisdom from the Word of God
When I preach, I try to make the point of the text the point of my sermon. I try to communicate the author’s intent for his original audience in a way that makes it clear for my audience. I try to use illustrations that either come from the text or reinforce the text. Why? Because people don’t need one more guy with a big head expounding his brilliant ideas or sharing memorable anecdotes (they’re getting plenty of that from social media and cable news). Instead, we need today what God’s people have always needed: God’s Word. Isaiah points out the reason why:
A voice was saying, “Cry out!” Another said, “What should I cry out?” “All humanity is grass, and all its goodness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flowers fade when the breath of the Lord blows on them; indeed, the people are grass. The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God remains forever.”Isaiah 40:6-8
I am grass; the people listening to me are grass. My wisdom, such as it is, is like a flower; the audience’s attention span is like a flower. What happens to grass and flowers? They dry up and disintegrate over time. But the Word of God never will. I want to preach what lasts, not what won’t.
I want people to know the breadth and depth of God’s Word
You are what you eat. I know it’s been said before, but people don’t generally remember what they ate for lunch three weeks ago. But that lunch affected them, remembered or not. It was taken in and broken down into constituent parts. Some of it stayed to become fuel and raw materials for building up the body, while some of it was expelled as waste. It was unremembered but productive nonetheless. I view preaching in much the same way: people won’t remember my sermons but, Lord willing, they will be gradually transformed by them. So, I want to ensure that they are getting a well-balanced diet, not a steady stream of favorite treats. Potato chips are generally more appealing than celery sticks: it is tempting to concentrate on familiar and favorite texts of the Bible and ignore the large chunks that seem difficult or irrelevant. Acts 20 records a meeting that the apostle, Paul, had with the elders of the church at Ephesus. During that meeting, he says, “…I declared to you the whole counsel of God.”
I want to be able to say the same thing because I know that we need the whole counsel of God, not just the parts we like. Because I don’t want to give people just what is easy to hear or easy to preach, I do not generally pick and choose Bible verses. Instead, I start preaching at one end of a biblical book and preach all the way through it to the other end. That way, I am sure we are receiving a complete meal, i.e., eating our “veggies” and our “potato chips.” Not skipping around means that we will both be wrestling with complex ideas and reveling in comforting passages.
I want people to experience heart change
Preachers are often like parents: we know that outward conformity is not the same thing as inward transformation, but it’s tempting to push for what we can see quickly rather than what lasts but takes more time. I don’t want to give in to temptation: I want to challenge myself and the people to whom I preach to be transformed, not merely modify their external behavior. This desire means that I try not to demand particular responses from people but trust the Spirit of God to stir and direct their hearts. Put another way: I do not want to cajole people into doing what I want them to do, what tradition says they must do, or what anyone else thinks they should do: I want them to do what God wants them to do. So, I rarely call for specific external behavioral responses (“don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls who do”). Instead, I trust that they will, through the Word and the Spirit, “not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of [their] mind, so that [they] may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God,” as Romans 12:2 says.
Transformation begins with a mind set on the things of God, not with legalistic attempts to look better than we are. Behavior does change, but only changes that begin with a changed heart and mind will last.
I want people to move towards community
We live in an increasingly individualistic culture. The chief (and some would say only) tenet of Wicca is now the creed for many people from every walk of life, including many inside the church: “do whatever you want, so long as it doesn’t keep someone else from doing what they want.” Social media, entertainment culture, and much popular preaching reinforce the idea that the purpose of life is to “self-actualize,” whatever that means. The Good News of God’s Kingdom is reduced to “living your best life now” and “going to heaven when you die.” I guess the thought is that you get to do whatever you want without interference now and then continue for all of eternity. A terrible side effect of this idea is that it inevitably drives people further and further apart until, in the end, they are left with themselves, by themselves, and with no idea of how to even reconnect with others. I don’t want my preaching to reinforce this individualism. Instead, I try to preach the community-creating aspects of the kingdom even louder. Paul, writing to the Ephesian church, expresses the gospel’s effect of bringing individuals into a community:
So, then, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole building, being put together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you are also being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit.Ephesians 2:19-22
I am not the temple of God: we are the temple of God. I am not a foreigner and a stranger to you: we are fellow citizens and family members. My goal in preaching is to speak to and about “us” as much or more than I do to or about “I” or “you.”
I want people to wonder and be curious and ask questions
One of the most intriguing statements in Jesus’ teaching is found in Mark’s Gospel. He records Jesus giving his parable of the soils and then writes,
“when he was alone, those around him with the Twelve asked him about the parables. He answered them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those outside, everything comes in parables.”Mark 4:10-11
I wondered about this statement for some time before a friend of mine, who led a college ministry and frequently took students through the Gospel of Mark, shared his insight with me: the secret of the kingdom is to be curious enough to ask Jesus for the answers. This insight led to me reexamining my preaching in light of Jesus’ example. I quickly realized that Jesus taught in a very open-ended style. He didn’t answer every possible question; indeed, he frequently seemed to introduce questions that he didn’t answer, all to get people curious enough to follow up with him. That doesn’t mean that I want to be intentionally obscure, but that my teaching should invite mature and ongoing conversation, rather than passive reception of my spoon-feeding the audience a perfectly blended and balanced puree that requires no further thought from them. Nor does it mean that I think I am the “jesus” who people should come to for the answers: instead, I want to go with them to the Word and work out His meaning together.
I want people to leave on mission
The goal of my preaching is not to gather a bunch of people together to sit in front of me, entertain them so well that they’ll invite their friends to sit with them the next week, and repeat that until Jesus comes back. Instead, my goal is to see people move “from the seats to the streets,” as another preacher said. I do not preach to gather a crowd but to send out citizen-ambassadors to spread the Good News of God’s Kingdom. In Romans 10, Paul shows the goal of biblical preaching:
“For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent?”Romans 10:13-15
Paul is envisioning a circular sequence: Salvation is a result of calling on the name of the Lord, which happens when someone believes in the gospel that they have heard preached by someone who was sent as a result of having been saved by calling on the name of the Lord for salvation.
I do not want to gather the same group of people each week to hear me opine about various topics: I want to preach to those sent to proclaim. Towards that end, a significant focus of my preaching is on the call for those who hear to go out and declare the truth that Jesus is King. I want people to be continually leaving the congregation I serve to go and take the gospel to places it has not been or has been forgotten. Going back to the beginning, I want the focus to stay on Jesus, and He calls His people to go, not sit.
That’s why I preach the way I do.