Since my conversion in 1993, I’ve listened to a lot of sermons, ancient and modern, reformed and non-reformed, and I’ve noticed that every age in the church has had its own persistent problems in preaching – for instance ancient sermons commonly suffered from the spiritualizing of the meaning of every text, so that in every sermon a fish was never a fish, the moon was never the moon, a child was never a child, and so on. Puritan sermons, on the other hand commonly suffer from the over-reliance on the Ramist method and an overabundance of points and sub-points.
Modern preaching has its own problems, and while there are some commonalities, there are differences between the problems you are likely to see in reformed and non-reformed preaching. Here then are my observations on the common problems in both camps, I should stress this is just my opinion and is not intended to be exhaustive, and yes I’ve been guilty of some of these myself. I offer these lists in the hopes that they might be noted and avoided by preachers in the future!
Primary Problems in Modern Non-Reformed Preaching:
- The topical series rules. There is little or no use of lectio continua and hardly any expository preaching.
- Lack of solid exegesis. The text is a leaping off point rather than the basis of the sermon.
- Scripture is seldom allowed to interpret scripture
- Sermons require little or no understanding of the bible on the part of the listener
- Emphasis on entertaining or impressing the congregation rather than exhorting them. Often there is actually a twisted symbiotic relationship between the preacher and the audience – he needs their approval and approbation so he tells them things that will provoke those responses. Too many preachers are actually closer to improvisational actors/comedians.
- Unwillingness to say anything most Americans don’t already believe
- Little or no law and precious little gospel.
- Success is measured by how happy the audience was with the sermon rather than how convicted they were or the good fruit it produced. The goal is usually consumerist – success is making the customer happy so that they will continue to buy your product.
- The majority of preaching centers on what the people are supposed to be enthusiastic about, but often these days sin (except the sin of judgment) is never discussed so that people are not offended.
- As a result what is too often created is not the church, made up of called out, soundly converted, and assembled together saints, but a franchise that can comfortably be frequented by anyone with a spiritual bent.
Primary Problems in Modern Reformed Preaching:
- There is far too little emphasis on connecting with the hearers.
- Too many of our sermons are actually theological lectures, and our aim is usually to inform the mind rather than melt the heart.
- Instead of an emphasis on impressing the audience with our personality via entertainment, our emphasis is on impressing the audience with our erudition via teaching. We want them to go away thinking, “Wow! I never knew that word had such an amazing semantic range in the original Greek. What a teacher our pastor is!”
- We tend to make our hearers do too much of the work, and far too many of our sermons are actually unintelligible to non-Christians
- We often forget that our preaching should have the same end as John’s telic note in John 20:31 – ” but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”
- We eschew Finney’s idea that conversion is the result of “the right use of means” but are sometimes stunningly unsupernatural in our own view of preaching. Instead of conversion being a supernatural work of the Spirit that must be fervently prayed for, we make it the result of the right understanding of information correctly imparted and received. Small wonder that so many of our listeners can explain theological doctrines but have no clue what Christ was really asking Peter in John 21:15-17.
- We often act as though it doesn’t matter how good a communicator the pastor is and don’t see being stunningly boring as a problem. Sometimes we even view being uninteresting as a badge of honor, as though boring was the opposite of ear tickling.
- Secretly, we also don’t want to upset our hearers, so the majority of our convicting fire is directed towards the sins found outside the church rather than within it.
- Often the majority of our preaching follows the via negativa, we spend our time telling people what we are against, but not what we are for.
- As a result what we too often create is “Fortress Church” – a dwindling and unapproachable bastion of the saints – and then wonder why no one from the world is coming to visit us.