A huge religious marketplace has been set up in North America to meet the needs and fantasies of people like us. There are conferences and gatherings custom-designed to give us the lift we need. Books and video seminars promise to let us in to the Christian "secret" of whatever we feel is lacking in our life: financial security, well-behaved children, weight-loss, exotic sex, travel to holy sites, exciting worship, celebrity teachers. The people who promote these goods and services all smile a lot and are good looking. They are obviously not bored.It isn't long before we are standing in line to buy whatever is being offered. And because none of the purchases does what we had hoped for, or at least not for long, we are soon back to buy another, and then another. The process is addictive. We have become consumers of packaged spiritualities.This also is idolatry. We never think of using this term for it since everything we are buying or paying for is defined by the adjective "Christian." But idolatry it is nevertheless: God packaged as a product; God depersonalized and made available as a technique or program. The Christian market in idols has never been so brisk or lucrative.
This category contains resources on God-centered preaching. It's a product of a thesis-project completed at Gordon-Conwell Seminary as part of a Doctor of Ministry degree.
Join for free to download a free copy of the Theocentric Preaching thesis.
From Jim Hamilton:
Many pastors are a threat to their churches because they show from what they say and do that they do not understand what Christianity is. They think Christianity is the best form of therapy. They think Christianity is about self-help. They think Christianity is about better marriages, better parent-child relations, better attitudes and performance at work, and on and on. You can see that this is what they think because this is what they preach. Fundamentally, they think that Christianity is about success here and now. Also, for them, when it comes to how we do church, what the Bible says does not matter. What works best is what we should do.
But Christianity is not primarily about any of that. Christianity is primarily about the Gospel…
Pastors who present Christianity as therapy and self-help do not present Christianity. They are like the liberals that J. Gresham Machen denounced. Machen said that people who don't believe the Bible should be honest and stop calling themselves Christians because they have in fact created a new religion that is not to be identified with Christianity.
From J.I. Packer in The Quest for Godliness:
There is no doubt that evangelicalism today is in a state of perplexity and unsettlement. In such matters as the practice of evangelism, the teaching of holiness, the building up of local church life, the pastor's dealing with souls and the exercise of discipline, there is evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with things as they are and or equally widespread uncertainty as to the road ahead. This is a complex phenomenon, to which many factors have contributed; but, if we go to the root of the matter, we shall find that these perplexities are all ultimately due to our having lost our grip on the biblical gospel. Without realizing it, we have during the past century bartered that gospel for a substitute product which, though it looks similar enough in points of detail, is as a whole a decidedly different thing. Hence our troubles; for the substitute product does not answer the ends for which the authentic gospel has in past days proved itself so mighty. Why?
We would suggest that the reason lies in its own character and content. It fails to make men God-centered in their thoughts and God-fearing in their hearts because this is not primarily what it is trying to do. One way of stating the difference between it and the old gospel is to say that it is too exclusively concerned to be 'helpful' to man – to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction – and too little concerned to glorify God. The old gospel was 'helpful', too – more so, indeed, than is the new – but (so to speak) incidentally, for its first concern was always to give glory to God. It was always and essentially a proclamation of divine sovereignty in mercy and judgment, a summons to bow down and worship the mighty Lord on whom man depends for all good, both in nature and in grace. Its center of reference was unambiguously God. But in the new gospel the center of reference is man. This is just to say that the old gospel was religious in a way that the new gospel is not. Whereas the chief aim of the old was to teach people to worship God, the concern of the new seems limited to making them feel better. The subject of the old gospel was God and his ways with men; the subject of the new is man and the help God gives him. There is a world of difference. The whole perspective and emphasis of gospel preaching has changed…
Internet Monk warns us of the influence of American culture in our preaching:
The idolatry of "The Good Life" is, instead, the reshaping of the Christian movement into a particularly American religion where God becomes the means to provide us with the comforts, material blessings, experiences and "necessities" of a prosperous American lifestyle as defined by American culture.
Coming to terms with this idolatry necessitates that the Christian confess the presence and power of American culture as it defines the good life. This is a daunting task, for it has the potential to shake the typical American to his/her foundations. This "Good Life" worldview holds forth standards for what we "should" have that include specifics in all these areas and more:
Health, finance, housing, technology, clothing, jobs, transportation, personal appearance, fashion, leisure, freedom from pain, education, personal comfort, food, use of the environment, activities/sports, achievement, medical care, freedom, sex, relationships, emotional states, access to information, communities, possessions, security and a hundred other personal preferences….
Evangelicals in America are creating a religion that tells them how to be happy, how to be financially secure, how to be successful, fulfilled and healthy. Evangelical Christianity in America has pushed missional values to the fringes and brought "the Good Life" so close to the center that sermons themselves are calmly titled "How to Discover the Champion In You." To which everyone applauds.
The most popular pastors in America preside over this idolatrous affair with the glib assumption that the purpose of the church is to make us beautiful, prosperous and fully secure in American culture, but, of course, thankful to God for making sure we have all these blessings….
At the end of the day, do evangelicals want to be disciples of Jesus? Do they want to be a missional force in this culture? Are their priorities evangelizing and congregationalizing in other cultures? Are they a movement communicating the gospel across barriers? Or are they pursuing "the Good Life" in America with the blessing of God? Do they want God to pay off their credit card bills, make their children beautiful and popular, and insure their security in their suburban neighborhoods? Is our passion for the mission of the church or the comfort and profitability of our own enterprises? Do we see the world through the values of Jesus and his Kingdom, or do we see the world- and ourselves- through the values of advertising, prosperity and fashion?
Indeed I'd suggest that the fundamental malaise of contemporary Christianity is precisely its substitution of a problem-solving God for a God who is ultimate mystery.
For many people, God is a god who answers my questions, satisfies my desires and supports my interests. A user-friendly god you can access and download at the push of a prayer-key, a god you can file and recall when you need him (which gives "Save As" a whole new meaning!). A utility deity for a can-do culture. Evangelism becomes a form of marketing, and the gospel is reduced to a religious commodity.
The real God is altogether different. He is not a useful, get-it, fix-it god. He is not "relevant", he is the measure of relevance. Indeed best think of God as good for nothing and totally unnecessary, playful rather than practical – and whose game is hide-and-seek: "such a fast / God," as the poet R. S. Thomas puts it, "always before us and / leaving as we arrive." The Bible speaks of God as a desert wind, too hot to handle, too quick to catch. A God who is only ever pinned down – on the cross.
Sidney Greidanus has written a few books that touch on the challenge of theocentric preaching. In The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, he argues that the Bible's purpose is to primarily tell God's story, which intersects at points with ours:
In contrast to anthropocentric interpretation, therefore, theocentric interpretation would emphasize that the Bible's purpose is first of all to tell the story of God. In relating that story, the Bible naturally also depicts many human characters – not, however, for their own sake but for the sake of showing what God is doing for, in, and through them. Hence, when preachers pass on the biblical story, they ought to employ biblical characters the way the Bible employs them, not as ethical models, not as heroes for emulation or examples for warning, but for people whose story has been take up into the Bible in order to reveal what God is doing for and through them.
I first got interested in theocentric preaching when I realized how much anthropocentric preaching I've done, and how awful it really is.
We were set up. Two years ago I attended our first D.Min. residency with Haddon Robinson. He and Duane Litfin assigned us a whole bunch of texts and asked us to express the big ideas, or central themes, of these texts. They included stories like David and Goliath and Jesus calming the storm. They knew what was going to happen.
Everyone went running toward anthropocentric themes:
- God will help to slay the giants in our lives.
- Jesus will calm the storms of your life.
Think about that for a second. We were in a room of pretty smart people, all of them seminary trained and with years of ministry experience. And pretty much all of us ran to directly to application and missed the main point of these texts.
The story of David and Goliath isn't about how to handle the giants in our lives. It's the story of a man who did the job God asked Israel to do hundreds of years earlier, which they'd neglected: to drive giants out of the land God had given them. It's about doing what God asked, even when what he asks seems impossible. Still relevant, and much closer to the purpose of the text.
Jesus obviously doesn't calm all the storms in our lives. The story is ultimately about Jesus' identity, and we're not meant to allegorize the storms. It takes a bit of work to get there, but I believe Mark's account of the story is there to communicate that the Kingdom is secure, even when everything looks lost, because Jesus is in charge. My circumstances aren't as important as the fact that Jesus is okay, and the Kingdom is okay because of that.
Not only are these themes more faithful than the anthropocentric ones, but they are more satisfying and they ring more true. I don't know how I could look some of my people in the face and tell them that God will slay all the giants in their lives and calm every storm. He simply hasn't, and they know that. If I tell them this they look at me like I'm out of touch or a liar.
I can look in their eyes and tell them that if God asks them to do something, He will back them up no matter how impossible it seems. I can tell them that even when everything looks lost, it's okay because Jesus is still okay, and the Kingdom depends on that and not how well you and I are doing.These themes are more true, to Scripture and to life, and they are more satisfying than how-to sermons.