Something to Say the World Didn't Already Know

Karl Barth reflects on his approach to preaching after the Titanic sank:

During my time as a pastor... I often succumbed to the danger of attempting to get alongside the congregation in the wrong way. Thus in 1912, when the sinking of the Titanic shook the whole world, I felt that I had to make this disaster my main theme the following Sunday, which led to a monstrous sermon on the same scale.

Fred Sanders reflects on this sermon:

Barth's seminary trained him in classically liberal Christianity. He entered the pulpit with a set of beliefs that were brittle, insufficiently biblical, and ultimately irrelevant to real people. In the Titanic sermon, you can see him trying to make his liberalism stretch to cover currrent catastrophes. It stretched enough to cover the Titanic, but just barely. This sermon was a real stinker, a real sinker, and it went under pretty fast. But Barth's preaching career kept going until a few years later when the outbreak of World War I would be an even more titanic challenge to the weak Christianity of his seminary training. When that happened, Barth couldn't stretch the thin commitments of liberalism to fit the real world.

That's when he stopped preaching headlines, stopped trying to declare which economic system God hates or what God was up to in the latest disaster, and started preaching from what he called "the strange, new world of the Bible." And that's when he found that he had something to say which the world didn't already know.

more (found via Trevin Wax)

Moralistic Preaching is so 80s

A great article by Ed Stetzer and Jason Hayes on preaching to the younger unchurched:

Directly connected to the younger unchurched's aversion to simplistic preaching is their aversion to "tidy" preaching. The Church has somehow forgotten that life is not always about having a neat, pat answer...

This means that the moralizing of our preaching past is out like the 80s. Our preaching should encompass more than do's and don'ts. It should reach to the why and the how behind our proclamation. Great preaching requires mining truth down to its deepest core and assigning it to resonate within the hearts of our listeners. As a result, our preaching must go beyond appeals to behavior modification, beyond pithy platitudes on being happy and living well. Our preaching must wrestle with the meat and marrow of human existence, because this is what young adults are already doing. Otherwise it is like tossing a fortune cookie to a man starving in the desert.

Two Ways to Preach

I've really been enjoying Iain Murray's two-volume biography of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. In the second volume, Murray contrasts the preaching of the Doctor with some of the other preaching taking place in London.

Many talked about "the apparent failure of the church." In response, preachers focused their message on "the supposed well-being and happiness of the hearers. Preachers were aware of what kind of sermon the people wanted and commonly they attempted to supply it." Many proposed innovations that would lead to a new day for the church. Some fell strangely silent in the first days of the war.

In contrast, the Doctor's message did not change. He felt that the problem with his fellows preachers is that "it did not start with the Bible; it only made use of Scripture to present a philosophy of religion which was not the Christian gospel at all."

Lloyd-Jones preached a different message, as seen in this address:

First and foremost we are face to face with the fact of the wrath of God...God has decided and ordered and arranged that a life of forgetfulness of Him, and antagonism to Him, shall not be successful and happy. Cursing falls upon such a way of life. The facts of life, the story of history, proclaim the wrath of God against all ungodliness and unrighteousness. We have sinned against God...

It is as the idea of judgment and the wrath of God have fallen into the background that our churches have become increasingly empty. The idea has gained currency that the love of God somehow covers everything, and that it matters very little what we may do, because the love of God puts everything right at the end. The more the Church has accommodated her message to suit the palate of the people the greater has been the decline in attendance at places of worship.

This is a very good example of God-centered versus human-centered preaching.

Rediscovering the importance of passages we ignore

I'm sitting in a room with with other preachers who get together every year to work through a biblical book. We bring in a commentator to help us exegete the text, and then discuss together how we could preach it. It's always a good week.

This year the commentator is Daniel Block, who is currently finishing a commentary on Deuteronomy that should be out in another year. We've just been discussing Deuteronomy 7:1-11, which is certainly a challenging passage to preach today. It's the sort of text that preachers like to avoid because it raises troubling questions about the complete destruction of the Canaanite people as part of the conquest. Yet Block has presented it in such a way that most of us can't wait to get home and preach it.

It's a good reminder again that some of the most neglected passages of Scripture are highly relevant to us today, and that our job is not to make them relevance, but to discover and demonstrate their relevance. This is the challenge and the joy of preaching.

The message of Easter

I used to subscribe to the tape ministry - remember the days before digital downloads? - of a large church. I remember getting the Easter Sunday message one particular year. The main idea of the sermon was something like, "You're good, but you could be better." The preacher used the illustration of Tiger Woods' golf swing. It was good, but Tiger went back and and learned a new swing to be even better. We can do the same with our lives when we come to Christ, he said.

I remember being shocked. The message of Easter isn't that we're good but Christ came to make us a little bit better. Earl Creps has said that Jesus didn't come to make bad people good, or good people better. He came to make dead people live. I agree. Dead people need the message of Easter, and nothing else will do.

At Easter we get to proclaim the timeless story of God in Christ taking the place of sinners so that we who were dead could live. There are so many riches within this story, so many angles, so much depth, that we don't have to drift from the meaning of Easter to be relevant.

Let's stick with the message of Easter. It's far better than any other message we could offer, and it's one that people desperately need to hear.

The Gospel and busyness

How do you help people with busyness from Scripture without preaching a therapeutic, self-help message? Tim Chester gives us an example of how to do this:

For most us, our busyness is self-induced...Some of us are busy because we can’t say ‘No’. We crave people’s approval or we fear people’s rejection. The Bible calls this ‘the fear of man’. And the good news is that God is bigger. And living for him sets us free from being controlled by other people’s approval or disapproval...

There’s nothing wrong with being busy. Most of us enjoy being busy. What creates stress is the feeling that we cannot meet the expectations of others or of God. But Jesus offers rest from the burden of self-justification. We are accepted by God. This is how we find meaning and value. At the most fundamental level, Tim Chester is a justified sinner. I’m not fundamentally a writer, or preacher, or even a husband and father. I am a sinner saved by grace and all I contribute to that identity is the sin bit. I don’t need to prove myself as a sinner saved by grace. Instead I praise the gracious embrace of the Father, the complete atonement of the Son and the Spirit’s enabling presence. This is who I am. And it’s a gift. I don’t need to earn it...

‘So what can I do about my busyness?’ Perhaps that’s what you hoped I would tell you. But the question itself is flawed. What if I told you five things you could do about your busyness. Where would that leave you? With five extra things to fit into your schedule, you’d be busier than ever! Busyness is one problem we can’t solve by doing more! But the situation is not hopeless. We’re not doomed to be busy. Someone has done something about our busyness - the Lord Jesus Christ. You don’t need to ‘do’ more to overcome busyness because Jesus has already done all that is required. ‘It is finished’ he cried. ‘The job is done. The work is complete.’


Preaching Christ at Christmas


(photo from Subversive Influence)

Last year I heard a Christmas sermon on CD based on Luke 1. The story highlighted the stress Mary and Joseph faced in their relationship as they reacted to Mary's surprise pregnancy. The sermon used Mary and Joseph as an example of how to handle stress in our marriages today.

What surprised me most about this sermon is that it came recommended as a good way to preach a Christmas sermon!

On one hand, it's pretty hard to preach Mary and Joseph's story without highlighting this as a significant issue. And, to be sure, marriage stress is a very relevant issue to people today. It's fair to bring this up and even comment on it as we preach this passage. But there are all kinds of dangers in making marriage stress the center of this story.

Luke 1 is not ultimately about marriage stress. We need to be on guard against inserting ourselves and our needs into the center of every passage. Luke 1 is ultimately about one of the most significant events ever - the announcement of the arrival of the Messiah. It's a pivotal moment in all of history. We risk trivializing the passage when we make it a how-to sermon on dealing with marriage stress.

As preachers, let's help our people find their place in the grand story of God's mission. Preach Christ and what his arrival means for the world today. It's a story that deals with marriage and all the other stresses we face - but it is much bigger than that. Preach Christ this Christmas. It's not all about us!

The basis of God-centered preaching

There are many reasons why preachers don't preach God-centered messages. One of the reasons, though, has to do with the fear that preaching about God will be irrelevant to people's lives today. In other words, we fear that preaching about God will lead to sermons that lack relevance.I can understand this concern: preaching has to connect with the people sitting in the congregation before us. It isn't wrong for preachers to be concerned about relevance at all.The challenge for preachers, though, is to truly believe that there is nothing more relevant to people today than God. Nothing is more relevant to God.I was reminded of this yesterday when I received The John Piper Sermon Manuscript Library. The back of the case says:
Since 1980 John Piper has labored in the ministry of preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church under the conviction that "People are starved for the greatness of God." More than success, or riches, or esteem, or sex, or family, or sport, the glory of God satisfies the yearnings of our souls and sustains us in all our joys and pains...The glory of God is vital for our lives and for the life of the church.
Ultimately, preaching is a reflection of our theology of God. If one believes that God is all-sufficient, and that all things exist in relationship to him and for his glory, then preaching will center itself on God. If one has a lesser view of God, then that preacher will speak on lesser things.Two beliefs form the basis for God-centered living and preaching:
  • the belief that God is the only true God, and
  • the belief that “we understand ourselves, our experience, and even the world itself from the perspective of our acknowledgment of the God who chooses to be known by his creatures” (Stanley Grenz).
If we really believe these things, we will work towards living - and preaching - in a God-centered way.

John Stott's prayer

A prayer from John Stott's book Your Mind Matters:
I pray earnestly that God will raise up today a new generation of Christian apologists or Christian communicators, who will combine an absolute loyalty to the biblical gospel and an unwavering confidence in the power of the Spirit with a deep and sensitive understanding of the contemporary alternatives to the gospel; who will relate the one to the other with freshness, authority, and relevance; and who will use their minds to reach other minds for Christ.

Preaching in a culture of therapy

From Gospel-Driven Blog:

The common sentiment among many Christian circles today is,

“Don’t preach doctrine. Rather, give us something practical that is relevant to our daily life. Encourage us to live holy lives but don’t do it with doctrine (i.e., gospel). Such preaching will not help us one bit. Preach to us practically. Tell us how to live so we can go do it.”

Though never voiced, but in practice demonstrated, preaching the gospel is assumed to be too simplistic and impractical. What pastors need to understand, we are told, is that we live in a complex, fast-paced, ever-changing culture. It is naïve to think that preaching the gospel is sufficient for life and godliness. To be sure, the high priests of Christian therapy will say the Gospel is important. But, what one also needs to know is the secret of the Christian life, the secret to prayer, the secret to happier marriages, the secret for successful parenting, the secret for financial freedom, the secret of the abundant and overcoming life.

In other words, what the culture of therapy is really saying (albeit not always consciously) is, “Don’t give us gospel (i.e., doctrine) give us law (i.e., tips, principles, action steps, takeaways, secrets, etc…). However, a life based on legal principles rather than upon gospel principles will never lead to obedience. Such a life will ultimately fail in obeying God because law of any kind never stirs up one’s heart to obedience (cf., Rom. 7; Gal. 3:3).

Pastors who encounter such a legal mentality need to recognize it for what it is and remain faithful to their calling and office, which is to proclaim the gospel (cf., Rom. 1:1-5).

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The temptation of relevance

In Preaching to Convince, Ben Patterson speaks of five deadly temptations in the ministry, the last of which is to try to "make Scripture relevant" in our preaching:

This particular temptation used to be the sole province of the liberal theological tradition. But in the past few years, it has gained a number of victims in the evangelical community...The sin courted in this temptation is the presumption that it is the Bible that is dead and we who are alive...

Is the Bible relevant? Dr. Bernard Ramm once remarked, "There is nothing more relevant than the truth." The longer I preach, the more convinced I become that the best thing I can do is simply get out of Scripture's way.

(quoted in Michael F. Ross's Preaching for Revitalization)

Asking the right questions

From the book Total Church:

We ask, "Where does God fit into the story of my life?", when the real question is "Where does my life fit into this great story of God's mission?"

We want to be driven by a purpose that has been tailored just right for our own individual lives, when we should be seeing the purpose of all life, including our own, wrapped up in the great mission of God for the whole of creation.

We talk about "applying the Bible to our lives." What would it mean to apply our lives to the Bible instead, assuming the Bible to be the reality - the real story - to which we are called to conform ourselves?


The knowledge of God is practical

People long for preaching that is practical, as they should. Sometimes, though, preachers move away from theocentric preaching in an effort to be practical.A.W. Tozer (quoted in Dallas Willard's book Renovation of the Heart), argues that right thinking about God is intensely practical. In face, we can trace many failures in living back to wrong thoughts about God. Tozer says:
A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well. It is to worship what the foundation is to the temple; where it is inadequate or out of plumb the whole structure must sooner or later collapse. I believe there is scarely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.
Willard writes:
Failure to know what God is really like and what his law requires destroys the soul, ruins society, and leaves people to eternal ruin. "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6 NRSV),  and "A people without understanding comes to ruin" (4:14, NRSV). This is the tragic condition of Western culture today, which has put away the information about God that God himself has made available.Accordingly, the first task of Jesus in his earthly ministry was to proclaim God: to inform those around him of the availability of eternal life from God through himself...This is basic information for human life. It was then and is now.
Theocentric preaching is not impractical preaching.  Tozer, Willard, Packer and others establish that knowing God is one of the most important issues for practical living at any time.

Starving for the Greatness of God

From John Piper's Book The Supremacy of God in Preaching:

The greatness and the glory of God are relevant. It does not matter if surveys turn up a list of perceived needs that does not include the supreme greatness of the sovereign God of grace. That is the deepest need. People are starving for God. So I am persuaded that the vision of a great God is the lynchpin in the life of the church, both in pastoral care and missionary outreach. Our people need to hear God-entranced preaching. They need someone, at least once a week, to lift up his voice and magnify the supremacy of God. They need to behold the whole panorama of his excellencies.


The problem with preaching to felt needs

From Albert Mohler:

The idea that preaching should be addressed to the self-perceived "needs" of the congregation is now well ingrained in the larger evangelical culture. The argument behind this is almost always missiological -- just preach to the needs people already feel and then you can point them to a deep need and God's provision of the Gospel.

There are several basic flaws with this approach. In the first place, our "needs" are hopelessly confused - even hidden from us...

Second, our perceived or felt needs almost always turn out to be something other than needs -- at least in any serious sense...

Third, preachers who believe they can move the attention of individuals from their "felt" needs to their need for the Gospel will find, inevitably, that the distance between the individual and the Gospel has not been reduced by attention to lesser needs. The sinner's need for Christ is a need unlike all other needs -- and the satisfaction of having other needs stroked and affirmed is often a hindrance to the sinner's understanding of the Gospel.


Oops, my sermon just went anthro

No preacher sets out to be anthropocentric. It usually happens when preachers try to be relevant by crossing the gap between the world of Scripture and the world of today, but fail to bridge this gap properly. They end up transferring isolated elements of the text rather than its central message.

This leads to preachers, for instance, using the story of Joseph being thrown into a pit to talk about the pits of depression, or of David’s lamenting of the death of Absalom to talk about parenting.

Here, according to Sidney Greidanus in The Modern Preacher in the Ancient Text, are the ways that sermons go off the track and become anthropocentric:

  • Allegorizing, “which searches beneath the literal meaning of a passage for the ‘real’ meaning.” For instance, The Song of Solomon is understood in this approach to be about the love between Christ and the church.
  • Spiritualizing, which “discards the earthly, physical historical reality the text speaks about and crosses the gap with a spiritual analogy of that historical reality.” For instance, the story of Jesus stilling the storm is taken as a lesson on how Jesus handles “storms” on the “sea of life.”
  • Imitating Bible characters, which uses the characters of the preaching text as “examples or models for imitation.” For instance, Abraham is preached as an example of faith, or Joseph as someone who moves from pride to humility. Among other problems, this approach “tends to shift the theocentric focus of the Bible to an anthropocentric focus in the sermon” and is a “dead-end road for true biblical preaching.”
  • Moralizing, which emphasizes “virtues and vices, dos and don’ts” without “properly grounding these ethical demands in the scriptures.” This is common in biographical preaching, ignores the intention of the text, can turn “grace into law by presenting imperatives without the divine indicative,” and transforms “the theocentric focus of the Bible into anthropocentric sermons.” It transforms the Bible into a set of moral precepts and examples.

Preaching to felt needs

One of the reasons sermons become anthropocentric is that they set out to address felt needs. This approach can lead us into trouble because, according to Will Willimon, we live in a culture that sees "orgasm, a satisfying career, an enjoyable love life, a positive outlook on life” as needs, “stuff the Bible has absolutely no interest in."

In an interview called "Preaching Past TiVo" in the Summer 2006 issue of Leadership Journal, Willimon reflects on a sermon he heard that addressed a felt need:

One assumption is that the gospel has anything to do with “my needs.” As I read the Gospels, Jesus seems oblivious to most of my needs. Was Jesus about fulfilling people’s desires? What a curious image of Jesus.

Another assumption is that I have needs worth having. A consumer culture is not about the fulfillment of real need; it’s about the creation of a need I wouldn’t have without the advertising. So when I say “I need this” I shouldn’t be trusted.

My point: I have tremendous respect for the power of the market to own everything, including preachers. If my sermon becomes another product that makes you feel a little less miserable this week, then that, it seems to me, is a little less than the gospel.

The immense world of the Bible

Eugene Peterson compares us to warehouse dwellers, who spend our whole lives in a warehouse and don't even know that a world exists outside. When we open the Bible, we enter the unfamiliar world of God. "Life in the warehouse never prepared us for anything like this," he says.

He tells us to stop thinking that the secular world (our warehouse life) is bigger than the biblical one:

We need a complete renovation of our imaginations. We are accustomed to thinking of the biblical world as smaller than the secular world. Tell-tale phrases give us away. We talk of “making the Bible relevant to the world,” as if the world is the fundamental reality and the Bible something that is going to fix it. We talk of “fitting the Bible into our lives” or “making room in our day for the Bible,” as if the Bible is something we can add on or squeeze into our already full lives...

As we personally participate in the Scripture-revealed world of the emphatically personal God, we not only have to be willing to accept the strangeness of this world – that it doesn’t fit our preconceptions or tastes – but also the staggering largeness of it. We find ourselves in a truly expanding universe that exceeds anything we learned in our geography or astronomy books.

Our imaginations have to be revamped to take in this large, immense world of God’s revelation in contrast to the small, cramped world of human “figuring out.” (Eat This Book)


From Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places:
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.

God is not relevant, he is the measure of relevance

From Connexions:

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.