The Danger of Practical Preaching

One of the best little articles I've ever read on preaching is found in The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching. The title of the article is "The Danger of Practical Preaching: Why People Need More than the Bottom Line." The author, Lee Eclov, writes:

The Bible spends much more time on shaping the spiritual mind than commanding particular behavior. We need far more training in the ways of grace, of spiritual perceptions, and of what God is really like than we do on how to communicate with our spouse. Understanding the glory of Christ is far more practical than our listeners imagine. Properly preached, every sermon based on a passage of Scripture is fundamentally practical. Every author of Scripture wrote to effect change in God's people. It is our job as preachers to find the persuasive logic of that author and put that clearly and persuasively before our people through biblical exposition.

A God-Centered Approach to Preaching

So far this week, we've looked at some human-centered approaches to preaching. It's time now to look at a God-centered approach.

A God-centered approach to preaching is based on two presuppositions, and two practices.

The first presupposition is that God is relevant. 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. John Piper says that people are starved for the greatness of God. Our preaching will reveal how strongly we agree with this presupposition.

J.I. Packer writes:

Knowing God is crucially important for the living of our lives...We are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentenced yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul. (Knowing God)

The second presupposition is that Scripture is God-centered. If our preaching is biblical, a God-centered Bible should lead to God-centered preaching. This is not to say that humans are excluded; we find people on every page of Scripture. But the Bible is about God, and people in relation to him. We must resist the temptation we face every day to place ourselves at the center of the universe, especially as we approach Scripture, which is God's revelation of himself. Donald Miller writes, "The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: Life is a story about me." We need to confront this lie every time we read Scripture.

These two presuppositions lead to two practices, which we'll cover next.

Preaching the majesty of God

The Majesty of God in the Old Testament, a recent book by Walter C. Kaiser Jr., is designed to provide preachers and teachers with insight on appreciating and preaching the majesty and greatness of God as presented in the Scriptures. Kaiser writes:
Alas, however, much of our teaching and preaching suffers from a mediocre view of God's majesty. We are too much like those chided in Psalm 50:21, who "thought [God] was altogether like [one of them]." As presenters of the Word of God, we desire to soar to the heights of the heavenlies and to lift the sights and hopes of our listeners to the very portals of the throne room of God himself; yet, more often than not, we feel frustrated and vacuous in the final results, both in our private study of the Word of God and in our listening habits on Sunday. Therefore, we and the people we serve, starve for the awesomeness, greatness, and sheer majesty of the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Kaiser quotes one of Martin Luther's letters to Erasmus: "Your thoughts of God are too human."

Rediscovering the Gospel

490 years ago today, a monk with a mallet posted the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. One of the 95 Theses said this: "62. The true treasure of the church is the Holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God." In essence, that monk rediscovered and applied the gospel within his context.

It's just as important for us to rediscover and apply the gospel today, first to ourselves and then in our ministries. Tim Keller puts it this way:

We never “get beyond the gospel” in our Christian life to something more “advanced.” The gospel is not the first “step” in a “stairway” of truths, rather, it is more like the “hub” in a “wheel” of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s of Christianity, but it is the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom.

We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience but the gospel is the way we grow (Gal. 3:1-3) and are renewed (Col 1:6). It is the solution to each problem, the key to each closed door, the power through every barrier (Rom 1:16-17)....

All our problems come from a failure to apply the gospel...

The main problem, then, in the Christian life I that we have not thought out the deep implication of the gospel, we have not “used” the gospel in and on all parts of our life. Richard Lovelace says that most people’s problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel—a failure to grasp and believe it through and through. Luther says (on Gal. 2:14), “The truth of the gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine… Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.” The gospel is not easily comprehended. Paul says that the gospel only does its renewing work in us as we understand it in all its truth. All of us, to some degree live around the truth of the gospel but do not “get” it. So the key to continual and deeper spiritual renewal and revival is the continual re-discovery of the gospel. A stage of renewal is always the discovery of a new implication or application of the gospel—seeing more of its truth. This is true for either an individual or a church.

So Happy Reformation Day! I pray that our ministries will be characterized by the rediscovery and application of the gospel.

Some Reformation Day resources:

Good hard theological reading

In his excellent book The Art of Pastoring, David Hansen offers an interesting insight into the benefit of theological reading:
Good hard theological reading makes my sermon preparation go faster. I've noticed this for years: two hours spent reading an author like Barth, Forsyth, Edwards or Bonhoeffer on Wednesday saves me hours of sermon preparation on Friday and will produce a deeper, more searching thesis. Such writers teach me to think Christocentrically. Thinking Christocentrically helps me sort through the side issues and leads me straight to the heart of every biblical text and the subject of all sermons: Jesus Christ.The more searching my understanding of Christ, the better my sermon preparation. Given my antipathy to time management schemes, it's a little hard to admit, but reading difficult theology is one of the best timesavers I know.

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.

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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When Christ is not preached

In Preaching for Revitalization, Michael F. Ross describes one of the symptoms of a congregation that has lost its love for Christ:

First, human personalities begin to take preeminence in the life of the church, over the person and work of Christ...

When Christ is not preached (1 Cor. 2:2) then a vacuum is created; people need some leader, some champion, some "holy man" to cling to other than Christ. Therefore it is essential that preaching be both Christ-centered and devoted to regularly focusing on the beauty and bounty of Jesus Christ.

Cotton Candy Preaching

At Preaching Today, Haddon Robinson describes the type of sermons we hear when our preaching is light on doctrine:

They end up being nothing more than moralisms: We should, we must, we ought. Or, here are three ways in which we can be better off financially. A sermon I heard a while ago on how to deal with procrastination had as its first point to get a Day Timer. You knew you were in trouble when you heard that. I have no doubt that when people left that church, if they were procrastinators, they thought it was a helpful sermon. But it was simply something that a motivational speaker could have done.

If people are raised on cotton candy, they are not going to grow as Christians. When Paul writes to his young associate Timothy, he says that 'all Scripture is inspired by God,' and that all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for teaching, for putting the fundamental truths in front of people, and for 'reproof, for correction, for instruction in right living.' We have ignored that first affirmation - that the Bible is given to teach doctrine. It's not the only thing it does, but doctrine is first, and out of that there is reproof and then there is correction and then instruction in right living.

Kevin Vanhoozer on recovering imagination

From an interview with Kevin Vanhoozer:

The problem in too many evangelical churches is that we know what we're supposed to believe, but we're not sure what practical difference it makes and so we're unable to bring it to bear on everyday life. To be sure, biblical and theological illiteracy remains a problem too. But that doesn't really explain why even in churches where the Bible is faithfully preached the congregation doesn't look that different from everyone else.

My own hunch is that we need to recover the imagination in order to set the cultural captives free. I believe that many people in today's society, and church, suffer from an impoverished imagination. By imagination I mean the cognitive power of seeing things together, as wholes; clearly a worldview is an affair of the imagination, at least in part. In any case, I believe that our imaginations are captive to secular stories/worldviews that do not nourish our souls. Eugene Peterson says something similar about the function of the 10 plagues of Egypt: they were intended to free the imagination of the Israelites from thinking that the power of Egypt was sovereign. The plagues systematically deconstruct Pharaoh's power. It takes imagination to see that what God is doing with a small tribe of slaves is greater than the might of Egypt or the grandeur that was Rome. Similarly, it takes imagination to see that North Americans are not in bondage to similar powers and principalities: consumerism and therapism, to name but two. I wonder whether in our haste to preserve doctrinal truth, we have not done our evangelical churches a disservice in surrendering our imaginations to stories (and advertisements) that serve the interest of some worldly empire (or multinational corporation) rather than the kingdom of God.

Pastors need to make it a priority to teach their congregations how read Scripture theologically, and this requires the imagination, the ability to make sense of thing by fitting the little bits into larger patterns - the big canonical picture. It takes imagination to see the Bible as a unified whole, and then it takes even more imagination to fit one's own time and place into this biblical drama of redemption.


The Drama of Doctrine

In his excellent book The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin Vanhoozer argues that doctrine serves the church, which he calls "the theater of the gospel," by directing individuals and congregations to participate in the drama of what God is doing to renew all things in Jesus Christ. In other words, doctrine allows us to participate in the theo-drama in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the principal players, but in which the audience is called to participate.The Bible functions “not as a book filled with propositional information,” he writes, but “as a script that calls for faithful yet creative performance."This is one of the best treatments of theocentric doctrine and preaching I've found. Vanhoozer is clear that the theo-drama is primarily about God, but that doctrine enables us to find our place in the drama of what God is doing. Theocentric preaching allows us to understand our place in the script.  Theologians help us live among the texts in our contemporary context, giving us practical wisdom so that we can “turn the gold of the gospel into the workaday stuff of ordinary life.” The task of every Christian is to perform the Scriptures “that attest to the covenant and its climax, the person and work of Jesus Christ.” Our goal is “not simply to play a role but to project the main idea of the play.”Vanhoozer reminds us of the importance of preaching:
What the pastor/director really needs to do is to take the congregation's imagination captive to the Scriptures so the theo-drama becomes the governing framework of the community's speech and action (2 Cor. 10:5). The pastor/director needs to instill confidence in a congregation that playing this script is the way to truth and abundant life. Such direction is largely through preaching, an obedient “listening to the text on behalf of the church.” Herman Melville's image of the pulpit as a ship's prow that leads the way through uncharted waters is strikingly apt:
“[T]he pulpit leads the world.”
For preachers who do this, the rewards are great:
The sermon, not some leadership philosophy or management scheme, remains the prime means of pastoral direction and hence the pastor's paramount responsibility. The good sermon contains both script analysis and situation analysis. It is in the sermon that the pastor weaves together theo-dramatic truth and local knowledge. The sermon is the best frontal assault on imaginations held captive by secular stories that promise other ways to the good life. Most important, the sermon envisions ways for the local congregation to become a parable of the kingdom of God. It is the pastor's/director's vocation to help congregations hear (understand) and do (perform) God's word in and for the present.
Only theocentric preaching can do what Vanhoozer describes. Preaching helps us understand our part in the theo-drama, and places our lives in the context of what God is doing. When done well, it's much more relevant than anthropocentric preaching. Preaching like this enables faithful performances of the gospel within particular settings. Not a bad way to preach at all.

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.

Tozer: We must begin with God

From A.W. Tozer's The Pursuit of God:

It is true that order in nature depends upon right relationships; to achieve harmony each thing must be in its proper position relative to each other thing. In human life it is not otherwise.

I have hinted before in these chapters that the cause of all our human miseries is a radical moral dislocation, an upset in our relation to God and to each other. For whatever else the Fall may have been, it was certainly a sharp change in man's relation to his Creator...

As the sailor locates his position on the sea by "shooting" at the sun, so we may get our moral bearings by looking at God. We must begin with God. We are right when, and only when, we stand in a right position relative to God, and we are wrong so far and so long as we stand in any other position.

God-centered refocusing

Christopher J.H. Wright writes in the January 2007 issue of Christianity Today:
God is on a mission, and we, in that wonderful phrase of Paul, are "co-workers with God."This God-centered refocusing of mission turns inside-out our obsession with mission plans, agendas, goals, strategies, and grand schemes.We ask, "Where does God fit into the story of my life?" when the real question is, "Where does my little life fit into the great story of God's mission?"We want to be driven by a purpose tailored for our 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 wrestle to "make the Gospel relevant to the world." But God is about the mission of transforming the world to fit the shape of the Gospel.We argue about what can legitimately be included in the mission God expects from the church, when we should ask what kind of church God expects for his mission in all its comprehensive fullness.I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should ask what kind of me God wants for his mission.
(Christopher J.H. Wright, "An Upside-Down World," Christianity Today, January 2007, 45-46)

Pastors need to be theologians

From Kingdom Come:

Missional leaders are driven by theology rather than pragmatism. There is an idea that pastors don't have the luxury of doing serious study. That is to be left for those living in ivory towers. In the real world we just need to get busy and find out what works. But pragmatism leads to theological error. Pragmatism leads to moral failure. Pragmatism leads to a human agenda.

More than ever, pastors need to be theologians.

The heart of theocentric preaching

I've been thinking over the past couple of days about the question of what is at the heart of a theocentric approach to life and ministry. I think it's two things.

It's first a foundational assumption that our lives are part of something bigger, "an adventure that is nothing less than God's purpose for the whole world." This quote is from Resident Aliens, and it gets to the heart of a theocentric approach to all of life:

By telling these stories, we come to see the significance and coherence of our lives as a gift, as something not of our own heroic creation, but as something that must be told to us, something we would not have known without the community of faith. The little story I call my life is given cosmic, eternal significance as it is caught up within God's larger account of history. "We were Pharaoh's slaves..., the Lord brought us out...that he might preserve us." The significance of our lives is frighteningly contingent on the story of another. Christians are those who hear this story and are able to tell it as our salvation.

That is the key difference between an anthropocentric and a theocentric approach. An anthropocentric approach is about our little stories, but it never connects these little stories to the true and expansive story of what God is doing in the world. In a theocentric approach, our little stories still matter, but they are swept up in the much larger adventure of what God is doing, in which we play a part.

Too often, we depict salvation as that which provides us with a meaningful existence when we achieve a new self-understanding...Here, with our emphasis on the narrative nature of the Christian life, we are saying that salvation is baptism into a community that has so truthful a story that we forget ourselves and our anxieties long enough to become part of that story, a story God has told in Scripture and continues to tell in Israel and the church.

Its secondly a hermeneutic. It is about translating Scripture not as a set of propositions or as a devotional model, but as the true story of the universe, of which we are a part. It isn't about making the Bible intelligible and relevant as helping people become relevant to the adventure of which their lives are a part.

This is the heart of theocentric preaching.

A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future

Worth reading: (and signing):

The Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future challenges Evangelical Christians to restore the priority of the divinely inspired biblical story of God’s acts in history. The narrative of God’s Kingdom holds eternal implications for the mission of the Church, its theological reflection, its public ministries of worship and spirituality and its life in the world. By engaging these themes, we believe the Church will be strengthened to address the issues of our day.

More on the Call at Christianity Today

The large, immense world of God's revelation

Eugene Peterson warms us of the mistake of thinking that the biblical world is smaller than the secular world, which leads to all kinds of mistakes, including anthropocentric preaching.

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)