Fundamental shift

Throughout Western societies, and most especially in North America, there has occurred a fundamental shift in the understanding and practice of the Christian story. It is no longer about God and what God is about in the world; it is about how God serves and meets human needs and desires. It is about how the individual self can find its own purposes and fulfillment. More specifically, our churches have become spiritual food courts for the personal, private, inner needs of expressive individuals.

The result is a debased, compromised, derivative form of Christianity that is not the gospel of the Bible at all. The biblical narrative is about God's mission in, through, and for the sake of the world and how God has called human beings to be part of God's reaching out to that world for God's purpose of saving it in love. The focus of attention should be what God wants to accomplish and how we can be part of God’s mission, not how God helps us accomplish our own agendas. (Alan Roxburgh, The Sky is Falling!?!)

Is preaching about God boring?

Nobody ever comes out and says it, but I think a lot of people think that theocentric preaching is boring preaching. The underlying assumption is that God is a little bit boring, or at least irrelevant to us. A preacher who helps us understand God, and our lives in light of God, is not as interesting as a practical sermon focused on our needs.

I think there might be a reason for this: preachers have made God boring. But it shouldn't have to be this way. You almost have to work to make God boring. Packer wrote these words in Knowing God years ago:

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.

Ultimately, nothing is more relevant than God.

A theocentric sermon

Scot McKnight on a sermon that stayed theocentric:

Gene Appel preached tonight about fear, and he explored that theme through Mark 4:35-41. In this passage Jesus is asleep in a boat while his disciples worry. Gene made plenty of connections to real-life experiences of fear, but what I most liked about this service is that it developed into overt praise for the greatness of God. Sermons on fear can easily become exercises in therapeutic counseling, but this sermon moved us beyond that into contemplation of God's greatness.

Theocentric Preaching Seminar


If you are reading this, you are invited to attend a seminar I'm doing as part of my D.Min. program. It would be fun to have you there, and I'd love to get your ideas. Here's the scoop:

Theocentric Preaching

A Practical Seminar for Pastors

Most preachers understand that good preaching connects with people’s needs. While addressing people’s needs is good, there is a corresponding danger: to make the sermon about us rather than about God. A desire to be relevant can lead to anthropocentric sermons that provide answers to life’s dilemmas, meet the questions, issues, and needs of the moment, but miss the bigger picture.

Join us for a seminar that will explore how to preach theocentrically. We’ll cover:

  • What is theocentric preaching?
  • What is the difference between theocentric and anthropocentric preaching?
  • Why should we preach theocentrically?
  • How does a preacher prepare theocentric sermons that are relevant?

Tuesday, September 19th

9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Richview Baptist Church

(1548 Kipling Avenue, Etobicoke, ON)

Cost: $10 (includes lunch)

RSVP or 416-247-8701

Frontal assault on imaginations held captive

From Kevin Vanhoozer in The Drama of Doctrine:
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.

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.

The greatest danger facing the church

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.