This is post number 38 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry. These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance. I welcome discussion on any of them.
Reflection #38: Preaching in the contemporary American church unwittingly but not infrequently places improper focus on the deliverer, not the Deliverer.
Mark Galli, of Christianity Today, is one of my favorite church-culture commentators, and, as I have mentioned recently, he just launched a new series, The Elusive Presence, that has, in my opinion, hit the mark on a number of topics. This past week he covered preaching in the contemporary American church in an article prophetically titled “And Now, the Star of the Show. . . .” I encourage you to read the entire piece, but here are some particularly profound thoughts.
Galli’s primary point deals with content in contemporary worship. He sees two main areas of concern, the first being a misguided focus on the horizontal.
Preaching is one time in the week when we have the opportunity to hear about something other than ourselves, other than the horizontal. It’s the time to hear about God and the wonder and mysteries of his love, of what he’s done for us in Christ. But more and more, evangelical preaching has become another way we talk about ourselves, and in this case, to learn about the preacher. . . .
Today, it’s not uncommon to hear a sermon in which the opening, closing, and key illustration from the sermon’s main point is taken from the life and experience of the pastor and his family. Such sermons do a wonderful job of helping listeners connect with the pastor. And pastors keep using them precisely because when people leave the service and shake their hand, they say what a wonderful sermon it was, with comments like, “I love hearing about your family” and “Your kids are so cute” and “I really identify with you.”
Really? We want our congregations to identify with us? This is precisely the problem with [using] personal illustrations: It inadvertently puts the spotlight on the preacher. Within a few months of such preaching, everyone knows the quirks of each member of the pastor’s family, his triumphs and failures in key parts of his life, his passions and his dislikes, and so forth. In the end, they know more about their pastor than they know about Jesus.
The second concerns our evangelical penchant for elevating the practical, which I would suggest is a by-product of seeker-focused approaches to corporate worship.
We evangelicals are suckers for the practical sermon that tells us how to live for Jesus. But too often, the practical crowds out the biblical. A sermon on “Five Ways to Keep Your Marriage Strong” might mention Jesus or the Bible here and there, but take away those references and the substance of the sermon remains the same: great, practical relational psychology. In a similar vein, we hear sermons on how to manage one’s finances, with the key insights drawn from financial self-help literature, decorated with verses from Proverbs. And then there are the sermons on raising children and finding a career and work against abortion so on and so forth. Such sermons are full of sound and wise advice, and we need sound and wise advice on many topics.
The question is: Is this the most vital, relevant thing we have to communicate in worship? The one time in the week in which we gather to praise and glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is this really the most important thing we can say? Have we exhausted the treasures and wonders of God’s Word? Have we said all we can say about the glories of salvation? Or are we bored with talk about God, so that we revert once again to talk about ourselves and how to make our lives more manageable?
Interestingly, Galli recommends bringing back pulpits to help militate against the pastor’s self-referential tendencies. (I made reference to this in an earlier blog post in this series.)
[W]e might bring back pulpits. It doesn’t have to be the kind that remind us of churches of yesteryear. How about designing a contemporary pulpit that accents the fact that the preacher has been commissioned by the church, and that the sermon is finally under the authority of the church—all of which is under the authority of God? Something that says in its design that in this moment, the sermon—the spoken word of God—is not about the speaker of that word but about the God who stands with and above the preacher.
He also advocates for shorter sermons, something I also recommended in a previous post.
[P]astors might shorten the sermon so that the service is not dominated by one person and one voice. We can make room for more singing. Make room for more prayer. Make room for silence. Maybe make room for the regular celebration of the sacraments/ordinances. In other words, we can make room for God.
The Lord be with you, worship leaders who preach, and may our congregations take away more about Jesus than they do about us (i.e., as southern gospel music’s The Kingdom Heirs sing, “Just Preach Jesus”).
Coming next week (Lord willing): More reflections on the contemporary American church.