Preaching Doctrine with Flavor
- Tuesday, January 01, 2008
My wife makes the best fudge brownies in the world. Fresh out of the oven, they fill the air with hunger-inducing aroma. Not waiting until they cool, you bite into the soft cake, and it nearly melts in your mouth, making you immediately want more.
My wife also makes the worst fudge brownies in the world. If any are left over for more than a few days, they become brittle to the touch and dry in the mouth. Unless you soak one in milk, it’s quite like eating chocolate sawdust.
Unfortunately for our church members, much of what passes for doctrinal preaching is more like the second batch of brownies. Most congregations have the same reaction: They’d rather pass. Why? Too often our doctrinal sermons tend to sound like Systematic Theology 101, a lecture rather than a message from God. Wouldn’t you like to hear a presentation of biblical truth that was like warm, moist brownies instead of cold, dry ones? Hopefully, you’ll soon be ready to cook some up yourself!
A RECIPE FOR DULLNESS
Typically, pastors preach doctrine topically, gathering all verses related to a doctrine and organizing them under headings and subheadings – causing information overload at best. Often lacking practical application or personal illustration, doctrinal preaching can be like spinach – you know it’s good for you, but you sure hate eating the stuff. The result is an aversion to doctrinal preaching. Pastors who are sensitive to the congregation’s feedback may decide to avoid preaching doctrine altogether, focusing instead on needs-based sermons with heartwarming illustrations. The resulting “doctrinal illiteracy among our church members will be devastating for church health,” notes Dr. Bill Northcott, church health specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Convention.1
Generations are emerging who don’t understand the basic beliefs of their faith. When confronted with door-to-door cultists who are well-trained in doctrinal gymnastics, many sincere Christians are quickly overwhelmed by arguments that sound biblical to the untrained ear. Other believers merely assimilate into postmodern culture and adopt the mantra of the age without realizing how contradictory their new positions are to the faith they profess.
Unbelievers, on the other hand, simply put all the doctrinal chaff into the same pile and ignore it as insignificant to their lives. Bill Hybels observed that, “Preaching can soften people to the truths that will affect them for all eternity. But if I don’t do it well, preaching can harden them and drive them away from God.”2
In an interesting dialogue, Erickson and Heflin list several reasons why preaching doctrine can be so difficult in a postmodern culture. In many points, they parallel Leonard Sweet’s outline from Postmodern Pilgrims in outlining several obstacles the pastor must overcome.
First, doctrinal preaching seldom uses visual stimulus. Many preachers rely on linear argumentation when the digital generation is tuned to images, metaphors, and narrative. Second, audiences long for interactivity, but doctrinal sermons seem like lectures filled with authoritarian, dogmatic intolerance. Third, communicating truth ought to draw people to God’s story, yet Erickson and Heflin sadly note that many doctrinal sermons sound more like a course in apologetics. As one writer put it: “People today want to feel God, not just figure Him out.” Finally, the doctrinal duo conclude that most audiences don’t believe that doctrine has much to do with their lives at work, in the home, or at school, and is, therefore, irrelevant at best and divisive at worst.3
RE-MIXING THE INGREDIENTS
Part of the problem is the negative connotation many have for the word doctrine. What we call doctrines are simply the truths of God’s Word. (Yes, my dear postmodern Virginia, there is a source of truth.) Erickson and Heflin point out that these truths are essential to our relationship with God. Far from being mere theological theory, they are practical influences on the lives of believers. Doctrinal beliefs impact our attitudes, values, beliefs, and actions.4
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