Recovering Preaching from Mere Adequacy
- Thursday, March 17, 2011
Not the Way it Used to Be
There was a time in American history when the sermon was the most important part of every Christian's week. So important was preaching, in fact, that many believers in pre-revolutionary America gladly attended as many as three to five sermons per week, each one lasting on the order of at least an hour. And there was nothing "dialogical" about the preaching of men like Jonathan Edwards. The sermons of those early American preachers followed the format laid down by their forebears: careful exposition of words and phrases in their context; detailed explanation and theological argument; spare and strictly impersonal illustration (Edwards seems never to have told a personal anecdote concerning himself or his family); specific and unapologetic application to the circumstances of the congregation; and a call for submission to the evangelical demands of the text. These colonial preachers were eloquent, passionate, learned men; they expected their congregations - largely comprised of unschooled farmers, shop owners, tradesmen, and a handful of learned professionals - to understand their meanings and bring their lives into line with the demands of Scripture. And, to their credit, those church members, by and large, did.
The colonists of the first 150 years of the American experiment laid the foundation for the generation that spawned the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. And that foundation was constructed by preaching, shaped by preaching, and solidified by preaching. There was nothing merely "adequate" or foolish about the preaching of Thomas Shepard, Samuel Davies, Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan Edwards, or John Witherspoon. What these giants of the American Church would have regarded as foolish would have been the attitude toward preaching that prevails among their spiritual descendants today.
The Motive Power of Preaching
The testimony of Scripture indicates that preaching holds the power to revive, renew, and re-direct the churches to the work of God's Kingdom. In the days following Israel's return from exile those who had come back to Jerusalem with such grandiose plans and high hopes soon settled into a complacent materialism. They hadn't built the temple, but every man was busy paneling his home with expensive wood. The worship of God was sporadic and not very compelling, but it was "good enough" for those who were too busy making life comfortable to give much time or energy to the task of rebuilding the temple. We can imagine that the preaching they heard from most of their religious leaders was undemanding, comforting, filled with promises of blessing, and, undoubtedly, adequate.
Enter Haggai and Zechariah. Here were two preachers moved by the vision of God's glory and the mandates of His Word. Under their preaching, a self-centered, lethargic people were moved to conviction and sacrificial action for the sake of God's Kingdom purposes. What was it about their preaching that struck such a powerful blow on the souls of those complacent returnees? Five things.
The preaching of Haggai and Zechariah was focused on creating conviction of sin. The people were sinning, living self-indulgent lives in pursuit of wealth and comfort, expending all their energy and resources on themselves. Haggai especially labored to expose the sinfulness of this people: "Is it time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while [God's] house lies in ruins?" (Haggai 1:4) Did such preaching offend people? Count on it. Did it accomplish God's purpose of getting them to set aside their self-interests for the larger pursuit of the divine economy? For sure.
Second, the preaching of these men was grounded in the Law of God. Haggai led the people to examine their own lives in the light of what God had revealed to Moses. Were the people living according to the righteousness God had prepared for them (cf. Haggai 2.11 f)? Zechariah called the people to turn from their evil ways, to stop being like their fathers who had rebelled against God and ignored His prophets, and to return to the Lord and His statutes in all their ways (Zechariah 1:3-6). He offered concise reviews of what the Law required in a kind of "if the shoe fits, wear it" application of truth to life (cf. Zechariah 7.8-10).
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