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Recovering Preaching from Mere Adequacy

  • T.M. Moore BreakPoint
  • Updated Nov 01, 2013
Recovering Preaching from Mere Adequacy

And the elders of the Jews built and prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. (Ezra 6:14)

What should be the role of preaching in churches today? Changes in preaching style—from being stationed behind a pulpit to moving freely around a stage (formerly, "chancel"); from tightly—argued exposition and application to more anecdotal and practical homilies; from preaching that withers sinners to exhortations that elicit cheers of approval or howls of laughter—coupled with adjustments in the liturgy of the church—changes in music styles, increased space for more contemporary choruses and songs, use of drama and video, elimination or minimizing of congregational responses-have reduced the role of preaching in most churches.  

The declining importance of preaching is reflected, as one might expect, in the quality of preaching offered in most congregations. I have heard my share of preachers over the past 30 years of ministry, and talked with many more lay leaders about the quality of preaching in their churches. The decline in preaching has become so marked, and so widespread, that it is now typical for churches to "lower the bar" of expectation for their preachers. I recently talked with a member of a pastoral search committee about the candidate his church had just called as their new preacher. He remarked that, while his preaching was "adequate," his pastoral skills were excellent and his commitment to missions was outstanding. Clearly, this 1,000-member church puts more value on these latter abilities and interests than on the week-in, week-out exposition and proclamation of the Word of God. When it comes to preaching, "adequate" is good enough.

Pastoral training programs, as a rule, do not put much value in preaching, either. Students may be required to take one or perhaps two courses in homiletics, but these are overshadowed in importance by the larger umbrella of instruction in theology, contemporary thought, and the demands of leadership for healthy, growing churches. By far, more evaluation is done in determining the extent of a student's "mastery" of the "divinity" curriculum through written papers and passed exams than through careful analysis of his preaching. One seminary even suggests in its advertising that preaching may not be the most effective way of reaching our postmodern generation, if it is effective at all. One gets the impression that it would be unwise to spend more time training men to preach when preaching itself is regarded as of strictly secondary importance by the churches and as outright foolishness by sophisticated postmoderns.

Preaching for Dialogue

There seems to be a growing consensus, albeit unspoken, that preaching is not all it is—or once was—cracked up to be. Sure it would be nice each week to hear an eloquent, clear, timely, passionate, and relevant exposition of the text of Scripture, but most preachers are not capable of this on a consistent basis. Certainly they are not trained for it. Their best effort consists of an honest attempt to explain a passage, being careful, along the way, to hold the congregation's attention by appropriate uses of form, illustration, and humor, while, at the same time, taking pains not to offend anyone, and making sure not to go on too long. An "adequate" sermon is one that leaves people feeling as though they have "learned" something new, or been affirmed or encouraged in their walk with the Lord. Such homiletical objectives as achieving conviction and repentance, eliciting first-time or renewed commitments to the life of discipleship, or launching people out in specific tasks of mission and evangelism, no longer seem as important as they once did.

The sermon today has taken on something of the role of the monologue of a late-night talk show host, but not as funny. Its purpose seems to be to sustain a dialogue between the pastor and the congregation for the purpose of building relationships, fostering group identity and comity, and providing a port-of-entry for newcomers. If the dialogue is interesting, pleasant, and generally uplifting, the partners will continue their conversation for the foreseeable future. Church members might even be encouraged to invite their friends to join in, and visitors will be made to feel right at home from the get-go. And because the sermon is only a dialogue, a context for congregational conversation, it can't be expected to carry much of the "disciple-making" weight. So the church multiplies programs, staff, and training contexts, cafeteria-like, so that members can pursue their interests and needs in as many ways as possible.

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).

Third, Haggai and Zechariah preached to specific situations with specific instructions as to how the people should respond. The immediate task at hand was the building of the temple, and these two preachers called the people to take up this work with all diligence and to stay on task until the job was done. As it turns out, the end product of their labors was not very impressive, particularly when compared with the temple Solomon had constructed. But this humble achievement was what God had called them to fulfill in their generation, and it would prove to be an important part of His larger plan for Israel and the nations.

Fourth, their preaching was visionary. The preachers who moved complacent Israel to action set their teaching in the context of the grand vision of God's unfolding plan for His people, a vision in which the whole earth and all peoples were to be caught up in the redemptive work of God. The people were not just building a temple; they were preparing a stage for the glory of God and the delight of the nations to be established on earth, as it is in heaven.

Finally, their preaching was covenantal and redemptive. They pointed forward to the coming day of God's redemption and the full realization of His covenant promises. They wanted the people to know how much God had in store for them, and that the full blessings He intended for them would be had only in His work of redemption. A Sin-bearer was coming, the Shepherd of Israel, the Glory of the Lord, who would spoil the ancient foes of Israel and, in spite of His being pierced, bring them into the fullness of God's love and plan. The people of their day must show their zeal for God's work of redemption and for the future enjoyment of all His blessings by taking up the work that was immediately before them and carrying it out in their generation. Thus they would know redemption in the present and ensure, by faithful obedience, their participation in its future fullness.

Preaching may seem foolish to a generation steeped in high-tech entertainment, clever comedic monologues, and spectacular imagery and sound. But preaching has always seemed foolish to those outside the pale of faith. The problem is not that preaching is foolish to unbelievers. The problem is that preaching has become foolish—through mere adequacy—to those who claim to be followers of Christ. Until this changes, and we recover preaching from mere adequacy—we will not know the motive power that Scripture proclamation can generate within the household of faith.

For Reflection

What are your own expectations for the preaching you hear each week? What do you expect it to do in you, for you, or through you?

T. M. Moore is dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of 20 books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are The Ailbe Psalter and The Ground for Christian Ethics (Waxed Tablet), and Culture Matters (Brazos). He and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Concord, Tenn.
This article originally appeared on BreakPoint. Used with permission.