The Problem with Contemporary Preaching
There is a plague wreaking havoc in the state of preaching in many evangelical churches today. I’ll just mention four brands of preaching that are common today, although there are perhaps others and some are mixtures of these four.
Entertaining preaching. Preachers of this brand will use a lot of humor, anecdotes and storytelling. It grabs the attention of the audience from beginning to end. People are entertained and did not feel bored during the sermon. But it looks like you are in a theater or a comedy bar. Some will take advantage of technology like videos, music and skits. But it looks like you are in a concert hall, more than a worship hall. Yes, we have to grab the attention of our audience in preaching. But if grabbing their attention is all that we accomplished, then we really have accomplished nothing. Preaching of this type is just too much wind and no substance at all.
Lecture-type preaching. Here, the preacher transformed the church’s worship hall into a seminary classroom. The Greek and Hebrew exegetical expertise of the preacher is on full display. But to the people it seems like you’re speaking in tongues they don’t understand. The preacher used heavily-loaded theological terms, very structured outline and argument of his points. The historical background of the text is well researched. We really have to study our text carefully, but a sermon is not the same as an exegetical or a theological paper. The audience will keep on asking, “What does this have to do with my life?” We utilize explanations in our preaching to aid in understanding, but a sermon event is more than just a transfer of ideas.
Legalistic/moralistic preaching. This sermon variety sounds like your mother giving you a sermon, handing you a litany of what you should do and not do. You should be like David. You should be like Moses. But don’t be like Samson, don’t be like Judas. If you obey, good things will happen to you. If you don’t, watch out! There are a lot of commands in the Bible for sure. And God demands that we obey them. But our duty as preachers is not just to beat our people with the law as if they can do everything on sheer strength of the will. In this kind of preaching, you end up more wounded and more discouraged. And you are left wondering, “But where does my help come from?” In preaching, we teach the law of God, rebuke disobedience and help people sense their sinfulness. But there’s got to be more. People need proper motivations for obedience.
Therapeutic preaching. These are feel good sermons. The experience is more like you’re in a spa. People are tired. It feels good to hear a preacher telling you: “Don’t worry, be happy. God loves you so much. Do your best, God will do the rest. You experience trials today because God knows you can handle it. Just believe in yourself.” We have to encourage, yes. But our encouragements must have power and not just shallow words of positive thinking.
These four brands of modern preaching on the surface don’t seem to be harmful. But these plagues dishonor God and his Word, weakens our faith in God’s provision for our sanctification, and does not help in any way build the church of Jesus.
John MacArthur laments,
It is remarkable, then, that over the past half century (or longer) evangelicals have devoted vast quantities of energy and resources to the invention of novel church-growth strategies that tend to discount biblical preaching. Such schemes sometimes even deliberately avoid any reference ot the Bible altogether – especially when unbelievers are present. They aim instead of attracting people through marketing campaigns, entertainments, social activities, and other similar techniques. Many of today’s evangelical church leaders have borrowed their management philosophies from the corporate world; they have taken their fashion cues from the entertainment industry; they have imitated the communications styles of secular mass media (favoring sound-bites over substance); and they have employed various bells and whistles from modern technology designed mainly to amaze and impress rather than to teach and edify. The visible church now mirrors the world to a disturbing degree. A major portion of Christendom is spiritually starved – and sound, biblical preaching has become an extremely rare commodity (in Albert Mohler, He is Not Silent, Foreword, p. 12).
This is not an entirely new problem. It’s ancient, but just dressed in modern apparel. In 1 Corinthians, Paul sets himself apart from other preachers whom the Corinthians had been fond of listening to (to their disadvantage, of course). “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (2:1 ESV). He’s not an orator. He’s not a people pleaser. He doesn’t operate according to current trends and popular opinions. “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (v. 4). He doesn’t preach merely to get their attention or to make them feel good, or to feed people’s egos, or massage their low self-esteem. Because he loves them: “That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (v. 5). He preaches in such a way that believers will anchor their faith not on sinking sand, but on solid ground.
Biblical Preaching is Christ-Centered, Gospel-Centered Preaching
“In Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” True not just for the Christian life, but for Christian preaching as well. To be truly biblical in preaching, there must be a faithful exposition of the written Word of God with the incarnate Word at the center. This we will call Christ-centered, gospel-centered preaching. This is preaching with “Jesus Christ and him crucified” as the center and goal of the sermon.
This may be the kind of preaching many people doesn’t want to hear or feel they need. But we are concerned as preachers, as ambassadors of God and as representatives of Christ, not to preach to the wants of the people, but according to what God wants. For if this is the kind of preaching that God wants, then this is the kind of preaching we really need.
Listen to how Paul argued for this in chapter 1. “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (v. 17). There is so much power in the gospel, the word of the cross. Our job as preachers is to wield that weapon to our advantage. We will not win the war being waged inside human hearts if we only have man-made and paltry tools in our arsenal. The enemy is armed with battle tanks. But the gospel is a nuclear bomb.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved (present tense, referring not to our justification but our sanctification) it is the power of God” (v. 18). When we preach the gospel, the word of the cross, it may sound boring, un-entertaining, and even offensive to the unregenerate. But it is life transforming to those who have been truly born again. It is the power of God for salvation – past, present and future (Rom. 1:16). We all need the gospel not just at the beginning, but also in the middle and end of our walk here on earth as followers of Jesus.
“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (v. 21). The gospel doesn’t offer ten steps to success or to a happy life or to your best life now. It may sound naive or simplistic to modern ears, but this is God’s way. And his way is always right, always best, always wise. If this is the way sinners will get saved, the saints being sanctified, and the suffering persevere, then this is the way we must go in preaching.
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (vv. 22-24). “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption (v. 30). If we will not preach Christ, we cannot bring our people nearer to God, assured of their righteous standing with God, growing in holiness and Christlikeness, and persevering until the end.
So, brothers, resolve to preach “nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2). It doesn’t mean that we will not talk about marriage or church unity or ways of doing ministry or practical day-to-day stuffs. Paul does that in all his letters. But when he does that, and when we do that, everything must be seen in relation to who Jesus is, what he has done for us, and who we are in union with him. The gospel must remain at the center of our preaching, for it is “of first importance” (15:3). For if relegate it from the center, then it becomes of second or third importance, or worse, of no importance at all. We bring the Christian life to the forefront and Christ at the background, what we must do as primary and what he has done as irrelevant. But this is not what it means to live the Christian life. For the Christian life is about Christ and not about the Christian.
Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, was known to be appalled at the thought of “Christless sermons.” He famously quipped:
The motto of all true servants of God must be, ‘We preach Christ; and him crucified.’ A sermon without Christ in it is like a loaf of bread without any flour in it. No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching. [7/9/1876; sermon #2899]
How then do we preach Christ-centered sermons?
Biblical preaching is an exposition of the Word – a biblical, theological, historical, redemptive exposition. It is biblical, it must be truthful and faithful to what is written in Scripture. It is theological, it draws out truths about God, about his creation, and how we relate to him. It is historical, it narrates the progressive work of God from creation to the coming of Christ and to the new creation when he returns. It is redemptive, it tells us how we are rescued from our rebellion, sanctified from our remaining sins, and glorified, brought to eternal joy with Jesus.
To be Christ-centered in our preaching, it doesn’t mean that we’re just talking about Jesus from beginning to end. Christ-centered preaching is an exposition of God. Expose to your people who God is and what he has done. He is the Author of the Book we are preaching from, the Hero of every story, the main Actor in this drama of redemption. So, proclaim his greatness – his great love, his great justice, his great compassion. Tell them about his passion for his glory and the supremacy of his name. Tell them about his goodness, that we have no other good apart from him. Tell them of his grace, how he treats us not according to what we deserve. For example, I’ll be preaching about commitment in a marriage covenant. I will not just talk about marriage, how we relate as husbands and wives, how we can be better in our relationships. I will talk about God who is the author of marriage, his unswerving commitment to the glory of his name and the good of his people, and his faithfulness in fulfilling his promises, even when we have been proven to be unfaithful again and again.
When God’s character is clearly exposed from a biblical text, we cannot avoid exposition of the human heart. Expose to your people, then, how much we have fallen short of his glory, how we failed to reflect the image of God in us over and over again, how we cling to our functional gods and functional saviors like money, sex, power, and even ministry. Tell them that we are just like all the human characters in the biblical story – sinful, flawed, imperfect, weak, rebellious, grumbler, immoral, self-centered human beings. As you do, your sermon will be far from boring. As I talk about marital commitment, I will serve them by showing them how much we have been unfaithful, how often we have broken our promises and become untrue to our marital vows. You will hurt people’s sensitivities, yes. But like a good physician, you will tell them of their spiritual sickness, of the cancer eating up their strength. But you won’t leave them at that. You will give him the antidote, the cure for our spiritual malady.
But the solution is not to be better or to try harder or to be more disciplined. The solution is Jesus. Your preaching then leads to an exposition of the Redeemer. Talk about Jesus – perfect deity and perfect humanity united in one person. As such, he is the only Mediator between a holy God and sinful humanity. Talk about his perfections, the excellencies of his character, his righteousness, his power, his mercy, his substitutionary death, his triumphant resurrection, his glorious ascencion, his near and certain return. Tell them how your text points to everything that Jesus is for us. So when they failed in their marital commitments, tell them of the grace of Jesus’ forgiveness for us, the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, the reality of our new identity in Christ as secured, accepted and complete in his love. Tell them to hold on to the promises of future grace. Tell them of the God who promised to sustain, strengthen and sanctify them in their relationships.
As we have grounded our people in gospel motivations, we are then ready to do an exposition of the gospel-centered life. Tell them how to respond to what God has done in Jesus, not by our own works or efforts but by faith in the all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus in our behalf. Tell them to obey not to be accepted or to earn more love from, but to obey because they were already perfectly accepted and perfectly loved. Tell them to go to the world and make disciples not by their own strength but by the presence of Jesus with them. Tell couples to renew their commitments in their marriage, to be more faithful to each other, to be more watchful about temptations to unfaithfulness because of God who has sealed his relationship with us with the blood of Jesus and has determined to be faithful to us until the end.
Study the background of the text. Look carefully at grammar, syntax and logical connections. Make a neat outline. Prepare your illustrations. Do all these things but don’t forget to give them an exposition of who God is, who we are apart from grace, who Jesus is as God’s gracious provision for us, how how we must live a life driven by the gospel of Jesus. Albert Mohler said,
If we as pastors are truly serious about giving our people a true vision of God, showing them their own sinfulness, proclaiming to them the gospel of Jesus Christ, and encouraging them to obedient service in response to the gospel, then we will devote our lives to preaching the Word. That is our task and our calling – to confront our congregations with nothing less than the living and active Word of God, and to pray that the Holy Spirit will thereby open eyes, convict consciences, and apply that Word to human hearts (He is Not Silent, 38).
There is not much gospel-centered sermons in many pulpits nowadays, not because of lack of skills or training on how to do this. That will help for sure. But I believe that one of the reasons why many pastors are not preaching gospel-centered sermons is because they themselves are not living gospel-centered lives. Many preachers are not passionate in proclaiming the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ because they themselves are not passionate in demonstrating the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ in their lives. To learn how to develop Christ-centered preaching, you must first learn how to live a Christ-centered life. For we are disciples first before we are preachers.
Notice that in 1 Corinthians 2:2, although what he said is in relation to his preaching, he doesn’t talk about a philosophy of preaching. Rather, he talked about personal convictions. His heart so passionate for the glory of his Savior, he can’t help but speak about him. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (ESV). “To know” is not merely to do an in-depth study of Jesus. This is not an intellectual exercise, but pursuit of deeper intimacy with Jesus. Because he is passionate to know Christ (personally and intimately), he is passionate to make Christ known (locally and globally).
Christ-centered preaching, then, flows out of Christ-centered living. This is personal for us. “For I decided…” In KJV, “determined.” In NIV, “resolved” (NIV). This is Paul’s and must be every preacher’s personal determination, personal conviction, personal pursuit, and personal ambition. Can we also say with Paul, “It is my eager expectation and hope…that…now as always Christ will be honored (magnified) in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Phil. 1:20-21”? Or, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (3:8, 10)? Or, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14)?
Because of this personal resolve to treasure Christ above everyone and everything, he can say, “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (Rom. 1:15). How about us? Are we captivated by the beauty of the risen Christ, or are we dreaming of our own rising reputation and personal glory? Do we still bring a broken and contrite heart as our offering to God, or are we becoming conceited because of our own spiritual or ministerial performance and therefore blind to the real condition of our hearts apart from grace? Do we look to Jesus more and more for help, rescue and healing, or are we becoming enamored with techniques and methods of growing our churches? Are we becoming more reliant in the Spirit through prayerful dependence, or are we driven more by busyness and ministry activities?
Christ-centered preaching says less about the methods and ways we deliver our sermons but more of how much we treasure Christ in our life and ministry. Christ-centered living leads to Christ-centered preaching.