Sermons based entirely on Old Testament stories. The Christian Bible is the whole Bible, Old and New. All those Old Testament stories are our stories, too. Paul uses Abraham as the great example of Christian faith, not one of the apostles. We want our children to know these stories, and to know the truth in every story from Adam, to Elijah to Esther.
But can we preach these Old Testament stories Christianly without any mention of Jesus? If we do, we are preaching truth, but we aren’t preaching Gospel truth. Our preaching may be practical, full of lessons and wisdom, but it will be absent of the Gospel.
Many of the sermons I am hearing are Old Testament lessons, told well and used as examples of truths that are repeated in the New Testament. But without the context of the Gospel, such sermons send an alarming message about the value of those lessons, and an even more distressing message about the point of the Christian life.
For example, Jonah’s decision to obey God is a true story with evident value, but how do resolutions to stop running and begin obeying fit into the Gospel? It’s not generic obedience or generic repentance that matter, but the obedience of Jesus and repentance from any way of thinking and living that ignores Jesus as the Final Word and the treasure. I need to be saved, not just see the better way.
Sermons that teach lessons and principles. There has been an increasing trend in evangelical Christianity to preach practically; to teach “life principles.” This kind of “coaching” from the pulpit is extremely popular, and many Christians value such practical teaching as “something I can use on Monday.” The megachurch movement in evangelicalism relies heavily on this approach to the sermon. Often it’s called “Powerpoint” preaching, because the inumeration of principles and lessons fits well into the visual technology used in those churches. Such practical teaching fills churches and bookstores. It is obviously helpful to many people, and appeals in some cases where traditional preaching doesn’t. It also produces a good bit of the Christless preaching that I am describing. It is possible to preach on many things in the Bible, drawing out “life principles,” without bringing Jesus anywhere into the picture or the message…
Sermons dominated by personal narratives. Evangelicalism loves a personal testimony. It loves anecdotal writing and preaching. Scripture contains personal narratives and illustrations, and preaching that entirely omits these things becomes a dry recitation. But many of the Christless sermons I’ve heard have been dominated by personal narratives. The primary “revealer” of truth is the preacher himself. The more of a “celebrity” the preacher happens to be, the more likely that he will tell stories from his own life as revealing authoritative truth for us…
Sermons about moral and cultural problems. We live in a time of continuing moral breakdown. There is no doubt that the Judeo-Christian underpinnings of our culture are being eroded. Traditional values are under attack. The role of religion in society is disputed in almost every niche of the public square.
The church feels particularly sensitive to this breakdown. There is a sense of moral and prophetic outrage. Some Christians see the demise of cultural morality as proof Jesus will soon return. Others see moral breakdown as a threat to our children and our political freedoms.
For these reasons, many evangelical sermons deal with the moral and cultural crisis. This sort of preaching has a long history in evangelicalism, so we ought to know the dangers of preaching against saloons and movie theaters. But it seems we haven’t learned our lesson…
Evangelicals are emotionally–and politically–engaged with cultural battles like homosexual marriage and abortion. They have demonstrated substantial growth in their support of ministries of mercy. But some of this political and moral involvement has been at the cost of Christ-centered preaching. “The Crisis”–whatever it might be–is never the point of our discipleship. We are always followers of Jesus.
Why is this happening?
It’s happening for reasons that aren’t hard to discover.
There’s a remarkable amount of overall Biblical ignorance among the evangelical clergy. Some of this is because many clergy are completely uneducated, and their churches don’t care. Revivalistic evangelicals made peace with this a century ago, and I don’t know what can be said at this point. If you are comfortable with having an utterly uneducated man preaching through the difficulties of Romans 9-11 or telling your children what the Bible says, I won’t argue with you. But when Jesus doesn’t appear in the message, don’t whine. If it appears that your pastor’s messages are drawn entirely from last night’s T.D. Jakes performance, don’t complain about that either.
(I am NOT insinuating that education equals good preaching. My childhood pastor had one semester of college. He was self-taught, but formally uneducated. He did a marvelous job presenting–and living–the Gospel week after week, but he certainly knew he needed to study. Still, he perpetuated remarkable ignorance about the Bible, including once denouncing “the Greek and other translations.” He never encouraged me to go to school, and made sure my mind was fully stocked with Scofield and Clarence Larkin. But he did preach Christ and salvation by faith, and at least he knew he needed to read and study.)
The trend toward Christless preaching is also happening because even educated preachers are not students of scripture, or even students at all. I’ve met several seminary graduates who bragged that they hadn’t read a book since seminary, and never intended to correct that. Christian bookstores are a good measurement of the intellectual muscle of the average pastor. Research tells us that the average younger American is now watching a hundred movies for every book he or she reads. That includes a lot of preachers. This is perpetuating remarkable ignorance, and it is taking away the ability to preach Christ.
This loss of a scholarly mind is resulting in sloppy theology, ignorance of the original languages, and dependence on technology like the internet. Notice how quickly modern preachers have embraced the use of film clips in preaching. The replacement of literate references in communication is part of the culture, but it is also an admission that the clergy themselves are not reading, but watching.
Does this mean these non-scholars can’t be effective communicators? Of course not, but it does mean we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus is lost or misplaced in the messages we hear. The transformation from a literate to a visual culture presents Christians with a remarkable challenge: the challenge to continue being loyal to God’s revelation of Jesus in all of scripture, and the greater challenge to study and understand the Bible.
Scripture can’t be replaced, and it must be understood, and the ministry has the responsibility to lead the way. In other words, don’t let your pastor become an idiot…
If your pastor preaches a Christless sermon, or a sermon with only a guest appearance by Jesus, don’t get mad at him. Make an appointment. Take him a cup of coffee or a book. Sit down and tell him what you heard, and why it concerns you. Don’t villainize him, because he is probably as much of a victim than a villain. If he loves Jesus, he won’t resent your concern. If you are labeled the enemy, and Christless preaching is defended, then you learned something important.
Let’s pray for the day when no one stands before God’s people without knowing that the point of everything, before it’s all over, will once again be Jesus.
[Excerpt from The arrival of preaching that doesn’t mention Jesus at all by The Internet Monk]