The conservative evangelical obsession with preaching7 min read

A few days ago I read an interesting blog post by Sam Allberry called Reigniting Our Churches. There he says:

Many, if not most, of my friends are at churches regarded as being among the best in the country for Bible teaching. But the repeated feedback I keep hearing from so many is that things feel dry. Sermons are warm but predictable. The text is handled faithfully, but there’s often a lack of connection with real life. There’s little sense of spiritual reality. Imagine the White House staffers diligently discussing matters of national policy, all the while not really believing in the power of the President or the Oval Office to enact any real change. I fear many of our churches are starting to resemble this. 

It reminded me of a post I wrote a few months ago, What conservative evangelicals get wrong about preaching. That post seemed to touch a nerve, and so has Sam’s article – which I hope is a positive thing. There’s clearly a problem, but the fact that it’s being recognised means it can be addressed.

What I’d like to do in this post is touch on another issue which I think conservative evangelicals often get wrong about preaching. And before we begin – these are mistakes which I, myself, have made. I think my previous post came across as having a dig at conservative evangelicals, which was unintentional. I want to write this as critiquing ‘from within’, as it were, as a critical friend.

So, all that said. This is the problem: I think conservative evangelicals are obsessed with preaching to the exclusion of other important ministries of the Word.

An obsession with preaching

When I started attending a conservative evangelical church (when I was a student), it was very clear to me that the sermon was a big deal. The person who told me about the church sold it to me by saying “When you hear a sermon, you think ‘wow'”. You didn’t have to be around the church for long to realise that sermons were immensely important.

Throughout my time in conservative evangelical circles – first as a layman, and then as an ordained minister – this message has been constantly reinforced. For example, at college we spent a fair bit of time learning ‘homiletics’ (how to preach). Each day in college chapel there would be a sermon, and most days one of us students would preach. The topic of preaching was never far away from our discussion as students, I think it was simply a tacit assumption that being at college was a lot about learning to preach well and effectively.

The Priority of Preaching by Christopher Ash

In the conservative evangelical world – on conferences or online blogs etc – there are a lot of books about preaching. I’ve seen recommended (and bought!) books such as Christopher Ash’s book, The Priority of Preaching, or Tim Keller’s book on Preaching, or Zack Eswine’s book Preaching to a Post-Everything World. But it’s not just books about the task of preaching – there are also commentaries and books to help you preach particular books of the Bible.

One of the biggest names in the conservative evangelical world is the Proclamation Trust. They declare, on the front page of their website, that they serve “the local church by promoting the work of biblical expository preaching in the UK and further afield”. They put on many conferences which are explicitly to do with preaching. A few years ago I attended the Younger Ministers Conference, which was very much focussed on preaching – the afternoon sessions were by Bryan Chappell about application in preaching, and we had small groups focussed on preaching particular books.

In short, you could be forgiven for thinking that preaching was about the ONLY thing conservative evangelicals are interested in!

But here’s the problem. I ask myself: how many books and conferences have I read or been on which are to do with other aspects of Word ministry? For example, how many conservative evangelical books are there to do with pastoral visiting, or counselling, or catechising, or one-to-one work? There are a few, and they are growing (especially thanks to organisations such as Biblical Counselling UK), but I’d say there are not as many as there should be.

A Holistic approach to Word ministry

Gospel ministry should be “pulpit-centered, but not pulpit-restricted”

Peter Adam

I think this is a really helpful quote. Pulpit-centered, but not pulpit-restricted. This captures well the ministry of the Word. In the book of Acts we see the ministry of the Apostles described like this: “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.” So the Apostles devoted themselves to the ministry of the Word – but sometimes that looked like proclaiming from the pulpit (in the synagogue), and sometimes that looked like teaching in someone’s house. Each was ministry of the Word.

It’s this ‘house to house’ kind of ministry which I think is maybe lacking in conservative evangelical circles. Perhaps it’s because so many conferences, books, etc. emphasize the need for a good preaching ministry, but don’t emphasize the need for Word ministry in other contexts.

So I think the conservative evangelical world has become unbalanced. But what are the effects?

The negative effect of a preaching obsession

Are people really taking it on board?

Richard Baxter
Richard Baxter

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been re-reading Sinclair Ferguson’s book Some Pastors and Teachers. In the same chapter I quoted in that post, he also quoted from Richard Baxter’s famous work The Reformed Pastor:

For my part, I study to speak as plainly and movingly as I can … and yet I frequently meet with those that have been my hearers eight or ten years, who know not whether Christ be God or man, and wonder when I tell them the history of his birth and life and death, as if they had never heard it before. And of those who know the history of the gospel, how few are there who know the nature of that faith, repentance, and holiness which it requireth, or, at least, who know their own hearts? … I have found by experience, that some ignorant persons, who have been so long unprofitable hearers, have got more knowledge and remorse of conscience in half an hour’s close discourse, than they did from ten years’ public preaching. [My emphasis]

As a preacher, I can sympathise here with Richard Baxter! I can think of times when people have asked me questions about things which I know I’ve preached on recently. I sometimes get the impression with preaching that it goes “in one year and out the other”! Richard Baxter found something similar. But, crucially, he did something about it. Sinclair Ferguson summarises:

It was this discovery that led Baxter to arrange for every family in his parish area to have a catechism. Then, together with his two assistants, he spent two days of each week, from morning until evening, moving from house to house in his parish, teaching, gently quizzing, and with great sensitivity leading people to Christ and to the Scriptures.

Baxter rediscovered the importance of ministry ‘from house to house’. So here’s my question: why is it that modern-day conservative evangelicals seem to have lost touch with this? Why is it that so many of our books and conferences seem to focus around the public ministry of the word, and not about the house-to-house ministry? Why aren’t we having conferences about catechising? I appreciate things have changed a lot since Baxter’s day – but surely the problem remains?

I wonder if a typical conservative evangelical ministry could be made more effective by spending a bit less time on preparing sermons and a bit more time spending time with individuals to disciple them.

Preaching is not an intellectual exercise!

In my previous post about conservative evangelicals and preaching I argued that, in conservative evangelical circles, preaching could become an intellectual pursuit rather than a spiritual one. One of the problems with making preaching the only thing we really talk about is that it puts preaching on a pedestal, where it shouldn’t be.

Preaching is one aspect of the ministry of a pastor-teacher – a very important and fundamental one. But our primary calling is to love: to love God, and to love people – especially the people God has given for us to minister to (e.g., for Anglicans, in our parish). Preaching is an aspect of love – but it mustn’t be divorced from it.

I wonder if the books, the conferences, etc. ultimately send out a message that preaching is a matter of technique: simply get the Biblical theology right, read the right books, have the right small groups – and you’ll become a better preacher. You just need to know a bit more information…

And this is the problem – preaching is primarily a spiritual endeavour. Going back to Sam Allberry’s article we started with, perhaps the problem with preaching that’s dry is that it’s become an intellectual business. Ironically, it could well be the obsession with preaching in conservative evangelical circles which has led to the problem with preaching in conservative evangelical circles!

I wonder whether the best thing we could do would be to start obsessing about God – to focus more on worshipping him, on his goodness to us. Perhaps if we were so full of him and the good news, we’d find our preaching naturally followed suit? “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks”. If our hearts were full of Christ, we would speak about him. Sam’s post was about a book, Truth on Fire, which looks like it might be a good start.

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