What Conservative Evangelicals get wrong about preaching

I have spent pretty much my entire life going to evangelical churches. These are churches where the sermon is often the ‘main event’ in a service. This was especially true in the church I attended before going to theological college. There, a very high value was placed on having “good” preaching – it was really what the church was known for. The vicar at the time said he used to spend about twelve hours per week preparing the Sunday sermon. One person said to me that he travelled a long way to come because there were no other churches close to him which had “good” preaching. It was a church that was known to have “good” preaching, and – perhaps because it was near a university town – people would come to hear the “good” preaching.

This seems to be a common theme among conservative evangelical churches (which I’ve talked about before on this blog). So the motivation behind the Proclamation Trust, for example, is to promote expository preaching – that is, preaching which aims to let the Bible set the agenda. They have whole conferences (some of which I’ve been on) which are dedicated to help with preaching the Bible. So much time and effort is spent on making sure that your preaching is as good as it can be.

The default assumption seems to be that you should spend as long as possible preparing your sermon, over several sessions. This is reinforced by the people who speak at conferences (such as Vaughan Roberts, who I mentioned in my post about the EMA) saying that they spend several sessions over several days preparing to preach. You need to painstakingly analyse sentence flow diagrams, consult weighty commentaries, think about interesting ways to communicate. You really need to make sure you get into the text, so you can preach the main point clearly.

There’s a huge amount of pressure to make sermons good. But I do wonder whether there is something lacking.

A bit of background

I came to the church I am now part of as a curate, straight from theological college. The church was (and is) conservative theologically and Biblically based. However, it is not one of the churches which people know by name – it’s not one of the ‘network’ conservative evangelical churches.

One of the things which struck me early on was the preaching. Our vicar (now retired) was a very good speaker – but I don’t think his sermons would be very ‘Proc Trust’. His sermons were always based on the Bible passage and theologically orthodox. But I think sometimes they were a bit of a rush job – he was so busy during the week with his various jobs: at one time he was the Rural Dean of TWO deaneries (32 parishes!), and he was always busy pastorally. I once took a day to prepare a sermon and he said, “Enjoy it while you have the time!”

Portrait of C.H. Spurgeon
C. H. Spurgeon

He had a very different style as well. Sometimes he would take the passage as a starting point and then ‘leap off’ to talk about something else – always Biblical! But there were quite a few occasions where I thought, “I agree with that, but I don’t think I would make that point from this passage”. In fact, his style reminded me a little of Spurgeon (another man who, despite being nicknamed ‘the prince of preachers’, would probably not preach ‘Proc Trust’ approved sermons!).

The other thing that struck me was that the church was (and remains) a very loving and generous church family. Many in the church family did not simply hear the gospel, but they believed it as well. The Holy Spirit was and is at work in the hearts and lives of many people. People love the Lord, and each other. I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture – as with any church, there are many flaws. It’s what you would expect from a church made up of sinners! But, nonetheless, there’s a lot of spiritual life, which – I have to be honest – I haven’t always experienced in conservative evangelical churches.

All this has made me wonder.

What’s the point of preaching?

I started going to my previous church while I was a university student. One of my friends encouraged me to go. He said that, when you listened to a sermon there, you thought ‘wow’! He wasn’t wrong – the sermons opened my eyes to new ways of understanding the Bible. I encountered things such as Biblical Theology for the first time. It made a big impact on me as a young student. My understanding really grew.

At the same time, I’m not sure that those days were times of great spiritual growth. Part of the problem is that I think the sermons encouraged understanding more than they encouraged obedience and trust. That is, I came to the church to hear the preacher help me to understand the Bible – and not so much to be encouraged in my trust in the Lord. Hearing the sermon was a bit like seeing a magician pull a rabbit out of the hat. You’d go into a sermon thinking, “I wonder what he’s going to get out of this passage.”

The problem with this kind of preaching is that it encourages an intellectual view of the Bible. Preaching becomes simply communicating information to enable understanding. Now, of course, preaching is about understanding – I think of Romans 12:2, for example: “be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. Our hearts are changed as our minds are changed. But the two things – heart and mind – must go together.

Liam Goligher recently wrote a wonderful summary of the difference between preaching and teaching on Twitter. There he said:

Teaching provides things to learn and to do while preaching should leave us aghast and awed in the presence of God whose voice we have heard. Teaching must send us out to serve; preaching must lift us up to heaven!

Preaching is something which lifts us up to heaven – I rather like that. Preaching is part of worship, as we build our relationship with the infinite-personal God (as Francis Schaeffer would put it). Teaching is more about understanding and information; preaching is about relating to and worshiping the God who made us. Of course, the two things are not mutually exclusive, but there is a distinction.

When preaching becomes teaching

A lecture

I wonder whether part of the problem is that, for many conservative evangelical churches, ‘teaching’ and ‘preaching’ have merged into one. For example, I’ve heard it said by a few different people I know that good preaching should teach people how to read the Bible. That’s probably true. But I don’t think that should be the end goal. Sermons shouldn’t primarily be to teach believers theology, but to encourage them with the gospel that they may lead a transformed life.

Maybe part of the problem is because churches have stopped catechising new believers. I think many churches try to do everything in Sunday sermons – perhaps because they do not realise there is another way. They tacitly assume that people will learn everything they need to through studying the Bible in sermons and home groups – rather than intentionally catechising people in the faith.

Now, I do appreciate that every doctrine you would learn in a catechism you could also teach while preaching through a book of the Bible. But I think the goal of a catechism is different to the goal of preaching: catechesis is more about teaching. If you’re catechising people about the doctrines of grace, preaching can focus not so much on teaching those doctrines but encouraging people in their walk with the Lord using those doctrines as a foundation.

I would say preaching is not about teaching people something from the Bible, but applying it to their hearts: encouraging people with the gospel, so that they go back to their lives with confidence to face with coming week. It’s not to teach people those doctrines but to encourage people with them. There’s an important difference.

Our greatest need

Robert Murray M’Cheyne, the 19th Century Scottish pastor, once said:

Robert Murray M'Cheyne: "My people's greatest need is my personal holiness"

Over the last seven years since I was ordained, I have come to believe that this is absolutely true. I’ve come to truly understand that the Word is not something which must simply be comprehended on an intellectual level but allowed to change our hearts. Books such as True Spirituality by Francis Schaeffer have really helped me understand this.

A sermon is not about a transfer of information. It’s not about me reading the passage, understanding it, and then communicating that to others. It’s about the Word of God speaking to us, as Christians. I am not helping people to understand the Bible – I am helping people to apply it to our lives, now, as one Christian to another. It’s more than information – it’s God applying his word to our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Occasionally in preaching classes I’ve been given the advice, “First preach the sermon to yourself”. This is very good advice. If you can’t preach the sermon to yourself first, if it does nothing for you, then it won’t do anything for those who you’re preaching to. That is the exact thing we are communicating: not a piece of information, but a spiritual, life-transforming message.

This is what I am getting at: the most important thing a preacher needs is not the intellectual grasp of a passage, but to be walking closely with the Lord. A simple man who has been humbled by the weight of his own sin and is depending on the Lord will accomplish far more than someone who has a lot of knowledge but is self-sufficient. In fact, a lot of knowledge could even be a barrier (1 Corinthians 8:1, “knowledge puffs up but love builds up”).

What this means for sermon prep

Over the last few years I’ve started to worry less about sermons. I don’t worry too much about spending hours refining my exegesis of the passage, or finding just the right words. That’s not to say I skimp on it! But I try to spend a bit more time dwelling on what the passage has to say to me as a Christian. How should I be changed as a result of this? What difference does it make to my life? In other words, the balance of my time in preparation has shifted in a more “spiritual” direction.

I often find that a passage will speak into a particular situation going on in my life, or the world / church. I take that to be the voice of the Holy Spirit, helping me to direct what I say.

Sermon preparation is not merely an intellectual exercise in terms of analysing sentence flow diagrams – it’s a spiritual excercise. We need to listen to the voice of the Spirit speaking to us through the words he inspired. That doesn’t mean we can skip over sentence flow diagrams (although I don’t usually do them for other reasons!) – but rather that at every point we need to be praying and asking God to guide us.

Perhaps it would be helpful to see sermon prep as our whole lives before preaching: not just the actual tasks we complete in order to prepare a sermon, but our whole spiritual state before God. Spending time in prayer and humbling ourselves before God daily is sermon preparation. Speaking to people is sermon preparation. And so on. Perhaps that would help to get away from sermons being something we do intellectually to something we do with our heart, soul, mind and strength.

Where does that leave us?

A year ago I wrote about Jonathan Fletcher and Steve Timmis. There I said that part of the problem in conservative evangelical circles is that orthodoxy is reduced to holding a set of intellectual propositions. If you sign up on the dotted line of various doctrinal beliefs, you’re in the club.

I think something similar could be said for preaching. Why is it that people like Jonathan Fletcher and Steve Timmis could do the things they did, without anyone really noticing? Is it because it’s possible to preach a “biblical”, exegetically-correct, theological sermon – without really preaching from the heart?

Over the last few days I’ve been reading The Church at the End of the 20th Century by Francis Schaeffer. I’ve really benefitted from reading his works, and I’d recommend them to anyone. One of the things he says in the book is that everything starts with relating to the God who is there. The whole reason we exist is because God made us and we are his, we are made for him. Without him, without relating to him, we are nothing. Our natural sinful condition is to think that we can cope without him. I think this can be true of spiritual exercises such as preaching.

Yesterday I read this, which sums things up for me:

Suppose that when we awoke tomorrow morning and opened our Bibles, we found two things had been taken out. Not as the liberals would take them out, but really out. Suppose God had taken them out. Suppose the first item missing was the real empowering of the Holy Spirit; and the second item, the reality of prayer. Consequently, following the dictates of Scripture, we would begin to live on the basis of this new Bible in which there was nothing about the power of the Holy Spirit and nothing about the power of prayer. Let me ask you something: If that were the case, what difference would there be today from the way we acted yesterday?

If God is real, the Spirit is real, and prayer is real – our sermons should reflect that. My fear is that too often they don’t.

Cover image is the EMA at the Barbican back in 2017, borrowed (without permission) from this page – sorry!

Further reading…

Ray Ortlund’s sermon on 2 Timothy 1:3-8 and then his seminar on suffering were very helpful for me in beginning to think about these things! (The seminar was what put me onto Francis Schaeffer in the first place). I think what he says about Reformed Christianity in an American context would apply to the conservative evangelical British context.

Also I think Humble Calvinism by J.A. Medders is relevant.


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