How High Should You Preach?

How High Should You Preach? December 2, 2011

I’m a teacher and I speak in churches a fair bit. Yet I’ve always been perplexed as to how academic, highbrow, and rigorous one’s preaching should. Now for me preaching at college chapel is one thing, where I know most of the students, but speaking at a local church where people range from toddlers to retirees is a big mix. On the one hand, I don’t want to preach esoteric theological doctrines, go into the minutia of Hebrew and Greek exegesis, and add quotes in Latin and drop names of great theologians because it simply leaves people baffled. No point getting folks lost in the details of some Bible Nerd sermonizing out of the window of his or her ivory tower. But on the other hand, I don’t want to preach light and fluffy non-sense that is full of mundane platitudes, permeated with pseudo-spiritual wisdom, and is as intellectually nourishing as eating mud.

I’ve heard two different stories about this. In oral tradition, I’m told that Graham Goldsworthy (you know, of biblical theology fame, like Gospel and Kingdom, etc.) once had a parishioner complain to him that the sermon was over his head. Goldsworthy retorted, so I’m told, “well, then, lift up your head”. Makes sense. Christians are not meant to be spoon fed, but need to actively listen and learn and to stretch themselves because sermons are their main teaching diet in Christian instruction for the week.

Yet there another story that I just heard from my colleague Andrew Prince about Charles Spurgeon. Apparently Spurgeon taught: “Christ said, ‘Feed my sheep…feed my lambs.’ Some preachers, however, put the food so high that neither the lambs or sheep can reach it. They seem to have read the text, ‘Feed my giraffe’s.’” There’s the opposite problem. Preaching that is unaccessable to the people in the pew will get no benefit out of it.

What I try to do in my homiletic journeys is: (1) Identify with your audience. Preaching to a youth group aint’ the same as speaking at a retirement village. But make sure everyone can grasp what you’re talking about. When in doubt, simple is better. (2) The form should be easy and aesthetically nice to heart, but the content should be theologically informed. (3) Remember, preaching is based on good exegesis, but it is not a display of your exegesis. (3) Preaching is about persuasion, changing peoples’ hearts and minds, not just imparting more information; and (4) The most important elements of the sermon are the first thing and the last thing you say, so find a way to make it sing and sting!


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