What Is the Purpose of Preaching?
Over the past many years of life as a theologian I have heard numerous sermons. Some were in churches I attended as a member or regular attender. (One would not let me become a member because I had only “alien immersion” so I attended but never officially joined.) Some were in churches I visited. I have visited numerous churches over the years for various reasons. Often that was because I was invited to speak to an adult Sunday School class. Often I stayed for the worship service or attended it after the class session was finished. I have attended hundreds of chapel services in the universities where I have taught over almost forty years. I have watched and listened to hundreds of sermons online.
Recently I chose to watch and listen to the online worship service, including the sermon, of an evangelical “mainline” church. I don’t want to give any clues such that someone could guess what specific church it was because of what I’m about to say about it. The sermon sticks in my mind as somewhat emblematic of the problem I want to muse about here.
The music was fine as were all parts of the liturgy and worship service. The children’s sermon was very good. The choir “number” sung by choir members together but in their own homes (I assume they used some conferencing technology such as Zoom to record it in insert it into the online worship service) was very good. Scripture was read; prayers were prayed. Even an offering was taken—online! Then came the sermon by a very jovial pastor in a robe.
The sermon was topical using a passage from Ecclesiastes as the “jumping off” point. It was about how people need people. It was a subtle criticism of individualism. I kept waiting for him to quote or sing “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world” because not once did he mention Christ or the church or the gospel. Any pious psychologist could have delivered that sermon. It was an example of what I call “good advice” pretending to be a sermon.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Now don’t get me wrong. A very good sermon can include good advice, but my point is that a good sermon in a Christian church ought always to go beyond generic good advice to gospel. A sermon that never mentions Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit or even the church cannot be a good Christian sermon. I have read many books saying what that preacher said. One was Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam (2000). Another was Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah (1984). Both decried American individualism and argued that people need people—community—in order to flourish psychologically.
Again, don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging the pastor/preacher or the church by one sermon. In fact, I plan to visit that church as soon as it opens up again for safe attendance in the sanctuary for worship. All I am saying here is that this one sermon represented for me a trend I have noticed in even much evangelical preaching toward giving good advice without the gospel of Jesus Christ. I suppose I am partly agreeing here with my Calvinist friend Michael Horton’s book Christless Christianity (2008).
I could give numerous other examples of sermons I have heard that constituted good advice but not the gospel. Yes, true, the gospel is good advice, but it goes beyond what people think of as good advice to real good advice—repent and trust in Jesus Christ and dedicate your whole life in every part of it to him as Lord. Of course that can be said in hundreds of ways and not always that directly.
What I waited to here but never did, in that particular sermon, was something about communion with God through commitment to the community of God’s people the church—including setting aside selfish individualism and becoming accountable to the church. Instead the pastor talked about getting to know neighbors (with no mention of witnessing to them) and going out of one’s way to spend time with friends: “This week pick up the phone and call an old friend and renew a lost friendship.” (That’s my paraphrase of one of his suggestions.)
So what is the true purpose of preaching? John Wesley said it best. It is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Martin Luther said it is to present to hearers both “law” and “gospel”—you should but you can’t (by yourself) obey God completely. I say, in addition, not in contradiction, it is to present the gospel of Jesus Christ to a congregation and, usually, apply it to their lives.
Above all, I want to say, it must go beyond generic good advice in order to be a good Christian sermon. Unfortunately, in my experience, many even evangelical sermons are what I would call “good advice” more than and even often in place of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, to pastor-preachers I suggest this strategy and habit. Always ask yourself after you have written your sermon (or composed it in your mind) whether it is just good advice or includes the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ that both convicts and comforts.
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