In my last article, we looked at avoiding lecture in Bible classes in order to equip Christians to “speak the truth in love” and come to “the unity of the faith” see here. This brings up the question of whether sermons have a place in teaching and equipping. Of course, we have numerous examples of preaching in the New Testament. Luke recorded both sermons and interactive teaching in Acts. We see sermons used quite effectively when instructing large crowds and encouraging a church.
For some Christians today, sermons have fallen out of favor. Many reasons have been suggested. Some speak of television and other forms of video entertainment as becoming so prevalent that attention spans are limited. The argument is that we cannot expect our audiences to listen longer than 20-30 minutes or hear more than one sermon a week because it’s just too exhausting and tedious. I will suggest that none of the above is the real reason. If you are like me, there are only two reasons I have not wanted to hear a sermon: (1) I was carnally minded and enjoyed secular pleasures more than God. (2) I am hungry for the word but the preacher was poorly prepared, disorganized, and spent more time on personal stories than on the scriptures. These are the same two reasons Paul used to expose the Corinthians’ rejection of Paul’s preaching (1 Cor. 2:10 – 3:3; 2 Cor. 10). I can listen to Jeff Wilson or Shane Scott for an hour and beg for more, but ten minutes is too long to listen to a preacher who is not in the word. Therefore, before all else, let’s not whitewash the foundational reasons for wanting to limit preaching.
That being said, sermons can lose their luster over time if the content never moves beyond the basics. God calls upon us to deliver a balanced diet of spiritual food. Some preaching falls into a “sameness rut.” Even though the title of the lessons are different, the content of the message tends to have the same, “study more, pray more, sin less, and be a better person,” content. Knowing that God has given us a rich wealth of knowledge about him that none of us will ever completely apprehend, there is no excuse for preachers and teachers to limit sermons to their favorite topics or the milk of the word while omitting major portions of the Bible.
Sermons also fail when the preacher and/or the members do not understand the purposes for preaching. Ephesians 4:11-16 lays before us a huge challenge. Evangelists, shepherds and teachers are to equip saints for the work of ministry and building up the body of Christ. This entails bringing all Christians to the knowledge of the Son of God to a perfect man, enabling each member to speak the truth in love, and bringing each equipped part together to do its share in building up the body. That is a monumental task that cannot be accomplished by surface-level sermons or limiting the amount of time in preaching and teaching. Sermon purpose and direction should meet the goal of Ephesian 4.
What about the Listener?
The best of sermons will be duds to a poorly prepared listener. In scripture, God rebuked listeners for being dull far more than preachers for inadequately presenting the word. In Matthew 13, Jesus gave five parables to a multitude who walked away without seeking to understand his message. As a preacher, few things are more discouraging than members who struggle to stay awake while having so little desire that they will not open their Bibles to personally taste the beauty of the Holy Spirit’s words.
Some have the wrong idea about sermons. The sermon is not intended to be a Christian’s primary source of biblical edification, knowledge, or encouragement. When Sunday morning is considered “the big show,” it creates unrealistic expectations. Was the preacher encouraging? Did he specifically address my present needs? As one man said, “I expect the sermon and the worship to charge me up and get me through the week.” Really? How does that statement factor into one’s own personal responsibility for study, prayer, and growth? Would the same person be excited to hear Paul preach from his letter to the Romans? While a preacher has a strong responsibility to present the Holy Spirit’s message with clarity and from a well-studied text, he is given a direct charge to not preach with words of “eloquent wisdom, lofty speech, or plausible words” (1 Cor. 1:17; 2:1, 4). He is not to deliver “words taught by human wisdom” but that which is “taught by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 2:13). Paul rebuked the Corinthians when he said, “The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). But the spiritual person who loves God’s word is absolutely ecstatic to learn more about the God he or she desires. The Christian who has been trained to hear the lofty speech of Corinthian preaching will think of Paul’s style of sermons to be “of no account” (2 Cor. 10:10). To be clear, Paul was not condemning a well prepared lesson that is delivered eloquently. Luke described Apollos as “an eloquent man, competent in the scriptures” (Acts 18:21). Apollos was a great speaker, but his lessons were obviously rooted in his knowledge of the word, not in his ability to promote himself and his talents by an entertaining speech.
The Need for Preaching
A sermon has certain purposes and advantages over a Bible class just as the Bible class has a role that cannot be met by a sermon. In the same way that our 66 books are sermon-like presentations, a sermon can develop a primary message without interruption, which can have a powerful effect on the listener. For example, the writer of Hebrews refers to his letter as a “brief word of exhortation.” Read aloud, Hebrews would be a 44 minute sermon, but what knowledge and encouragement is revealed in such a short time period!
We should ask the question, “Is this unique advantage in a sermon being wasted?” Often it is. One of the most important reasons for a full-time evangelist is to provide a man with the time needed to prepare lessons that could not otherwise be adequately researched and written after a 40-50 hour week in a secular job. The reason the Levites were supported by the tithe was to provide them time learn the word and teach the people. The same charge is given to the preacher (2 Tim. 3:14 – 4:5). A well-prepared sermon takes 12 to 15 hours of work, especially if the preacher is pressing himself to grow in his knowledge and share his growth with the church. Of course, there may be some who purposely do not invest that much time, but a lack of quality preparation is usually obvious to the listener and does not do justice to the charge God has given us.
There are two reasons why the preacher who is willing to investigate and expose the messages of all the books of the Bible is so vital to the growth of God’s people and local churches.
- A church that is being pressed to grow in a deeper knowledge of God is also a church with a culture of deep love for God and zeal for good works. God is our all-satisfying object. When God and Jesus are at the center of our sermons, we more clearly see his glory and are transformed into his image (2 Cor. 3:18).
- Christians naturally become more contagious when they are learning and tasting the glory of the ages to come. Evangelism is greatly hindered when preaching is dull, shallow, or delivered in an offensive manner. Members will not invite their friends to worship or to personal studies when sermons do not reflect the beauty of God by exposing the riches of his word.
Good preaching and good listening is part of God’s plan to save us and the world (1 Cor. 1:21). Let us never diminish its importance.