Within the last few days, I have been listening to several “famous” preacher, both from the evangelical and non-evangelical traditions. I was listening to one very famous mega-church evangelical pastor whose sermon did not touch on the Bible until less than ten minutes before its end. He was a great orator who was able to put together the language of today, but hardly touched the text. The time he touched the text, he misinterpreted what the text said. Sadly, I’ve already written two books on that text. So the error was especially glaring. I wonder out loud to myself whether evangelical preachers have completely lost faith in the Bible.
One of the qualifications for a church leader is the ability to teach (1 Tim. 3.2). Besides managing the church, teaching is the only other skill needed to serve in the church. If this is not clear, we should also see Paul’s further discussions in 1 Tim. 5.17 points out that such teachers who preach should be paid extra for their hard work. This presupposes that the preacher works hard on his preaching. Why in fact would Paul send Timothy to go to an established church to deal with the most basic issues? After all, the Ephesian church to which Timothy went already had a history of elders for a while. It is because a lot of elders had regressed. That is the only reasonable explanation.
A theory is in vogue among homileticians these day that preaching is all about inspiration and not information, and that preaching is all about proclamation and not exposition. I’ve even heard this from people in biblical study. I think it’s a knee-jerk overreaction against the informational sermons of modernism, especially in some of the “expository” style evangelical preaching. I call all such fashionable drivel nonsense. Some sermons today are no more than motivational speeches. The church received it tradition of preaching from the synagogues. As a result, teaching has always been a built-in element of preaching. The illiteracy of the church is at all time high. I don’t need to cite statistics to make that point. You just have to Google to see where we land as far as being literate about our faith is concerned. Is it any wonder that so many church members are anti-intellectual? Meanwhile, people of other faiths actually know more about their own beliefs than Christians know about theirs. The pulpit is definitely at fault.
In Paul’s day, a lot of the congregation was illiterate. Perhaps in the synagogues, people knew a bit more, but still, the literacy rate was low compared to today. Therefore, if the preacher did not do his work, the church could easily fall into heresy. In those days, the preachers were actually the most educated person in the congregation. The same standard should apply today.
I think these days a lot of preacher have lost confidence in the intellectual aspects of faith. Many have bought into the lie that people simply don’t care about the facts of religion but only about spirituality. This week, I just received some thrilling private messages from followers who told me, “You now have a pagan follower for your blog” in my other blog about the Bible. In that blog I try to keep an even keel between intellectual learning and spirituality. Some unbelievers were not touched by the spirituality, but by the intellectual aspect. Not every non-Christian despise learning about Christianity. Some preachers have avoided teaching simply because they were afraid of turning people off. I think we give non-Chrisitans too little credit as if they’re incapable of grasping important concepts.
There are several indicators of the strength of the pulpit, based on my experience of preaching in three continents for more than twenty years. First, I can almost always tell how seriously people take the Bible by whether they keep their Bibles open during the sermon. Many preachers do not ever got back to reading or expositing the text. I’ve seen several star preachers in the US do this week in and week out. As a reaction, the congregate is conditioned to close their Bibles after the scriptural reading. If this trend keeps up, heresies will seep into the church because no one’s mind is being challenged. Preachers need to ask the congregation to track along with their sermons. Second, the way the congregation does Bible study is almost always a reflection of the strength of the pulpit. If we don’t believe the pulpit impacts our Bible studies, how often have we heard the quote “my pastor says” to solve a Bible study problem? If the pulpit lacks analysis, the Bible study will be hopeless. The church could be big and the preacher could be a dynamic speaker, but s/he does not succeed in the office of teaching. When looking at Jesus’ life, we should notice that his disciples were listeners of his teachings. In some ways, Jesus founded a kind of school. Although he did not only found a school, he certainly did have a kind of school. Otherwise, why would the followers called “disciples” (literally meaning “learners” i.e. students) and why would the Gospel writers use so much energy recording his teachings? The very fact he taught his disciples shows an educational function of the church. Distinction between preaching and teaching today was almost non-existent in the days of Jesus and Paul. Third, I can almost always tell whether the congregation is literate by the way they assess their preachers. Quite often, the word “practical” comes up as a compliment. “Isn’t that sermon practical and useful?” While the Bible can be practical and useful, it also has an alien and challenging edge to it. Practicality has become the homiletical cliche as if practicality equals to truth. As long as we grow in numbers, we must be preaching right. As long as we are helping and saving people, we must be preaching right. Nonsense! This is what I call the utilitarian gospel. We preachers could do well to avoid it.
What solutions do I have? I have two.
First, the church has to eliminate some of the administrative work and meetings the pastors have to go to so that the pastors can study up on their sermons. I know one church that demands a pastor do cold calls (a stupid method that rarely works other than working to annoy people) to increase attendance. If the deacons and elders want to do it so much, why don’t they do it? Let the man do his sermon prep. I saw another church having its pastors install change up toilet parts. Yet another has the pastor installing this or that fixture. I’m not saying that the pastor is above doing all these tasks. I have done such tasks myself, but if the pastor is preoccupied with all such tasks, and they add up, where would he find the time to prep his Sunday sermon or his teaching? I have actually heard a few cases of leaders saying that pastors should learn to do “menial” tasks (that word is also problematic in showing the mentality of such leaders) to learn humility and suffering. Just in case anyone thinks that we get into the business for the money, let me be the first to say that the money is pretty bad. If I continued pursuing my career as an architect or construction manager, I would guess that I would be sitting in a high-rise somewhere by now, sitting pretty as the partner of the firm while smoking a cigar (okay, the cigar bit was a joke). I wouldn’t be in any kind of ministry for money. I don’t think most normal preachers would either, with a few exceptions.
Second, the pastors themselves should never be satisfied with their level of performance. Most are unable and even unwilling to analyze their own work. If they are not able to do so, they need to hire consultants like me or some other preaching/biblical studies professors to sort out their rhetoric or their exegesis or in some case, both. I know a mega-church pastor who is a good preacher but is still willing to go sit in seminary classes to keep updated. I want to emphasize that not all preaching professors are qualified help analyze exegesis and rhetoric all at once, either because many of them did not study biblical studies or they did not study rhetoric. If education was also part of the preaching process, the preacher ought to find someone with expertise in both or find two different experts in two different disciplines. One other way is to discipline oneself to read one substantial academic book once a month while dealing with the sermon series. Books in biblical criticism, archaeology, Greco-Roman/Near Eastern history and theology always help. I do not mean to read yet another “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book but something that challenges the intellect. Use your sermon series to deepen your knowledge base instead of rehashing what you know from ten years or twenty years ago in seminary. The best learning experience is to teach the newly learned material. Every profession has a demand to keep up with progress. The pulpit should be no exception.
All in all, my advice is to get with the standard. Paul was not suggesting a hard and maximum standard. He was suggesting minimal standard. If anyone reading this blog finds the standard too high, then we will only wake up to how far below standard we have indeed fallen in the modern pulpit. We must be educated in order to educate others. Period!