Thursday, May 13, 2010

To Preachers: Boring Your People Is a Sin, So Stop It.

Good stuff from Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It is a mystifying thing why something as exciting as the history of redemption is turned by many an orthodox preacher into something boring. It is also a mystifying thing why something on which all eternity for individuals hinges is so often preached as if nothing is at stake.

Maybe preachers need to think about sermons less, and think about preaching more, not in such a way to turn them into polished orators with affected methods of speaking, but rather a basic understanding of what preaching is.

Is preaching expositing a text? Yes, it is. Without a text, we have no message to bring to our people. But, there is much expositing that doesn't qualify as preaching.

I have the great privilege of meeting with several seminarians regularly. What I am trying to get them to see is the romance of preaching, the art of preaching, the joy of preaching --the sort of preaching touted by old liberal Fred B. Craddock in his book Preaching or by old conservative Willie Still in The Work of the Pastor or by Lloyd-Jones, or Fred Lybrand or others.

And that is this: not preaching that sounds one particular way, or follows one particular method, but is, at least in part, what Phillips Brooks called "Truth mediated through personality." It can take a myriad of different forms. Two of my favorites are Sinclair Ferguson and John Piper. Their styles could not be more different, but the ethos they show forth is the same. If I were to journey outside my own Reformed camp, I would cite the ethos of Tozer (the portrait above), or of Jim Cymbala or of David Wilkerson or of Len Ravenhill. The truth can be shouted, and it can be whispered. The cry of "sound the alarm" from the rooftops can rouse the sleeper to action, but so can the anguished whisper that comes in the middle of the night. We can be roused with a shout; we can be wooed in a whisper.

Ethos is a slippery thing upon which to get a grip, to be sure. But, preaching must manifest a sacred thirst, a holy desperation, the spirit of Psalm 42. It must have an urgency, and a vitality to it. I have come to think it is more about lifting a text off a page, than it is driving people into a text. It is heralding it forth before hearers --holding it up to their faces so they might see it, smell it, and taste it, as well as hear it.

The Scriptures are a fascinating story. The language is sensual: there is blood and illicit behaviors, and jarring grotesque imagery, as well as profound beauty, and affecting human drama. There are truths that confront us, and poetry that soothes us. There are warnings, and there is inestimable comfort. Most of all, there is a call: the call to stand in God's holy presence, clad in the righteous robe of his Son, to both come away from the world, and to be pressed back into the world, to serve the world in the name of its Creator. Is it a radical thing to say our sermons ought to be filled with the sound of Scripture, as well as the substance of Scripture?

And the worst thing we can do to a book like that is to make it boring. My friend and mentor J. R. de Witt often cited his own homiletics professor who said, "It is no sin to be interesting." May every preacher heed those words today.


  1. Good comments, kind sir. Now, quit being so darn picayunish and pedantic!

    Was it Tozer or Pink that said, "Preaching is logic on fire"?

    Too often, I think men preach as if their ordination credentials are at stake rather than the souls of men.

    We labor too long trying to craft the "perfect sermon" rather than seeking to have the "alive and active" Word speak through us!

    A kind old saint once said, "Mr Lamkin, you don't have to tell us everything at once. We're coming back next week."

  2. Dear Ken:

    I love this jeremiad about preaching. What you are asking for, however, is not something preachers can produce at will. It's important to point out that the power, zeal, and earnestness you are calling for is not something preachers can do by raising their volume. So many young preachers think they are sounding more authoritative but they come across to most listeners are more agitated, condemning, and arrogant. Only the most self-effacing men can thunder without feeling abusive to most people.

    I'd say that if any preacher tries to deliberately produce what you are calling for, they will fail. It needs to be the natural outflow of a godly character.

    Tim Keller

  3. Tim,

    I totally agree. Those qualities must be genuine.

    It seems to me, too, that often what is missing from the pulpit is any sense of a cultivated or curious mind. Every preacher does not have to be an intellectual. But, even the "down to earth" style preacher is usually a very keen observer of human nature, and gifted in relating to it in simple ways.

    Part of the flaw, I think, is seminary education, and how it often handles the text as a thing under glass. I was so privileged to sit under men like Ralph Davis, who, though certainly a top notch scholar, saw the meaning of the text as primary, and not textual arcana.

    The seminaries would do well, I think, to re-visit helping preachers how to synthesize knowledge in relatable form --something like the rhetoric phase of classical education. But, I realize that seminaries are limited in what they can do, given the wide variety of educational backgrounds that come into their classrooms.

    Preachers who are interested in many things probably make more interesting preachers. That doesn't negate at all what you say above --the preacher must have the living flame of devotion to God himself if he would beckon others to it, must know the depth of his own struggle with sin if he would keep from harshly condemning the struggler, and must be mostly fearless of public opinion if he would stand in the prophet's stead.