Introduction (From Part One): All preachers preach, and for that reason sermons are constantly on their minds. But in the main, this is probably true only of those sermons they’re delivering from week to week. It’s another matter entirely to think not about the product of preaching (sermons), but about the thing itself. That is, about preaching as an activity, a phenomenon, or, if you will, a recurring event in the life of the Church.
For many years I’ve been constrained by force of circumstances to think about preaching in this more philosophical way. Not only because I preach, but because it’s been my lot to teach preaching on the university and seminary levels. As a result, I’ve enjoyed the happy obligation of reading scores of books about preaching. The other day I counted 65 in my own library, not to speak of the many I’ve borrowed from others. Not all are good, but all have forced me to think about preaching philosophically. So have the several hundred biographies of preachers that stand on the shelves across the room from me even as I write.
It may, therefore, have been this calling to teach preaching that first motivated me to preach to my people about it. But somewhere along the line I came to realize that my church actually needed to hear preaching on the subject of preaching. That realization has become a conviction that the Lord’s people have a genuine, spiritual need to hear this topic unfolded just as scripturally, exegetically, and applicationally as any other Bible theme. So through the years I’ve done so frequently, perhaps even once or twice a year.
Preaching about preaching may seem a novel idea, perhaps even a self-serving one. It strikes people as something especially suited to the preacher’s needs, not his people’s. But there are compelling reasons for confronting them also with this subject.
Our People Need Warning That Preaching May Be Easily and Acceptably Perverted.
The word pervert is from a Latin word which means “to turn completely.” Morals may be turned completely from the right to the wrong. Theology may be turned completely from orthodoxy to heterodoxy. Likewise, preaching may be perverted. It may turn away completely from being what it ought.
Most of our people would recognize preaching that has turned from orthodoxy. But they don’t always recognize preaching that has turned from what, for want of a better term, I’ll call Biblicity—that is, from a pervasively Biblical content.
For instance, awhile back I had several hundred miles to drive and spent the time listening to preachers on the radio. One turned quickly from his text to berating politicians. The second attempted to deal with a passage, but it was soon obvious that he had not carefully studied. He carelessly misinterpreted his text, bogged down in a few of its most insignificant details, and only came alive when he began to talk about his pet peeves, particularly some of the ways in which people drive. I heard only about ten minutes of a third, but he spent most of it talking about the way he eats like a hog. He described the four or five ways in which he gets food all over himself. But then he has a little dog that comes over and licks the crumbs off of his face so that he’s clean again. Sometimes his guests think all of this is odd, but that doesn’t bother him. He’s not going to change. He plans to keep eating any old way he very well pleases.
I found myself liking this man the best because he was entertaining and made me laugh. I was actually sorry his program was over so quickly.
I use this personal illustration because late that evening it occurred to me that my own reaction to those three preachers was probably very much like that of their congregations. The first interested me briefly because as soon as he began talking about the government his message took on an air of relevancy. I knew I wasn’t really hearing the Bible, but the issues were current, the observations were conservative, and the preacher was hot enough to keep my attention for awhile. Frankly, the second man bored me, even though he was the only one of the three actually attempting to preach the Bible. He could have riveted me. I was hungry for someone to minister the Bible to me that night. That’s why I had turned on the radio. But his obviously careless handling of the text gave no sense that God was speaking authoritatively. Finally, when he turned to poking fun at women drivers, I just sort of stared through the windshield with my mind drifting in and out of hearing him to thinking about the things that were heavy on my heart. The third man got and held my attention because he made me laugh. Laughing made me feel better. For a moment I quit thinking about my burdens. It’s why I enjoyed his program and would have been glad to hear him tell some more funny stories.
But here’s what happened when his program was over. I switched off the radio and drove for perhaps 15 minutes in silence. Just thinking again. And all the serious things that really mattered flooded back over my spirit. I prayed. I thought. I prayed some more. And then, without really thinking about what I was doing I started fishing around in the cassette holder for a tape—not of preaching, but of music. For an hour, at least, I played that tape forward and backward, forward and backward, and let the sounds and words of serious singing minister to my spirit.
Now I’m able to recall all of that, not because my memory is good, but because much later that night I began to reflect upon what had happened. I had needed someone to minister to me. For several days I had looked forward to that trip with its hours to myself so someone could. Preaching was what I instinctively turned to first. I longed, not wanted, but really longed to be preached to. I hungered to hear about the Lord, about His sovereignty in my life, about His promises, about His sufficiency, about His care for me personally. I needed His words. None of the preachers gave very many of them to me. But two of the preachers almost made me forget my need of them. For a brief time they actually provided a bit of relief by distracting me from that real need. But when they were finished I returned to searching. No one had opened the Scriptures to me. No one had healed my soul. For that I had turned to music. The tape was no harangue. There were no pet peeves, no distracting anecdotes, no shallow laughter. Just warm, heartfelt, engaging singing about the Lord that lifted my spirit and renewed my confidence in Him.
I’ve wondered since, was my experience that night a microcosm of what goes on in many churches? Maybe people keep returning to them week after week because if the preacher majors on current events they think he’s practical, or if he makes them laugh they feel better. Sure, contemporary issues and humorous stories aren’t really the Bible, but they’re tolerable because he does read the Bible at the beginning and now and then he refers back to it. But what really ministers is something else—the Christian friendships, the fellowship, the programs, the opportunities to serve, and maybe most of all, the music.
We’re all unspeakably grateful to God for the gift of ministering music. I can personally testify that my car, my home, my church, and my soul are full of it. But if the part of our services that is the most God-centered, earnestly devotional, and quickening to needy hearts is the music, then those of us who preach need to shut ourselves up in a quiet room and weep before the Lord. Most godly Christian musicians would weep for us if they recognized what’s happening. I trust it isn’t. But tellingly, just a few weeks after that night in the car when I found myself turning from preaching to music, a man confided in me that though the preaching in his church is weak, his family joined because the music is outstanding.
Such folks need renewing in their minds. They’re not thinking God’s thoughts. They need for us to preach about preaching and how easily it can turn away from being strictly occupied with the words of God to becoming a collection of personal opinions, funny anecdotes, pet peeves, and careless exposition—and yet seem like tolerable preaching. They need for us to explain to them why it’s not.
They need us to clarify why they must choose churches for nothing less than their preaching. Why they must call preachers to their pulpits who focus on the Lord and the text. Why they must encourage us to do so by their unflagging interest and earnest response when we do. Why they should vote with their feet if we won’t.
The issue could not be more serious nor the need more acute. Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. Likewise, study to persuade your people that it must be so.
Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.
(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2002. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)