If any post ever posted on Cerulean Sanctum runs the risk of alienating more people, this is the post. I hope you will all stay with me and think hard about the issues raised here. I don’t want you to come to easy answers that maintain the status quo. I want you to think about what you see in your church and others like it. I want you to be honest with yourself before God like you’ve never been so honest before in your entire life.
I was outside walking my property, thinking about life, when it struck me—hard. And the more I thought about it, the harder it was to escape the question or dodge what it might mean for us.
Is pulpit preaching ineffective at creating disciples?
Told you it would be a stunner.
I ask that question as part of an examination of my own life. Walking around my property, I tried to remember great sermons I’d heard preached from the pulpit. I reached back over thirty years of being a born-again believer and strained to think of the thousands of sermons I’ve heard preached in my life, sermons preached by some of the most famous preachers in the United States, sermons preached by regional church leaders, and sermons preached by preachers known only to their congregation. Sermons that were expository, topical, or narrative-based. Sermons carefully crafted. Sermons that came out of nowhere. Sermons of all styles, methods, and lengths. And the more I thought about all those sermons, the more I couldn’t escape the truth that collectively they’d had little effect on my growth in Christ.
How is that possible?
Well some of you might be thinking that I’m one of those hard soils where the sowed seed of the Word wound up gobbled by birds. I can’t argue against that entirely. I don’t think any of us can say with all certainty that we’re immune to losing some of what we hear. Let’s be honest: Can you remember three points in detail from a sermon your pastor preached three months ago? Didn’t think so. In fact, I would guess that many of you can’t even recall with absolute certainty the topic your pastor preached on just a month ago! I know that my pastor, an anointed preacher, preached on love this last Sunday, but apart from a few points about Jesus saying that loving God and loving my neighbor sums up the commandments, most of that message is a blur to me.
In fact, if I examined thirty years of fine preaching I’ve heard, both in church and in conference settings, I can only think of two or three messages that have stuck with me to any extent. And even those are hazy beyond one or two main points.
The second comeback to my assertion would state that the reason I don’t remember those sermons is because they weren’t preached by the power of the Holy Spirit by men who take preaching seriously. If that’s what you think, well, I have no other comment for you than to say you’re utterly wrong. In fact, if we excluded some of the great preachers I’ve heard whose messages I’ve now forgotten, we’d have to knock out every nationally known preacher. And yes, the preachers you swear fealty to. Even the ones with the screaming fanboys. Yep, forgotten. (Scary, isn’t it? Like I said, let’s not lie to ourselves.)
A third comeback would say that I actually do remember all those pulpit-preached sermons, but I’ve so internalized the little bits and pieces of them over the years that they’ve become indistinguishable from the sum total of my discipleship experience. That may, in fact, be true. Perhaps it’s the nature of hearing sermons preached from the pulpit or the conference hall floor to insinuate themselves into your soul and blend in with all the other good stuff that accumulates there over the years.
But I don’t believe that’s entirely the case, either, and I’ll tell you why.
In my thirty years as a Christian, I can say without hesitation that I do remember some messages with crystal clarity. And each of those lasting messages possessed characteristics not found in today’s pulpit preaching.
As a fourteen-year old in eighth grade, I remember the retreat to Lutheran Memorial Camp that ended in my salvation. Like it was yesterday. I distinctly remember Fred, the old gentleman who sat down in a circle with fifteen of us, as he looked each one of us in the eye and spoke. I can recall the flannel shirt he wore. He preached about Jesus and why He had to come, and what His coming meant to lost people. Even now, I hear the love in that man’s voice. The words he spoke still burn. I remember he cared deeply about each person there. Thirty years later, I can still feel the intimacy of the moment.
As a nineteen-year old college student, I remember The Relationship Seminar, where Charlie, the leader of the campus ministry at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, spoke about what it meant to love others as Christ loves us. I can still hear his calm voice telling of the lessons he learned about loving unconditionally as he bathed a profoundly retarded man who could not control his bowels and bladder. I remember him speaking of the woman whose husband cheated on her while overseas in the war, of the no-fault divorce he secured, of his subsequent cancer, and how (after he died) that spited Christian wife loved unconditionally and took into her home the children of his adultery and the woman who replaced her in her former husband’s life. In my head, I see the dozen people who gathered in Charlie’s modest house to eat a simple meal together before he spoke. I remember how blessed we all felt to be crammed together in his tiny family room, and the graciousness of his wife as she cooked for us. Even now, I sense the blessedness of hanging around afterward, ruminating on what we had just heard.
As a 33-year old, I remember the Bible study I led at Phil’s place. I remember how much the half-dozen of us guys wrangled over the meaning of the words of God in Hebrews. I remember seeing the lights come on as we preached the truth of Hebrews to each other. I can recall in detail our discussion over the reality of the mirror images of heaven and earth. I can still feel the passion we felt over opening up the Scriptures and finding truths that smacked us in the face. Stuff we’d read before, but only now did it make sense because we all wanted it to make sense, and we were telling each other that it made sense.
There are other times in my life like those above that the truth of God rang so true that no one could miss the pealing of its bell. In those times, the message didn’t just bounce off my hide and roll away. The preaching stuck.
When I think about the spiritual inertness that defines so much of American Christianity, when I think about all those pulpit-preached messages that will pump up the crowd today and be forgotten tomorrow, I can’t help but think that perhaps pulpit-preached messages are missing some key ingredients that make them capable of changing lives forever.
Those missing ingredients, as I see them:
1. Intimacy – I think the way we’ve structured our churches has built too much distance (real and figurative) between the speaker and the hearer. We know that he’s not really speaking to us man to man, so we automatically throw up an inner defense. But when you and I are face-to-face with the preacher, and it’s just a handful of people gathered ’round, God sets the world on fire. Why? Because we live in a disconnected age dominated by barriers between people. When those barriers come down, the Gospel gets through and among us.
2. Relationship – When we’re in that intimate environment, when we love the people around us not just with the typical “love” we say we possess, but a holy love that makes us willing to die for the person beside us, the Gospel penetrates our hearts. The reason you can’t be a Lone Ranger Christian is because God designed the Church to be a Body. And the tighter-knit that Body, the more powerful its ability to absorb what it needs to hear.
3. Holy moments – When we cultivate an environment of intimacy and relationship, we allow for holy moments that create an atmosphere where people dying to be fed will be. And that’s powerful. Holy moments sink in. They aren’t forgotten because the Holy Spirit broods over us in those precious times.
4. Discussion – The kind of preaching that sticks necessitates that we discuss what we have heard. We talk about it afterwards as friends gathered in an intimate place amid a holy moment. We wrestle with the implications of what we’ve heard and share them among the group. And those implications stick because we are struggling through them together.
These are the reasons I believe that pulpit-based preaching today may be less than effective at making disciples. What I believe has changed since the days when pulpit-preached messages made a more profound impact is that all of us are simply dying inside for those four missing ingredients. The true Church in previous times did possess those traits, enabling pulpit-preached messages to sink in. But we don’t have those four ingredients to the extent that we need them today. And that drastically limits the effectiveness of pulpit-preached messages.
I’ll add one more truth I’ve discovered about my life that makes preached messages stick in my own heart so that I grow.
One other major reasons that preaching fails to build disciples today is that we’ve forgotten that doing the Gospel is as powerful as preaching it. For the unbeliever who does not act on the truth of the Gospel, who has never even heard it before, perhaps a man preaching Christ from a pulpit has power. But for those of us who already know Christ, I would contend that doing what we already know of the Gospel is the best way for it to find a root in our lives and grow fruit.
For every sermon that I’ve forgotten, I can remember thousands of instances where I acted on what I already knew of the Gospel and saw that knowledge flourish in my life in a new way. Be doers of the word, not hearers only deceiving yourselves, right? I know it’s an enormous cliché, but the older I get the more I believe this: Preach the Good News; at times use words.
This is not to denigrate the spoken word at all, but in an age where nearly everyone in the America has easy access to the Bible, I suspect the person who best exemplifies discipleship and growth is the one who reads the Scriptures, believes them, and goes out and does them without a second thought.
Even now, disgruntled readers of this post are sharpening their two-edged swords ready to unleash a Scriptural onslaught to tell me why preaching the Gospel is the epitome of the Christian walk. But you know what? I agree that speaking the truth of God to each other is about as important as it gets. However, I am simply not convinced that pulpit-based preaching is the best means to get the message out anymore. An honest assessment of the American Church MUST lead to that conclusion. Despite thousands of sermons preached on Sunday mornings in thousands of churches across the country, we Christians here are losing ground by every measure.
There has to be a better way. We need to start adding back those missing ingredients and reconsider the methods by which we encourage and build each other through the proclamation of the Truth of Christ. Perhaps then the message will sink in and transform us into who God meant us to be.