Some people may think that unbiblical preaching is the preacher’s problem, not theirs. However, Biblical preaching is more likely to occur in a congregation where not only the pastor, but also the people want solid Biblical teaching. While a pastor has a big role in helping create such an atmosphere, he is only one piece in the puzzle. If a growing number of people in a church are dissatisfied with moralism, allegory, and gnosticism from the pulpit, then it can push the pastor to up the bar. And of course, the corollary is true as well. If the congregation is not interested in hearing from God, but just wants a pick-me-up to help them get through the week, then it will be tempting for the preacher to go light on the Word of God, giving the people what they think they need.
So how do we work towards seeing more Biblical preaching in our churches? I’ve come up with a list of five solutions. The list is not exhaustive, and I am sure there are other solutions that could be added. However, if we are able to put into practice just these five, then it should go a long way in creating healthier Bible reading and preaching in our churches.
SOLUTION 1: Acknowledge the Problem
There are lots of people who think that preaching in the majority of evangelical churches is just fine. Unless we acknowledge that cobbling together some inspiring stories and throwing in a Bible verse doesn’t constitute Biblical preaching, then the famine for the Word of God will continue.
SOLUTION 2: Know Thyself
Whether we’re in the pulpit or the pew, we are all subject to the tendencies of our sinful nature. In both personal Bible study and in sermon preparation, there is a natural inclination to pick out the moral commands and examples, and to try to do them in an attempt to gain God’s blessing. Why do we do this? It comes naturally to us. We want to be in control of our lives, and reading the Bible as just moral commands or as “life’s little instruction book” puts us in the driver’s seat and not God. We need to realize this tendency in ourselves and fight against it.
There is a lie going around that because the Bible is understandable and clear for the common man, then it doesn’t take any work to understand it. That is just an excuse for laziness. When we open the Bible, we need to be intentional in thinking about what God is saying here, not just let ourselves assume God’s message for us is the first thing that jumps off the page or reminds us of some experience that we had recently. Sometimes God opens our minds fairly quickly to what He is saying in Scripture and how it relates to our lives. But it often takes work and concentration to hear God in the Bible. We need to resist the temptation to read the Bible superficially or to only take seriously the parts that validate our own ideas and tastes. Good preaching in public worship on Sunday begins with guarding against the temptations of the sinful nature as we study the Bible in private.
SOLUTION 3: Studying the Bible Together
When we study the Bible on our own, we are more likely to come up with a personalized self-focused interpretation of the text than if we study it together with others. Getting other people’s perspectives guards against us taking the Scripture to mean something other than what’s there in the text. But, of course, some small group Bible studies are not much more than pooled ignorance. That’s to say, everyone comes together and shares what the Bible passage in question makes them think of, or how it makes them feel. The key ingredient in making group Bible study helpful is a mutual commitment to seek out together what the Bible passage is really saying. We all come up with oddball interpretations from time to time but we can be brought back from the abyss if someone else in our Bible study group is willing to challenge us by saying, “I’m not sure that that is really what the passage is saying” or “How did you come to that conclusion?” Another helpful safeguard is comparing our understanding of the Bible with a good study Bible or Bible commentary to see if what we’ve come up with lines up with what is being said in the church today and in church history. Christian books, even those by trained theologians, are not always right. But if we’ve come up with an interpretation of the Bible that no one has ever thought of before, then we’re probably wrong.
I am convinced that an atmosphere of mutual edification and challenge can be formed in a small group Bible study but it needs someone to lead the way and to model good Bible study habits in community with others. A pastor can certainly do this, but any lay person who is committed to studying the Bible to find out what God is actually saying can be an important leader and influencer in this direction among their peers. In the Thai context, this is particularly difficult because of a low level of trust even among many church members, and a cultural value placed on non-confrontation which inhibits honest discussion and disagreement. But with time and increasing trust, I believe that it is possible.
SOLUTION 4: Feedback
Both aspiring preachers and those with more experience under their belts need sermon feedback. I have been preaching for five years or so but I am still learning what it means to put together a good Christ-centered sermon that does justice to the passage that I am preaching on. Sometimes I do halfway decent job but other times I botch it up. My problem is that I am not always aware of which is which. In this series of posts, I have spoken quite strongly against unbiblical preaching but I acknowledge that I am not beyond falling into moralism, or allegory, or letting my interpretation of a passage be overly influenced by personal experience.
When I can, I try to get honest sermon feedback from other people. I am not talking about looking for people to flatter me. Rather, I need people to tell me, “I wasn’t really sure what your point was there” or “How was your story about such and such related to the passage?” or “Was your sermon really about the passage that we read? It sounded more like a lecture on such-and-such point of systematic theology.” Preachers need to find people who understand what makes up a Biblical Christ-centered sermon, and convince them to give some honest feedback. And preachers who have the opportunity should take new preachers and Bible school students under their wing, giving them some constructive criticism and feedback after they preach (but ideally not the same day they preach, lest they be too discouraged!).
Because of the social hierarchy in Thailand, I don’t usually have an opportunity to give sermon feedback to those who are older than me. But I have had some opportunity to give feedback to a young man who is learning how to preach. He seemed appreciative and as I listened to him preach after that, I believe that it helped him to be more aware of preaching the main point of a given passage of Scripture.
SOLUTION 5: Good Modeling
Perhaps the most crucial ingredient to reducing unbiblical preaching is modeling Biblical preaching. This won’t necessarily cause poor preachers to do an immediate about face, especially if they been preaching for a long time and think that what they are doing works. However, as more and more preachers attempt to do justice to the Biblical text, and keep in mind Christ’s central role in all of Scripture, then over time hopefully there will be an increasing number of Biblical sermons, and fewer unbiblical ones.
People who hear Biblical sermons only on occasion may not be able to pick out a Biblical sermon from an unbiblical one, but the people who sit under the regular preaching of a good Biblical preacher will become more discerning over time - especially if they are taught the difference! People who know how to pick out good Biblical preaching will gravitate to a church that has Biblical preaching when they move to another city. Young men with a heart to serve the Lord will see that example, and take it with them as they grow and mature as ministers of the Gospel. Bible schools and seminaries also play a vital role in teaching and modeling Biblical preaching but the standard set in the churches is often just as, if not more, influential on the formation of young preachers than what they get in a classroom.
Whether we are modeling preaching in our own country or abroad, we need to present a reproducible model for people to follow. In the United States, there are not a few preachers who smatter their sermons with Greek words, showing that they have studied the original text of the New Testament. On occasion, that is helpful but usually it isn’t. In Thailand, some preachers (especially in Bangkok), like to use English words and English alliterations in their sermons. Some Thai listeners will understand enough English to find it beneficial but many don’t. Often times there is an equivalent Thai word that will do the job, but the English is thrown in anyway. In both cases, this type of trotting out languages unfamiliar to listeners doesn’t give a model that many other preachers can follow, especially if not everyone who will be preaching has the benefit of a seminary education or study in an English speaking country. I am not saying that preachers should dumb down their messages but rather, present a model of preaching that is reproducible.
As a missionary, I admit that my communication and preaching style are very influenced by my American upbringing and education. However, I would like to think that over time I am learning more and more how to communicate effectively and attractively to a Thai audience. I probably succeed sometimes more than others. Therefore, I need to continue observing Thai communication styles, how Thai people form arguments and express ideas. Aspiring Thai preachers need a model that will connect with the Thai people they are preaching to. Some of the Thai brothers whom I appreciate most are those who are willing to give me criticism and feedback to improve my Thai preaching, at both the level of language and content. In addition to that, I am thankful for the Thai preachers who can effectively take the content they hear from missionaries and present it to others in a format much more readily understood by their fellow countrymen.
The solution to unbiblical preaching begins with all of us. What is our attitude when we come to the Bible? Are we seeking to discover what God wants to say to us there? Or are we happy with a mere inspirational nugget to keep us going? Are we willing to think hard about what we are reading, and to question whether we have really understood it correctly? Are we willing to risk offending people by questioning their understanding of Scripture when we study the Bible together? Are we willing to leave a church where Christ is not being preached, and seek one out where He is? Or are we too comfortable where we are to really care?
For those who teach and preach the Word of God, are we willing to do the hard work to discover and be true to what is in the pages of Scripture, or are we content to preach from our own experience and say what people want to hear? Are we willing to cut out that brilliant illustration or funny antedote because it doesn’t help explain the passage being preached? Do we trust God enough to preach what is actually in the pages of Scripture without cherry picking verses from here and there to prop up the message that we think people need to hear? Until we do that, the sheep will continue to waste away, all the while thinking they are being well fed.
Unbiblical Preaching - Part 1: Missing the Point
Unbiblical Preaching - Part 2: Moralistic Preaching
Unbiblical Preaching - Part 3: Allegorical Preaching
Unbiblical Preaching - Part 4: Gnostic Preaching
Unbiblical Preaching - Part 5: Consequences
Unbiblical Preaching - Part 6: Sources
Unbiblical Preaching - Part 7: Solutions