Why is there so much bad preaching in evangelical churches? Is the Bible really so hard to understand? Do the majority of preachers intentionally and knowingly play fast and loose with the Holy Scriptures to promote their own agendas? The answer to both of those questions would seem to be “NO”. In this post, I would like to suggest the most probable sources of unbiblical preaching, and then some solutions to address the problem.
SOURCE 1: Human Tendency to Self-Reliance
There is a tendency in our fallen human nature to find a standard of moral goodness that we can meet. We want to feel like our own personal success and happiness is in our control. This tendency comes out in people’s demands for “practical” sermons. “Give us something we can do”, say the people. “My sermon needs to be practical”, says the preacher. And moralism rears it’s ugly head. Listeners eat up sermons on “Five Ways to be a Better Parent” or “Three Ways to Have More Joy”, so preachers keep giving it to them. It is a vicious cycle because listeners become accustomed to such a diet of moralistic preaching and preachers feel like they need to keep giving it to them. Listeners develop a distaste for anything that doesn’t readily give them something to DO, and protest that the few Biblical sermons that they do hear are too “doctrinal” or “academic”. Hearing about what Christ has already DONE for us is not enough. In our fallen human nature, grace and the deep things of God are difficult to understand. “Do better” is easy to understand and plays into our desire to control our lives.
SOURCE 2: Laziness
The Bible is clear in what it teaches but that doesn’t that is always easy to understand. Most people (myself included) would love to be able to just flop open the Bible and immediately find exactly what I needed to hear from God within about 10 seconds. But it doesn’t work like that. Not all spiritual truths can be understood quickly. It often takes a long time for the truth of God’s Word to sink into our souls and transform our lives. And while split second moments of insight can happen, most realizations of God’s truth come after a considerable period of thinking about it, and mulling it over. And preachers often don’t want to do the hard work to understand what God’s Word is really saying, and are content to skim something helpful off the surface of a passage, supplement it with stories, illustrations, and personal experiences, and then pass it off as God’s Word.
SOURCE 3: Training and Precedent
Most preachers will preach in the way that they have seen modeled, whether that is in the local church, at Bible school/seminary, or both. If there is unbiblical preaching in the church, then those who sit under that preaching will learn that “this is the way preaching should be done”. In today’s evangelical culture, those with natural leadership and speaking skills can easily rise to prominence without ever having learned good Bible study skills or regularly sat under the preaching of man who diligently works to bring out of the text what God has put into it.
When aspiring pastors and church leaders do go to Bible school, there is many times an effort to correct the poor Bible study habits and unbiblical models of preaching that students have learned. However, not all Bible school preaching courses are created equal and some would appear to do a poor job of training preachers - if we are to judge by the quality of preaching coming from their graduates. And even good schools have weaknesses in their training program. My preaching professors at seminary did a good job of drilling into my head that I need to work hard to find the main point of the passage and preach that, without getting sidetracked into all sorts of sub-points that detract from that main message. However, after I preached on Galatians 5 my mentor told me that my sermon was moralistic. Really? I had no idea. As I look back, he was probably right. My preaching professors did a good job on some things, but I wasn’t taught how to avoid falling into moralism. Nor was I taught to keep in mind that every passage of Scripture which I preach fits into the larger picture of the drama of redemption through Christ that is the focal point of the whole Bible.
On the other hand, a Bible school may have an excellent well-rounded training program in Biblical preaching but a student may not understand or appreciate what he has been taught. He does what the teacher wants in the classroom but upon graduation, he tosses what he learned out the window in favor of whatever he thinks is best, or whatever style of preaching is popular in the Christian circles that he travels in. Graduation from a quality Bible school is no guarantee of the quality of the graduate. The burden of responsibility on the Bible schools and the local church is great, but in the final analysis, it is the preacher himself who must answer to God as whether he has rightly handled the the the Word of God.
SOURCE 4: Missionaries
The majority of illustrations in this series on unbiblical preaching have been from sermons that I have heard in Thai churches. However, I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that I think that this is just a Thai problem. As I have sat through bad sermons in Thai churches, I have often thought to myself, “Where did these guys learn to preach like this? They must have learned from somebody, right?” Well, it was probably at a Thai Bible school, or in a Thai church - from more experienced Thai pastors. But who started the Bible school? Who started the church? If you trace the spiritual family tree back far enough, it ends up at... the missionaries!
Missionaries have done lots of great work in Thailand but I can’t help but conclude that the prevalence of unbiblical preaching in Thailand must have something to do with a poor precedent set by missionaries. Missionary example is not the whole picture, of course. All of us, no matter where we are from, are fully capable of messing up the perfectly good model that has been presented to us.
However, if you are coming out of a completely non-Christian background, then you are going to assume that whatever you see modeled as Christian life and practice is the way that it should be done. While training and precedent is important on every level, missionaries bear a special responsibility when discipling people and establishing churches in an area where people are likely to get very little Christian input from other sources.
One the one hand, I am sure that some missionaries model unbiblical preaching to begin with, and thus give Thai preachers a bad example to follow from the outset. If we are to judge by what is coming out of the evangelical church in the West, in particular the United States, then I can’t help but conclude that we are exporting a lot of useless junk.
But on the other hand, it would seem that even though some missionaries model and practice good Biblical preaching, it may be done in such a way that is not suited to the local context. Because of cultural and educational differences, the way missionaries preach may be very difficult to reproduce by the local Christians. Writing from the context of 19th century rural China, Presbyterian missionary John Nevius discovered that the sermons that he was used to from the United States weren’t so helpful:
“From the first, we emphasize teaching rather than preaching. I here use the word ‘preaching’ in its specific sense of logical and more or less elaborate dissertation. We should remember that continuous discourse is something which is almost unknown in China. Even educated Chinamen follow it with difficulty. A carefully prepared sermon from a trained native preacher or a foreign missionary, such a sermon as would be admirably suited to an intelligent educated Christian congregation, is out of place in a new station. From the fact that it is adapted to another kind of congregation, it is by necessary consequence unsuitable here. An attempt at formal preaching by those who have neither the Scriptural knowledge nor the intellectual and practical training to fit them for it is still more to be deprecated... This kind of preaching gives rise in the Church from its very infancy to a kind of formalism which is almost fatal to growth and progress.” (John Nevius, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, Monadnock Press, Hancock New Hampshire, 2003,p.47-48)
As globalization increases and the standard of education around the world continues to increase, the differences between missionaries and local Christians are often not as stark as they were for Nevius in 19th century rural China. However, missionaries still need to consider whether their models of preaching and teaching are too difficult or too foreign to be reproduced by local Christians. In the same breath, we need to guard against overgeneralizing. The type of sermon that is very suitable for an educated Bangkok congregation may fall on dead ears among a group of farmers in rural Northeast Thailand, most of whom have barely finished elementary school.
I hesitate to say that missionaries and Thai Christians should look to the sermons of Buddhist monks to learn how to communicate with Thai Buddhists. Buddhist sermons are basically moralistic, and thus can’t provide a model of grace-based Christ centered teaching and preaching. However, as a missionary I need to continue to listen to how Thai people communicate, how they string together various points into a whole, and draw a talk to a conclusion. If I were to have an in depth understanding of Thai communication styles and public speaking, then my preaching might be much different than it is now. But it might be similar, with only some tweaks here and there. Either way, the reproducibility of missionary preaching needs to be part of the discussion about unbiblical preaching on the mission field.
In the next and final post in this series, we’ll look at some solutions to help us work towards more Biblical preaching in our churches, both at home and abroad.
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