Why is some evangelical preaching boring? By Peter Corney
Evangelicals have rightly always placed a high priority on preaching and in particular expository preaching, the expounding and explaining of the Bible. We do so because we believe in the authority of the Word of God for our belief and practice – for our life. We believe that it is the spiritual food of the people of God. As Jesus said, “We do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (We have seen what happens to churches that have been starved of its food, when Biblical preaching and teaching has been downgraded; their emaciated bodies are waiting for the body bags.) We believe that it is powerful and as the instrument of the Spirit of God can change and reshape us.
But out of our convictions and concerns there has developed among some evangelicals a style of expository preaching that is frankly boring! It is boring because it often lacks application to people’s lives and so, unintentionally, is not nourishing. It often sounds like little more than a reiteration of the text with some minor and obvious commentary. It’s a bit like having the Bible reading again with some explanatory notes.
This style of preaching has come about because of a conviction and a fear:
(a) A conviction that believes that the scriptures will do their own work of application to the hearers without too much human interference. All the preacher must do is study them carefully in preparation, explain their plain meaning and pray. This high respect for the text fears that too much comment by the preacher will detract, distract or deviate from its message.
(b) There is also a fear that too much attention to creative application and cultural relevance will overpower the plain meaning of the text or at worst distort it by amplifying the preachers own concerns and preoccupations or infect it with the preachers imagination.
Now there is substance to these concerns. We have all sat through sermons that used the text as a springboard to dive into a pool of ideas only vaguely related to the meaning of the text. Some of us have listened to preachers who had read somewhere that Karl Barth said the preacher should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, except that there always seemed more attention was paid to the Murdoch news than the Good News! We have probably all experienced the Entertainer, where the sermon is a collection of anecdotes strung together with a series of jokes and seasoned with a text or two. Some of us have had the misfortune of sitting under preachers of a very liberal theological persuasion whose attitude to the text was that it was an interesting religious resource to be dipped into for the odd quotation, or alternatively, to be the subject of detailed deconstruction or demythologizing. This really is stones for bread.
So evangelicals are right to be concerned and cautious about preaching that departs from the text or places the focus somewhere else. Nevertheless preaching that does not apply the text to life is not evangelical preaching either and it will not feed the people of God nor challenge the enquirer.
Evangelical Preaching is a dynamic experience that involves the following elements:
(1) The text and its priority. The preacher’s first task is to approach the text with great respect and prepare thoroughly through prayer and study to understand what it means.
(2) To explain that meaning clearly. This will often require developing illustrations, metaphors and examples. This will require imagination and creative thought.
(3) To ask and answer the question; how does this apply to our lives now? What does it mean for the way we are to believe, live, think and act today and tomorrow?
(4) The preacher themselves. The whole process passes through the mind and heart of the preacher, their personality, their gifts, abilities and limitations. Preaching is proclaiming Christ, the Word made flesh, through the flesh and words of a human person, the preacher. It is, unavoidably, truth conveyed through personality, which is both its strength and its weakness. Because God has instructed us to convey his Word in this way our role and involvement is not marginal.(Romans 10:14-15)
(5) The cultural context. All preaching takes place in a particular culture at a particular time by an enculturated person to a group of enculturated people.
It is never culturally neutral. The preacher must ask themselves; who are the listeners? The closer the language, idiom, humor and culture of the speaker to those of their listeners the greater will be the attention, understanding, learning and acceptance. The greater the distance the greater will be the loss of attention and the failure to accept, understand and learn. (This is obvious with ethnically different groups when the cultures and languages are radically different, but it is also true between the sub cultures of a shared dominant culture. eg; the difference between a person from a well off private school background who has a university education and a job and lives in Kew and someone from a low income family who didn’t finish high school, has been unemployed for two years and lives in Dandenong. These differences also exist between age cohorts of people in the same overall culture.) Preaching, like publishing the scriptures into a new language, is an exercise in translation, the greater the differences between the preacher and the listeners the more challenging is the process of translation.
(6) Communication skills. The preacher must ask themselves; why will people listen? Why will they pay attention? Even when the culture of preacher and listeners is similar it does not guarantee communication! Unless preachers understand the basics of communication they will fail to gain a hearing. Gifted preachers have an intuitive feel for this but all preachers can learn the basics and greatly improve the hearing of the Word of God. Relevant application is an important issue here.
The following books offer very helpful insights into the communication issues:
Inductive Preaching – Helping People Listen.By Ralph L Lewis and Gregg Lewis Crossway Books 1983.
Preaching to a Post Modern World. By Graham Johnston Published by Baker Books 2001.
Why Don’t People Listen. Republished as The Good Listeners. By Hugh Mackay published by Pan MacMillan 1998