Preaching or Nice thoughts?
Its been almost 10 months since I returned to my local assembly from school and in that time, I have heard a lot of sermons. But during that time, few of the sermons impressed me.
It wasn’t that they were all horrible with no redeeming qualities or that they lacked application or that the teaching was ‘false’, or I didn’t agree with it. I realized that the problem with many of the sermons I had heard was that they were just ‘nice thoughts.’
My intention with this article is not to take pot shots at leaders in my local assembly. If that were the case, I would simply go to the elders.
Most of the speakers that are invited to speak on Sundays at the assembly are from the area but from outside my assembly. Thus it stands to reason that this indicates a problem that is larger than my one local church.
What do I mean by “nice thoughts”? Sometimes after a sermon someone will ask you what you thought and you say, “Oh, he had some nice thoughts.” And this usually means that the sermon wasn’t spectacular but there was a thing or two he said that you appreciated or saw value in. Nice thoughts are, well, nice!
The problem is that many sermons are just “nice thoughts.” Let me give a hypothetical example. Let’s say the text for your sermon is 1 John 1. The speaker gets up, gives a nice little introduction, makes a joke, and then reads the text. Then for the next 25 minutes he proceeds to talk about fellowship.
Of course, fellowship is found in 1 John 1 and is an important word and key concept. But as you listen you realize that this is just what the speaker thinks about fellowship. About how much he likes to talk to people during the coffee break in-between meetings and the fellowship of other believers and the fellowship of meeting with younger men to built them up in the faith.
This is of course all nice and encouraging thoughts. But they are nice and encouraging thoughts that are not rooted in 1 John 1!
Losing the text
My problem is that many of the sermons I have heard are simply nice thoughts that are tied to a passage by a key word me or idea in a passage, but that only becomes a spring board so the speaker can say whatever they want about said thing. The text and its flow of thought become lost in the sprawling thoughts of the speaker only to be momentarily returned to briefly pull on some other word or idea.
As a result, the text is not thoroughly explained or thought through or really even taught! To return to our hypothetical example, if my mom asked me about what I learned about in the sermon on 1 John 1, I would say I learned that fellowship is important, but don’t ask me what fellowship means in 1 John 1 because I didn’t learn that!
Many of us have a biblical and theological ‘gut’ to know what is right or wrong or what to say in a sermon or on a passage. And many times, our gut is decent. But when the text is not thoroughly walked through in a sermon our theological gut just leads us to teach nice ideas.
In order to have a greater vision of Jesus Christ, we must be continually refined through the Bible. I do not go to church to hear what a preacher has to say about fellowship. I come to church to see what God has to say about fellowship!
Getting back on track
What do we need to do to begin really teaching the text of Scripture? We need to become better readers and interpreters of the Bible. This means we need to be shaped by the text. When we sit down to study for a sermon, perhaps questions of application, how to structure the sermon and what to say need to be delayed in order to more fully absorb the text.
We must also ask what is the point of a sermon? Application or inspirational call is not the end-all-be-all goal of preaching. Knowing God and his saving actions in Jesus Christ and the Spirit is. Sometimes a more ‘theologically’ dense passage is daunting, because it seems hard to find something practical. But the theological argument is sometimes the point!
We should realize that learning something for the sake of learning isn’t that bad. Of course, we do not want knowledge to become dry and we want to be doers not just hearers. But occasionally it is ok if there is less practical teaching in a sermon on order to make room from the depth of the passage.
Tackling hard passages can be daunting but there are plenty of good resources to help study the Bible better, like Howard Hendricks’ Living by the Book or Duvall & Hay’s Grasping God’s Word. There is also the Handbooks for Old and New Testament Exegesis by Kregel Publishers which help with interpreting and preaching.
Sermons are supposed to be centered around the preaching of the Word of God. If sermons simply become nice thoughts about a few words in a chapter, then some of the most brilliant and breathtaking portion of Scripture will be lost to us.