The Perils of Preaching Today

“We come to the Bible, raising questions about its relevance to our present daily lives, only to find that the Bible questions us about our relevance to the way of Christ.” -Will Willimon

We’re modern people. We value efficiency and practicality.  We like quick how-to tutorials that immediately get to the point. We’re self-driven, ambitious people with a plan for our lives, attainable goals and a timeline for accomplishing them all.  We’re upwardly mobile folks with our eyes on the prize and money in the bank.  We know what we want, we’re not afraid to work hard to achieve it, and we don’t have a minute to waste.

Enter the Sunday sermon.

If this generalization is even remotely true of  many of us, and we bring this modern, self-driven mindset and agenda into the church on a Sunday morning, then we should encounter a problem and experience some serious tension when the pastor opens the Bible and begins to preach.

The tension is caused by a serious collision of agendas and different understandings of the Christian life.  The challenge the preacher faces when he brings the Word of God to us modern Western American people is this: We want a God who exists to help us further our agendas, reach our goals, make our lives easier, bring a comforting word to our chaotic lives, and show us how to live “our best life now.”  This self-centered approach to God and the Bible is veiled by reasonable sounding language of “life application” and “applying the Bible to our lives.”  Yes, we want bite-sized principles from God’s word to tack onto our lives, to aid us in furthering our agendas.  

The preacher is in trouble.  The preacher approaches the pulpit knowing full well that God’s main desire is to break us of our self-absorption, and invite us to live for His Kingdom and further His agenda. God may not be all that interested in helping us climb the corporate ladder, raise the all-American family, get into the college we want, or excel in our athletic feats. The Jesus we encounter in the Gospels may not be all that into making “family life” the center of our lives (cf. Luke 14:25-27). He calls us to organize our family lives around Him. When the preacher opens the Gospels, we find ourselves standing face to face with a wild, untamed God who doesn’t fit neatly into our modern categories, and refuses to be a gentle go-to-person for career advice and occasional counseling.

Jesus demands we leave our present, self-made universe behind, and enter a new reality shaped by Kingdom values and a Kingdom advancing agenda.  God is on the move in the world.  The preacher has the high and dangerous calling to stand “shaking and trembling” Sunday after Sunday, inviting her congregation to get over themselves for a minute, set aside their own dreams, agendas, value and obsessions, and give themselves instead to the work of furthering God’s Dream for the world.

Or, as Jesus put it: “If anyone would come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”  Or, Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

I don’t know how to do this. I don’t want to do this. I’m scared to preach to 21st century Americans.  Rather, I’m scared to preach the demanding, self-sacrificing word of Jesus Christ to modern Americans.  But like the prophets of old, preach I must.  I have no choice. Like Jeremiah, “If I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jer 20:9).  So, I preach. The best I can. Which is not good enough.  But the Word of God has a power of its own — “living and active, and  sharper than a two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12).

How does a preacher come against this cultural captivity to our own personal kingdoms and agendas?  Answer: Stop emphasizing personal application, stop reinforcing the notion that God’s Word is mainly a how-to manual for living the All-American life, and stop merely extracting bite-sized moral principles from the text to apply to our lives (as if we are the main dish and God’s Word is some spiritual relish on the side to enhance us).

God’s call on preachers of every age is the same, and it is not soft and squishy. Paul writes to the young pastor-in-training, Timothy, this “solemn” warning about preaching (and you hear an urgent, life-or-death, eternity-hangs-in-the-balance tone in his words):

1I solemnly urge you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus, who will someday judge the living and the dead when he appears to set up his Kingdom2Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. 3For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear4They will reject the truth and chase after myths” (2 Timothy 4:1-4).

Paul is emphasizing that preaching is a solemn business. God is busy setting up his Kingdom, and the church gathers each Sunday to learn how to get in on that project. However, every Sunday there’s a silent invisible stand-off happening in the pews, as some ears itch to hear sermons that are “relevant to my life” and help further my kingdom (“follow their own desires”) and other ears itch to hear my life can help to further God’s Kingdom. The sermon draws a line in the sand (“patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage”), and invites people to choose which kingdom they will serve. In a time where “sound teaching” is out of season, many “will reject the truth” and instead “chase after myths” — including the myth of the American gospel that reinforces that God exists primarily to serve us and help us further our dreams/agendas.

So, with Paul, I’m solemnly urging preachers to invite people to apply their lives to the unfolding agenda of God in the world. As Will Willimon puts it, “We come to the Bible, raising questions about its relevance to our present daily lives, only to find that the Bible questions us about our relevance to the way of Christ.”  Start with the narrative, and invite people to imaginatively place themselves within this alternative story, traveling along with the disciples, on mission and at the feet of the master.  Invite comfort-seeking Americans to the windy shores of Galilee, and help them hear firsthand the uncompromising call of Christ to “Come, follow me!” Let’s drop our nets and leave our boat (whatever that represents for each of us) and follow. It’s that simple — and that incredibly difficult!

Friends, will you step outside your modern world and back into the wild, adventurous story of God in Jesus seeking disciples to follow him onto the risky waters of faithful obedience?  This Sunday, when you sit in your pew and the preacher opens the Scriptures, may we beg that the living God would not merely supplement our lives with a meager morsel of spiritual truth to get us through another week.  Let’s ask the Living God to break us, strip us of our self-motivated pursuits of the American Dream, encounter us in holy love, and pull us into a much larger Story where we find our lives having relevance to the work of God in the world.

“For the pagans pursue all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you” (Matt 6:32-33).

I written elsewhere on this topic herehere and here.

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