Preaching As The Central Feature Of Christian Worship

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Having as one’s objective, better, biblical preaching, will necessitate a certain analytical, discerning spirit.  To some, any analysis smacks of “critical.”  They are concerned that young preachers might be disheartened by condemnation aimed at weak preaching.  It matters not how general you are when calling for the best possible effort in preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who feel queasy about the integrity of the preaching specie they espouse will resent the challenge regardless.  The mere suggestion that we improve is resented.  Preaching is too important for thin-skinned resentment and stubborn pride.  We all can and should strive to do better.  Any young preacher discouraged by such an assertion, may not be cut out for the rigors of ministry in the first place.

Since preaching is the central feature of Christian worship, these things should be said:

  1. Preaching is the primary means for exalting God in worship.

The simple form and function of the Baptist church, is intended to communicate the fact that God is still speaking to man through His word.  The central location of the pulpit and the active speaking component of the weekly preaching experience suggests this.  Preaching is the primary means for exalting God in worship.  Preaching that is biblical, communicates accurate theology about God and His word with proportionality, will to that degree honor God.  It will inform and edify the listener in their understanding of the Godhead and thereby, produce worship-inducing faith (Rom. 10:17).  The height of our worship is determined by the depth of our spiritual understanding and effecting this is the goal of preaching.

There is far too much that goes on in the pulpit that magnifies men and their agendas instead of God’s.  Preachers are quite adept at sanctifying their personal interests and featuring them in their sermons.  This is a potential pitfall all preachers face.  I wish I could re-preach a lot of sermons, but I cannot.  Those accidents of ignorance and hubris, happened.  Now, I labor to avoid repeating the same mistakes.  If the preacher seeks to worship God as a part of his study process, it will help to infuse his preaching with God-enthralled expressions of truth that will require no editing or apologies. 

  1. Preaching is important because of its necessary content.

There is no question as to the necessary content of preaching.  We are commanded to “Preach the word..” (2 Tim. 4:2).  What the Bible says is our message.  It is not what we use to undergird our message.  The Bible is in total, in context - every word, phrase and teaching - our message.  Biblical preaching is not accomplished with clever twisting and spiritualizing of texts in order to say what we think is important.  Biblical preaching involves conveying what the Bible actually says and means to a group of people.  The words of God…they are our message.  The context in which it was given and originally intended, is how a text is to be understood and that is what we preach.

A basic theology of preaching and its priority would be as follows: We are made Christians by faith (Ep. 2:8-9).  Faith is what enables the Christian walk (2 Cor. 5:7; He. 11:6).  Faith comes directly from God’s word (Rom. 10:17).  Consequently, it is God’s word that we preach in order to see people saved by faith and walking by faith.  Paul told Titus, that God “…hath in due times manifested his word through preaching.”  (Tit. 1:3).  If our preaching is manifesting things other than His word, it ceases to be preaching.  It is important to note that reading a passage or a verse before launching into an agenda-driven, anecdote-laden tirade or pep talk is not preaching.  The content of the scripture in context actually needs to make it into the sermon.  There is nothing wrong with lectures, speeches and talks that deal with things other than scripture.  Just do not call it preaching.

  1. The significance of the message and ministry of preaching must shape how we undertake the work.

Preaching is the means that God uses to save sinners (1 Cor. 1:17-18).  This is serious, eternal business.  When I hear people taking shots at those who “read a lot of books and use big theological words,” I know I am hearing from someone who has a diminished view of preaching.  While simplicity is useful, ignorance and banality is tragic.  Furthermore, genuine simplicity requires a greater comprehension in order to be achieved than a superficial handling of doctrine can produce.  The challenge to be “better” is not criticism, nor does it come from a critical spirit (at least not from this source).  Some appear to be offended by the slightest suggestion that better preaching is needed and possible.  Many who are the most exercised in fighting modern styles in ministry are off-put…”alarmed”… by the challenge to preach with greater degrees of commitment.  Styles of pulpits, clothing, lighting, music, grooming, seating and technology are all VITALLY important to some, but preaching “styles” are nothing to be worked up about. For the record, I am old-fashioned.  I am King James Only (I believe the word of God is perfectly preserved in the King James Bible.  I trust every single word).  I am a Baptist, believe in hymn singing and I oppose entertainment-driven, worship services.  I am not appealing for compromise.  I am saying, in bold declaration, that it most certainly matters how you preach and what you preach.  Preaching is MUCH MORE than a mere style issue.  Instead of resenting the suggestion that our preaching is lame, why not dig in and insure that we stop preaching doctrine-free sermons that are overloaded with sensationalism and humanistic philosophy?  

  1. The substance and delivery of every sermon indicates what is important to the preacher and the church.

Years ago I took all of my sermons, many of them hand-written at the time, and laid them out on a table in stacks according to topic.  As you might imagine, the size of the piles was revealing.  As a young pastor, I preached three times the sermons exhorting the congregation to “do something for God” than sermons on encouragement or doctrinal edification.  Many vital subjects were not touched.  I simply “followed God’s leading in preaching what my people needed” (translation: I followed my selfish, often paranoid, internal impulses in my search for a “message” every week).  

I did not realize (at least not in a mature sense) that I held the message in my hands.  All I had to do was labor in a passage, organize the thoughts and preach the clear truth of scripture to the church. This is how God’s work gets done.  The people would hear divine truth, the subject matter would be doled out in godly proportions and the congregation would learn how to understand a passage in context.  Instead, I preached sermons that were shaped and motivated by my own presumption to diagnose the church’s spiritual condition.  It always amuses me to hear the advocates for certain “styles” of preaching, say, “I want to preach what my people need.”  The first thing that is objectionable here is the suggestion that any pastor knows what “his people” need.  We do not even know what we need.  The second is the implication that thorough, biblical preaching would fail somehow to meet that need.  There is a marked difference between using the Bible to undergird a dissertation or rant on a subject that is accepted as “biblical,” and actually preaching the content of a text at hand.

  1. The value of the congregants should be reflected in the quality and meaningfulness of every single sermon.

The older I get, the more precious the people are to me that come to hear me preach.  What I once saw as an “opportunity,” I now see as a grave responsibility.  God’s people are important and valuable.  They submit their children to my influence weekly.  They invite their friends to worship with us.  They support the church financially.  For me to go into the pulpit and “phone it in” is unthinkable.  To replace Bible preaching with comedy routines, story time, motivational speaking, leadership talks, political tirades and pop psychology is near blasphemous.  To whine incessantly about the 3% who are not supporting my fainting ego and ignore the faithful saints that are always plugged in is weak. As I am more aware of this charge, I labor with greater heart and less petty, self-interest.  God’s people, the sheep under my charge, deserve my very best.

  1. Every program, celebration, themed event and promotion has the potential to detract from the preaching and what it is about.

The eagerness with which some go about programing the church into an entertainment center, or as some would say, “turning the church into a circus,” has incurred a backlash of prohibition.  Many have gone beyond opposing abuses and extremes, labeling any attendance push or special day as humanistic and pragmatic.  Fair enough.  God’s people could assemble in a barn, sing hymns, pray and have preaching from the word of God and do just fine.  Many have.  We might say anything beyond that is a departure from “the old paths.”  Primitivism is a natural refuge for those deeply opposed to all things progressive.  I cannot sort all this out, because I swing wildly myself at times between a passion for souls that moves me to “do something big” and my conviction that New Testament principles are sufficient without worldly adornment and distraction.  Getting it right is not easy, but it deserves our best effort.  When we are careful, both an active burden for souls and a faithfulness to sound doctrine and practice may flourish concurrently.

In contrast to a radical primitivism, many things can and should be done in order to relate to the people we are trying to reach with the gospel.  Someone said kindness is treating people the way they want to be treated.  Feeding people, enjoying good music and fellowship with special themes and promotions do not have to detract from the biblical thrust of the church…but often, they do.  It is a curious thing to examine some church calendars and wonder where, between, a New Year’s stewardship push, the annual marriage series, Easter festivities, mother’s and father’s day, three patriotic Sundays, first responder’s day, baby dedication, Faith Promise month, back-to-school week, Trunk-or-treat and four weeks of Christmas sermons, the garden-variety, Bible preaching will get done.  This little article will chaff some and it is not intended to.  I am only suggesting that there might be a reason why John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, said, “My little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 Jn. 5:21).

  1. Preaching must follow the divine order of the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, the 20th century’s leading liberal, was famous for promoting a modern approach to the Bible and a kind of preaching referred to as pulpit counseling.  Evidently, many of us independent Baptists have been so busy rooting out hobgoblins of Hybels and Warren, that we have missed the creeping influence of Fosdick.  It is common to hear preachers refer to their search for “a message” as part of their effort to “preach what their people need.”  

What people need is no mystery, nor is it determined by our ability as “leaders” to diagnose.  People need an enhanced, heightened view of God that only comes from a high view of scripture.  The value with which we esteem scripture will be manifested in our preaching.  We have a responsibility to preach the Bible, to hold the Godhead high before our congregations.  Massive amounts of humanistic “how to” sermons could be replaced with doctrine and believers would be stronger for it (*Doctrine - what is taught, God’s truth in God’s words).  Preaching is an act of worship.  It is a central feature of Christian faith and practice.  To reduce it to “rallying the troops” is a travesty.

  1. The qualified pastor will be apt to teach.

One of the qualifications of the pastor is that he be “apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2).  Jesus “…went about all Galilea, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom…” (Mt. 4:23).  Again, doctrine involves, things taught, which is the central emphasis of New Testament church life.  Teaching involves the transfer of knowledge with attention to detail; preaching is communicating God’s word with explanation and application. While preaching is distinct, it will include teaching.  The teaching role of the pastor is fundamental to his work.  “Building the church” is not.  When we organize and lead in multitudes of functions and administrative duties and fail to teach people the word of God, we are failing as pastors.  Feeding sheep the word of God is what being a pastor is about (Acts 6:1-4; 17:1-3; 20:20, 28; 28:31; 1 Tim. 5:17; 2 Tim. 2:15; et al.).  If we attend every party, ball game and surgical procedure and fail to teach people the word of God, we are not doing the work of the pastorate.

  1. If our agenda is biblical, Bible preaching will encourage it; if not, the agenda should be discarded.

Preaching the Bible, by passage and book, influenced in theme by what scripture emphasizes, repeating what scripture repeats, will produce holiness and proper theological perspective.  Tantrums, tirades, demonstrations of rage, mockery, ridicule and sensationalism will not (Jm. 1:19-21).  Authoritative, direct rebuke that excoriates all that is sinful and dishonoring to God is needful and will be called for as the scripture requires it.  Sound exposition that explains the Bible and seeks to sermonize from that explanation will grow the listener in the faith.  Agenda-driven, control tactics will not.  The difference between a preacher searching around for a “thought” from a verse or passage that fits what he thinks his people need and laboring in a text to give the people what is there is night and day.  No one needs to worry about Bible preaching.  It will always meet the spiritual needs of people of faith.  It never, ever misses.

  1.  Nothing will improve our preaching quicker than improving the preacher.

I always thought a mid-life crisis was superficial; the efforts of an aging man to maintain some element of “cool” for as long as possible.  I remember the eighties when forty-five to fifty-year-old men would get perms and sports cars.  I did not understand the depth of the struggle.  Now I get it.  I know what it is like to go through the day, numbering short-comings, failures and unrealized dreams like marbles in a bag.  After awhile, you can no longer manage the marbles, nor can you start over.

Unfortunately, there are no do-overs.  Most of our regrets; however, are overblown.  The good we do is always in spite of ourselves and because of the grace of God. The best chance we have for preaching well with whatever time God has given us is to improve ourselves.  Better food, exercise, rest, recreation, good books, systematic sermon preparation, reasonable self-analysis, strong relationships with the key people in our lives and honest effort to help people through evangelism and discipleship are all things that will help us.  By helping ourselves, we help our preaching.
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  1. Bro Dolton, I believe this is the best thing yet that I have read of what you have written. There were scores of statements in this post that I wanted to highlight. Thank you for the the work it took to put these profoundly helpful thoughts together.