Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Russell Muilenburg on Preaching

"What Preaching is NOT (and what it is)"
2 Corinthians 5:20
Russell Muilenberg

My Daddy can Outpreach your Daddy

There is a story of three little boys who were sitting around bragging about their daddies. You know, saying stuff like: "My daddy can beat up your daddy" and "My pa is smarter than your pa."

Eventually they got around to the one measure of greatness that matters in today's world: money. One little boy, whose daddy was a doctor, said, "My daddy makes $60 an hour just for looking at people without any clothes on."

Another little boy, whose daddy was a lawyer, said, "That's nothing, my daddy makes $120 an hour just for sitting at his desk."

The third little boy, whose daddy happened to be a preacher, said, "You think that's a lot, my daddy talks for 15-minutes and it takes four men to collect all the money!"

For the jaded, that's what preaching has become, a 15-minute fund raising speech in order to run the rest of the church's programs. The world has seen too many preachers on TV and elsewhere for whom the bottom line has been making money.

On the other hand, complaints have arisen that church is boring, or that it is not relevant. And so, attempts have been made to change preaching...to make it more exciting or to make it more practical. The results have ranged everywhere from "drive-thru" churches where an entire service is conducted in 15 minutes and the "worshippers" don't even have to leave their cars; to more "traditional" looking sermons which consist more of jokes and stories than what I would call real preaching.

I’m doing a series on “How to Listen to a Sermon” because preaching is an important part of the life of the church. Week after week we gather here to listen to the proclamation of God’s Word. But we don’t think that much about why we have preaching.

It’s easy to think, “We have a sermon because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” But that’s not a good enough reason to do anything.

So I want to teach you how to listen to preaching, and part of that means helping you understand what preaching is.

What Preaching is NOT

The sermon today is not going to be like my usual sermons. I have a text, but we’re not going to look at it until we are nearly to the end of the message. It’s kind of ironic, really. Last week I stressed the importance of the sermon being based on a specific passage of God’s Word, and today we’re not going to get to God’s Word until the end.

But the passage we will look at will give us a very good picture of what preaching is, and I thought it would be a good idea if we first talked about what preaching is NOT. Because I think there are a lot of mistaken notions of preaching out there, which lead to some poor examples of preaching and set up some mistaken expectations in those of us who do the listening. So, let’s pray, and then we’ll dig into what preaching is NOT.


1. First, preaching is not entertainment.

We live in a world of multi-media entertainment. We are a culture that puts a high priority on our leisure time. The movie, television, and theme park industries are multi-billion dollar cash cows. We are accustomed to the very best in entertainment, and if we don't get it, we switch the channel.

Unfortunately, we now get church on TV and church on radio. The problem with that is that as soon as you put anything on TV it becomes entertainment. That's the nature of the medium. Moreover, with our cars, we do not think twice about driving 20 to 30 miles to go to a church. So suddenly, with all these various churches and preachers competing for the same market, the pressure is there to deliver something on the same level as the church on TV, or the church down the street. The pressure is there to entertain.

Now, I am not trying to excuse boring preaching. I think the Bible is an exciting book, I think the gospel is the most exciting story that anyone can ever hear, and preaching which is dry, lifeless and boring does not do it justice. But, once the priority of a preacher becomes entertainment rather than faithful proclamation of the Word, he has moved into something other than preaching.

A friend of mine gave me a great quote, though he could not tell me where he had gotten it. He was pretty sure it was a statement of one of the 17th century English Puritan preachers. The quote goes like this: "We have gone from telling the old, old story to telling stories."

Think about that: replacing the old, old story of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love with mere stories. Could we be any more shallow? And if that could be said of 17th century England, how much more true is that of us here in the 21st century?

Unfortunately, this replacement of preaching with entertainment cannot be blamed on preachers alone. We are a consumer culture. We comparison shop for our food, for our cars, for our homes, for our entertainment, and for our churches. If the preacher is not making us laugh enough, or not telling enough stories, or just plain not entertaining us, we don't hesitate to find a church or a preacher who will. If all else fails, we can watch the preachers on TV.

And so, as we try to define what preaching is, and what it is not, one of the first things we need to set straight in our minds is that preaching is not entertainment. A preacher does his congregation a disservice when he makes entertaining them his first priority, and a congregation does its preacher a disservice when it judges him primarily on his entertainment value.

2. Second, preaching is not moral lessons.

We are a very practical culture. We want to know the "bottom line." We want to know what is the best way to live our lives and how we can do it. So often, then, our preaching becomes a sort of how-to guide, filled with moralisms that can be essentially boiled down to: "Be good, be nice, and tell the truth." Instead of preaching about God, we get sermons on how to be like David or how not to be like the Pharisees.

We want to have the "Seven Steps to raising a Happy, Healthy 7 year-old." We want the "12 Habits of Effective Living." The "3 Principles of Exceedingly Happy Marriages."

But Christianity cannot be reduced to moralisms. It is not less than our moral behavior, but it is certainly more. The Bible is not "God's Handbook of Hints for Happy Living," it is His revelation of Himself.

Like author Donald Miller says, you can’t reduce the key to marriage to three steps, or seven, or twelve. It seems more like there are a million keys to a happy marriage, and they change depending on what mood she is in.

The church is not a drive-thru, it is a temple. We are called to contemplate what God has said, to meditate on who He is as He has revealed Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ. It is as we encounter Him through His revelation that our lives are transformed.

Consider Isaiah, and his vision of the throne room of God in Isaiah 6. He enters the temple, and he gets a load of God, “high and exalted” with the train of his robe filling the temple. There are angels flying around crying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” And the very doorposts are shaking with their cries.

There were no moral lessons to be gleaned from that experience. Isaiah did not return to the Israelites with 6 points of application springing out of that experience.

No Isaiah did not apply his vision of God, it transformed him. As he encountered the holy, holy, holy LORD God Almighty Isaiah's life was changed forever. Ray Ortlund, one of my professors at Trinity writes:

That is our aim in preaching--to take people up out of this vulgar world, with which they are entirely too familiar, and lift them up into the presence of God through the expository unveiling of his glories, so that the ministry of the Word becomes a mystical encounter with God himself. When the Bible opens up to us in this supernatural way, we do not apply it, it applies us.

Now, don't get me wrong. The Bible does have a moral standard to which we are accountable, and one of the tasks of preaching is to call people to live more holy lives, but we cannot allow preaching to be reduced to that alone. Christianity is more than just a set of rules to be followed, it is a relationship with the living, eternal God.

3. Third, preaching is not a pep-talk.

We live in a society where "self-esteem" and "positive affirmation" are buzz-words. We are careful not to step on anyone's toes, we want to build people up, encourage them, not tear them down. This is reflected in much of our preaching. It is not uncommon today to hear preachers who proclaim the "Power of Positive Thinking"--a politically-correct, psychologized sort of theology which basically says: "Your O.K., I'm O.K., let's have a group hug."

To me, that sort of preaching resembles a pep-rally. 20 to 30 minutes of rah-rah encouragement designed to make people feel better about themselves and to charge them up for the week ahead.

Unfortunately, much of the Bible is not designed to make us feel better about ourselves. In fact, much of it is clearly intended to make us feel very uncomfortable about ourselves.

We do not come to church on Sunday mornings--at least we shouldn't-- to receive a pat on the back and a positive affirmation, so that we can go out the next week happy about who we are and what we are doing. We come to hear from God. We come to be challenged, convicted and changed. And for that to happen, sermons sometimes have to get decidedly negative.

Of course, there is room for encouragement in our preaching. Because after we confront the changes that need to be made, we find that God in His grace is prepared to change us. The gospel, rightly understood, is the most encouraging thing in the world.

But if we don’t confront sin first, we can’t understand the gospel correctly. There is no good news unless you first come to terms with the bad news. And so preachers who only want to score points with their audience by telling them how good they already are do a terrible disservice to those people.

Preaching is not a pep-talk. A preacher’s job is not to make people feel good about themselves, but to bring them face to face with the reality of God.

4. Fourth, preaching is not a lecture.

We live in the information age. We have thousands and thousands of bits of information available to us in our libraries and via the internet. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it's wonderful. The world is probably as educated now as it has ever been.

But there is a danger that we can let our sermons deteriorate into lectures about the Bible and God rather than messages from God.

This is a problem which my preaching is prone to. I enjoy learning, collecting information. I like to put an outline up on the screen and then lecture on various points of theology. But I need to remember that Christianity is not about how much we can learn, it is about our relationship with Jesus.

It is possible to have large amounts of information about the Bible and about God and still not be in a right relationship with Him. The Pharisees are a prime example. They knew the law inside and out, and yet their hearts were far from God.

This is not to say that we should not deeply explore God's Word. I think one of the biggest flaws in American Christianity is that we do not know our Bibles very well. The reason I have been so careful to cover the Bible's inspiration and power is so that we would be reminded of how important studying Scripture is.

But we need to remember that the point of preaching is not so that everyone in the congregation will be able to pass a multiple-choice test on the Bible, but so that we will be drawn closer to God.

This is one of the reasons I don’t put outlines of my messages in the bulletin. I don’t want to give the impression that the main goal of a sermon is to get the outline complete. I don’t have a problem with it if you find taking notes helps you to focus, and I have made some outlines available on the table outside the south door there, and you’re welcome to pick them up if you feel they will help you; but I want you to remember that the point is to know God, and not necessarily to know the three points on this week’s outline.

5. Fifth, preaching is not an opinion piece.

We live in a pluralistic, politically correct environment. We are told that there are no absolutes and that no one has the right to impose their worldview on anyone else. We hear that it is good for us that we believe what we believe, so long as we keep it to ourselves.

In this environment, Christian preaching is viewed as the opinion of the preacher. For those who share that opinion, the sermon is eagerly applauded and encouraged. But for those who do not accept it, the sermon is dismissed as easily as one dismisses the opinion that the University of Northern Iowa has the best college football team in America.

The standard response is: "Well, that's just your opinion." A response which effectively ends any objective sort of conversation.

In this sort of environment the final arbiter is not truth, but likes and dislikes. If you like something the preacher says, then you accept it. If you do not like what he says, then forget it. Maybe next week he will say something that is more appealing to you.

But preaching is more than just the preacher's opinion. Remember, we have already said that the source for preaching is the Bible. And if the sermon is drawn from Scripture, then it carries the authority of God's word.

Here is the advantage of having an objective, public record of God's revelation such as we do in the Bible. When a preacher claims that the Bible says something, we can all turn to the Bible together and check. If the text pointed to cannot bear the weight of the claims the preacher is making, then perhaps we can dismiss it as merely his opinion. But if the text does support what the preacher says, then the sermon goes from being merely the opinion of one man, to being the opinion of the inspired, authoritative, living, and powerful Word of God. One can still choose not to accept it, but one does so at one's own peril.

Christian preaching, when done right then, is not a mere opinion piece, it is the truth of God.

What Preaching Is

So there you have a list of what preaching is not. All of these are things I have observed in American Christianity that I believe are mistaken ideas of what a sermon should be.

What then is preaching? What definition can we use to keep us from having the wrong expectations of the sermon?

Here’s my definition: Preaching is the declaration of God’s message on God’s behalf. Preaching is one of the unique ways God has chosen to share Himself with the world.

It is entertaining, it is informative, it does train us in right living, it does encourage us, and it includes opinions on who God is and what God does. But it is more than all that. It is the Revelation of God and His invitation to salvation to humanity.

Here’s the verse for my message today, one which I believe gives us a very good picture of what preaching is. 2 Corinthians 5:20:
20We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God.
The key word here is “ambassadors.” You all know what an ambassador is. An ambassador is a representative of one country who goes to another country on his or her country’s behalf.

So, imagine if, after the 2008 election, President Obama or President Giuliani or whoever gets elected taps you to be the new ambassador to Borneo. And then, let’s say that after you get there, Borneo becomes the center of a major international incident. I don’t know why, say they discover that’s where all the Weapons of Mass Destruction were hidden.

Now, all of a sudden, you’ve got this major role to play. And as U.S. Ambassador, when you speak to the people of Borneo or the Bornean government, you speak on behalf of the entire U.S. Your words are the President’s words.

That’s quite a position to be in. It’s a privileged position, because you get to speak on behalf of your country. And it’s also a position of great responsibility. Because you want to make sure your words are in keeping with American policy. And, of course, if you strike out on your own, it won’t take long for the President to yank you back to the States.

Well, that’s sort of like being a preacher. We are ambassadors of Christ. God has designed it so that we are declaring His message to the world. He has chosen to speak through us.

It’s a position of privilege, it’s pretty neat to think that when I stand up here I’m doing so on Christ’s behalf.

But it’s also a position of responsibility. I want to make sure the words I say are not my own, but are in keeping with the message God wants to send to the world.

And that’s why I put such an emphasis on expository preaching. On having messages that are explicitly drawn from the text in front of us. Of letting the Bible passage, as much as possible, declare its message in its own way through me.

An expository sermon is one whose form, content and intent is determined by the form, content and intent of the text being addressed. If sermons are carefully written in this way, then they will reveal the full truth of God's Word.

Moreover, as God's Word is expounded faithfully by a person with real struggles, joys and hurts, preaching will fulfill its incarnational nature. Just like God most fully revealed Himself in the flesh of Jesus Christ, so God still chooses to work through human beings.

Preaching is the declaration of God’s message on God’s behalf. It’s as though God is making his appeal through us.

And it’s worth noting, in closing, that this verse—2 Corinthians 5:20—isn’t just talking about pastors and teachers. I believe Paul has all Christians in mind when he calls us ambassadors of Christ. In a way, we are all preachers. We may not exposit the scriptures, or stand in front of large groups of people. But we all have the opportunity to declare God’s message on God’s behalf. In the way we live, in the way we speak with those around us, we are all given the privilege and responsibility of making God’s appeal to the world.