I am committed to expository preaching. It is my unshakable conviction that the proclamation of God’s Word should always be the heart and the focus of the church’s ministry (2 Timothy 4:2). And proper biblical preaching should be systematic, expositional, theological and God-centred.
Such preaching is in short supply these days. There are plenty of gifted communicators in the modern evangelical movement, but today’s sermons tend to be short, shallow, topical homilies that massage people’s egos. They focus on insipid subjects like human relationships, ‘successful’ living, emotional issues, and other practical but essentially worldly themes.
Like the ubiquitous Plexiglas lecterns from which these messages are delivered, such preaching is lightweight and leaves little more than an ephemeral impression on the minds of the hearers.
Some time ago I hosted a discussion on preaching at our church. In preparation for the seminar, I took a yellow legal pad and a pen and began listing the negative effects of the superficial brand of preaching that is rife in modern evangelicalism.
I thought initially I might be able to identify about ten, but in the end I had jotted down a list of sixty-one devastating consequences! I offer here the most important as a warning against superficial preaching – both to those who occupy the pulpit and those who sit in the pew.
It usurps the authority of God
Who has the right to speak to the church – the preacher or God? Whenever anything is substituted for the preaching of God’s Word, the Lord’s authority is usurped. What a prideful thing to do! It is insolent to substitute man’s wisdom for God’s Word.
It challenges the lordship of Christ
Who is the Head of the church? Is Christ really the dominant teaching authority in the church? If so, why are there so many churches where his Word is not faithfully proclaimed?
When we look at contemporary ministry, we see programs and methods that are the fruit of human invention – the outcome of opinion polls, neighbourhood surveys and other pragmatic artifices. Church-growth ‘experts’ have wrested control of the church’s agenda from her true Head, the Lord Jesus Christ.
When Jesus Christ is exalted among his people, his power is manifest in the church. When the church is commandeered by compromisers whose sole ambition is to conform to the culture, the gospel is minimised and true power is lost. Artificial energy must be manufactured and superficiality takes the place of truth.
It hinders the work of the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit uses the Word of God to do his work. He uses it as the instrument of regeneration (1 Peter 1:23; James 1:18) and of sanctification (John 17:17). In fact, it is the only tool he ever uses (Ephesians 6:17). So when preachers neglect God’s Word, they undermine the work of the Spirit, producing shallow conversions and spiritually lame Christians – if not utterly spurious ones.
Thus it strips the pulpit of power. ‘The word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword’ (Hebrews 4:12). Everything else is impotent, giving merely an illusion of power. The showman’s ability to lure people in should not impress us more than the Bible’s ability to transform lives.
It demonstrates a lack of submission
In the modern approach to ‘ministry’ the Word of God is deliberately downplayed, the reproach of Christ is quietly repudiated, the offence of the gospel is carefully eliminated, and ‘worship’ is tailored to fit the preferences of unbelievers. This is a refusal to submit to the biblical mandate for the church. The effrontery of ministers who pursue such a course is, to me, frightening.
It severs the preacher from sanctifying grace
The greatest personal benefit that I get from preaching is the work that the Spirit of God does on my own soul as I study and prepare for two expository messages each Lord’s Day. Week by week the duty of careful exposition keeps my own heart focused and fixed on the Scriptures, and the Word of God nourishes me while I prepare to feed my flock.
So I am personally blessed and spiritually strengthened through the enterprise. If for no other reason, I would never abandon biblical preaching. The enemy of our souls is after preachers in particular, and the sanctifying grace of the Word of God is critical to our welfare.
It clouds the transcendence of our message
Consequently, it cripples both corporate and personal worship. What passes for preaching in some churches today is no more profound than the five-minute ‘children’s message’ beloved by our fathers’ generation. That’s no exaggeration. Such an approach makes it impossible for true worship to take place, because worship is a transcendent experience that should take us beyond the mundane and simplistic.
True worship is the response of the heart to God’s truth (John 4:23). There is no way our people can have lofty thoughts of God unless we have first led them into the depths of God’s self-revelation. But preaching today is neither profound nor transcendent. It doesn’t go down, and it doesn’t go up. It merely aims to entertain.
It robs the preacher of the mind of Christ
Pastors are supposed to be under-shepherds of Christ. Too many modern preachers are so bent on understanding the culture that they develop the mind of the culture – not the mind of Christ. They start to think like the world and not like the Saviour.
Frankly, the nuances of worldly culture are irrelevant to me. I want to know the mind of Christ and bring that to bear on the culture, no matter what culture I may be ministering to. If I’m going to stand up in a pulpit and be a representative of Jesus Christ, I want to know how he thinks – and declare it to his people.
It degrades the priority of personal Bible study
Is personal Bible study important? Of course. But what kind of example does the preacher set when he neglects the Bible in his own preaching? Why should people study the Bible if the preacher doesn’t himself do serious Bible study in the preparation of his sermons?
Some of the gurus of ‘seeker-sensitive’ ministry advise us to trim from the sermon all explicit references to the Bible. ‘Don’t ever ask your people to turn to a specific Bible passage because that kind of thing makes seekers uncomfortable!’
Some ‘seeker-sensitive’ churches actively discourage their people from bringing Bibles to church lest the sight of so many Bibles should intimidate the seekers. You might give them the impression that the Bible is important!
It mutes the voice of God
Jeremiah 8:9 says, ‘The wise men are ashamed, they are dismayed and taken. Behold, they have rejected the word of the Lord; so what wisdom do they have?’
When I speak, I want to be God’s messenger. I’m not interested in explaining what some psychologist or business guru or college professor has to say about an issue. My people don’t need my opinion; they need to hear what God has to say. If we preach as Scripture commands us, there should be no ambiguity about whose message is coming from the pulpit.
It breeds indifference to the glory of God
‘Seeker-sensitive’ preaching fosters people’s concern for their own well-being. When you tell people that the church’s primary ministry is to fix for them whatever is wrong in this life – to meet their felt needs and help them cope with their worldly disappointments – you imply that their mundane problems are more important than the glory of God and the majesty of Christ. Again, that sabotages true worship.
It robs people of their only true source of help
People who sit under superficial preaching become dependent on the cleverness and the creativity of the speaker. So they become spiritual couch potatoes who just come in to be entertained. They have no particular interest in the Bible because the sermons they hear don’t emerge from the Bible. They are wowed by the preacher’s creativity and manipulated by the music, and that becomes their whole perspective on spirituality.
It deceives people about their real need
In Jeremiah 8:11, God condemns the prophets who treated people’s wounds superficially. That verse applies powerfully to the plastic preachers who populate so many prominent evangelical pulpits today. They omit the hard truths about sin and judgment. They tone down the offensive parts of Christ’s message.
They lie to people about what they really need, promising them ‘fulfilment’ and earthly well-being when what people really need is repentance, faith, an exalted vision of Christ and a true understanding of the splendour of God’s holiness.
Pastors must preach the Word even though it is currently out of fashion to do so (2 Timothy 4:2). That is the only way their ministry can ever truly be fruitful. More than that, it assures fruitfulness in ministry, because God’s Word never returns to him void but always accomplishes that for which he sends it and prospers in what he sends it to do (Isaiah 55:11).
Adapted with grateful acknowledgements. John MacArthur is the pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and is the author of numerous books.