Browsing through the latest issue of “Preaching” Magazine this week (always at least 1 or 2 helpful articles), I was troubled again to read the page of suggested illustrations for spicing up sermons.
Here’s an example:
“Have you heard of any of these famous failures as reported in ‘Mental Floss’ magazine? Author Jack London was rejected almost 600 times before selling his first story. In Tom Landry’s first season as a coach, the Cowboys did not have a single victory. Steven Spielberg was denied admission to film school three times. Lucille Ball, before her breakout sitcom, was in so many bad movies that she was called ‘The Queen of the B’s’. Theodore Geisel’s (Dr. Seuss) first book was rejected by 27 publishers.”
How many stories have you heard like these from your preacher lately? They are pretty common fare. In fact, preaching built around stuff like this has become 90% of the diet of many congregations.
Now, first let me say that I too find stories and quotes like these inspiring. I really enjoy reading them. But they represent a huge problem we have in today’s church:
Much of our preaching is not Christian, in the historic sense, at all. It is humanism.
Think about the suggested illustrations above. The underlying message they are being used to present is “the importance of perseverance”. Now, is that a theme found in the New Testament? Sure it is:
“And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” (Galatians 6:9)
“For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise:” (Hebrews 10:36)
… and so on. There are numerous verses we could cite.
But hold on a minute.
To my knowledge, none of the examples given — Jack London, Tom Landry, Steven Spielberg, Lucille Ball and Dr.Seuss — ever suggested that the reason they were able to persevere, nor the reason for their ultimate success, was faith in Jesus Christ. And furthermore, the successes they achieved were all temporal things (what the Apostle Paul would have referred to as “perishable crowns”, 1 Corinthians 9:25).
The New Testament, by stark contrast, teaches that both (1) the doctrine of perseverance in salvation, and (2) the virtue of persevering in the believer’s life, are the products of God’s sustaining power, and that ultimately they lead to God’s eternal glory.
Do you see what’s happened?
We’re illustrating a Divine grace by using examples from the realm of human will. But nothing in the Christian gospel is of human origin. As John 1:13 states plainly, nothing of the Christian experience is “of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
You might accuse me of straining at gnats, but on the contrary, the confusion that this all leads to is no small matter. Just look around at the church today and you will see the appalling results everywhere.
A lot of what is passed off as “gospel preaching” today is merely self-help talks aimed at reforming people into the best examples of themselves that they can ever become. We’re interested in “churching” people; getting them to rub shoulders with us long enough until their morality and self-discipline improves.
That is so far removed from the gospel the apostles preached that I’m not sure they would even recognize it as being related to their message which turned the world upside down.
The New Testament gospel is not an attempt to improve people at all, but to kill them! To bring them to the place where they recognize that there’s nothing they can ever do to be acceptable to God, and that all their best attempts at it are like dressing themselves up in filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Only when they come to see their total INability can they embrace the true gospel which calls them to die to all their own human (sinful) efforts, and trust completely in Jesus Christ. He alone is God’s provision to save us, and we can add nothing to His accomplishments for us.
Christianity is all based, from beginning to end, on HIS merits — none of our own.
What are we preaching instead? Humanism. That’s all.
hu·man·ism noun \ˈhyü-mə-ˌni-zəm, ˈyü-\: “a system of values and beliefs that is based on the idea that people are basically good and that problems can be solved using reason instead of religion.”
So, what is the answer?
Well, my first prescription would be that we preachers need to recognize the problem and repent. I say “we” very purposefully, because humanism is so insidiously subtle, and so appealing to our sinful nature, that it manages to creep in with all of us. I know I’ve regularly seen its shadow lurking in my own preaching, and have to expel it.
One of the big problems is that pastors today have been taught that the way to be really helpful is to do “topical preaching” (otherwise known as “behavioral preaching”). So they begin their sermon preparation by thinking of a topic or an idea that’s on people’s minds, and try to figure out what they can say about it from a Christian perspective.
When you do that, you’re already in huge trouble. Why? Because the next obvious step is to go hunting in the Bible for a verse you can preach your topic or idea from. That’s what we call “proof-texting”, and that’s how cults are born. Because you can preach just about anything from the Bible if you’re willing to “proof-text”.
It’s all back-to-front, you see. The only right way to start sermon preparation is to let your Bible reading and study suggest the theme you’ll preach on. You teach the truths that God’s Word lays down, and with the proportion and emphasis that it gives to each one. To do that you have to systematically teach the Bible.
We have to stop being so enamored with giving people what they want, and come back to our calling which is to proclaim the gospel that people need. The church (and her ministers) is meant to be a prophetic voice that confronts, challenges and leads the culture. Instead, we have settled for being a mere echo of our culture — and all too often a mediocre one at that.
One day we will stand before the Lord and have to give an account for every sermon we preached. Imagine trying to explain to the Lord why we laid aside His glorious gospel to take up the bankrupt squeaking of humanism.