Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Reformation Project: the Priority of Preaching?

A recent news article in Christianity Today reported on a recent Gallup Poll that found "sermons that teach about scripture" to be the top reason that Americans go to church. Over 80% identified it as a priority. The report has been linked by numerous religious blogs hopeful that it points toward a renewed emphasis on biblical preaching. Certainly, such an emphasis would be welcome in these quarters, so one might be forgiven for wishing it to be true.

I must admit I don't believe it.

I do have a bias, as the poll would contradict my premise in the study involved in this project that suggests that the trends found in the large churches I visited are reflective of the future direction of American Christianity. In the majority of those churches, biblical content was minimal, and in some of them the handling of the Bible by the ministers can only be described as incompetent (readers are welcome to refer back to prior posts which can be found in the Table of Contents, and I will defend what may seem to be this harsh assessment in a future summary post).

Of course, it may be that these churches are not representative, but the fact that roughly 150,000 people in the largest churches in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex attend churches that do not for the most part feature sermons that teach about Scripture must be accounted for. Anecdotal experience would suggest that this is not limited to these large churches.

Of course, I am left with the need to explain how the poll could be so wrong. I will offer two explanations.

First, the poll relies on self-reporting, and such polls are notoriously unreliable when an answer is considered to be the correct one. As a well-known example, Americans have over reported actual church attendance for decades -- most people think that attending church is a good thing, so a larger than true proportion have reported attending church regularly as a result. In a similar way, there is reason to think American church goers would think that sermons teaching scripture provide a right reason for going to church -- what Christian wants to admit that Bible based sermons have nothing to do with church attendance? Thus, they give the answer that they believe to be right, perhaps without reflecting on whether it is consistent with their choice of church.

Second, one might argue that biblical preaching is sufficiently rare so that many church goers do not really know what solid scriptural preaching is. A clear and passionate presentation of practical advice punctuated with Bible verses is often confused with scriptural preaching.

This week, I spoke with an old friend who told me that her family had recently left their church of many years. While several of the reasons seemed valid, she added that she doesn't like expository preaching. Telling her that expository preaching is what I've done my whole life started an interesting conversation. What became sadly clear was that this life long, intelligent Christian really did not know what expository preaching really is, though she was sure she doesn't like it (probably because she associated it with a particular pastor).

It is not my intent here to argue about the validity of other approaches to preaching besides an expository one. However, I do think that this is an indication that many people have little understanding of what clear scriptural preaching should look like.

A reformation of biblical Christianity in the United States would require a return to scriptural preaching. One might hope that a day would come when the Gallup Poll turns out to be accurate.

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