Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Reformation Project: Why Megachurch Johnny Can't Preach, Part II

In my previous post, I noted the exceptionally bad preaching that I heard at most of the megachurches visited during this project. I even said that some of the sermons fell to the level of incompetence and gave two examples representative of that.

How could that be? How can it be that so many sincere Christians attending the largest churches in what is arguably the buckle of the Bible belt listen to ministers that perform their most basic task either poorly or even incompetently?

Without attempting to delve into the particular circumstances of those churches or pastors, I want to address more generically the reasons for a dearth of good preaching in American churches today, arguing that poor preaching largely results from a cultural conditioning that warps both the training of ministers and the expectations of those that choose them. There is a match that is made between the outlook and skill set of American ministers and those who show up on Sunday. However, that match is made somewhere other than heaven.

John R.W. Stott, in his classic work on preaching "Between Two Worlds," claimed that a preacher was a man who stood with one foot in the world of the Bible and the other in the world in which he resides, having the task of bringing the former world to bear upon the latter. In order to do that, a minister must have a solid grasp on the world of the Bible (he must also understand the world in which he resides, but that will not be the focus of this post). Many ministers do not have that, and I will defend the idea that their churches really don't expect them to.

Many young men thinking about ministry arrive at that place having spent most of their church lives in youth group, along the way developing a strong moral sense, perhaps a place of leadership among their religious peers at church, and a passion for serving Jesus. Both peers and older Christians are likely to praise their zeal, valuing religious enthusiasm in a young believer to such an extent that they don't want to discourage the young Christian by suggesting how much they have to learn. Thus, the sincere young Christian may not have a good grasp on the gaps in his Bible knowledge, and he also is likely unaware of the extent to which worldly mindsets have shaped his religious outlook. That is to say, he has grown up in a world that treats the customer as king and that thinks about life in therapeutic, not theological, terms.

This therapeutic and marketing orientation skews his approach to academic preparation for ministry. Of course, many church traditions will tell the young prospective minister that seminary or other academic training is entirely unnecessary, while in other instances he will complete his classwork under the illusion that it is irrelevant to his work as a minister. Churches will often reinforce that illusion, telling the sincere young man that studying dead languages or being able to explain the wrongness of various modern approaches to theology is not as important as connecting with people and helping them find Jesus.

Of course, seminaries are imperfect institutions that can be improved upon by something else. However, most of those criticizing academic training don't have in mind a replacement; they simply think that a sincere relationship with Jesus and good communication skills are enough, and this simply is not true. The result of this is ministers who lack preparation for ministry. They are steeped in the language of our therapeutic culture, and they have some level of understanding of how the church can market itself to broaden its appeal, but they are not able to think through the way the law functions in the lives of believers and unbelievers. They don't know how to express the role of church and Christian in their culture. They lack the ability, or perhaps the desire, to understand common areas and distinctions between morality and self-improvement from the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. They don't know how to clearly distinguish between law and gospel.

And, they don't know how to relate the Bible as a single story from Genesis to Revelation while also distinguishing the interpretation of various genres of Scripture. This means that they lack the skill to model good Bible interpretation to their congregants.

Those that are tasked with teaching simply must have preparation that allows them to understand deeply. Many ministers lack this, and they sadly don't desire it. What we are talking about is mental work, but it doesn't require the minister to be an intellectual giant by any means. He only requires the preparation and the desire to think about ministry of the Word in this way.

Many don't. Their churches don't expect them to. And weakness in the church is the result.

Megachurch Johnny can't preach, and for the most part their churches don't care.

For those interested, the Table of Contents for the entire "Reformation Project" is here.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Reformation Project: Why Megachurch Johnny Can't Preach

I really do not like criticizing preachers. The task of preaching is foundational to a pastor's calling; thus, Christians frequently refer to their pastors as "preachers." Some denominations highlight the importance of preaching in the terminology that they use for ordinands, emphasizing that they are being ordained, for example, to "the ministry of the word and sacrament." Besides this, it is the most visible aspect of a senior pastor's responsibilities. Some people so associate pastoral ministry with preaching that they jokingly -- one hopes -- will say that the pastor only works one day a week.

Joking aside, it is not possible to overstate the importance of preaching to Christian worship and to worshiping Christians. "Faith comes by hearing," Paul writes in Romans 10, "and hearing by the word of Christ." He has already asked how someone can hear without a preacher. Thus, preaching is a means of grace by which God creates faith in the hearts of his people. That is important.

Yet, preaching is a difficult task. Most pastors will address their congregations more than 40 times per year, and those in churches with a second weekly service might double that. Ministers frequently have additional teaching responsibilities. Speaking so frequently to the same group of people requires great effort. Congregants don't expect to hear the same sermon portions over and over, meaning that a sound minister must each time do sound exegesis of his text, illustrate it to make it more understandable and apply it to the lives of the people. A pastor who has been at his church for 10 years will have presented over 400 sermons heard by at least some of the same people.

All pastors must be capable at each of those areas of preaching -- exegesis, illustration, and application -- though each minister will find his particular gifts more oriented toward some of these than others. A minister who is a master of illustration may struggle to come up with meaningful applications. Another may be good at applying the text, but he struggles to lay the groundwork of what is to be applied. Some pastors -- even those with seminary training -- may struggle with their skills at biblical exposition. Yet, it is a grave error not to work on that area. One can't really be said to be preaching the Word of God if the person is not doing some basic study that allows him to ground his sermon in the text. As the Romans passage quoted earlier indicates, it is the preaching of the Word that God has pledged to use to create faith in His people. He may use other things, but he has not promised to do so.

So, it is a bit painful to have to say that many (not all) of the pastors I heard preach during this project were in a very fundamental way incompetent at their most basic task. They did not display a basic ability to preach the Word; nor did they have the ability to do the most rudimentary analysis of the biblical text.

It would not seem that their members are aware of the utter incompetence. Who would want to say that they go to a big church where the pastor lacks basic competence at preaching?

Because it may seem to readers that this judgment is harsh, perhaps it is necessary to clarify what is meant. I am not suggesting that these ministers were poor orators. All were charismatic personalities with the capacity to hold the attention of large audiences Nor do I mean that I had doctrinal disagreements with their sermons -- I frequently did, but their incompetence went well beyond the idea that there are different interpretations of a text in the Bible. Rather, they used the Bible in a way that was not credible to one holding to any doctrinal position.

While I could cite numerous examples, two will suffice to convey what I am driving at. The pastor of Fellowship Church Grapevine used the Bible as a sort of Bartlett's Book of Familiar Quotations, mining the biblical text for verses that had a word or phrase that he wanted to incorporate into his sermon, even if the context of the text showed that the text could not be appropriately used in that way. Thus, he used Acts 1:8, in which Jesus said that the disciples would receive power from the Holy Spirit for world wide witness, as analogous to a power cord he used with his blender and ultimately as a proof text for God's help for blended families. This is, of course, nonsense.

In the same way, the pastor at Covenant Church read a passage that concerned the diminutive size of David and talked about it as though it concerned the large size of Goliath. It was an impossible reading to justify.

There are other examples I could cite. To be fair, some of the ministers used the Bible responsibly. However the fact of the matter is that a significant percentage of the pastors of the largest churches in the metroplex are incompetent practitioners of their most basic responsibility. And, their listeners dont seem to know it.

How can that be? I will have more to come.