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Why I Don’t Want to Preach Sermons Anymore 

 

1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

1 Cor. 2:1-5 (ESV)

1.         In 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, Paul states that he deliberately rejected the boastful, self-glorying rhetoric of the sophists when he preached the gospel. He did not want to promote himself, but the Lord Jesus Christ. He did not want faith to ‘rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.’ Modern evangelicals pride themselves on being biblical – on being Pauline in their theology. Yet in the matter of preaching, arguably they look more like Paul’s sophist opponents than Paul himself.

 

2.         Just like the ancient sophists, preachers receive fees for their services, whether they be salaried members of the clergy or ‘lay preachers’ who are invited to preach by a pastor. Unlike Paul and all other ministering Christians in the church, preachers charge the people of God for the privilege of their services. I think that preachers should serve the people of God for free if at all possible. That way, the gospel of God’s free grace in Christ is delivered gratis.

Arguably at present the message of grace is contradicted and subverted by the manner of its delivery. If people want the gospel – or at least want it from preachers and clergy – then they must ‘work’ (ie pay) for it. For this reason, I’ve been refusing preaching fees for some time now. However, I’m tired of having to argue the matter every time I go somewhere to preach. If I don’t make my wishes known repeatedly, I end up having an envelope thrust into my hand at the end of the service.

 

3.         According to Haddon Robinson, preaching is ‘the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers’ (my emphasis). Preaching, then, involves, abstracting the text of Scripture – converting what is essentially a narrative text into some ‘timeless principle’ which is then applied to the congregation.

I question whether our practice of abstraction and systematising the Bible is altogether legitimate. I appreciate that some level of abstraction is bound to be necessary. However, the Bible itself is not an abstraction, but the story of God’s dealings with us in Jesus Christ. It is firmly anchored to history – to the earthly realities of everyday life. I fear that many if not most sermons are substantially irrelevant to the everyday lives of their hearers, and wonder whether our practice of preaching abstract principles is one of the chief causes of this. It is certainly yet another indicator that preaching owes more to Greek thought and practice than to Paul or the Scriptures.

 

4.         Preaching is elitist. It can only be done by a select few – clergy, or that ‘inner circle’ of ‘lay’ ministers who have the clergy’s permission to preach. Plenty of people teach in the church, but it is only a small, elite group of ordained and/or theologically-qualified and/or ‘gifted’ individuals who can ‘mount the steps,’ and ‘occupy the pulpit.’

It is one of the more visible marks of superiority in the body of Christ. The ability to expound and apply a passage of Scripture with sophistic eloquence contributes to the establishment and maintenance of rank in the church – along with other markers such as salary, special clothing, titles (‘reverend,’ ‘pastor,’ etc) and control and authority over the church.

Of course, there should not be any ‘superiors’ and ‘inferiors’ in the body of Christ – no clergy-laity distinction. Everyone is a minister, and we are all one in Christ. However, what should be is not the way it is. For my part, I don’t want to be on a pedestal. I don’t want to be revered or hero-worshipped, as is the case with many preachers. I don’t want to be puffed-up with pride. I don’t want to be more concerned with my reputation as a preacher and Christian than with the spiritual welfare of my church family. I find it impossible not to think about myself and the impression I’ve made on others when I preach. In contrast to all this, I want to be self-effacing, self-emptying, humble, and on the same level (or, more appropriately, lower) than everyone else in the body.

 

5.         Related to the previous point, preachers – clergy in particular – are expected to maintain at least an appearance of rectitude and spirituality – once again, just like the ancient sophists. In addition to all their other ‘credentials’ (see point 4), they are to be – or at least appear to be – godly, righteous, self-controlled and prayerful. In every way, they are to be ‘examples to the flock’ – definitive Christians whom the ‘laity’ can look up to and emulate.

Therefore, it’s poor form for a preacher to admit to struggles with sin or otherwise reveal too much of his humanness. For me, that means I must pretend to be something I’m not. It means maintaining a façade. It means being a hypocrite. It means telling other people to do what I fail to do myself. It means not sharing my true self, with all my struggles and vices, with others. It means living a lie. It means deceiving others and even myself.

I don’t wish to engage in this deception any longer. I also seriously question the received wisdom that our veneers of moral respectability are helpful to the ‘laity.’ Wouldn’t it be better if we were all honest and real with one another? I wonder whether ‘perfect’ preachers in fact reinforce feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and failure in others. I wonder whether their own practice of ‘covering up’ results in everyone else doing the same. Hardly conducive to open and meaningful Christian fellowship! The preacher may preach grace with his lips, but ends up preaching performance (law) with his façade of effortless rectitude and other marks of superiority.

 

6.         The principal church gathering each week is the Sunday church service. Church services have a deadening effect on corporate life and ministry. They stifle relationship-building and prevent all but a select few from engaging in ministry. The sermon, as the centrepiece of the church service, is the primary means by which the few disenfranchise the many with respect to ministry and gag conversation. It, more than anything else, makes church services monocentric rather than polycentric. By preaching, I myself disenfranchise, gag and retard relational growth in the body. I perpetuate a system that I now regard as unbiblical and damaging. I can’t in all conscience continue to do that.

 

7.         As lengthy monologues, sermons gag conversation. They deny the congregation the chance to engage with the Scriptural text, to ask questions about its true meaning, or to propose meaningful applications for our daily lives. This inhibits learning and spiritual growth. Some preachers occasionally ask questions or stimulate interaction, but it is rare – probably because preachers find it too threatening. They may not know the answer to a question, or someone might disagree with their interpretation. Their pretence to superiority may suffer a beating. They may end up being exposed as the fallible, finite human they really are – an exposure that the system does not tolerate.

The other point to be made about sermon monologues is that it is yet another example of Greek dualism in the church. The ‘speech’ that takes place within the church service (monologue) is different to the speech that takes place in the everyday world (conversation). Reality is split between that which is primary and that which is secondary – the ‘spiritual’ monologue as against ‘common’ conversation; sacred as opposed to secular; clergy as opposed to laity; ministry as opposed to life; church/church property as opposed to the world; Sunday as opposed to Monday-Saturday; unchanging theological abstractions as opposed to the ups-and-downs of everyday life, etc. The problem is that Greek dualism is not biblical. It may be Plato, but it isn’t Paul. Christianity takes a holistic view of reality. All our lives are lived under the lordship of Jesus. All of life is worship.

 

8.         Of course, a teaching monologue is not necessarily a bad thing – provided it is accompanied by conversation, dialogue, and meaningful engagement by all. However, a sermon is much more than a teaching monologue. It is not merely a lecture. It is an oration. It is rhetoric. It is a carefully-crafted and rehearsed performance, designed not merely to inform, but to make the audience do what the preacher wants.

Now, it may well be that what the preacher wants the audience to do is a good thing. Nevertheless the end does not justify the means, and in my view there is a serious question mark over the means. One evangelical writer explains things this way:

The preacher learns from Cicero 1 that the genuine orator has a goal, persuasion; he has a means, language; and he has a technique, delivery. The measure of his expertise is how well he molds an audience to his purpose.

Preaching, then, is an exercise in manipulation. It is about carefully employing a whole range of rhetorical techniques (eg punchy words and phrases, humour, pregnant pauses, voice intonation, inspiring stories and even tears if one can manage them) in just the right mix in order to capture the minds and hearts of the listeners and to bend them to the preacher’s will. As John Chapman says, it’s about ‘setting hearts on fire.

On the basis of 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, this is sophism, not Paul. It seems to be the very thing that Paul refused to do. Of course, when people respond positively to a sermon, we piously attribute it to the work of the Spirit. But may not the resulting ‘faith’ rest not in ‘the power of God,’ but ‘in the wisdom of men?’ If we really believe that people are changed by the Spirit working through his word, then why do we feel it necessary to dress-up the word with ‘lofty speech [and] wisdom?’ But most of all, surely there is an ethical issue here about what preachers do with their audience. I for one do not wish to play puppeteer with God’s people anymore.

 

9.         Preaching is supposedly about teaching God’s word. However, the amount of Bible teaching that can actually take place in a 20-30 minute sermon is seriously restricted by the demands of oratory. Once the preacher has included his introduction, illustrations, stories, jokes and application, he has precious little space left for exposition of the scriptural text. Even then, the fact that the sermon is being preached to a wide audience means that whatever exposition does take place has to be pitched to the ‘lowest common denominator.’

Therefore, the teaching component of a typical sermon is light – both quantitatively and qualitatively. This, of course, is not helpful to the congregation. Given that the sermon is the one-and-only teaching event in the average church service, it is little wonder that many Christians are biblically illiterate and spiritually immature.

The preacher, too, suffers. He is, first of all, a teacher. That is his gifting and training. However, preaching forces him to play down his gifting. It imposes other priorities upon him. His primary responsibility now is to entertain, persuade, inspire, amuse, captivate and challenge. The outcome is that the preacher cuts back on expository material not only for the sake of time, but because he fears that he might bore the congregation if goes on for too long about what the passage means. And boring the congregation is the cardinal sin. This is an extremely frustrating state of affairs for those who are gifted and trained to be teachers. It frustrates me at any rate.

 

10.       Many evangelical scholars take the view that preaching is the church’s greatest need. But for preaching, the church would lapse into apostasy. If there is biblical illiteracy, or immorality, or immaturity in the church, then the root cause is a lack of faithful, powerful preaching. Good preaching, so the argument goes, remedies all ills.  However, my observation and experience is that preaching achieves very little. In my view, people can sit under ‘faithful’ expository preaching for decades and still be biblically illiterate, or immoral, or immature.

This is actually not all that surprising when one thinks about it. Sermons take up only about 30 minutes of the average Christian’s week. Also, that same Christian will probably not take notes during the sermon or discuss it with anyone afterwards. (They’ll discuss the preacher’s performance, but probably not the sermon’s contents.) In other words, the message will tend to go in one ear and out the other.

The argument in paragraph 11 also needs to be taken on board – that sermons are, by definition, relatively light on instruction. Sermons don’t tend to teach a lot anyway. There is also the problem of theological abstraction, which can make it difficult for the audience to see the relevance of the sermon for everyday life. There is also the possibility that the application part of the sermon will fail to resonate with the congregation because the preacher has insufficient knowledge of the congregation’s circumstances.

For these and no doubt other reasons, sermons are not nearly as effective as advocates of preaching think. The bottom line, I think, is that most Christians learn their theology not from sermons, but from their own private study of Scripture, from the books they read, from their life-experiences, from the examples and influences of others and from discussions with other Christians. These are the real seedbeds of biblical knowledge and Christian growth.

People may make such a fuss about preaching. They may laud the practice with a devotion bordering on worship. They may be convinced that it is so self-evidently right and good as to be beyond question. But in terms of results alone, there seems to me to be little justification for the preaching of sermons. Certainly as far as the preacher is concerned, the inordinate effort involved in preparing sermons, week-in and week-out, does not seem to be worth it.

 

11.       Despite the previous comments, I do concede that sermons can bear fruit. Good can come from a sermon. I myself have been challenged by sermons and have changed my behaviour accordingly. I also know that people can be converted through the preaching of a sermon. A number of people have come to know Christ through sermons I, myself, have preached. However, I have to say once again that the odd, good ‘end’ does not necessarily justify the means. That good can come from preaching does not make preaching good.

Where, precisely, does the good come from anyway? From the eloquence of the preacher? From the rhetorical beauty of his sermon? Or does the good come from the Spirit, working through his word? It comes from the Spirit and the word, does it not?

Therefore, the medium of preaching has no inherent value. It is simply one of several means by which God communicates his word for the purpose of bringing about faith and maturity. God also speaks to his people, and brings forth fruit in their lives, through conversation, personal Bible reading, other reading and group Bible study. In my observation, more good is achieved through these media than through preaching – and without all the problems associated with the latter.

 

12.       All that remains for me to consider is whether there is any ‘compromise’ position. Is there any ‘halfway house?’ Is there any such thing as ‘the sermon you have when you’re not having a sermon?’ Is it possible to give a talk in church which is not done for a fee, is not elitist, is not manipulative, is not abstract and irrelevant to everyday life, does not gag conversation, does not stroke the preacher’s pride, does not reinforce the clergy-laity divide, does not disenfranchise the congregation with respect to ministry, does not make people feel unnecessarily inadequate or guilty, provides ‘meat’ rather than ‘milk’ and achieves demonstrable good in the lives of the hearers?

I think that it is possible to deal with most, if not all, of these problems. However, the talk would not be a sermon. It would not constitute preaching. It would be radically different. So much so, I believe, that it would unacceptable. Those ensconced in the system – clergy and ‘laity’ alike – would not stand for it.

The system demands, even requires, oratory. Those in the system regard preaching as self-evidently right. It is a non-negotiable. It also serves to reinforce authority, control, rank and elitism in the body of Christ. It props up the system. A humble, down-to-earth lesson from the Scriptures; a speaker who dispenses with a preaching persona and reveals his true self to congregation; a speech that’s acceptable no matter how unpolished it is; and a time of instruction that’s not just a monologue from a theological professional, but also a free and open conversation in which all can participate – all these things arguably would make for a very Christlike gathering. But they would be an affront to the system. They would debase it. Therefore, they would not be tolerated.

There is no compromise position within the institutional setting. There is either the sophistic rhetoric of preaching, or nothing at all.

13.       For these reasons, I don’t want to preach sermons anymore.

Paul Tuohy

13 July 2004  

About the Author
Paul Tuohy

Paul Tuohy

Never has so much been owed, by so many, to so few!

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