October 18, 2017

iMonk Classic: On Christless Preaching

This weekend, as we mourn Michael Spencer’s passing, thank God for the hope of eternal life, and comfort one another in our time of loss, IM will feature classic posts from the Internet Monk.

On Christless Preaching: The Arrival of Preaching that Doesn’t Mention Jesus at All

Is this a joke?

I’ve just heard yet another sermon that never mentioned Jesus anywhere or in any way. No, no, it’s not an oddity or anywhere close to the first time. I’ll estimate that in the last five years I’ve heard at least fifty sermons that totally omitted any mention of Jesus, and many more where there was no real reason for Jesus to be included. Sermons that could have been preached by Jews, Mormons, even Muslims in some cases, without any real changes. Sermons preached by ordained, and often, educated, Baptist ministers.

What’s up with this? Is this another “Internet Monk Straw Man Award”, or is this really happening, right in front of us?

At first, I thought it was the occasional oversight. Anyone can have a bad sermon. I’ve had volumes of them. Then I wrote it off to a focus on the Older Testament. Some preachers love the Old Testament and can easily, in their enthusiasm for the text, neglect connecting their message to the new covenant. Lately, I’ve considered the possibility there was a method to the madness. Maybe the idea was to NOT talk about Jesus, and then pull him out for the big answer to all the questions you’ve raised. Or something like that. All these theories, were, ultimately, wrong.

Now I’ve concluded that Jesus just didn’t make the cut. It wasn’t an accident or a mistake or trying to be sly with all those pesky post-moderns. It was worse than I thought:  Jesus wasn’t needed, so he didn’t make an appearance. It was Christless preaching on purpose.

What is going on? And why is it happening? Let’s start with observing the kinds of sermons I’m discussing, and how Jesus is a no-show.

Sermons based entirely on Old Testament stories. The Christian Bible is the whole Bible, Old and New. All those Old Testament stories are our stories, too. Paul uses Abraham as the great example of Christian faith, not one of the apostles. We want our children to know these stories, and to know the truth in every story from Adam, to Elijah to Esther.

But can we preach these Old Testament stories Christianly without any mention of Jesus? If we do, we are preaching truth, but we aren’t preaching Gospel truth. Our preaching may be practical, full of lessons and wisdom, but it will be absent the Gospel.

Many of the sermons I am hearing are Old Testament lessons, told well and used as examples of truths that are repeated in the New Testament. But without the context of the Gospel, such sermons send an alarming message about the value of those lessons, and an even more distressing message about the point of the Christian life.

For example, Jonah’s decision to obey God is a true story with evident value, but how do resolutions to stop running and begin obeying fit into the Gospel? It’s not generic obedience or generic repentance that matter, but the obedience of Jesus and repentance from any way of thinking and living that ignores Jesus as the Final Word and the treasure. I need to be saved, not just see the better way.

Sermons that teach lessons and principles. There has been an increasing trend in evangelical Christianity to preach practically; to teach “life principles.” This kind of “coaching” from the pulpit is extremely popular, and many Christians value such practical teaching as “something I can use on Monday.” The megachurch movement in evangelicalism relies heavily on this approach to the sermon. Often it’s called “Powerpoint” preaching, because the inumeration of principles and lessons fits well into the visual technology used in those churches.

Such practical teaching fills churches and bookstores. It is obviously helpful to many people, and appeals in some cases where traditional preaching doesn’t. It also produces a good bit of the Christless preaching that I am describing. It is possible to preach on many things in the Bible, drawing out “life principles,” without bringing Jesus anywhere into the picture or the message.

Scholars have long recognized the difference between “kerygma” and “didache” (proclamation and teaching) in the New Testament, but they also recognized that Jesus was essential to both. The Gospel message–everywhere it occurs–is a proclamation/application of who Jesus is and a proclamation/application of what he did for us. Didache and kerygma are both the application of the Lordship of Jesus to the Christian, the church, family and society.

In contemporary evangelicalism, however, “life principles” are increasingly disconnected from Jesus, either falling into the category of “proverbial wisdom” or the Christian application of secular wisdom, particularly from fields such as education, psychology or commerce. These sermons aren’t kerygma or didache, and they never bring the hearer to Christ or the gospel.

Sermons dominated by personal narratives. Evangelicalism loves a personal testimony. It loves anecdotal writing and preaching. Scripture contains personal narratives and illustrations, and preaching that entirely omits these things becomes a dry recitation.

But many of the Christless sermons I’ve heard have been dominated by personal narratives. The primary “revealer” of truth is the preacher himself. The more of a “celebrity” the preacher happens to be, the more likely that he will tell stories from his own life as revealing authoritative truth for us.

The fact is that personal narratives and anecdotes–no matter how entertaining or moving–have no authority whatsoever. If we argue that we aren’t listening to a sermon, but a personal testimony, we’re entitled to ask what is the authority of a personal testimony, and how does Jesus relate to such a story?

Of even more concern is the loss of the Biblical story in much preaching. Jesus is the key person and event in God’s story that is revealed throughout scripture. For more and more evangelicals, Jesus is simply a token of personal salvation, completely isolated from the Biblical worldview. I frequently meet Christians who know nothing more of Christianity than that they “accepted Christ” at one time.

Is this sort of Christian profession intelligible or meaningful? Or does it create a new, miniature, moldable Jesus who is more at home in American individualism than in scripture?

Sermons about moral and cultural problems. We live in a time of continuing moral breakdown. There is no doubt that the Judeo-Christian underpinnings of our culture are being eroded. Traditional values are under attack. The role of religion in society is disputed in almost every niche of the public square.

The church feels particularly sensitive to this breakdown. There is a sense of moral and prophetic outrage. Some Christians see the demise of cultural morality as proof Jesus will soon return. Others see moral breakdown as a threat to our children and our political freedoms.

For these reasons, many evangelical sermons deal with the moral and cultural crisis. This sort of preaching has a long history in evangelicalism, so we ought to know the dangers of preaching against saloons and movie theaters. But it seems we haven’t learned our lesson.

A generous segment of today’s social and cultural preaching is increasingly Christless. Instead of Jesus, the message is either personal moral fortitude or collective political action. Because this sort of preaching appeals to the fears and emotions of evangelicals, it is commonplace. Thanks to people like James Dobson, Jesus has become the patron saint of any conservative’s social and political agenda. While many of these crusaders are doubtless correct on the Biblical worldview, they are also usually too busy getting us to the polls to get us to Christ.

The Bible is certainly not oblivious to moral issues. The prophetic voices in scripture testify to God’s holy concern with how we treat one another, and how justice is exhibited in society. But the key to scripture is always Jesus, not moral or social reform. In some of his most shocking words, Jesus says that there is a comparison that can be made between religion that helps the poor and the Gospel that commands all men everywhere to repent and believe.

Evangelicals are emotionally–and politically–engaged with cultural battles like homosexual marriage and abortion. They have demonstrated substantial growth in their support of ministries of mercy. But some of this political and moral involvement has been at the cost of Christ-centered preaching. “The Crisis”–whatever it might be–is never the point of our discipleship. We are always followers of Jesus.

Sermons that talk about a vague and undefined “God.” One of the characteristics of Bible belt preaching is an assumption that the audience–even the unchurched audience–understands the basic assortment of Christian teachings. This makes it easy to speak about “a relationship with God” and not explain how Jesus creates and sustains such a relationship. Is this vague relationship what the Bible means by “faith” or “covenant?” Few evangelicals are asking that question. For a faith where Jesus is the substance of everything we have in a relationship with God, it’s a catastrophic omission.

Some of the most Christless sermons I’ve heard simply avoided the name of Jesus and the fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but spoke constantly about “the Lord” and “God.” These weren’t sermons with an animosity toward Jesus or the Gospel. They were simply lazy sermons, with shorthand replacing exposition and explanation.

Am I being overly theological? (See the coming IM piece on “I Hate Theology.”) Is there really something wrong in speaking of God without centering that proclamation on Christ himself? Yes. If we believe that Jesus makes all the difference between the idolatries of our own opinions and the self-revelation of God in scripture and preaching, then we have to be concerned about preaching and teaching that allows the hearer to decide what Jesus is all about or if Jesus matters at all.

In fact, it is ironic that so much preaching is about a generic “God” when Acts 17 records Paul saying that Christian revelation fills in the “unknown God” with the specifics of Jesus. Have evangelicals themselves become a kind of Mars Hill crowd, surrounded by all sorts of individualistic ideas about what God is like, but more and more omitting Jesus himself? Isn’t the point of the resurrection that God approved of Jesus, and we ought to pay attention to him as a result? Much of what evangelicals say–or don’t say–seems to assume the resurrection was just something God did because it was a cool ending to the story.

I know what these preachers are talking about when they say “the Lord,” and when you fill in the generic God with Jesus some of these messages are quite appropriate. But I’m not the typical congregation member or secular listener. Assuming that we’re all able to fill in the truth about Jesus is a naive assumption, and the Bible belt is increasingly full of “Christians” who know next to nothing of Christ. They went to The Passion and came out saying “I never knew that before!”

Sermons in which Jesus is a minor character. It would be wrong to say that all Christless sermons are without any kind of reference to Jesus. Many of them contain what I call a “guest appearance” by Jesus. Jesus isn’t the point, or the key or the Final Word. But he is a good example, or an authority to be heeded.

These sermons don’t need Jesus to make sense. Leaving Jesus out wouldn’t change the sermon at all. He could easily be replaced. (This is particularly common in the “grocery story method” of using the Bible, where the importance of the method is in accumulating verses about the topic under study.)

So, for example, imagine a sermon on God’s promise to provide guidance. Such a sermon could utilize many different verses and examples from the Bible or personal experiences. Some of Jesus’ sayings on the guidance of the Holy Spirit might be included, and examples of Jesus’ own reliance on the Holy Spirit would be appropriate.

But the sermon could go forward in many settings with little or no mention of Jesus. As a minor character in a topical sermon, Jesus isn’t the focus of the message. Nothing essential is communicated about Jesus, and the principles of guidance apply to life without any particular reference to Jesus. A perfectly good sermon on guidance can be produced just talking about a Biblical character or a list of Biblical principles without taking the trouble to bring Jesus into the essential focus of the subject. (This is why topical preaching is the most dangerous kind of preaching, because it can easily exempt itself from winding up with Jesus and the Gospel.)

So it is with many “how to” messages. Jesus may make an appearance as an example or a coach, but he isn’t the Final Word. He may have a privileged place in a hierarchy or examples or authority, but what’s the real point of Jesus in the message? Ultimately, he’s just one more character, and often a minor one at that.

Why is this happening?

It’s happening for reasons that aren’t hard to discover.

There’s a remarkable amount of overall Biblical ignorance among the evangelical clergy. Some of this is because many clergy are completely uneducated, and their churches don’t care. Revivalistic evangelicals made peace with this a century ago, and I don’t know what can be said at this point. If you are comfortable with having an utterly uneducated man preaching through the difficulties of Romans 9-11 or telling your children what the Bible says, I won’t argue with you. But when Jesus doesn’t appear in the message, don’t whine. If it appears that your pastor’s messages are drawn entirely from last night’s T.D. Jakes performance, don’t complain about that either.

(I am NOT insinuating that education equals good preaching. My childhood pastor had one semester of college. He was self-taught, but formally uneducated. He did a marvelous job presenting–and living–the Gospel week after week, but he certainly knew he needed to study. Still, he perpetuated remarkable ignorance about the Bible, including once denouncing “the Greek and other translations.” He never encouraged me to go to school, and made sure my mind was fully stocked with Scofield and Clarence Larkin. But he did preach Christ and salvation by faith, and at least he knew he needed to read and study.)

The trend toward Christless preaching is also happening because even educated preachers are not students of scripture, or even students at all. I’ve met several seminary graduates who bragged that they hadn’t read a book since seminary, and never intended to correct that. Christian bookstores are a good measurement of the intellectual muscle of the average pastor. Research tells us that the average younger American is now watching a hundred movies for every book he or she reads. That includes a lot of preachers. This is perpetuating remarkable ignorance, and it is taking away the ability to preach Christ.

This loss of a scholarly mind is resulting in sloppy theology, ignorance of the original languages, and dependence on technology like the internet. Notice how quickly modern preachers have embraced the use of film clips in preaching. The replacement of literate references in communication is part of the culture, but it is also an admission that the clergy themselves are not reading, but watching.

Ever sat there while your preacher told jokes you’ve been forwarded by e-mail, or repeated internet mythology like the Mel Gibson “scarred face” story? Did you get the sinking feeling that something bad was happening? You were right.
Does this mean these non-scholars can’t be effective communicators? Of course not, but it does mean we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus is lost or misplaced in the messages we hear. The transformation from a literate to a visual culture presents Christians with a remarkable challenge: the challenge to continue being loyal to God’s revelation of Jesus in all of scripture, and the greater challenge to study and understand the Bible.

Scripture can’t be replaced, and it must be understood, and the ministry has the responsibility to lead the way. In other words, don’t let your pastor become an idiot.

The most distressing reason for the disappearing Jesus is the pragmatism of the current church growth culture. If the church growth gurus were telling their flocks of ministerial admirers that the way to grow a megachurch was to preach Jesus and to focus sermons on Christ, it would be happening. In large measure, it’s not happening because the church growth experts don’t believe it works. It isn’t seeker sensitive. This is why some preachers are purposely avoiding Jesus, and instead talking about life issues like “success” and parenting. They are hoping to “hook ’em” with the church program before they “cook ’em” in the frying pan of commitment to Jesus. This bass ackwards approach is remarkably successful, and it apparently a hard habit to break. Jesus increasingly isn’t showing up except at the Easter and Christmas pageants.

What works is life principles, low content and plenty of entertaining anecdotes. Preaching Christ, God’s primary ordained means of growing a church and developing disciples, is held in suspicion among the seeker-sensitive crowd. When Jesus makes it to the big show it’s going to be either as a “life coach” or because a cultural discussion of The Passion of the Christ makes it acceptable to preach about Jesus. I read with amazement Rick Warren’s enthusiasm for using the Gibson movie as a suddenly ripe opportunity to talk about Jesus. Does anyone else find that notion bizarre?

What else are we supposed to be talking about in the church?

The preachers who prompted my thoughts in this essay are of two sorts. They are younger men who are virtually disconnected from any roots in Christian faith other than contemporary evangelicalism. They are much more impressed with the lyrics to a recent CCM tune than they are most of the Bible. They are experience oriented and generally shallow theologically. They major on personality, relevance, and in many cases, the slick use of technology, to communicate. They are rapidly approaching the unblinking acceptance of anything that appears to be “a relationship” with God as real Christianity. They scare me.

The second category of preachers is represented by a man I recently listened to preach three completely Jesus-less sermons in a row during a series of “revival” services. He is experienced, college and Bible school educated, conservative and earnest. He is also deeply impressed by what he is hearing from the church growth camp. His preaching, which I once noted as effective and Christ-centered, has become anecdotal and highly “life principle” oriented. He believes, I’m sure, that Rick Warren and company are preaching the scriptures.

Neither is antagonistic to Jesus, but both have moved to a place where they are under no compulsion to preach the Gospel of Christ. This is not a good place to be.

Some Shreds of Hope

Despite this trend, I am hopeful on several fronts.

For starters, I believe there are signs of a mighty reaction to the current pragmatic church growth establishment. Especially among the younger generation of evangelicals, there is a strong current of simply wanting MORE than the shallow, culturally accommodating religion of the megachurches. Whoever you people are, God bless you. Stir things up.

This can translate into a new loyalty to scripture, and a demand to hear Christ preached and worshiped in his church. Increasingly, younger evangelicals are understanding that the spirituality of white, suburban, corporately niched megachurches is neither deep enough to inspire an authentic life nor Christ-centered enough to transform a culture. I pray that these younger evangelicals in their emerging churches will return to Christ-centered preaching and worship as the very Bread of the Christian life.

I am also hopeful that younger evangelical preachers will begin to appropriate a greater appreciation of creativity than their baby boomer parents, and that this creativity will result in more Christ-centered proclamation.

The great beauty of the Bible is that its message about Jesus is given to us in a banquet of images that inspire creative presentation. The themes, pictures, stories and symbolism of scripture can inspire art, music, poetry and, yes, preaching. The Bible’s rich tapestry of communicative images are there for us to use. Why don’t we?

Evangelical preaching is boring. Even much good evangelical preaching. Our Reformation heritage damaged our theology of creativity. But there is finally appearing, among younger evangelicals, a hopeful resurgence in creativity that promises to eventually make a difference in the mindset of preachers themselves.

Evidence of this can be found in a book like Charlie Peacock’s A New Way To Be Human, where very traditional reformed theology is communicated in a way that appeals to creative aspirations as well as spiritual questions.
In other words, part of the recovery of Christ-centered preaching is simply to work harder at the business of communication. Much of evangelicalism has spent the last 30 years finding ways to sell out to the culture. We need preachers, artists, poets, actors and writers to make worship a Christ-centered event again. Not tangentially by appropriating the culture–which isn’t exactly useless, but close–but through transforming both Biblical content and cultural forms into expressions of the Gospel.

An excellent example is the Indelible Grace hymn project, where Christ-centered, Christ-exalting hymn lyrics are being reinterpreted through new tunes and instruments. This is miles from the church worship band expressing the bland “God is my girlfriend” sentiments of recent CCM or attempting to sound like the pop bands on the radio. These hymns have serious Biblical content. They takes us to the Bible. And the overall presentation is creatively attractive. Yes, younger reformed evangelicals are singing hymns, while their baby boomer parents are quickly concretizing the own Muzak worship bands and blathering lyrics into a tradition they’ll fight to protect.

Lastly, I am hopeful because someone gave away 1.4 million books by John Piper. Someone is still buying Spurgeon. Someone is filling up those emergent churches that preach hour-long Biblical expositions. Someone is reading Internet Monk and writing me encouragements every day. Someone is going to Ligonier conferences, joining Reformed Baptist Churches and making RUF worship CDs. In other words, someone wants Christ to be the center, the all in all of Christian life and worship.

If your pastor preaches a Christless sermon, or a sermon with only a guest appearance by Jesus, don’t get mad at him. Make an appointment. Take him a cup of coffee or a book. Sit down and tell him what you heard, and why it concerns you. Don’t villainize him, because he is probably as much of a victim than a villain. If he loves Jesus, he won’t resent your concern. If you are labeled the enemy, and Christless preaching is defended, then you learned something important.

Let’s pray for the day when no one stands before God’s people without knowing that the point of everything, before it’s all over, will once again be Jesus.

Comments

  1. Christ said some things that don’t square well with much of the man-made theology that dominates the church today , so it isn’t surprising that he is often left out of the conversation at the risk of contradicting what we want to believe. A personal favorite of mine is “Love your enemies” which I can honestly say I never remember being preached from the pulpit. Maybe we don’t dig this one because it doesn’t leave room for our hate of Muslim terrorists or democrats.

  2. Thanks for the hopeful parts. The situation isn’t all bleak. Lord knows I am aware of how “Christless” preaching is affecting people in my neck of the woods.

  3. Of everything that Michael ever wrote, this is the essay that stirred me most (and has had the most practical effect on me). At this sad time, I am delighted to see it republished on this site. It’s a fitting tribute to a write who was not just entertaining but IMPORTANT to a lot of us; and I am sure he would be delighted that the essay that most reminds me of him is one that points so directly and insistently at Christ.

  4. dumb ox says:

    I ran across this quote from Gerhard Forde:

    “What is at stake is the radical gospel, radical grace, the eschatological nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen as put in its most uncompromising and unconditional form by St. Paul. What is at stake is a mode of doing theology and a practice in church and society derived from that radical statement of the gospel. … I do want to pursue the proposition that Lutheranism especially in America might find its identity not by compromising with American religion but by becoming more radical about the gospel it has received.”

    http://www.lutheranquarterly.com/Articles/2006/Special-Issue-20-Years/02-lq_forde.pdf

    I think this statement is still as prophetic for all flavor of Lutherans as it was over a decade ago, but I think other denominations could take it to heart. The temptations to be ashamed of the gospel are as true today as they were in the days of Saint Paul: Jews wanted a moralistic message; Greeks wanted wise principles. But Paul preached Christ crucified. No one wants to hear that they are lost without God’s intervening, saving grace. It’s certainly a hard sell in self-made America.

    • David Cornwell says:

      I’m not Lutheran, but this is right to the point. Thanks.

      • you may not be Lutheran but you look like you sure could be….Lutheran….if you ever wanted to be….Lutheran. So you may be closer to Lutheran than you thot….

        Greg R

  5. noahdlee says:

    This was the first (as far as I can remember) thing I ever read from the iMonk. I was in seminary, in a preaching class, and looking for articles on preaching. Google worked well and led me to this essay. I was immediately hooked.

    I cannot describe how much of an impact this essay has had on me. It literally transformed my preaching. I have always been a “Bible” preacher from day one. This essay forced me to think carefully about being a “Christ” preacher. Michael taught me that it isn’t enough to just preach informationally and morally from the text, but I must ultimately and always preach Christianly. Every week, this article is somewhere in the back of my mind, driving me to ask “Is this sermon about Jesus?” If not, it is time to rework it.

  6. dumb ox says:

    I’m glad Michael ended this on a hopeful note. There are glimmers of hope. There is hope that the hundreds of thousands of visitors to iMonk who read this last year have decided to make a difference. There have been many more examples of people creatively proclaiming the gospel rather than trying to pragmatically re-invent it.

  7. I feel fortunate that the priest in my local church ALWAYS centers his homilies on Jesus. It would be very strange to come away from a Mass and not hear a” proclamation/application of who Jesus is and a proclamation/application of what he did for us.” Even if for some reason he chose not to mention Jesus in his homilies, the Mass itself would proclaim all about Jesus, so at least there would always be that.

    I appreciate Michael giving me a better understanding of what it was like to be in his shoes and the shoes of people who grew up in his religious traditions. This Baptist preacher encouraged me to more fully embrace my Catholic tradition! On the other hand, I did share some things I would like to change about the Catholic church, both on this blog and a few times privately by email with Michael. None of our churches are perfect and we can learn from one another.

  8. This is the first time I’ve read this article. Very true and it will always be timely.

    I read Charlie Peacock’s book years ago and loved it. Why can’t Christians be innovators and leaders in the culture instead of hopping on the band wagon of secular music/art etc. a few years too late? And we can do this preaching Christ. Yes, it is possible. My church is trying to do this, and doing it fairly well. If I ever hear my pastor preaching a Christ-less sermon, he will hear from me about it.

  9. Thank you for posting this. I had heard of Michael through various Emergent discussion groups and had occasionally sampled some of his writings, but when I saw this post for the first time, that was when I became a subscriber. This is by far the single most important message of anything I’ve read on iMonk and i appreciate you reminding us of the importance of a Christ-centered message.

  10. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    They are hoping to “hook ‘em” with the church program before they “cook ‘em” in the frying pan of commitment to Jesus. This bass ackwards approach is remarkably successful, and it apparently a hard habit to break. Jesus increasingly isn’t showing up except at the Easter and Christmas pageants.

    What works is life principles, low content and plenty of entertaining anecdotes. Preaching Christ, God’s primary ordained means of growing a church and developing disciples, is held in suspicion among the seeker-sensitive crowd.

    What happens when somebody comes along with a better floor show with more pizzaz?

    More life principles, less content more fluff, and more entertaining anecdotes? And pony rides?