Do you agree with Rick Warren that, “The Aim of Preaching Is Life Transformation”? Here is an excerpt from his article:
If God’s objective for every believer is to transform us into total Christlikeness, then the objective of preaching is to motivate people to develop Christlike convictions (to think like Jesus), Christlike character (to feel like Jesus), and Christlike conduct (to act like Jesus). Every other objective of preaching is secondary. At the end of the sermon, if people aren’t being transformed in how they think, feel, and act, I’ve missed the mark as a preacher.
I used to think this way (at least theoretically), but now I’m not so sure. I would state this much differently now that I am no longer a part of the evangelical movement that Warren represents. I think his description of preaching and its purpose is problematic, though there are certainly elements of truth in what he says.
I guess what I feel most hesitant about is this idea of “life-change” or “life-transformation” being the goal rather than a byproduct of preaching the Word.
It makes me feel, as a preacher and pastor, that my job is to change people’s lives. Is that really true? This is one of the more uncomfortable characteristics of the evangelical mentality as far as I’m concerned, and no doubt the source of many abuses in the Church.
Do I want people who hear the Word to become more Christlike? Of course. But I get the suspicion that what we are hearing about from brother Warren and others reflects the quote I gave out on Sunday from Juergen Moltmann (and here I highlight the key phrase with italics): “The reduction of faith to practice has not enriched faith; it has impoverished it. It has let practice itself become a matter of law and compulsion.”
Focusing on life-transformation as the goal of preaching seems to me to reduce the faith we hold to constantly telling people that they must turn over a new leaf. It is telling people, to use Warren’s categories: you must think this, you must feel this, you must act like this. And then note, he lays the burden on every sermon to accomplish this.
Now to his credit, Warren does indicate that he is talking about something deeper than merely giving people instructions and expecting compliance. He says this is about changing minds at the deepest level, aiming for repentance and seeing people’s beliefs and values change.
But I’m not sure that quite gets at it, either.
There is something very inorganic about the way evangelical preachers talk about preaching. It sounds mechanical to me, programmatic, methodistic (sorry Methodists). In other words, it comes across as a description of a process of production, not a process of life and nourishment and growth. We’re called to make disciples, after all. Well then, let’s make them. Here’s how.
Again I come back to my favorite text on ministry in the NT, 1 Thessalonians 2:
But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
You remember our labour and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children,urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
- 1 Thessalonians 2:7b-12, NRSV
What is the goal of preaching, according to Paul?
Yes, he wants his Thessalonian friends to “lead a life worthy of God, who calls [them] into his own kingdom and glory.” I suppose you could call that “life-transformation.”
But Paul’s goal seems even bigger than that. Giving them “the Gospel of God” to “change their lives” doesn’t adequately summarize what Paul was about. If I read the passage correctly (and please read all of 1Thess. 2 for the whole context), his goal is to represent God well by proclaiming Jesus and his kingdom while laying down his life for his listeners in personal, sacrificial love.
I find nothing mechanical, programmatic, or methodistic about the way Paul presents his mission and its goal. It is personal, through and through. It’s about love. It’s about integrity in relationships. It’s about sacrificing for others. It’s about being part of a family together and being one who gives life and nourishment to others through the words he or she speaks. These are are all part of the goal.
Whatever “life-transformation” takes place is a byproduct of that.
I won’t go on a screed against megachurches here, but I just wonder how 1 Thessalonians 2 works out for a preacher like Rick Warren in a congregation of tens of thousands of people. Perhaps the sheer scale of the organization requires systems, programs, and good old American ingenuity to get across a message that can “change lives.” Can my life really be transformed by someone standing and speaking at a pulpit that I need binoculars to see?
Perhaps if I am at a point of transition in my life I might respond to such a disembodied message, whether in a megachurch, on TV, or in some other mass media form, and change my ways for a season. But what about the ongoing nourishment, the family life, the preacher who is my pastor? Who’s the “nurse tenderly caring for her children,” the brother “working night and day” at my side, the “father…urging and encouraging” me?
Of course we want people to grow in Christlikeness. As we say here at IM, it is always our privilege to invite others to join us in seeking a Jesus-shaped life. And you may find some help here, some help in books, some help in listening to good preachers. But ultimately it comes to down to the fact that God’s goal is to form a people, a family full of people that represent him well by proclaiming Jesus and his kingdom while laying down their lives for one another in personal, sacrificial love.
If we make that the goal, I have no doubt we will see lives changed.