Preaching – Is it a pointless task?

Disclaimer – I am a big fan of expository preaching, and do not believe it is a pointless task.  I ask this only because I’m wrestling with how to construct and deliver sermons.  I’m used to the style that packages a Biblical text into a nice and neat 25 minute speech, complete with nice picturesque illustration (or, human interest accounts, for the homiletically well-versed), but find myself drawn to preachers like Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll (who quite affectionately referred to a 25-minute sermon as an “introduction”) who sometimes seem to just open up the Bible and “talk it out”.

Yet, I can see and understand the opposite spectrum that says that passive listening is the least effective form of delivery for transformation – which is after all the aim of Biblical, Expository Preaching.

So what is the best way to communicate God’s Word from the pulpit (or music stand, coffee table, whatever you use)? I found this post a bit interesting in teasing out some of these thoughts.  Here’s something that stood out to me as interesting, and you tell me if it has any merit.

What I have since discovered is that lecturing a passive audience for 20 to 40 minutes, what Doug Pagitt calls “speeching,” has been repeatedly proven to result in a very low retention of content. Likewise, adult education experts testify, along with a multitude of unregenerate pew sitters, that passive learning rarely transforms values. Does this mean we should abandon instruction in the church? Of course not. After all, we are commissioned to teach people to obey everything Christ commanded. It simply means traditional preaching is not the best medium for skill training and instruction.

But preaching is wonderfully designed for the prerequisite component of Willard’s spiritual formation model—vision. Preaching this way will not always have the end goal of application, but rather inspiration. As Willard says, “It’s the beauty of the kingdom that Jesus said was causing people to climb over each other just to get in.” Only after people have a vision of God (the love, beauty, justice, and power of his kingdom) will they be ready to intentionally seek and employ the means to experience him through obedience—an aspect of spiritual formation that occurs most effectively in smaller settings through the medium of relationship.

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4 thoughts on “Preaching – Is it a pointless task?

  1. When I listen to Keller I don’t feel like a passive listener at all. And I know Keller is extraordinarily gifted in this area but I’ve heard other pastors do it to. My own pastor rarely looks up from his notes – if you rated him out of 10 for eye-contact he’d get 2 and 1/2 – yet somehow, through the careful and meticulous packaging of his sermon you don’t even notice it, instead you feel like he’s sitting in your living room having a two-way chat with you. I know giftedness plays a part but I think a lot of hard work can change things too. My pastor is sometimes literally sick and exhausted on Monday mornings because of the emotional and mental effort he puts into his sermons.

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  2. I totally agree – there are some pastors who I can listen to talk all weekend long, and I’m not really being a passive listener. I’m just wrestling with how to develop as a preacher so as to communicate clearly God’s Word and engage people with it. No doubt gifting plays a part, and hard work too – didn’t Keller say that he had to preach like 900 sermons before he ever got any kind of feedback that maybe he was a pretty good preacher? I thought I heard him say that somewhere. If there’s a way to learn from his first 900 sermons, so that I can make the most of my first 900, I’d love to know what it is!

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  3. Keller quoted Edwards regarding the point of preaching not being to make the text “true” (because Scripture in and of itself is true), but to make it “real.” I’ve learned in recent years the importance of preaching for transformation, not just teaching information. It is vitally important to get the Scripture in the heart and let it simmer a while; long before the preacher opens his mouth. In order to rightly proclaim the good news, it must be experienced and come from the overflow of the heart. This is the discipline I am humbly hoping to continue to grow in myself!

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  4. Hey Jeremy,

    Love the Edwards quote; its along the lines of the Word being both Light and Heat – to be illuminating and felt, not just studied (notice the caveat “not just” – studying is still important). Just for kicks – how do you engage in that discipline of experiencing the Word so as to “overflow” into your sermon? From what I’ve listened to over the internet, it seems that you’re doing a good job and continuing to grow in this – so keep it up!

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