The State of Preaching Today

January 9, 2009

I listen to a half dozen preachers every week. I do this for the same reason football players watch game films or mothers watch what other mothers are doing with their kids: I want to improve. But I have another reason: I just really like good preaching. I thrill to listen to someone teach the Bible like a craftsman, combining the anointing of the Spirit with the skill of connecting to people.

The Internet has produced a Motherlode of preaching. Back when I was learning the skills that go with good public speaking, all the best preachers charged money for tape recordings of their sermons. Now most sermons are free for download and the ones who still charge will soon learn that no one is listening to them. As with all forms of media, the Internet has made free what used to cost a lot of money.

But when I consider what I hear in these sermons, I have to conclude I’m glad they are offering their sermons for free – because I certainly wouldn’t pay for them.

My real question is whether preaching is getting worse or if the Internet reveals the condition of preaching in our day. Either way, let me describe what I’m seeing. As I do that, it is with two understandings. First, some approaches to preaching I don’t like may be your favorites. Second, I like the way I preach and I don’t make any apologies for it. I wouldn’t preach the way I do if I didn’t completely agree with it. That said, here is what I observe.

  1. Verse-by-verse doggerel: So many preachers think good Expository preaching means to teach verse by verse through entire books, explaining the meaning of every word and essentially parroting a commentary. I defy anyone who preaches this way to find a single person in the Bible who did. Nothing is more annoying to me than someone teaching 8-10 Bible verses, explaining every greek verb, every nuance of the grammar and every single historical back story. When I prepare sermons I have to read commentaries and they are dry as dust. Why would I want to put people through all of that? Commentary preaching and Expository preaching are not the same thing. Expository preaching approaches the Bible in context, explores all the word meanings, grammar and historical background. But then, when all of that work is done, the sermon distills the results into essential truths that can be lived out in daily life. As I listen to so many verse-by-verse preachers I am hard pressed to apply any of it to my life. But perhaps my biggest beef is the false syllogism that says people can’t be trusted to do this kind of inductive bible study on their own. The best kind of preaching shows people how to study the Bible – it doesn’t do it all for them. One of America’s best-known preachers uses this technique and last week I heard him say this: “I’ll be using this approach all the way through the Bible for the next ten years, so that everyone who comes to our church can know what the Bible really says”. Perhaps he has forgotten 1 John 2:26 which warns “You have no need that any man teach you. For the anointing you have received from God will lead you into all truth.”
  2. Topic of the Day Preaching: A month ago, my Itunes downloaded over a dozen messages from preachers talking about how to survive the coming economic hard times. I can see you thinking “so what’s wrong with that?” The problem is, the time to preach this was last year – or five years ago – not now. Their advice was as helpful as CNN’s latest study or the current circular from the Brookings Institute. I swear you could give me a sampling of sermons from any given year in the past ten and I could tell you exactly what year it was by the topics covered. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be relevant. But great preaching is always ahead of the times, not keeping up with it. All sermons should be practical, but they have to have an undergirding of essential spiritual truth as well. As the old Scottish preacher, Alexander Whyte, said to his preaching students: “You have to go from Jerusalem to Edinburgh when you teach.” What he meant is we have to establish a foundational truth first before we can prescribe solutions. “Topic of the Day” preaching is more “how-to” than “why-to” and that turns me off completely.
  3. Where are the Failures?: I listen to the superstar church leaders and there is almost always something missing: They only tout their successes, not their failures. I learn better when someone talks about how they failed their wives or church and how God had to mess with them to get them back on track. Just once I want to listen to a Chief of Sinners and not the Best Selling author. I want to hear more Martin Luther, who lived transparently and told others how he struggled, and a lot less Norman Vincent Peale and his positive thinking.
  4. Reliance on gimmicks: When PowerPoint first started to be used in church services I had an uneasy feeling. (Disclaimer: I use PowerPoint when I preach). I feared that some guys would use this technology so much that it would replace their responsibility to hold people with their words. Nothing replaces good communication skills from the pulpit. You can make a sermon more interesting with Youtube, videotaped testimonies, clips of the latest movies, etc., but a steady diet of these technologies makes a preacher lazy. I have used all of these when the situation was perfect for it, but I am very wary of over-reliance. Several times last month I had to turn off a sermon because it was so full of media I couldn’t follow the point.
  5. More Prophetic, less Opinionated: No one is more opinionated than I am. At least, that’s my opinion. But when I prepare a sermon, I do one entire draft where I excise as much of my opinion as I can. And when I want to give my opinion, I label it as such. What I want more than anything is to live by Peter’s admonition: “When you speak, speak as if it were the very words of God.” Prophetic preaching sounds so different than Opinion preaching. When someone is speaking what God is saying to our generation it has a different sound and feel. It doesn’t even need to be interesting, for it grips the spirit of each listener. I haven’t been gripped very much lately.

There are some preachers still doing it well. I like listening to those who preach clearly and consistently, such as: Ravi Zacharias, Jack Hayford, Francis Frangipane, Erwin McManus, John Piper (sometimes), Dutch Sheets and Rick Joyner. Perhaps you have heard some other preachers that spoke clearly and consistently to you. I would love to hear about them.


  1. I remember listening to Dr. McGee on radio years ago and his “5 years through the Bible” concept. Never cared for it. I thought it was too academic and boring.

  2. I don’t agree with some of his doctrine but I still dig David Jeremiah

  3. Check out Stephen Davey at http://www.colonial.org

    He is an excellent expositor in the truest sense of the word, as you described!

    Tommy Nelson at Denton Bible Church is also excellent. His studies in Romans, Daniel, Song of Solomon, are top-notch.

  4. I have heard Tommy Nelson and I think he has some good points to make. He doesn’t resort to commentary preaching as much as many others who do verse-by-verse.

  5. Vince: I agree that DJ is a good communicator and knows his “stuff” when it comes to connecting with people. It is not just his doctrine I have trouble with: It’s some aspects of his personal history that he has seemingly just brushed aside as character flaws. Other than that, he is an excellent communicator.

  6. Mike when I’m not in Church listening to you, like I should be every Sunday. I get my fix from Erwin. In my opinion he’s one of the best. Maybe it’s because I like his artistic/futuristic thing he likes to do. Actually I’ve heard you preach some msgs lately that remind me of him.

  7. Tyler that is one of the hugest compliments you have ever paid me. I totally agree about Erwin. I would love to be able to do his Q and A thing like he does at the end, but I don’t have the guts. Keep listening bro.

  8. A couple pet peeves of mine:
    Regurgitating stories or jokes to the point of sheer monotany.
    Trying to sound like a scholar when all of the breakdown of the Greek (though fine and has it’s place) just makes pastors like this sound like Strong’s Concordance on audio book…zzzzz!
    Trying to be so “seeker sensitive” that the only one left out in the parking lot on a Sunday morning is Jesus…do I hear Joel Osteen’s “sweet” Southern voice nearby…hmmm.
    One pastor of mine would give an altar call virtually every Sunday, no matter the topic preached on. If he preached on Salvation we had an altar call; if he preached on whether the Genesis flood was global or local, you guessed it, an altar call.
    A few preachers who I like (in addition to some already mentioned) are Steve Thompson, J.P. Moreland (he attends and preaches several times a year at the Anaheim Vineyard-iTunes), Dallas Willard (though his delivery is a little slow/casual and might annoy some) and my first pastor out here Dave Taft. He’s not online, but I’m in the process of converting all of my old tapes of him preaching to MP3 format.
    To name two on my most annoying list:
    R.C. Sproul’s heavy breathing when he teaches/preaches
    D.James Kennedy’s stilted and overly formal announcers voice

  9. All I gotta say is Bob Dylan got it right with, “You don’t need a weatherman to know where the wind blows.”LOL

    But jesting aside, I would like to hear some prophetic wisdom…for the times they are a changin.

  10. Jeremiah, I have to add a big “hooah” to your enjoyment of Steve Thompson. And Nitwit, Thompson is at the very pinnacle of the accurate prophetic preaching. As for Sproul and Kennedy, I agree about their delivery…and I can’t get past their theological bias either.

    Reliance on the Greek definitions for every verse is lazy preaching. Bring it in when it will open a window. Stop spraying it on so thick. This is what is currently hindering Rob Bell and his preaching. Too much reliance on word studies.

  11. […] matters then everything matters. Because you are important, everything you do is important The State of Preaching Today – natomaschurch.wordpress.com 01/09/2009 I listen to a half dozen preachers every week. I do this […]

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