Why 'Great' Preaching Can Make Ungodly Listeners
Earlier this year I posted an article reflecting on my own ministry training and church experience. Though these are both limited and anecdotal, I identified a “dangerous assumption” among Christians teachers who prize technical exegesis, expository preaching, and the historical-grammatical hermeneutic. The assumption—though very rarely vocalised—is that God will work when we get the biblical text right. This, I argued, limits effective preaching to syntax diagramming and preparation, rather than the Holy Spirit and prayer.
In this post I want to explore a theme that I noticed in response to the post mentioned above. A few readers pointed out that the emphasis I critiqued doesn’t only manifest in proud pulpiteers but also pedantic pew-sitters.
Prep is Incomplete without Prayer
Before picking up on that theme, let me address another: was I forcing a false dichotomy in the previous post? Maybe.
Of course, poring over the biblical text and pouring our hearts out in prayer are not mutually exclusive means of sermon preparation. Nevertheless there exists a real risk of majoring in text work while minoring in prayer. I’ve observed this tendency in my own sermon preparation over the years—as well as the preaching workshops I’ve attended.
So, I’m not condoning lazy sermon prep. Nor am I calling on preachers to ‘let go and let God,’ scribbling a thought or two down on the morning you’re meant to be expounding the Scriptures. As Paul writes: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Amen. However, workers whom God approves are surely not those who supposedly “master the text,” but rather those whose ministry is moored by prayer.
With that out of the way, let’s consider how an emphasis on crisp and clear Bible teaching might actually deform rather than transform our hearers.
The Problem with ‘Clever’ Preaching
My friend Jade put it like this: “I’ve noticed that ‘clever’ preaching—for lack of a better description—can often yield a certain kind of listener as well. Over time It shapes some in the congregation to primarily listen for correctness, rather than practice humble submission. One assumes ‘I know better’ and will try to critique, the other acknowledges our dependency on others’ giftedness and works hard at receiving the taught word instead of dissecting it.”
As Jade notes, ministry and church cultures that overemphasise Bible-handling can result in congregants who dissect sermons and examine them for correctness, instead of humbly receiving the preached word. Yes, I know: the Bereans tested Paul’s preaching against the Old Testament (Acts 17:11). So there is a place for discernment, devotion to careful Bible study. But sound exegesis doesn’t necessarily entail sanctification. In fact, repeatedly highlighting how well we handle the Bible text might do the opposite.
As Dane Ortlund writes in Gentle And Lowly, “There is a kind of preaching and Bible teaching that has not felt the heart of God for his fickle people, has not tasted what naturally pours forth from him, which for all its precision ultimately deadens its hearers.”
Of course, no preacher aims at this. But perhaps preaching that prizes publishable sermon notes inevitably achieves it. Precision isn’t the same thing as proclamation. Self-congratulatory preaching deforms those in the pew. Scintillating exegesis can stunt spiritual growth. No matter how great the exposition is, if it makes listeners that are proudly critical then we’ve failed.
We Must Go beyond the Biblical Text
A few years back I developed a point made by Gerald Bray_,_ challenging the excessive and loud devotion that some give to the Bible without an exceedingly greater love for God. He writes, “Knowing about the Bible is not the same as treasuring it because we experience God himself when it is read and preached.” Bray rightly says, “Scripture is the language of God’s love for his people, and if it does not speak to the soul, then it is not doing what we ought to expect…Ultimately, the Bible points us to an experience of God that lies beyond itself.”
The same must surely be true of self-proclaimed biblical preaching and teaching. We aren’t studying the text. We’re hearing from God. Those who step into pulpits will be judged for how faithfully they handle the word of God (2 Timothy 2:15; James 3:1). But that judgment belongs to God, not those sitting in the pew.