Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Europe to speak to pastors, missionaries, and church leaders. Europe is one of the most difficult—and often discouraging—ministry contexts in the world. Yet, the trip was incredible. Along the way, I met courageous men and women who were faithful to Jesus and his Great Commission within a culture that largely rejects their faith.
I visited worship services there and on four other continents. In every worship service I visited, no matter what country I was in, I had a simple expectation: the preacher would use the Bible in the sermon. God's Word is certainly (at least some) part of the vast majority of Christian sermons. If a Christian preacher doesn't use the Bible in the sermon, in fact, I'd be hard-pressed to call it Christian preaching.
But that's where the sermon similarities end. Pastors handle God's Word in many different ways depending upon their ministry context. In some ways, this variety can actually be good; after all, preachers are charged to preach the Word to a particular audience. Jesus himself taught in different ways at different times in his ministry. When he preached to the religious leaders of his day, he preached forcefully. In the Sermon on the Mount, he preached to his core group, the disciples, and he challenged them to go deeper. To the crowds, he preached differently still. So preachers who preach differently in different contexts should not surprise us.
At LifeWay Research, we recently studied the variety of ways pastors use the Bible by looking at 450 different sermons (all by different preachers). We gave our research team the audio files of these sermons and some objective questions about how the preacher handled God's Word.
Thus, let me share about the research and my views on preaching at the same time. Later, we will release a standard report; in the meantime, let me share some of the results.
First, a bit about our methodology. The sermons were randomly selected from two prominent online audio sermon sources. The dates the sermons were preached fell between August 31 and September 14, 2008. A percentage of sermons were even checked a second time to verify and confirm that the research team was accurately reviewing the material.
Our sample certainly impacted the results of our study (which is why we reveal the sample source). We know that those who upload their sermons to online sites are different than those who do not. Are they younger, more evangelical, better educated, and more computer literate? We do not know for sure. But this is not an analysis of ALL preachers, only of the sample described.
Sure enough, in these 450 sermons, the preachers handled God's Word differently. The way pastors organized their sermons varied widely. Half of pastors traveled verse-by-verse through a passage, and almost half organized their sermons around a theme. Almost one out of five pastors named and explained a Greek word in their sermon. More than half explained verses by using other verses in the Bible.
Even though different preachers handle the Word differently, I believe they're all obligated to teach it as authoritative, not merely as a scriptural footnote proving something they already wanted to say. Four things have to be true about a pastor's handling of the Bible if that pastor is to preach authoritatively.
1. The Word should be heard
Our central task as preachers is to present God's Word. Paul asked a series of questions that should haunt all of us who preach: "How can they call on him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14 HCSB) A preacher isn't a self-help guru. A preacher is not a political activist or an entertainer. Those who preach are truth-dispensers, proclaimers of the Word. If we don't do our job as preachers, people will not hear the good news and therefore can't respond to it. What we do is crucial.