John MacArthur once addressed the issue of "Biblically-Anemic Preaching." Dr. MacArthur boldly confronted pulpits across America that have abandoned the teaching of God's Word in exchange for self-help guides, philosophical remedies and popular anecdotes that can be as easily discovered by watching any episode of Dr. Phil or Oprah. I absolutely agree with him when it comes to his concern about "churches" who have reduced the teaching of God's Word to nothing more than a highlight during the weekend services; but I disagree with the degree to which Dr. MacArthur restricts methodology for preaching the Word of God. Respectfully, I would like to submit an alternate point of view.
I believe that there is liberty within the body of Christ for a variety of approaches to teaching the Word of God. After all, the purpose of the Scriptures is clearly defined in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV). "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." As you can see from a close look at the Greek word "pros," which is translated "for," Scripture is helpful for doctrine, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, but these are not the end-all purposes. The purpose of Scripture is "so that the man of God may be mature." The purpose of our preaching and teaching is not to wow the crowds with our amazing wit or knowledge of Scripture, but to preach messages that change lives. In Romans 8:29 we find that the primary purpose for God's Word and work in our lives is to make us like God's Son, Jesus. What concerns me about those who believe the only way to teach is verse by verse and chapter by chapter is that they label preachers as topical, exegetical or some other label. Let me point out that these labels themselves are extra-biblical. When the original letters were written, they had no chapters and verses; they were sent to be read, understood and applied. Again, the ultimate purpose for the Word of God is that our minds be changed so that our obedience is a by-product of what we have learned. The goal, and I think Dr. MacArthur would agree with this point, is not merely head knowledge, but life transformation.
The majority of American Christians know far more Scripture than they are living out! (This is not to say that the Church is permeated with biblical literacy. But it is to say that biblical literacy isn’t the sole crisis we face—but rather biblical application of what we do know is also of great concern.) The bottom line is this: our preaching must lead to Christ-like convictions that produce Christ-like character which must produce Christ-like conduct. We are called to be doers of the Word and not hearers only.
In a recent article, Dr. MacArthur stated:
“…today’s sermons tend to be short, shallow, topical homilies that massage people's egos and focus on fairly insipid subjects like human relationships, "successful" living, emotional issues, and other practical but worldly—and not definitively biblical—themes.”
I don’t wish to spend energy defending those who do massage people's egos, but I can in no way concede the issue of human relationships as an “insipid subject.” Human relationships are at the heart of biblical teaching, regardless of our preaching style.
Let me break it down. Though I preach for nearly 50 minutes every week, I do believe that the amount of time spent is not nearly as important as the content of what is said. We see this borne out in Jesus’ teaching discourses, the brief parable of the sower as a clear example of power not being sacrificed for brevity. I have heard some of the most life-changing messages that were no longer than ten minutes.
So I don’t find the length of a sermon being proscribed in the Bible. All Bible-loving preachers will agree with the dangers of massaging egos. But I believe I’m on solid ground when I defend the value of preaching biblically on topics that encourage and give hope. (Perhaps Dr. MacArthur would also affirm this.)
The Bible is filled with hundreds of examples of human relationships that demonstrate the type of husband, son, employee, friend, relative, brother, boss and so on that I am called to be, and the passages that teach me how to live out these responsibilities are just as numerous. Teaching soundly about these matters is critical. And while I may not teach in what appears to me as a narrowly-defined style of preaching, I believe I’m on track in imitating Christ in both my purpose and manner of preaching.
God help me as I articulate what God has done at our church of 2,300 in Colorado. It is a place where 67 percent of all the members came to know Christ in and through this church. In 19 years we have grown from 23 curious onlookers to 2,300 (mostly!) active believers. We are living the purposes of God and reaching out to the community through 52 unique ministries in our church. We have trained 300 churches how to be active in their community and have become a church to which the local rescue mission sends their recovering addicts. We are made up of doctors, lawyers, orthodontists, as well as prostitutes, drug addicts and criminals—people who have gloriously come to know Jesus and are learning to surrender to his Lordship in every area of their lives. Last year 750 adults came to Christ in our services, yet we do not take on the label "seeker" church, because I believe God does the seeking, we're just chucking the seeds. He gets all the glory and he deserves all the praise. But I share what God has done in our midst to illustrate that he is active in our church, which operates under a style some would reject as “unbiblical.” I just won’t concede that! The truth is, we would never have seen such impact had we regarded issues of human relationships as being insipid.
In my finite and limited years of experience, I have come to believe that a "deep" study of the Word of God means that we are called to live what we read. I have a conviction that preachers must not lose touch with the culture around us, the very culture with which we have been called to share the message of Christ. I have no apologies for a pursuit of relevance.
There are only two types of people who will ever walk through your doors: your family or your mission field. Each person deserves the most powerful and persuasive presentation of God's Word we can provide. If I am teaching on the subject of love, why would I limit myself to a narrow study of 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, when the subject is addressed in 1200 passages in Scripture? I want the full counsel of God so I may bring light to the subject, but I compel the hearer to action with a well-thought-out approach and a variety of tools to bring the sermon to life. In a culture of multimedia as well as church resources around every corner, it is not just my prerogative to use these tools—but my duty to use them. My God deserves the best I can give him, and that is exactly what we strive for at Grace Church of Arvada.
We see in Scripture an emphasis on application. Romans is 50 percent application. Ephesians is 50 percent application, Philippians is 100 percent application, and James is over 80 percent application. We are not just to inform our people, but to preach for transformation—and that is done by application teaching. We use videos and testimonies almost every week. We utilize examples from pop culture and often deal with the headlines of the day. People, Christians and non-Christians alike, are searching for answers to life's most difficult questions, and we have the answer—it is the Word of God.
My production team, made up of qualified staff members and pastors, discusses every sermon and every Scripture. We plan every detail of the weekend and make sure that God's Word is handled correctly and remains the focus of all we do. We are planned ahead, and I preach sermons, complete with all the "bells and whistles," to the production team two-and-a-half weeks before the actual weekend it will be delivered. This is how careful we are with the Word of God—but my approach certainly differs from that of Dr. MacArthur. I consider myself on his same team—and would value being validated in my approach rather than being viewed as having somehow compromised God's Word—though God is certainly the final judge over all of our preaching. I believe that there are a variety of approaches or methods to delivering the message. And as long as God's Word is handled accurately and with reverence, and as long as lives are being transformed by the clear Gospel of grace, then God is pleased. I preach for life change and nothing else. If my people leave on the weekend and say, "Wow, my pastor is so smart, did you hear the words he used?", I have failed. But if their week is impacted by changed behavior as they live for Christ, then I have succeeded.
My fellow pastors, my word to you is this: I pray for you and can understand the burden you bear every day. God has placed you in the position you’re in and he wants you to preach exactly the way he created you. Don't try to be someone you’re not. Preach the way God has gifted you. Stay true to your studies and to the Word and lead your people in its light. I am praying for all of you.
In closing, I want to say that friendly tension is what sharpens our faith. Dr. MacArthur challenged me in many areas, and I hope I have done the same for you.