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A couple years ago now we had a large group over to our house for the Super Bowl. I ended up sitting with a lot of people in a room where there was no TV. I think we talked all night. I didn’t see one play of the football game (the Hamilton Tiger Cats weren’t playing). I end up sitting with this guy named George (name changed to protect the innocent), and we started talking about preaching.

He says to me the following on the difference between preaching at Life on the Vine and other churches he’s been to.

“When I’ve been at other churches, I walk away saying 'That is something I need to work on for my Christian life.' At the Vine, I am confronted with a reality that I see I am not quite there yet and I’m invited to enter. I feel the tension. I can’t go there yet. I’m not ready. Yet I have to respond.”

Then he said, “And when we have the communal response … it is so painful … because I know if I pray it out loud, if I respond and put it out there in words  … things have forever changed.”

All this was unprovoked and fascinating for me to listen to. It illustrates for me the difference between teaching and preaching. Teaching is informational. We are digging into the backgrounds of texts, the meanings of words, explaining what the text means in terms of its original context. It is heavy with information.

Preaching is proclamation. It declares the truth of God in Christ. It proclaims the reality of Jesus as Lord over us as we submit and what that means for our lives right here and right now. And then we are invited into that reality. It is the Kingdom breaking in by the work of the Spirit. And we, if we hear God speaking to us, we have to respond to Him.

At the Vine, there is always a time after our preaching when we respond, most often in prayers of the people when we are given a liturgical prayer for which to fill in the blank. Being in the midst of those prayers is an oasis of the Spirit. It always reminds me of the words of Paul: "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

The “being saved” that is happening here in this meeting room after we have just heard the Word proclaimed is the whole entering into the reality (gospel) that God is working in the world. This is why preaching can be God’s instrument to transform the world.

There is always the awkward moment when I meet people after the Sunday gathering just after I have preached. People don’t really know what to say. But I confess, one of the things that makes me cringe is when someone says, “I really enjoyed your sermon.” Ouch. I know what they mean. I should be more gracious. And they are being incredibly encouraging. Yet, when they say this, it reminds me too much of Zizek’s dictum (I’ve read too much Zizek, I know) that saying “I enjoy my religion” implies I mustn’t take it too seriously.

Instead we are “enjoying” it, keeping it at a distance, so as to not let it endanger our lives. This distance is subtle. It was what George was describing so skillfully above. I think classical expository preaching that focuses on information borderlines on providing this distance. I think that’s ironic, because I think it was originally devised to keep the preaching as close to the Word of God as possible. I wrote a whole chapter on this dynamic in The Great Giveaway many years ago. In the process it informationalized preaching. Gave us an excuse to say, “Hmmm, that is something I have to work on in my Christian life.” And so we never get to it.

For all these reasons, I much prefer telling the preacher after the gathering: “Thank you, God really used you to destroy my world” (versus “I really enjoyed your sermon”). If someone would say that to me, I would also have to confess that I have been destroyed as well and need to trust in Jesus as Lord to do His work in us. I confess I have had my world destroyed more than a few times at Life on the Vine gatherings, by the sermon in worship. And it’s been good.

What do you think about all this? What would you prefer to say to the preacher (or have had said to you after you’ve preached)? Is there something to be learned from George about the way we preach?

David Fitch is a bi-vocational pastor at Life on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary. Hehelped start Up\Rooted, a collaborative gathering for Chicago area church leadership engaging the post-modern context. More recently he's been involved in organizing the Missional Learning Commons in the Midwest.

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Randall Bates

commented on Mar 12, 2014

I have so many thoughts running through my head right now, I'm certain I can't find clarity in or with any of them. This is an excellent article: one that could/should be a springboard for a much deeper discussion on this and closely related topics.

Lawrence Webb

commented on Mar 12, 2014

I have the same gut reaction as you, but "I enjoyed your sermon" is better than "I enjoyed your little talk," which I have had a few times over the decades. Some preachers respond with, "Well, what are you going to do about it?" We're more gratified when someone comments on a specific story that seems to have struck home, or when someone says, "I'd like to talk with you about that." But at the door after the message is more bumper-sticker theology than serious dialogue.

Sylvester Warsaw, Jr.

commented on Mar 12, 2014

Powerful and well written article. One of the main reason I like this article is because preaching God's Word is what shakes our worldview our foundation and rocks our world because God's Way isn't our way nor is our way His Way, but, we know that His Way is not only the best way but the only way when Jesus is our hope.

Dale C

commented on Mar 12, 2014

Thank you for this. Preaching must change our relationship with the Creator and this will be evidenced by stirring us to action and the occasional tear. I like the idea of the testimony prayers. This helps the hearer to understand they are accountable and encourages them to take action, rather than keeping God's Word in the back pocket to be pulled out when needed. Alternating this with conventional invites to the front may be good. Anyway, thanks again!

Fred Miller

commented on Mar 12, 2014

Pastor, that was a good sermon. Thank you but what you felt was the Lord. No pastor, it wasn't That Good!!!!!

Alexander Drysdale Lay Preacher Uca Australia

commented on Mar 12, 2014

Alexander Whyte-- recognized as one of the great Scottish preachers in the l9th and early 20th centuries. Whyte tells of an incident after he had preached a very powerful sermon to a large congregation. As he walked down the aisle from the pulpit he was approached by a lady who made some "gushy" comments about Whyte"s message and brilliance.. ""Oh..Dr Whyte you are such a great preacher........you are one of the very best." . Whyte thanked the lady..and then said in a very sober voice.. "Yes..thank you Madam..the devil told me that before I left the pulpit!!.. Whyte was recognizing the ever present temptation of the preacher ..of looking for praise and compliments on how good the message was!..

Pastor Sung Kim

commented on Mar 12, 2014

I love it! Finally someone is brave enough to expose the real difference between just teaching and actual preaching. What an awesome article! Thank you so much, Pastor David! Well done!

Suresh Manoharan

commented on Mar 13, 2014

A honest article. It has to be said that while teaching influences the mind, preaching influences the heart. In a congregation, where most of them are already believers (they do not need basic Gospel message), it is binding on the Pastor to bring out "the new treasures along with the old" (Matt 13:52) giving them new Scriptural insights, so that they keep falling in love with God's Word constantly and maintain their spiritual fervor.

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