The word of God teaches us that the Lord uses the “foolishness” of preaching to save those who believe (1 Corinthians 1:21) and that God reveals His will regarding eternal life through preaching (Titus 1:4). Hence, we can never overstate the importance of preaching to fulfill the purposes of God on the earth.
That being said, in my experience of more than 30 years of preaching the gospel, I have found there are times we preachers do more harm than good with our messages.
The following are some of the ways preaching hurts more than helps believers.
1. When we perpetuate the “false self” instead of confronting it.
Much of the preaching today is very similar to the motivational speeches and teachings by folks like Tony Robbins, Napoleon Hill and others—very encouraging messages that have profound truths regarding human capability, goal setting and maximizing our potential as human beings.
While there is much truth in these messages, there is one fatal flaw: They assume a human can achieve his or her full potential and purpose apart from relying upon Jesus Christ!
In John 15, Jesus says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” These motivational speakers perpetuate a semi-pelagian message that almost assumes the goodness of men without taking into consideration original sin!
Unfortunately, the same kind of motivational speeches are now filling up churches across the world by Christian preachers who attempt to Christianize their teaching by invoking the name of Christ once in a while!
The end result is this kind of preaching perpetuates the “false self” that only looks for self-fulfillment, self-preservation, happiness and the fulfillment of our dreams—all without going to the cross and dying to self!
Preachers who only encourage human potential and the fulfillment of self-centered “dreams” based on our “passions” and not based on dying to self and seeking first the Kingdom of God are doing much harm to their followers!
Eventually, all these believers will fall flat on their faces because God will not allow them to fulfill their divine purpose based solely upon human achievement and effort.
2. When we only preach half-truths.
Paul the Apostle said that he was free from the blood of all men because he didn’t hesitate to preach the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).
Preachers do more harm than good when they ignore this admonition from Paul and merely preach topical messages based upon their passions and expertise.
Consequently, preachers will just feed their congregations messages on faith, grace, holiness, evangelism, inner healing, deliverance and prosperity. This will cause damage to congregants because every truth has conditions and qualifications; hence, if not balanced by other biblical concepts, it results in the negation of certain other truths.
For example, grace and truth came by Jesus Christ (John 1:18)—not just grace and not just truth.
If we preach truth without grace, it is legalism; if we preach grace without truth, it is antinomianism (the gospel without biblical law and standards), resulting in hyper-grace. Jesus said that some were in error because they knew not the Scriptures nor the power of God (Matthew 22:29).
He is speaking about balance. It is not enough to know the Scriptures; we need to have a great understanding of biblical doctrine, but we also need to experience the presence and power of God!
For example, I was in a Bible institute for one year in 1979. It was an anticharismatic, fundamentalist school with some faculty who studied the Scriptures for three to six hours per day, but they admitted struggling to pray five minutes per day. Thus, they taught out of a paradigm tilted greatly toward a soulish Christian experience bereft of the abiding reality of the Holy Spirit.
God is calling us to preach a balance of faith and works (read the book of James), grace and truth, and to pursue a life of loving God with our minds as well as our hearts.
One of the only ways to ensure a preacher or congregation is feeding the church the whole counsel of God is when they preach book-by-book out of both the Old and New Testaments so that every major biblical subject is dealt with. When we only preach topically, we run the risk of only preaching what appeals to us!
3. When we take Scripture out of context.
I have studied biblical interpretation for years and have integrated my study with philosophical giants such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and theological giants such as Walter Kaiser, Jr. and others. Suffice it to say, I am going to focus only on a few basic rules for proper biblical interpretation.
Scripture must interpret Scripture. This is perhaps the most important rule regarding biblical interpretation!
Consequently, in order to properly interpret a passage of Scripture, we need to read the context of the passage.
For example, if a passage is teaching a particular doctrine such as the first coming of Christ, then we need to have an understanding of all the possible Christological passages of Scripture beginning with the book of Genesis in order to have a balanced and mature understanding of the purpose and coming of Christ as written in the New Testament—not just the particular passage we are interpreting.
Preachers can misrepresent the word of God to their flocks when they isolate a passage and impose their own subjective meaning upon the text and preach it to their congregations.
Unfortunately, most in the church do not study the Bible seriously on their own and believe everything someone teaches them. It is my opinion that before we preach upon a passage or a biblical truth, we need to read the whole book of the Bible to get a sense of the overall theme, and then read what was said about that topic or truth in all the other places of Scripture, so we can preach out of the metanarrative of Scripture instead of preaching our subjective opinions.
Although no one can guarantee they understand the exact meaning of a text, we can get very close to the meaning if we do the following:
Read the context.
Compare scriptural references to this truth with the other references in the Bible.
Attempt to convey the original intent of the biblical author before we try to apply it in principle in our contemporary context.
4. When we use preaching to promote our own agenda rather than God’s will.
No doubt, there are occasions when all preachers have been tempted to preach based on their ambitions and ego rather than being prompted by the Holy Spirit to preach a word from the Lord.
When preachers use the Bible or the pulpit to push forth their own agendas (whether to raise money for a building, to convince the people to go in a certain direction, etc., although God can and does lead us to preach at times on these topics), the bottom line is, we had better have a pure witness in our spirit that it is the leading of the Lord and we are not using the pulpit to manipulate the saints!
We who preach will receive the greater judgment from the Lord (James 3:1-2). Thus, it behooves us to speak the oracles of God (1 Peter 4:11) and not our own agendas.
I have been in several services where professional preachers got their congregations all worked up to give finances based on their gift of rhetoric. People gave financially because of emotional hype and not due to faith in God.
Preaching is not a platform for show, hype, or to fulfill our own agendas; it is a sacred stewardship God entrusts to fivefold ministers (Ephesians 4:11) to mature every person in Christ (Colossians 1:28).
5. When we preach out of frustration, anger and burnout rather than a divine overflow.
Overseeing a church can be one of the hardest things in the world!
To be effective, most pastors in North America need to have knowledge in leadership development and real estate, be a people person and a good speaker, work 60 to 80 hours a week caring for the flock and managing the vision, as well as deal with financial challenges, betrayal, family issues and personal crises of faith and doubt.
Consequently, at times burned out pastors have gotten up to preach with unresolved issues of anger, hatred, insecurity, resentment and pain, resulting in a mixed message conveying both truth and anger coming out of a damaged human soul.
I have even witnessed preachers using the pulpit to call out the names of their (perceived) enemies, which amounted to employing a bully pulpit rather than a prophetic pulpit. When preachers do this, they damage their congregations and can even impart to them the same issues of anger, resentment and wrath, which will pollute their hearers rather than purify them.
When preachers are filled with anger and/or are experiencing burnout, they need to go away for healing and allow others to minister until they are restored to emotional and spiritual health.
6. When we continually preach out of our limited paradigm and never grow.
There are some preachers who stopped studying the word, only stay within their limited circle or denomination, and have been preaching the same pet doctrines the last 20 to 30 years!
Of course, the basic gospel message found in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 needs to remain the same, but how we apply the gospel to contemporary culture and to our congregations must continually change based on the needs and evolving worldview of the people. Some are preaching today like it is still the 1970s!
As preachers, we are called to continually hear from the Lord, and, like the sons of Issachar, we should have an understanding and strategy for the times in which we live (1 Chronicles 12:32). Those who don’t grow, and preach like they did 20 years ago, are answering questions no one is asking and keeping their diminishing congregations isolated and irrelevant.
7. When we preach the ideal without contextualizing it with the real.
To expound a bit more on the previous point: I know folks who are teaching their congregations concepts on marriage and family the same way they did 40 years ago!
Although the biblical truth remains the same regarding the function and role of family members (read Ephesians 5:22-6:4), the times have changed drastically! For example, we cannot preach on Sunday regarding the ideal of marriage and family without being sensitive to the fact that, in many contexts, 75 percent of the people in the audience have come from broken homes and have never experienced the blessings of a nuclear family!
If we just preach the ideal without qualifying our statements, it could put deep guilt trips on divorced people and abused spouses and children who have been through hell on earth and have to be healed up before understanding how to respect their spouses, honor their parents and learn how to trust other people all over again!
Preachers have to understand how to preach both the real and the ideal in order to be effective communicators to their congregations.
8. When we put heavy burdens upon people that don’t emanate from God.
Jesus criticized the Pharisees and religious leaders of His day for putting burdens upon the people while not being willing to help lift them off (Matthew 23).
It is much easier to preach strong messages on the need for prayer, holiness, biblical stewardship and evangelism than it is to be practical and help process believers into wholeness through biblical discipleship.
Whenever preachers proclaim a truth without explaining the truth and enabling the congregation to have options that can empower them to be disciples, then we could put more guilt than freedom upon the saints!
It is far more effective to have things in place for effective discipleship like small groups, Bible studies, mentorship, prayer meetings and retreats. This way, when people are motivated to obey our teachings, there are people in place who will help them walk out these areas of their lives.
9. When we flippantly say “God said.”
Preachers who flippantly use the phrase “thus says the Lord” to get the church and/or leaders of the church to obey them can do great harm!
The challenge comes when the thing we say God told us about does not come to pass, and we leave the church and/or God up for ridicule and confuse new believers.
I have known preachers who have used “God spoke to me” to manipulate their congregations to get them motivated for a project or to believe for a building—and it never happens the way the preacher said. Either the preacher lied, was deceived by his own desires or God is confused and can’t make up His mind (I opt for the first two!). This causes great chaos in the minds of those who trusted those leaders!
I have learned to rarely say “God told me.” I always preface it by saying, “I believe the Lord is impressing upon my heart.”
I have learned to test the impressions of my heart by praying with my wife, as well as getting a consensus from all my key leaders, before we come out in public and say the Lord is leading us to do a big project or change direction or follow a particular vision.
The Book of Jeremiah is filled with examples of God saying He is going to judge the so-called prophets who prophesied from their own minds things that did not come from the mouth of the Lord!
10. When we focus on one people group to the exclusion of other groups.
I have been with preachers who have preached to the ethnic majority of their churches and made every other ethnic person feel uncomfortable! I have even been in services where they spoke against my ethnicity and said something like “with all due respect to you and your kind” from the pulpit! There have been folks who have left certain churches because they catered only to the young, the old, the rich, the singles, the poor, etc.
Although God has given each congregation and preacher a different field and people to focus on, we need to minister in a way that represents God’s heart to all people! God is not Anglo-centric, Afro-centric, Sino-centric, Indo-centric or Hispano-centric! God is not only the God of the poor, but also of the wealthy! God is concerned with both the old and the young and so loved the world (John 3:16)!
Preachers have also wrapped the gospel around their particular political party or nation and preach as if only the United States (or their nation) is destined by God to bless the world. The blessing will come from the seed of Abraham—not any one particular nation (Genesis 3:15; 12:1-3; 17:5-7; Galatians 3:29)!
Those who intentionally preach an ethno-centric gospel to the exclusion of other human beings impart to their congregations their own biases rather than the heart of God for all people!
11. When we are merely echoes and not a voice.
Many preachers are so busy with activity, they have to get their sermons online from other preachers!
In violation of Acts 6:2-40, I have known several pastors who merely copy and paste the words and commentaries of other preachers and never receive a word from the Lord regarding what He is saying to the church!
Furthermore, this technological (information) age is tempting those of us who preach to depend upon Bible software breakthroughs (like Logos and others) rather than the Holy Spirit! The result is that we have great rhetoric without anointing; we have great words without great unction, concepts without conviction and crowds without disciples!
I have known several great communicators who spend little time seeking the face of God. Even though they preach great messages, there is something missing.
They are merely echoes of other preachers instead of speaking as a prophetic voice from the throne of God! In these troubling days, our congregation is going to need more than great oratory, historical information, witty quotes and video presentations. They need to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church in order to thrive in this culture saturated by secularism!