Preaching Articles

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.

Rick is the Executive Director, Grace Church of Arvada, Arvada, CO; Speaker and Workshop Teacher. He founded Grace Church in 1989 and since then he has seen God grow the church exponentially. The ministry has over 2000 members and is a Purpose Driven Church committed to the Global glory of God. Rick has been instrumental in laying the groundwork for Dare 2 Share Ministries in Colorado.

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Paul Digregorio

commented on Oct 12, 2011

Far be it from me to question John MacArthur however in my studies on preaching I was taught that verse by verse teaching is not preaching but rather bible commentary. If there is interaction then it is bible study. There is topical preaching, textual preaching (one verse) and expository preaching which by definition means to take a passage of at least 3 verses finding the theme and subject and going from there. For example the subject may be prayer and the theme why we should pray. Within the theme will be the points. All tha said I agree with Rick

Keith B

commented on Oct 12, 2011

No one is suggesting verse by verse commentary is the way to go, but verse by verse preaching is more powerful than a 30 minute sermon with only 10 minutes of time spent on the text. I've taken 2 courses on preaching using the "Preaching for Life Change" approach by Andy Stanley. He seems to be one of the big proponents of the "Life change" movement. I've watched numerous sermons of his. I'm not suggesting we need a seminary level lecture at every sermon, but something deeper than what he does would be good. Perhaps the author of this article does it differently.

David Jenks

commented on Oct 12, 2011

To make a fair decision on what you have said in your article about what Dr. MacArthur said, I would like to know which of his material you used? I do agree with most of what you had said, but I hold my opinion until I hear both sides of the story.

Larry Stines

commented on Oct 12, 2011

Paul preached with a different method than Peter. Elisha used a different method than Elijah and so on and so forth.. Point is: we are men, called of God, yet each, an individual with different personalities, as well as spiritual gifts. The Gospel is The Word Of God as it is, Preached by Men as they are, to People as they are. By working together and with God's help may we be able to reach all personalities for Jesus Christ.

Dean Decastro

commented on Oct 12, 2011

I consider Dr. MacArthur as my mentor from a distance. I preached like him for many years. But as I grow older in the ministry, I realize that strong doctrinal teaching with weak applicaton is insufficient in motivating Christians to change their lives. The assumption that the believer will know how to apply the scriptures is false. The great commission passage emphasizes to teach believers to obey, which assumes that preachers should provide practical ways and contemporary examples on how to faithfuly and diligently do God's will. Paul reminds us that the end of the law is love. I strongy agree with Rick that the Biblical theme of loving peope which the world calls human relationship is not an "insipid subject." We are not successful in communicating God's word if our people are not growing to become people-lovers. The subject of love may not be doctrinally deep, but it is at the heart of God's redemptive plan and purpose. We become like Christ only if we commit to living love as a way of life , a life of loving service and limitless sacrifice. Since loving others sums up all of God's commands, any preaching that does not address human relationship struggles is missing the point. The world is looking for example on how to have healthy and strong relationships. May they find it in your church and my church.

Trevor Payton

commented on Oct 12, 2011

This is a good discussion starter. I've heard sermons which are more like classroom lectures, and I've also heard sermons which are more like a self-help book. I think that both miss the point. Tim Keller urges that sermons are not primarily about information-transfer, nor are they motivations to try-harder...that's because true change happens on a much deeper level than the intellect and the will. People change their behavior by changing what they worship--behavior doesn't lie. In one sense, a sermon should be seeking to show that the problems in your life are largely there because of a failure in some way to believe in and center your life around the Jesus Christ who reveals himself in the scripture passage being preached on. True life change (ie, sanctification) is really a matter of *faith*, not effort or knowledge. Therefore the sermon is about drawing people to worship Christ, by focusing on his saving work. As the people see him dying and rising for them, their hearts are melted and their affections begin to change. That is why Keller teaches that sermons need to be "life-changing on the spot." For more from Keller, I can't recommend highly enough this free iTunes download:

Fernando Villegas

commented on Oct 12, 2011

I think the main point of all this discussion is that we need to stop judging other pastors for how they preach, and focus more on how God has called ME to preach in THIS local congregation. It seems presumptuous to assume that the God who created endless variety in this world would approve of only one style of preaching, especially if that style is absent from the Bible, or if it just so happens to coincide with the style that I prefer! Regrettably, we like to pose these "either-or" questions. It makes us feel like we're standing up for something, like we have "conviction." What we're actually doing is limiting what God can do through our ministry. Why do we limit ourselves to either "verse-by-verse" preaching on one hand, or a 30 minute sermon with only ten minutes of time spent on the text on the other hand?Why are those our only two choices? Is it not possible to preach a 30 minute sermon that is not verse-by-verse and yet is still a proclamation of the gospel in a given text? As for the issue of "going deeper": it is my conviction that going deeper in the word of God has very little to do with the sermon itself, and more to do with us pastors actually doing our job of equipping the saints for the work of ministry, which among other things means teaching our church members how to study and interpret the Bible for themselves, as well as how to apply it to their lives. The pulpit is not the primary place for this work. This is hands-on work that is done with individuals and in small group settings. If this work is not done, and if our church members are dependent on our preaching for "being fed", then it doesn't matter how long we preach or how "deep" our sermons are. It will never be truly deep enough. Our members might know a lot, but they will live very little of it, thereby creating the very real possibility that they will be bigger sinners by the time we leave than when we came!

R.l. Wilson

commented on Oct 12, 2011

I have not been preaching nearly as long as Rick and John MacArthur has been preaching as long as I've been alive. I would agree with this article that we need life changing sermons and I'm sure John MacArthur would agree with you in that aspect. I feel as a minister we short-change our church by reading a passage of scripture and then preach for an hour on nothing that even closely relates to that passage. We should preach the Word of God and His Son crucified. To do anything less is not preaching.

Sheldon Boyd

commented on Oct 12, 2011

I find it sadly disheartening that John MacArthur would judge my preaching without ever hearing it. Simply based on my "style". I for one am grateful that there is only One whom I will be accountable to. I will continue to seek to please Him in every message I preach.

Christian Cheong

commented on Oct 12, 2011

Thanks for the article, I agrees. We need BOTH actually - to preach to the mind and to the heart, to preach to inform and to motivate. Knowledge itself does not change life, only knowledge applied. There are times we need to preach simple, practical, and relevant application of the Word of God. The key is relevance - who am I preaching to.

John E Miller

commented on Oct 13, 2011

John MacArthur obviously touched a raw nerve with the author, hence his defence of the ministry in his "purpose driven church" In his church website we find this information, and I quote - "Each of our services are the same in style and content, designed for everyone to experience: 1. Relevant and applicable messages that apply to real life 2. A casual, light hearted atmosphere 3. Contemporary music 4. A comfortable place to feel accepted, fit in and belong". It is hardly surprising that he finds Dr MacArthur's ministry challenging and has launched this thinly veiled attack upon a servant of God who has been so dedicated to biblically based preaching in his service for the Master. It would be interesting to find out what Mr Long thinks of the great sermons of scripture and how they would fit in to his four important bench-marks of good church services.

Fernando Villegas

commented on Oct 13, 2011

John E Miller, it's interesting that you mention the great sermons of scripture, because none of them fit the common definition of "expository preaching" that is so popular with preachers like Mr. MacArthur. Not to say that expository preaching is not valid; simply that there is no reason to limit it as the ONLY valid option, which is the impression that is given off in quotes like the one by Mr. MacArthur mentioned in the article. Mr. Long is not attacking Mr. MacArthur's ministry. He is simply making a case that there are other ways to preach the Word of God faithfully than verse-by-verse or expository sermons. Consider probably the great sermon in Scripture--the Sermon on the Mount (which, technically, is a teaching rather than a sermon, but that's another subject!). The entire sermon can be read out loud at a regular pace in about 20 minutes. It doesn't focus on one single passage, but deals with various different passages and topics. It is highly practical and deals with what Mr. MacArthur refers to as "fairly insipid subjects" such as human relationships and emotional issues. By Mr. MacArthur's own standards, the Sermon on the Mount just wouldn't cut it if Jesus were to preach it today. Interesting thing, though. At the end of the sermon, Matthew mentions that the people were amazed by Jesus' teaching, and that he taught "not as the scribes." Maybe we need to stop worrying about how we label our preaching, and JUST PREACH! Maybe we need to stop trying to preach like scholars and preach more like Jesus!! Look, no one is trying to attack Mr. MacArthur. We simply don't think it is fair for him or others like him to attack those who happen to preach in a different style.

Fernando Villegas

commented on Oct 13, 2011

John E Miller, just out of curiosity, apart from what you read on the website, how familiar are you with either Mr. Long or his church?

Donald Rapp

commented on Oct 16, 2011

I don't know why people think that if one does expository messages that they are only interested in what the text says. To accuse John MacArthur of not preaching for life change is to deny what God has accomplished at Grace Community Church. I have always preached through bible books and every message I have preached has been wrapped in "life Change" that is what application is all about. Staying true to the text is very important because it keeps us humans from making applications which have no basis in the text. Please stop with the faint praise before launching into an attack on someone who has remained true to God's word for over 50 years. Is it novel for someone to want to endeavor to understand what the original author's intent was so that we can make an accurate application for our lives today? Isn't God's word just as relevant today as it was when it was written or do we have to "update it" so it meets the "felt needs" of people today. I for one want to make sure we are conveying the same message that the original authors spoke because it is truth that transcends time.

Fernando Villegas

commented on Oct 17, 2011

Donald Rapp, I understand your frustration completely. But I would just like you to be aware that that is the same frustration that is felt by many who tend to preach in styles other than the traditional expository style. They feel that they, too, are attacked unfairly--consider Mr. MacArther's quote that was included in the article. You argue that it is unfair to assume that those who preach expository sermons do not preach for life change, and you are quite right (although I don't feel that that is what is being assumed either in this article, or in most of the comments in support of the article). But by the same token, it is also unfair to assume that those who preach topical messages do not pay attention to the original authors' intent or are not staying true to the Word. So again, no one is attacking Mr. MacArthur or his ministry !! The point of this article, in Mr. Long's OWN WORDS, is to "submit an alternate point of view." We can make an argument in support of a certain style of preaching without having to tear everyone else's down.

Randal Pierson

commented on Oct 31, 2011

If only Mr. Long realized how ridiculous he sounds with all this man-centered stuff. I'm embarrassed for him. Talk about missing the point (of Scripture).

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