Sunday, July 23, 2006

Questions (and only questions) on Preaching Today

Why don't more preachers simply preach? Why is so much time wasted in the pulpit on banter, pointless humor, and personal asides that have nothing to do with expounding Holy Scripture? Why is there no silence before and after sermons and so much noise and claptrap throughout?

Why are the Scriptures so infrequently read and exposited verse-by-verse from the sacred text? Why do so many think that they must never preach longer than a situation comedy runs on television? Why are so many services timed down to the minute such that any new inspiration from the Holy Spirit that might take longer than the prescribed and scheduled time is ruled out a priori?

Why must preachers show video clips when "faith comes by hearing, and hearing the word of God"? Why do the preachers illustrate their points by referring to the hollowness and shabbiness of popular culture instead of the greatest theological and philosophical minds of the centuries?

Why do a multitude of preachers require their images to be projected on huge screens behind them when "We walk by faith and not by sight"? Why the jumbotrons when the power is in the Spirit-led word and not in the well-coifed external appearance? Are they leaning on the (technologically amplified) flesh and not relying on the Spirit?

Why do so many preachers--professional public speakers, they are--speak so carelessly and artlessly, their speech littered with sloppy sentences, overused adjectives, annoying "ahs," and other oratorical peccadilloes ad nauseum?

Why are so many preachers more like entertainers than prophets? Why are so many starved for the applause of earth instead of seeking the commendation of heaven?

Why do so few sermons revel in the glory of Jesus Christ's matchless achievements and the eternal blessedness of knowing him? Why are so few sermons even focused primarily on God?

Why don't preachers preach?


Tom said...

I'm not sure how to answer your query, but I will say that if you want to hear preaching that explicates the biblical text, that utilizes neither video screens nor technological wizardry of any kind, and that is delivered both artfully and sincerely, and in well-constructed sentences, you should come to the First Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Arkansas and hear my wife preach. I doubt you'd agree with every aspect of her theology but you'd never complain about her use of technology or her ill-considered sentences (for her sermons include neither).

Susan said...

You are too cool. A preacher of the value of good preachers.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


This is good to know. I hope to meet your wife some time; and it's been too long since I last saw you! Was it 1992 at a philosophy conference in Portland?

Of all the sermons I have heard given by women, none of them--none!--have been guilty of the things I abominated in my post.

"Your sons and daughters will prophesy."

BJS said...

Amen on women preachers. As far as answering you questions Dr. G... who knows? I sure don't.

I guess church congregations just stopped demanding these things you are asking from their preachers and instead just kind of settled. (That and they got bored and wanted to just be entertained). I think the biggest factor those is, honestly, that congregations just don't demand enough from their preachers in this context. They demand a LOT from them in other areas -- demands that suck up much of their time. Most pastors are too busy running programs and basically being office managers to have enough to time to actually do the hard work to become the kind of preacher you are asking for.

The old (and correct) model of pastor as scholar/prophet is gone and the new model is CEO/motivational speaker. That answers lots of your questions.

Anonymous said...

The writings of Richard Baxter certainly provide much fodder for discussion regarding your questions. His classic, The Reformed Pastor provides us much. As pointed out at, his advise for pastors was not merely helpful to those of Reformed persuasion, but to all pastors and preachers.

Neil said...

Too many preachers think that people don't want to hear scripture. They are right, in the sense that some people don't want to hear it. But since when are we trying to accommodate those people?

We need to let scripture do the work and stop being so clever ourselves. Some preachers don't believe Hebrews 4:12: The word of God is living and active, sharper than any double edged sword . . .

P.S. Some multi-media - e.g. PowerPoint slides - can be useful if they aren't overdone. Some people are more visual learners, so it helps to have the verses or expositional points to follow along with.

Cheerful Curmudgeon said...

THis prophetic Scripture should answer all of your questions:
"The days are coming," declares the Sovereign LORD, when I will send a famine through the land-- not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. People will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the LORD, but they will not find it (Amos 8:11-12 TNIV).
Dr. G: Please writ a sequal to Truth could be titled Truth Starvation: a famine in the land!

dave and amy terpstra said...


I want to engage you in a healthy debate on this one because I know that our preaching philosophies are divergent. And quite frankly I think you are wrong. But I still want to be friends and to come preach at TNL when you get back from sabbatical.

Why are the Scriptures so infrequently read and exposited verse-by-verse from the sacred text?

First, I wonder if people critiqued Jesus for wasting all of that time telling stories (many of which were humorous) instead of unrolling the Torah and "really preaching."

The narrow definition that you have applied to preaching is a consumeristic choice. I know the word “consumeristic” will sting a little, but it is the right word.

You and those who agree with you on this blog have bought into the idea that expository preaching is the godliest kind of preaching. It is not.

(I'll take "speaking on a single passage" or "verse-by-verse" as my definition of expository preaching)

If it were, scripture would say it is the best kind of preaching and most of the teachers in the NT would have used it. However, a quick survey of Acts and the Gospels reveals that preaching on a single passage was RARE.

I believe in expository preaching. I do it many (perhaps even most) weeks at TNL. But I realize that is not how Jesus taught. Jesus told humorous stories. He spoke topically. He skipped around from passage to passage. He talked about current events. He rarely started with a text and stayed put.

Jesus had a sacred text to work with in order to set the example for us, as did Paul and Peter. But I'm afraid our Savior and the apostles RARELY preached expositorily.

dave and amy terpstra said...

Also, please explain the following passage: Mark 4:1-2
Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water's edge.

a. Jesus regularly taught to HUGE audiences (like at megachurches)
b. Jesus pulled away from the shore so people could see him (like people who project their image on screens)
c. Jesus sat in the boat to tell a story about popular culture (farming) and not preach a text.
d. All of the above

David said...


If Jesus were preaching in churches today, we would cut him some slack for not preaching directly from the Scriptures since, afterall, he is God incarnate and doesn't need the authority of Holy Writ to back up his message. I seriously doubt that any of today's preachers enjoy such a distinction. Don't you agree?

David said...

Correction: I KNOW that none of today's preachers enjoy that distinction.

dave and amy terpstra said...


Excellent thought. Please allow me to respond with a question. Are we to follow in our Savior's footsteps in every respect except for his teaching style?

Or should we (as it seems you are suggesting) create an exception to his commands of "follow me" and "do as I have done" when it comes to his teaching example?

Susan said...

The thing about Amos 8:11-12 is that the "Word of the Lord" referenced in that text is a Word prophetically proclaimed, not exegetically preached. The prophets announced, not exegeted, the Word of the Lord. Quoting Amos 8:11-12 can be a convenient way for a preacher to dismiss people who don't find they benefit from the exegetical preaching they hear, if they happen to attend a church where this is the method of preaching, or for others to dismiss preaching that is not exegetical in its delivery. But it is possible that whatever it is, it can be poorly done, or adulterated with some of the abominations Dr. Groothuis mentions in this post. Exegetical style in itself does not guarantee excellence.

But we do have an example of an exegetical approach in Nehemiah 8:7-8 where it is recorded that they "read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read."

I think Pastor Terpstra is right when he says that there is not just one way to deliver the Word of God. However, the Word must be delivered with integrity, free from irrelevant material (something exegetical preaching is supposed to guard against, but unfortunately this is not always the case) and free of ulterior motives. 2 Corinthians 2:17 "Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God."

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Pastor Dave:

You derived falsehoods from my multiple queries. I never said that preaching must always be verse-by-verse exposition; I simply asked why is it so infrequently so. I often give topical messages: against postmodernism, on human dignity, on the New Age movement (in early years, etc. If topical messages are rooted in several texts and sound logic, they are legitimate.

No, we don't pattern our teaching and preaching exactly on Jesus. We bear witness to the perfect truth he incarnated by teaching the Gospels (and the rest of the Bible) carefully and expositionally. He was truth in carnate; we are not.

Topical messages should not dominate the pulpit; it is too easy to grab texts irresponsibily to fit our ends. This would not apply to the apostles under divine inspiration. It is better to submit to a text and preach expositionally as the general rule.

There is nothing "cosumeristic" about what I am saying. Most people are afraid of in-depth expositional preaching (until they have experienced its power, at least). It is countercultural. But as Tozer said, the more countercultural I get, the more people listen to me.

Jesus never had a megachurch! When people did not understand his teaching and left, he let them (Mark 10: John 6). He often had large crowds, but at the end, most of his disciples left him. The church grew quickly after his resurrection, but was based on close fellowship, unlike megachurches.

David said...


Good question. I should clarify that I don't necessarily think that every sermon should be exegetical. There is certainly room for topical sermons, and a kind of storytelling, as you have referred to.

My point of contention is more with the reference to Christ's approach to teaching/preaching, as if his example immediately settles whether it's OK for us to teach primarily like that.

I don't think that this does settle the matter, and for all I know, maybe you don't either. But the point is that Christ has authority that we don't, and is generally allowed to do some things that we cannot and should not do--even though there are obviously many things we should emulate.

That said, my response to your question is "no." Certainly there are more instances in which we should not follow Christ's example. This is partly why the WWJD movement is somewhat misguided, in my opinion. The question shouldn't always be "what would jesus do", precisely because Jesus is the son of God and has a different identity and mission from me. The more important question, perhaps, is "what would jesus HAVE me do".

So I don't think his preaching style is necessarily the only aspect of his person and ministry that we shouldn't emulate. And in point of fact, and as I said above, I think it is sometimes good to preach like this--especially to a non-believing audience that will not accept the authority of the Scriptures.

But again, his example alone cannot settle this issue. We need to discriminate a bit, and decide whether in this instance it is acceptable to follow his example. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't.

Cheerful Curmudgeon said...

When I responded to Dr. G's original post, I offered Amos as a Scripture reference that might help illuminate a response to much of his orignal questions. I was not camping upon one of his questions: Nor did I take his question that mentions the Scriptures being infrequently read and exposited verse-by-verse as the only or most godly way to preach.
And as to Amos 8:11-12, you are correct that the Word of the Lord referenced in that text is a Word prophetically claimed. This speaks (no pun intended) to the point I was making. Preaching should primarily be about "proclaimation" of the Word. This proclaimation should be from the word of the Lord, and I believe that most of the questions in Dr. G's orignal post indicate he has observed otherwise. He even asked the question: "Why are so many preachers more like entertainers than prophets?" His closing question, "Why are so few sermons even focused primarily on God?" seems to sum up the point that there is a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.

dave and amy terpstra said...

I agree that just because Jesus did something doesn't mean we should automatically do it. But I'd like to hear a good reason NOT to teach like Jesus before I quit.

Exactly what about Jesus' style of preaching is wrong? ineffective? unbiblical? unauthoritative for today?

Sorry for all the words, but I'm not sure what the argument is against Jesus' teaching STYLE. Can't we use parables? Are beatitudes and proverbs off limits? Why shouldn't we follow our Lord's style of teaching?

I doubt you will argue we can't use his style, so more to the point: Why shouldn't Jesus' teaching style be the norm in our churches?

dave and amy terpstra said...


Perhaps you have never come across this phenomenon before, but I'd be happy to forward some emails to you to demonstrate what I am about to write.

I am amazed at the way Christians who were raised in church "consume" expository messages. Heaven forbid I ever preach a biblical theology that uses more than one text. In a great number of people's opinion, expository messages are the only sort of messages the Spirit can use.

Since I find this phenomenon so regularly in my church (which is full of young people) I can only imagine that it is more prevalent in churches that attract an older generation (since older people seem to have greater tendencies towards curmudgeoniness).

Let me be quick to say that I know that this is not the position you are arguing from or for. However, you are arguing for expository preaching. I believe that style of preaching has merits, and is beneficial, but I also believe it is a consumeristic preference.

Even though exposition of texts counters the worlds culture, I think it sometimes feeds an unhealthy idolotry of Scripture inside of the church's culture.

Therefore, although I believe in expository preaching, and practice it for the majority of my sermons, I also recognize that it is the favorite product that many church goers like to consume.

gimmepascal said...


I don't think the main problem Dr. Groothuis is talking about is a particular "style" of preaching. No one here is trying to say that it is wrong to teach like Jesus. Can a sermon not contain both expository preaching and pertinent stories and metaphors? Is it impossible for a sermon to have a couple of humorous comments, while at the same time vigorously declare the truths of Scripture?

It is quite obvious that this is possible. The problem arises when the preacher actually does begin to resemble an entertainer more than a prophet, when the truth and content of Scripture is lost in the theatrics of dramatic or humorous storytelling and multimedia obsessions.

Dave, you say that many young people in your congregation who grow up in the church prefer expositional preaching, but yet you don't seem to favor that style. Does this mean you somehow discern that most of the people, perhaps seekers, at your church prefer another style--for instance, storytelling? If so, how can you be so sure? Frankly, I'm tired of so many Christian leaders telling ME, a young Christian who was once a postmodern skeptic, that I (and the rest of my generation) prefer storytelling sermons and vague, self-help pick-me-ups, because, you know, that's the way we are, that's the way society is now. I'm not claiming that this is your perspective, but if it is, it's hogwash. Maybe the only people who enjoy this style are those who, as you said, do not hold to the authority of Scripture, and who would rather avoid those often unpleasant, convicting, and condemning passages of God's Word. Sometimes I too want to avoid the conviction of God's word. But as we both agree, these are the very words of life.

As some on this blog know, I live and work in a remote village in Uganda, and here I am in contact with many churches and pastors. If there is anywhere in the world where "storytelling" is prominent, it is here. It is quite common for Pastors to take one verse out of context, read it, then talk for two hours about many things that have little to do with the verse, and much to do with their own agenda. There is more of an interest in persuasion and charisma than truth. The result is that churches are growing and people are entertained, but the majority know little of what Scripture actually says. In Africa, this style of preaching can be particularly damaging, because so few people can actually read the texts themselves. In America, with fewer and fewer people possessing knowledge of what the Bible actuallys says, is it possible that a turning back to predominantly espositional preaching might be the best move?

I'm sorry if this comment sounds rushed, but I am in an internet cafe and there is little chance that this computer will stay on long enough for me to finish. I also do no want to cast a negative light on all African preaching. Some of it far surpasses anything I've heard before. But as a general rule, the preaching of Scripture is limited.

God bless.

Small Group Guy said...

Titus 2:15 says "These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you."

If a person is a preacher by trade, and they are filled with the Holy Spirit, all of this arguing is useless.

When God breathes a message, He alone will deal through the earthen vessel that is the preacher. ALL scripture is approved for reproof and rebuke. Not ALL sections or ALL verse by verse exposition.

Dr. G, I am surprised that you would not take into account that which the Holy Spirit can, and does do. I agree, some preaching is watery and made to make the pastor look good, they will have a harsher judgement on the day of judgement awaiting them. But God can, and does, use ANYTHING to teach his message. A little bit of story telling along the way makes it applicable and attainable to those listening.

As far as the usage of technology, get over it. I attend a church of 15,000. If I am late I get to see a tiny dot of a pastor from the back. The jumbo tron helps me to see him and the aids he is using for the message. As far as not making the sermon any longer then an episode of a show...I have never been told to do that. It is a pretty instinctive breaking time for me. If it is longer, I will go longer. If it is shorter, I am fine with it as well.

David said...


What have I wrote that would give the impression I would be against the use of parables, proverbs, and beatitudes in sermons? Not sure why you're asking that. These are, afterall, found in the Bible.

Again, I'm not necessarily arguing that we shouldn't preach like Jesus preached. Insofar as we do this, and the authority of Scripture is appealed to, then I'm probably all for it. My concern is more with a kind of storytelling that forgets or ignores Scripture altogether. Insofar as you share the same concern, then we probably don't disagree much at all.

Since the authority a sermon has is (ideally) derived from Scripture itself, and since we don't have the same kind of authority which Jesus had, it is important to pay special attention to the words of Holy Writ. Jesus did not need to do this--though he did appeal to the Torah at times--because he has all authority. So when he shares a parable with his audience, his words are, in a sense, Scripture for them. The same cannot be said when a contemporary preacher primarily uses storytelling in their sermons--although it can certainly be done in a way that incorporates Scripture.

Not to be coy, but I'd love to turn around your question and ask, "why SHOULD Jesus' teaching style be the norm in churches?" You haven't really provided a good argument for that yet, other than implying that we ought to follow Jesus' example. But why, in this instance, ought we to emulate him? Not sure why I bear the burden of proof on this topic.

Clealry we should not copy everything he does, so distinctions should be made. Should a dinction be made in the case of Jesus' teaching style? I've given one reason why, perhaps, a distinction should be made. It is that today's preachers don't have the same authority that Christ had, so they ought to be appealing to Scripture to make their case. If Scripture is the focus, even if it is expressed in a conversational or storytelling form, then I have almost no problem here.

Do you think we actually disagree here? I wonder if we're just talking past each other.

dave and amy terpstra said...

David, you asked: "why SHOULD Jesus' teaching style be the norm in churches?"

We are not just talking past each other on this issue. I believe that we should always follow the model of our Lord unless we have a reason not to. I don't believe he only asked 12 people to follow him. You and I should too.

That said, I believe there are good reasons not to emulate some of his behavior, but the argument should always be "why not" not "why". You are comfortable asking why we should follow his behavior in teaching. Are you comfortable asking that about his ethics, his compassion, his passion, etc.? Why make an exception and question our Savior's ministry philosophy?

We should always begin with the assumption of emulation, and then only with good reasons deviate from Jesus' model. We should never go looking for a reason to copy Jesus, even in his teaching model.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Small Group Guy:

There shouldn't be churches of 15,000 people; so, you wouldn't need the technology.

Still, the voice is more important than the image. I microphone yes, a jumbotron, no. By the way, "Get over it" is not an argument. It is merely invective.

I never denied what the Holy Spirit can do, for heaven's sake.

I wonder as to the level of discouse on this blog sometimes. Maybe I should fold up shop.

David said...

So do you have an answer to the question, "why should we emulate Jesus' teaching style?" You seem to be saying that you don't need a reason to emulate it. Is that right? And your answer to that question cannot be, "Well, because he's our Savior", because you've already admitted that distinctions should be made.

And on what basis do you determine that we should always begin with the assumption of emulation? Jesus, afterall, has a different identity and mission than us, and was ministering in a very different context than ours. And he certainly understood his audience better than we understand ours.

I have argued that the content of Jesus' teaching is intrinsically authoritative, and therefore doesn't need to make appeal to the written word of God. But today's preachers do not enjoy this distinction, and therefore ought to appeal to Scripture in their teaching.

Do you not accept this distinction? Do you believe that the words of today's preachers (apart from appeal to the written word of God) can have just as much authority as our Savior's? Are you comfortable with the idea of preachers primarily substituting stories and personal anecdotes for the proclamation of the inspired word of God?

Again, I'm not necessarily arguing that today's sermons should always be exegetical. A preacher can certainly convey truth through storytelling, but in my mind this form must ultimately rest its case on the written word of God. In fact, the story that is told, if it is a parable or an old testament narrative, can actually be the written word of God, which makes for a winning combination, don't you think?

Greg Arthur said...

Part of the problem I believe Dr. Groothuis is pointing us to is the loss of the Word of God as something bigger than just a couple of verses a preacher has picked out for the day. I believe that the loss of the lectionary, the church calendar, and the reading of scripture as a significant part of our worship has led to this problem. When a preacher is simply making up their sermon for the week by finding a scripture that speaks to them or choosing a topic they believe their congregation needs to hear, they run the risk of making preaching about themselves or their congregation. There is a beauty in hearing the voice of the scripture against the season of the church year and in the context of the lectionary. The lectionary and calendar aren't without fault, but they are a wonderful anchor for the exposition of scripture. They focus us away from just that preacher and that church and connect us with the church around the world who are all searching for the voice of God in the same place.

Doug Floyd said...

What a delighful post to stir our hearts toward the wondrous Word of God. The Word of God and the Spirit of God breathing through that Word is gift that overwhelms the soul. Your post makes me think of a quote from Hans Urs Von Balthasar in his little book on Prayer:
"“We yearn to restore our spirits in God, to simply let go in him and gain new strength to go on living. But we fail to look for Him where He is waiting for us, where he is to be found: in His Son, who is His Word….we fail to listen where God speaks; where God’s Word rain out in the world once for all, sufficient for all ages, inexhaustible. Or else we think that God’s Word as been heard on earth for so long that by now it is almost used up, that it is about time for some new word, as if we had the right to demand one. We fail to see that it is we ourselves who are used up and alienated, whereas the Words resounds with the same vitality and freshness as ever; it is as near to us as it always was. “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (Rom 10:8). We do not understand that once God’s Word has run out in the midst of the world, in the fullness of time, it is so powerful that it applies to everyone, all with equal directness; no one is disadvantaged by distance in space or time."

wordsmith said...

Those who advocate the use of parables as a teaching tool generally seem to overlook the reason why Jesus employed such a method. We are told specifically in Scripture that Jesus used parables to hide divine truths from those that are without the kingdom of God (Mk4:11f). Parables were not used to make things easier to understand; on the contrary, they were used to obfuscate the mystery of the kingdom of God - often to such a degree that even the disciples were clueless as to what Jesus meant, and had to ask Him for clarification.

Preaching, on the other hand, is proclamation of God's truth; a pastor's duty is to preach and teach, which implies clarity and cogency, rather than confusion or obfuscation.