Thoughts on Preaching: When Conventional Wisdom Says Too Much

Today’s wisdom on preaching is “Don’t do it. But if you must preach, don’t preach the Bible. And if you must preach the Bible, at least don’t preach the cross.” This wisdom is not a modern innovation and its promoters are not always irreligious. Israel’s high priest himself became its spokesperson when he said to Peter and the apostles: “We gave you the strictest possible orders not to give any teaching in this name.”[1]

Can I be honest and confess that sometimes such “wisdom” gets to me? One day I dropped in to a firm to visit an engineer I used to work with. Something about the way she asked me – in a loud and laughing voice in front of the receptionist – if I was still doing the preaching thing at church made me turn red. For a moment the preaching of the cross seemed, well, foolish.

But sometimes the promoters of conventional wisdom overspeak. Take the high priest, for instance. Had he said, “We gave you the strictest possible orders not to give any teaching in this name,” and then stopped, the effect might have been striking. But he said too much when he added, “And look what has happened – you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” Oops! By his own admission Peter’s preaching was powerful indeed.

Ultimately, it’s Scripture alone that can supply the courage we need to step up to the microphone. But in this first article we hand the mic to conventional wisdom. Let’s ask this wisdom to restate its top three commandments on preaching, and then, listen carefully to see if it will say too much.

Thou Shalt Not Preach

“I don’t want to be preachy.” “I’m not trying to preach at you.” Such statements are as revealing as they are commonplace. They indicate that we all know preaching is something we’re not supposed to do. “Morality and religion are purely private matters,” modern wisdom explains, “and no one should try to impose his or her beliefs on another.” Oops! How quickly this wisdom falls prey to overspeak, for to insist that people should not impose their beliefs is to be guilty of that very thing.

Others object not to the nature of preaching but to its form. Given our media-saturated culture and advances in knowledge of learning styles, isn’t it obvious that the day of the monologue sermon is over? Such one-way communication is passé. We need to use forms of communication marked more by conversation and dialogue.

Again, before turning in future articles to what Scripture says to this objection, let’s look no further than the world we live in and see that it simply isn’t true. Jordan Peterson is selling out theatres to people who are paying to sit through two-hour-long monologue lectures. When uploaded to YouTube, these lectures get millions of views. Less controversially, consider the popularity of TED talks. As Tim Keller says, “The sermon form is not dead, and many predictions of preaching’s imminent demise now feel dated.”

If You Must Preach, Don’t Preach the Bible

In this second commandment, conventional wisdom shows how accommodating it can be. Preachers have to preach, it grants. No problem. You can still retain a place of respect and honor in society provided you take a sufficiently sophisticated approach to the Bible, or better yet, ignore it altogether. Everyone knows that for a church to survive it must stop treating the biblical miracle reports as historical and the resurrection as literal.

Suppose we follow this advice and take a scientific approach to things. We might come across the carefully conducted 2016 study, Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy. One of the authors of the study, a mainline Protestant himself, summarized its key finding this way: “We found that conservative religious doctrine, known for emphasizing a more literal interpretation of scripture, is a key driver for church growth in mainline Protestant congregations. Liberal doctrine, which emphasizes a metaphorical interpretation, leads to decline.” Small wonder that Billy Graham could say, “When I preach the Bible straight … God gives me a power that’s beyond me …. When I pick up the Bible, I feel as though I have a rapier in my hands.”

If You Must Preach the Bible, Don’t Preach the Cross

As a final concession, modern wisdom says, “Fine, preach the Bible, but whatever you do, don’t preach the cross.” Often the argument is pragmatic: if you want to reach people you need to speak on relevant topics, not something that happened 2,000 years ago. Besides, preaching Christ crucified as the only way of salvation from sin and judgment is horribly off-putting. Conventional wisdom is perfectly happy with sermons that contain many biblical points about life, money, relationships and family, provided they avoid the gospel of Jesus Christ.

However, there is a growing number of secular historians documenting the profound ways in which the preaching of the cross has shaped the western world, not least in grounding our concept of human rights. One such writer, Tom Holland, who describes himself as having been “a woke liberal,” was asked what he’d want to hear a Christian preach on. His answer ought to make us sit up and listen. He replied that there was no point in Christian preachers recycling what one can hear from a politician. Rather, we should preach the strangeness of the cross. Speaking in a British context, he said, “I don’t want to hear what bishops think about Brexit. I know what they think about Brexit and it’s not particularly interesting. But if they’ve got views on original sin, I’d be very interested to hear that.”

Imagine that! We have the Word of God but, Gideon-like, are still timid and doubtful. We crouch down outside a tent in the middle of the night and overhear a woke liberal wishing we’d preach more on original sin! Let us make sure that when our secular friends overhear us they find us preaching the strangeness of the cross, not as something peripheral but as the heart and soul – the very boast – of our message. Conventional wisdom has spoken too much, for after saying, “I gave you the strictest possible orders not to give any teaching in this name,” it has to concede, “Look what has happened – you have transformed the whole world with your preaching.”

[1] Acts 5:28. This and the next quotation are from J.B. Phillips’ translation.