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I listened to a sermon preached this weekend at a large evangelical church in the suburbs of Chicago. It was not my own church, nor was the speaker an elder or member of the pastoral staff of our church. The congregation and their edifice were much larger and much more suburban than my own assembly. I had high expectations based on the size of the church, for I hoped that the word of God was drawing people to the thousands of seats in this sanctuary. However, I could not have been more disappointed in what I heard. I will not mention the passage or church so as to hide the identity of the speaker in my brief review. First, the person preaching totally missed the Big Idea of the passage — the main idea, the central idea —and substituted his own. His own idea was clever and drew from the personal significance of the textual words in English rather than from the meaning of the combined words, structure, theology, and tone of the text. 

That preacher’s struggle to find the central idea in this narrative passage reminded me of the great importance of my task in teaching hermeneutics to my students: We must discern what God has said through the human author and not communicate our own extrinsic idea as the main idea. We are not preaching God’s words if we are not communicating his main idea through the author, no matter how clever, creative, or cool our idea sounds.

Second, for a theological issue in the passage he did not understand, the preacher attempted to explain it by means of an analogy. It was a good attempt, but it showed little concern for his people’s need for a correct theological understanding. It would have been good for him to give more thought and study to the issue and present accurate theology to those he served. Who knows if his listeners ever will have this theological error corrected even as they attempt to build their lives and theological knowledge on the error?

Third, the preacher ignored the issue of nationalism that was part of the meaning of the passage. On a particular point of application, he expressed agreement with striving for “social justice” (even though what he described was not social justice but social service; the wrong identity reinforces false ideas about social justice). He followed his expression by saying that the gospel is a proclamation not simply a demonstration

Sigh. 

Was that false distinction even necessary? 

Apparently, it was necessary based on his audience’s response, for he received a hearty “Amen!” from many people. He could not hide that he was playing to the sentiments of the membership rather than applying what the biblical text means.

Again, the preacher skipped the nationalistic thrust of the passage, misspoke about social justice, and then separated the so-called “gospel” from serving people socially. I was witnessing the soft reinforcing of Christian nationalism or at least the ignoring of it. It is no wonder so many evangelicals are not confronted on sins related to their preferred political ideologies if this preaching is representative of the typical evangelical pulpit, which I fear it is. I should not have been surprised, though, since there was an American flag posted in the sanctuary.

I was thankful that the preacher later explained the gospel in a succinct form. He preached the wrath of God as God’s just judgment against sin. He exalted Christ’s death and resurrection as God’s solution for sin and wrath. He challenged the listeners to repent and trust Christ. Christ was preached, and for this I rejoiced!

Still, I am sad for that congregation. I am sad over a preacher who substituted his own idea for God’s idea in the passage, over a congregation that received that message as the word of God, and over the missed opportunity to challenge believers to pursue God-glorifying life-change based on God’s meaning in the passage. There were several other misgivings in the preaching of this passage, including the building of a point of application from an admittedly speculative interpretation by some scholars. However, the three aforementioned concerns stood out as most significant.

Finally, may I encourage believers in the pews to remove any and all expectations for the preacher to make you feel good about your faith, to say what is familiar or agreeable, to affirm your values or political views, or to make sure you leave the worship service without critical spiritual and theological challenge? It is not the preacher’s job to do anything other than preach the word of God in love with a view toward calling all hearers to the obedience of faith. The preacher I heard gave the evangelical form of scratching itchy ears, making people laugh at jokes and nod at error cloaked as Theology Lite. As preachers, our calling is to herald the gospel and all of its implications for living life before our Savior and King. We have one grand opportunity to do so each week. We need to be the best stewards possible over that calling and not send people away in disobedience or ignorance but with smiles on their faces. The gospel also is education, not job-preservation.

Instead, members should expect to leave the preaching event with a robust sense of conviction, correction, instruction, humility, hope, anticipation, and celebration of Christ. We should walk away feeling the gravity, grace, and gladness of having met with God and heard his voice.

Resources

Phil Ryken, “How to Listen to a Sermon.”

Christopher Ash, “7 Ways to Become a Better Sermon Listener.

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