by Howard Norton
Preaching has fallen on hard times in some churches of Christ. In fact, there has been a pronounced effort to reduce the amount of preaching in many of our churches. We noticed it first in the push to reduce the length of sermons. As the son of a dedicated man who loved good preaching but disliked long sermons, I can understand the need to keep sermons to a reasonable amount of time. As praise teams and worship ministers have increased in churches of Christ, however, the part of the service dedicated to singing has grown to such an extent in some places that the amount of time dedicated to preaching is often quite limited.
We have also seen a decrease in the amount of preaching we hear because the traditional Sunday evening service has been discontinued in numerous congregations. Add to that change the decision in most churches not to have gospel meetings, and we begin to realize that preaching no longer occupies the position of influence that it once did in many of our congregations. Further evidence of this fact can be seen in the move to take children to a separate part of the church building during the preaching service. Then, when they become teenagers, they attend a youth devotional on Sunday night and too often escape from a sermon of real substance. It’s no wonder that many young people and adults today are ignorant when it comes to their knowledge of the Scriptures.
Rather than search for who is responsible for the situation we are in, let us as preachers think about what we can do to improve the situation. Let’s try to understand what preaching is and how it should be done. First, let’s acknowledge that preaching is the work of bringing a message from God to those who are present. Paul thanked God for the fact that the Thessalonians accepted his message as what it really was, the word of God (1 Thess. 2:13). He was a man speaking words that were not his, but God’s. That is what a preacher is supposed to do.
This is no easy task. One difficulty is that the preacher is a mere human being, and he is preaching to folks just like himself. He wants to be liked, admired, appreciated, complimented, and honored. So do the people who listen. There is a temptation for everyone present to turn the worship service into the worship of self. Deep inside, however, all the actors in this weekly drama know that this is not the purpose of their coming together. They are gathered to hear a message from God through a man of God who has carefully studied that divine message before entering the pulpit. He will do what he can to take the spotlight off himself in order to focus the hearers’ attention on what the Creator wants them to hear.
Second, let’s acknowledge that preaching is not only the work of bringing a message from God. Preaching should tell hearers about God and his Son. I fear that too much preaching is like cotton candy—it’s sweet and fluffy, but there’s not much to it. Good preaching has substance. It tells us about the person of the God we worship. It is not just about believing he is there; it is about knowing who he is, what his divine nature is, what his values are, what his promises are, and how he wants us to live in order to please him. God’s word tells us that he is “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished…” (Exodus 34:6-7 NIV). It is the preacher’s task to know God himself and describe to his listeners the God they have been called to imitate and serve.
Third, let’s acknowledge that good preaching will tell believers what God expects from them. With the apostle Paul, there was no disconnect between the knowledge of God and the behavioral requirements of those who claimed to know him. In 1 Thessalonians 4, he says, “Finally, brothers, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.” As preachers, we must proclaim what God expects from his people. Millions who claim to be Christians are what I would call “political Christians.” They are Christians in name only. They claim to be Christians because that is what their parents claim to be, or their national leaders claim to be, or their co-workers claim to be. Working around these “nominal” Christians, however, we detect no difference between them and those who are atheists. Their speech, thought patterns, topics of conversation, values, and behavior have not been fazed by their so-called Christianity. They are Christians by convenience, not by conviction. Unless preachers make every effort to proclaim what God requires of real disciples, they have failed in in their mission.
Fourth, let’s acknowledge that good preaching requires preachers to practice what they preach. Only in the Last Great Day will we understand what damage has been done to God’s message by certain preachers who proclaimed the true message but lived another way. In our training for ministry, we studied many important subjects such as the biblical text, biblical languages, church history, homiletics, hermeneutics, theology, missions and evangelism, church leadership, etc. Although these subjects are important, in and of themselves, they will not prepare a man to preach.
The kind of preaching we need today in churches all over the world must come from the heart of people who make every effort to live what they preach. In my present work with Baxter Institute in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, we decided that we needed to focus more on the spiritual formation of our students. Without diminishing our academic thrust, in 2011 we adopted as the year’s theme, “May Christ be formed in us,” from Galatians 4:19. We emphasized that theme throughout the year and had those words posted all over our campus. I believe it made a difference. It is a theme that we veterans need as badly as the young men who are just now preparing to preach.
If Christ’s church understands what preaching is, that it is delivering a message from God; that it is proclaiming a message about God; that it is informing God’s people concerning how he expects them to live; that it is a task that can be properly done only by those who practice what they preach—I say, if the church understands these things about preaching, there is hope that the place of preaching in churches of Christ will regain some of the ground that has been lost over the last few decades.
Dr. Howard Norton has been involved in preaching, mission work, and school administration for more than fifty years. He currently serves as the President of the Baxter Institute in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.