Growing up, I spent a lot of time in church.  My mother was the church clerk. My grandmother served on The Mother’s Board. My aunt was Head of the Nurse’s Guild. And I served as a Junior Deacon. Every Sunday was a full day, and church attendance was the center of it. Most Sundays I did not enjoy going to church. But not going was not an option. Therefore, like most kids, I made the best of it. My favorite part of church (in fact, it was the only part I really liked) was the preaching. I was always intrigued with the story line of the Bible, and I was fascinated with the ways the preachers would communicate the story.

Most sermons were filled with lofty words and entertaining rhetoric. The points were often skillfully woven together and brought the congregation to the same emotionally charged crescendo every week. My preacher would routinely exclaim, “Early! Early! Sunday morning! He got up with all power in His hand!”

As a boy, I couldn’t help but realize that preaching was a big deal. Most churches overflowed with men eager to try their hand at gracing the pulpit. Today, not much has changed.  Preaching is still a big deal. More than ever people believe they are called into the preaching ministry. And where there is no church body to confirm and establish them in that calling, they are more than willing to start their own. In our small community of East Point, it seems a new storefront church pops up every other week. Please understand – I am not hating on these preachers. If God has called someone to start a church, I am not one to stand in the way. However, it is not simply more preachers we need.

Churches do not suffer from a want of men to preach. They suffer from a want of men who preach sound, theological content. Today, preaching is still expected to be lofty and inspiring, but rarely is it filled with the weighty theology. Unfortunately, most preach with a mind toward moving people to dance, rather than moving people to think big about God, his person and purposes. Consequently, what we have in a great many churches is not preaching at all. We have an exposition of the preacher but not the Bible or the focus of the Bible, Jesus Christ.  Popular preaching today is filled with out-of-context promises but not the doctrine of the God of promises. Robert Smith, author of Doctrine that Dances: Bringing Doctrinal Preaching and Teaching to Life, warns us:

These are times when preaching has exchanged its birthright of sound doctrine for an unsatisfying bowl of doctrinal heresy. These are times when preaching has left Joseph’s doctrinal bones in Egypt and made its trek to the Promised Land without them. These are times when preaching can no longer responsibly respond to Joshua’s question, “What do these stones means?” (Josh 4:6), because too many of its hearers know what they believe without knowing why. 

“Churches do not suffer from a want of men to preach.”

“Why?” is a good question. Someone may ask, “Why theology? Don’t we have enough division? Can’t we just preach Jesus?” The answer is simple: doctrine matters. What we believe about Jesus matters. Jesus is real. He makes real pronouncements about himself and what he came to do. He called real men to be his disciples, who in turned were inspired to teach us what God would have us to know about this Jesus we say we believe in. Doctrine matters and anytime we say anything about Jesus, we are making a doctrinal statement. The question is not will our preachers have doctrine; we all do. The question is will our preachers be sound. The question is not will our preachers preach theology; the question is will our preachers preach sound, biblical theology.

If theology did not matter, the Bible would not be filled with it. Biblical words like justification, propitiation, predestination, sanctification, election, and many others remind us that the Bible is a theological book. And those who would faithfully teach it must not only be students of the Bible, but necessarily students of theology as well. No preacher can faithfully preach the New Testament, not know what justification is, and be willing to teach and preach it plainly to the congregation. No preacher is worth the paper of his ordination if he skips over the word propitiation and neglects to preach the theological richness of its meaning and significance in the life of God’s people.

The bane of the pulpit today, and not only in African-American churches, is “a-theological” preaching. What I mean by “a-theological” preaching is this: weekly proclamation that is weakly presented because it is void of theological content. A-theological preaching tells you what God will do for you, but fails to tell you who God is. A-theological preaching tells you what God did for the preacher, but fails to clearly tell you what God has done in the finished work of Jesus Christ. A-theological preaching is driven by the emotion and personal reflections of the preacher and fueled by similar mundane sentiments from the congregation. Robert Smith, again warns us:

Pastors who are comfortable with the members of their churches checking their minds in the vestibule and entering into the sanctuary mindlessly prepare the worship atmosphere for spiritual excesses and biblically unwarranted emotional experiences. Preaching becomes incessant testimonies given from the pulpit that are totally divorced from the text and becomes promises put on their lips without a “thus sayeth the Lord” certitude. Before one can confidently say, “thus sayeth the Lord,” one has to know, “what sayeth the Lord.”

When I was a boy, I would often listen to the once famous sermon by Rev. B. W. Smith entitled Watch Them Dogs. The sermon, while entertaining, had little to do with the text from which it was derived (Phil. 3:1-3). Rev. Smith used the text to launch into a critique of certain practices in the church by comparing people in the church to particular breeds or types of dogs. One type of dog Smith said existed in the church is a “sooner.”  This dog is a mutt or a hybrid dog. As Rev. Smith said, “It is sooner one thing as another.”  I find that Smith’s description of church people is probably more accurate of the theology we often hear coming from the pulpit. Because there is no sound theological content — and many are hesitant to express theological conviction — you could say that many preachers are “sooners” – sooner one thing theologically as another.

Churches need fewer and fewer sooners in the pulpit and more faithful “watch dogs” – men who will take up the charge to not only “watch their lives” but “watch their doctrine” as well (2 Tim. 4:16).

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25 Comments

  • Avatar Guest says:

    I’ve gotta say I love this site. Much needed post, Mr. Carter.

  • Avatar Julian H says:

    I’ve gotta say I love this site. Much needed post, Mr. Carter.

  • Avatar Tony Carter says:

    Hey Julian, thanks for hanging out with us.

  • Avatar Thabiti Anyabwile says:

    Bro,

    That’s a good word. I knew I would enjoy the read when I wandered into the kitchen and my wife was listening to Smith’s “Watch Them Dogs”! If you have that many dogs in the church you have to ask, “Is this a church or a kennel?” 🙂

    If you haven’t heart Smith’s sermon before, you can check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UVDEH9elDw. Then come back and read Tony’s piece again. You’ll see Tony’s points in even clearer, sharper relief. May the Lord raise up an army of solid doctrinal preachers in the Black church and beyond!

    T-

  • Avatar Louis Love says:

    Helpful post Carter.

    Smith failed to mention one of the worse kind of dogs there is. The kind Isaiah spoke of, cf, Isaiah 56:9-11:

    All you beasts of the field, come to devour, all you beasts in the forest.
    His watchmen are blind; they are all without knowledge;
    they are all SILENT DOGS; they cannot bark,
    dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber.

    The DOGS have a mighty appetite;
    they never have enough.
    But they are shepherds who have no understanding;
    they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all.

  • Avatar Julian H says:

    I’m not sure why there was a double post. Sorry about that.

  • Avatar Tabulous says:

    Great Post!! I am currently looking for a new church as a desire to hear more sound theological preaching. I have been getting my fix online from sermon audio (love that Voddie Bauchman), Together for the Gospel (love that Thabiti Anyabwile), and Ligonier’s site (love that Sproul). But I desire the fellowship of the local church in addition to the sound theological/reformed preaching (and if Iim honest, has a black pastor). I have visited so many churches that I have lost count. This post has encouraged me to keep up the search.

    Love the front porch!!! I stop by several times a day.

    To God be the Glory!

  • Avatar Tony Carter says:

    Thanks for coming by Tabulous! Your journey is a familiar one. Many of us can testify to being in similar, and often frustrating situations. Nevertheless, I am glad to hear that this post has encouraged you all the more to keep searching and trusting God to lead you to a local fellowship of His faithful ones. I know you may prefer a black pastor (I am sure you have your reasons) but I would encourage you not to let your preference keep you from a loving, encouraging, faithful fellowship of the saints. I am sure you would agree that the word faithfully proclaimed and the worship of God biblically expressed is more important than our cultural preferences. Even so, thanks for stopping in on us. Come back again. Would love to hear how God lead you to a local fellowship of believers. God bless.

  • Avatar daveski says:

    Pastor Carter,

    Thank you for this post! I share your sentiments and pray that more preachers understand the source of their ministry, the weight and goal of preaching (2 Cor. 4:1-6) and how Christ is the fulfillment of Scripture (Luke 24:27). I also pray that more opportunities for training men to preach expositionally would be a commonplace in local churches. I believe sound theological preaching is rooted in simply exposing the point of the passage.

    What would be some resources you’d recommend for expositional preaching? As an introduction, I am thinking of Preach by Mark Dever & Greg Gilbert.

    Loving what I am seeing here on the Front Porch!

    d.

  • Avatar Tony Carter says:

    Thanks for coming up, bro. “Preach” by Gilbert and Dever is good. I would also recommend “Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture” by Goldsworthy, Glad to hear you are enjoying The Porch. Hope you stop by again.

  • Avatar Lisa Robinson says:

    I appreciated this very much. As a seminary student in the ThM program, we have to take a year of preaching. The guys in the Pastoral Ministries department take advanced courses beyond that, which makes good sense since they are taking on the responsibility of shepherding God’s people. I’ve lamented many times how many pastors disdain seminary as unnecessary.. Yet, it is in this training that one learns how to handle the text to convey is Christ-centered message. Of course, seminary is not a guarantee for good theological preaching but the rejection of it will most likely produce the a-theological preaching you mentioned.

  • Avatar Darryl Williamson says:

    Nice piece, brother Carter! We gotta catch up soon… This site is killing it, bruh! #Encouraging

  • Avatar Tony Carter says:

    Yes Lisa, I think you are right. We have a couple of guys in our church who come from churches where seminary was strongly discouraged from fear that it would quench their zeal for preaching. Yet, the problem is not seminary, it is bad seminaries. The churches who indiscriminantly warn against seminary are usually themselves bad churches. Good seminaries always marry theology to the practice of preaching; and preaching to the practice of truth.

    Thanks for hanging on the Porch today. Hope to talk to you again soon. God bless.

  • Avatar Tony Carter says:

    Yeah man! We missed each other when you were in ATL! I believe our churches have many connections. I am praising God for it! Thanks for stopping by. Let’s get up sometime!

  • Avatar Black Arrow says:

    As I read this I rejoice, but am also reticent. I rejoice in finally seeing the black Reformed community embrace the thought and work of Robert Smith, Jr. who should have been placed at the forefront a long time ago as a model of healthy theological preaching entrenched in the African American preaching/church tradition.

    I also rejoice in the, though veiled, reference to the sound Christ-centered tradition of historic black preaching: “Most sermons were filled with lofty words and entertaining rhetoric. The points were often skillfully woven together and brought the congregation to the same emotionally charged crescendo every week. My preacher would routinely exclaim, ‘Early! Early! Sunday morning! He got up with all power in His hand!'”

    I also rejoice in pointing to the fact that preaching must be theological in nature…and that all preaching is theological in nature but whether or not it is “sound, biblical theology” is the question.

    That’s where my reticence comes in. On one hand I see the need for theological preaching, but I’m not sure if the kind you’re speaking of is what is necessary for the black church (or any church). This reticence/question comes on a few levels:

    1) Theological content: what theology are you suggesting? Reformed?? Though I have “grown up” in the Reformed tradition, I’m not sure Reformed theology is what black churches need. Reformed theology while robust and rich in its tradition and even diverse in its expression has been birthed in different socio-political contexts than AA tradition with concerns/conclusions that reflect those contexts; of course this is assuming the contextual nature of theology. (The question, “Are the basic tenets of RT biblical?” could be challenged as well in regards to the nature of sovereignty-how God decrees, the nature of election [e.g., corporate/individual and basis], extent/intent of atonement, and monergistic/synergistic nature of salvation. These issues should not be touted/framed in an overgeneralized either-or Calvinism/Arminian possibility as the black church has difficulty with RT; and to project this either-or antagonistic dichotomy over-simplistically in an attempt to advance RT in the AA church will, and has, slowed down progress.) I believe the black church with its historic leaning toward a theology of liberation resonates more with a Christus Victor motif than a purely Satisfaction which Reformed Theology is primarily built upon. So, the question is are you suggesting an inculcation of Reformed theology in the black church a more broader theological orientation first beginning with the richness of its own theological heritage (including liberation theology) and then the richness of the fullness of Christian theology which includes RT.

    2) Theological heritage: Black church theology has historically been Christ-centered, experientially-centered (experiencing the personal presence and deliverance of God) as well as justice/liberation-centered. This is a rich tradition born out of the biblical narrative and the black experience beginning with slavery. Black churches need to discover the rich Christ-centered heritage of their own theological traditions (whether Baptist, A.M.E., Pentecostal, etc.) There is a strand/element of Calvinistic theology even within many of these traditions. But, despite Thabiti’s thesis, I’m not sure if we can say that the African American church actually declined from a Reformed theology as though there is not a richness of theology within historic African American denominations (see this positive critique of Thabiti’s work, which is nevertheless helpful and seminal, http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2009/sepoct/africanamericantheologyreconsidered.html?paging=off). Many of us left/disparaged the black church for the Reformed theology/tradition in reaction to our experiences without knowing the rich history of the AA church/theology and even strong preachers in our generation such as Drs. James Earl Massey, E.V. Hill, and S.M. Lockridge). I’m not sure if many of us had been given a positive view of richness of the black church in its self-conscious theological history/heritage verses an anachronistic dismissal based on our negative experiences, would we have ever left.

    3) Theological preaching: Of course the above impact how preaching is practiced. Theological preaching will look different with a different theological framework. A more existentially, verses scholastic/theoretical, oriented theology will express itself differently in preaching…the story of the Scriptures will be understood a bit different if there the meta-narrative is purely based on the satisfaction of a particular people or the overcoming of evil and oppression and the liberation of humanity.

    So, while this is positive call to preaching the theology of the bible, and a Christ-centered one at that. But, I think we have to begin to have a frank and honest discussion about what theology are you really suggesting the Black church needs and does it really need it?

  • Avatar Thabiti says:

    What’s up, Black Arrow?

    Thanks for joining us on the porch, mayne, and leaving such a thoughtful contribution. This kind of conversation (and also the laugh out loud trivial kind) is why we exist! Keep it coming, man.

    Your comment lends itself to 2-3 posts in response! But I’ll try to jump in with a brief reply, since you called a brutha out 🙂 and let Carter jump in more heavily since it was his original post.

    1. In a certain sense, none of the labels are helpful (Reformed, liberation, etc.). “Reformed” is not one thing, nor is “liberationist.” A James Cone isn’t the same as a J. Deotis Roberts, for example, though both are “liberationists.” And a Jonathan Edwards is not the same as a Lemuel Haynes, though both are “Reformed.” So the labels only get us so far. I would argue that what we really want is to build our theology from the Bible up, rather than from a theological system down. In other words, it’s the biblical texts in context that matter for our positions, and we need to constantly allow texts to challenge and refine ours systems.

    2. I think it’s important that texts and the theologies that arise from them drive our understanding of culture and context rather than suggesting it’s solely the other way around. I completely agree with you when you say different people have asked different questions depending on their social location. We all do that (or ought to). And I don’t think asking questions of the scripture from one’s social location makes a person a relativist or postmodernist necessarily. But asking questions from our social location is a different thing than having our social location determine what the Bible says. In the former we’re just being responsible to our time and place; in the latter we’re guilty of idolizing culture and social location. In my opinion, we’ve too often lost the balance on this. In many respects, that’s what The Decline is tracing.

    3. Finally, as it relates to The Decline, I’m not sure you get my thesis correct. Saying a decline has happened is not the same as saying there isn’t richness theologically. One can be theologically rich and not identify as “Reformed.” But it’s equally important to keep in mind that theological diversity (which is sometimes a more accurate adjective than “richness”) is not an unqualified good. “Diversity” is sometimes better known as “error.” If we can be correct or incorrect theologically, and if being correct or incorrect has bearing on whether we are faithful to God or even know God, then it’s imperative that we evaluate that diversity with scripture open in hand. And it’s important that we identify cases where someone moved the ancient boundary stones. We don’t want to imbibe error under the banner of “rich heritage.” Too many folks who’ve brought the decline upon us have done that very thing and claimed “this is what Black folks have always believed.” They’re revisionists.

    Okay, this is turning into a post! So I’d better stop and let somebody else jump in. That’s how the porch works!

    Again, man, I appreciate your comments and I’m glad you’re willing to mix it up with us on these and other topics. Grace and peace to you,
    T-

  • Avatar Trevor says:

    It would be such a blessing to have an African American preacher who appeals to that charismatic/black culture style of exposition but who’s theology is hardline reformed baptist. No topical jokes, no personal stories, just bible-based exegesis.

    Those preachers may be out there, but here in Memphis, Tn, I don’t see them.

  • Avatar Lizzy says:

    Very well written. This preaching, biblically sound preaching, is the means that God uses to build us up on our most holy faith. God bless you:)

    http://holdingforthhisword.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/in-name/

  • Avatar moebergeron says:

    Excellent words of wisdom. Thank you!

  • Avatar FireSpeaks says:

    I have had the same problem, My pastor actually told me that if I went to seminary I would never love God. this only made me study harder ( though I thought out of obedience I did not take formal training) But God is wonderful I found when I studies the Bible, that my understanding of the Bible was more reformed than charismatic.

    I am right now trying to figure how to teach a more reformed message than is being taught in the churches here in north Philadelphia. Not being the pastor of a church myself, I still have to be careful as to not offend anyone.

  • Avatar Tony Carter says:

    True that bro! Thanks for sharing some of your perspective with us. Your take reminds me that the best discipleship is usually one on one. Before I became a pastor, one on one conversations and discussions around the bible and theology was the best and least offensive way to encourage people to grow in their understanding of the bible and theology.

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  • Avatar Brett Crabtree says:

    The need is for “Bible” preaching. The trouble in this country, the trouble in the churches, black or white or brown or red, is authority. No matter whether it’s theologically sound or doctrinally sound, it’s powerless without authority. In the churches today God is not honored and neither is his word. Ps.138:2, “I will worship toward thy holy temple, and praise thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth; for thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name.” That name is ” a name above every name.” By the way, I’m a white older Baptist preacher who got my start years ago in black churches in the south. God Bless.

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