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).