Illustrating Much That’s Wrong with the Church: Preachers of L.A. “Preach-off”

Discussion and debate about Oxygen’s new reality show, “Preachers of L.A.”, hasn’t quieted much since the network announced the show. Four or so episodes in and people are still talking about it—and still polarized in opinion.

A fresh wave of internet hysteria stirred last week when the six preachers appeared on Arsenio Hall’s late night talk show to promote the series. (By the way, who thought it was a good idea to put Arsenio back on television?!) One segment of the show aroused a lot of disdain—the “preach off.”

In my opinion, such PR stops and stunts are really commercials for much that’s wrong with the church.

What’s wrong with this? Let me count some ways in the form of five reflection questions:

1. Did we hear a gospel presentation clear enough and full enough to save a sinner? If you’re a gospel preacher and you have 30 seconds with a studio and a national audience, seems you should pretty quickly get to Jesus Christ crucified, buried and resurrected for sinners, calling all men everywhere to repent and believe for eternal life. See, it’s not that hard. We just gave the outline in one sentence. The preacher should give more than an outline; he should preach the basics of the gospel in such a way that a person has a reasonable chance to hear the truth that and receive life. In my opinion, he should at least try to do that every time. If we fear the terrors of wrath and hell, we have to make the path to life clear if we do nothing else.

2. Do we think this honors or mocks preaching? It seems to me this 5-minute segment takes one of the most profound privileges available and reduces it to a comedy sketch. It’s a mockery of preaching and preachers. And it’s a mockery of the men who “performed” in this “preach off.” The men show little respect for the office and little respect for themselves. A good friend, a Christian rapper, was once asked to rap for a handful of people as he passed them one evening. They were thinking, “it would be cool and fun to have him rap a little.” He refused and pointed out that this was his craft, his art, and his livelihood. He refused to allow something he valued so highly to be portrayed so lowly. I wish these men would have thought differently about whether this befits gospel preaching and the gospel preacher. Even when Noel Jones tried to appear thoughtful, he was swallowed up in the shallow “play” of it all.

3. Do we think saying true things amounts to preaching the Truth? I hear a lot of preaching where men say true things, even biblical things, but fail to get to the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It’s a real problem. And because men say things that are true and never say anything heretical, people leave thinking they’ve actually heard the scripture or heard the gospel. It’s not wickedness, but it is a weakness in the church. Yes, “God delivers” and “brings us through” and “can change us.” But how? Only through the Person and work of His Son and the divine operations of His Spirit. Preaching a partial truth as if it is the whole truth makes it a complete untruth.

4. Do we think these comments were largely centered on man or God? Despite the frequent God-talk included in the little sermonettes, we’re still introduced to God only in relation to our problems. The message is, “I can be a better me.” I may need God to do it, but I’m the central player on this stage. Life is about me. God exists to address my felt needs. I’m not made to kiss the Son; He is made to serve me. I’m not told about the matchless glory of God. I’m not called to anything higher than my own ambition for a better life. Though I am told God will change me, apart from pursuing the glory of God such change still leaves me a pauper living for my own meager fame rather than the expansive, world-conquering honor of the Son.

“I’m not made to kiss the Son; He is made to serve me.”

5. Did we see earnest appeals for repentance and faith or feigned showmanship and entertainment? Consider the posturing. See how they speak into the camera. See how they try to be clever and try to entertain. Then consider that in the live television audience and watching over the air waves were real sinners on the way to a real hell unless they hear the real good news and are really saved. Knowing the terrors of God at least one of these men should have been pleading with the people to repent, believe and escape the coming wrath of God. Instead: smiles, nursery rhymes, cute phrases, promises for this life only. Showmanship. Few things could be less appropriate for a professing gospel preacher. We need bone-deep earnestness from our preachers. We need it bad.

If we’ve had any discipleship, chances are we’ve been taught an “elevator speech” form of the gospel. We’ve had someone to challenge us to develop a succinct presentation that we might share with someone we only have a few brief moments with. What might a clear gospel pitch that honored the role of preaching have looked like in a 30-second preach off on Arsenio? There are a number of ways to skin that cat, but here’s one take (in one take without edits to be fair):

Life is not a reality TV show. And this is not entertainment. Forget that this is the Arsenio Hall show. What I’m telling you ain’t no joke. It’s life or death—eternally.

If we’re going to keep it real, every one of us must admit that he/she is a sinner. We sin against the God who made us and we deserve His judgment. We deserve hell. Our conscience tells us so.

But as real as our sin is, the love of God is so much more. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” We rebel, but Jesus redeems. We sin, but Jesus saves. We trespass against God’s commands, but Jesus triumphs over our sin. He does this by: (1) living the obedient life that we could not and would not, and (2) paying the penalty of our sins by being judged and dying in our place. Jesus lived a perfect life and died the sinner’s death. And on the third day God raised Him from the dead to prove He accepted His sacrifice on our behalf.

Now, God calls you—every one of you—to turn from your sin and believe in Jesus. That’s the only escape from God’s wrath.

I think I would have been buzzed at “every man must repent….” It’s tough to do this well in 30 seconds. But if we’re going to be the “men of God” in these forums, we need to master this. And the truth be told, we’ll all have that 30 seconds with someone to “get it in” before the moment passes. We won’t have television cameras in front of us—only all of heaven cheering us on. So we need to be ready. Let us pray that our preachers—and every Christian—would: (1) make the gospel clear; (2) honor the office; (3) get to Jesus; (4) focus us on God; and (5) earnestly call sinners to repentance and faith.


Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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