The Sermon on the Mount, Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1598

The following are some slightly edited comments that I made on another blog earlier today:

From time to time I hear people lamenting the current state of evangelicalism and particularly of the loss of an appreciation for preaching. I couldn’t agree more that there is a lot of bad preaching around. Fortunately, I don’t have to sit under such preaching too often, but the fruits of it are not hard to see.

However, although I see a big problem, I am not at all convinced that traditional evangelical preaching is the answer (perhaps people would appreciate preaching more if we only had it once a month, like the Lord’s Supper…). I believe that there are deep problems with many of the traditional paradigms for preaching in evangelicalism and elsewhere. Preaching has become the event of the weekly gathered worship of the Church, which seems to me to be a serious departure from the biblical pattern. Even when Paul speaks until midnight at Troas, the Eucharist is spoken of as the reason for gathering (Acts 20:7). In the context of the weekly gathered worship of the Church, preaching should essentially be ‘tabletalk’.

While the Scriptures certainly teach about the importance of preaching, they also say a lot about aspects of the service that evangelicals tend to downplay as a result of their emphasis on preaching. The Scripture says a lot more about the institution of the Eucharist than it does about Christ’s institution of the Sermon as an essential element of gathered worship.

Such a focus on preaching has created new concepts of the Church. The Church becomes defined primarily around ideas and ever more sharply defined theological positions, rather than around community, which is something that the Eucharist retains the centrality of. The Church has also become organized more and more around one man’s activity (and, as James Jordan comments, that man is not Jesus Christ). Evangelical congregations are often more passive in gathered worship than medieval ones were and this is a serious problem. The service becomes something that the preacher does, rather than the shared activity of the body of Christ.

Worship becomes a mere preface and epilogue to preaching. Scripture-rich liturgies are abandoned and in some churches the congregation only open their mouths for the singing. Pastors do not prepare the liturgy. The liturgy is an after-thought, hastily thrown together, while most of their effort is put into crafting the rhetorical masterpiece which is the Sermon.

The pastor becomes increasingly defined by his role as the ‘preacher’. Rather than letting the father-like leadership that the pastor exercises over the congregation condition our understanding of the role and practice of preaching, other dimensions of the pastor’s role have been forgotten as his preaching becomes all-important. In actual fact I am not at all sure that preaching is the most important task committed to the pastor. One does not have to look far in evangelicalism to find good examples of the way in which preaching can eclipse all else, reducing churches to preaching centres. Far from building up the Church, such preaching undermines it.

Scripture reading in the service is often reduced to the reading for the sermon. Contrast this with the Eastern Orthodox liturgy. For instance, Robert Letham lists the readings in the EO liturgy for Good Friday — John 13:31-18:1; John 18:1-28; Matthew 26:57-75; John 18:28-19:16; Matthew 27:3-32; Mark 15:16-32; Matthew 27:33-54; Luke 23:32-49; John 19:25-37; Mark 15:43-47; John 19:38-42; Matthew 27:62-66 and, quite literally, these are just starters. There are probably a couple of dozen more Scripture readings in addition to those already mentioned.

This brings to light one of the deepest problems with preaching as understood and practiced within conservative evangelicalism. This problem is the priority that it tends to give to our own words in worship, over God’s words. Our words gradually squeeze out God’s words. Rather than letting preaching be the handmaid of God’s Word, we will reduce the Scripture readings far sooner than we will cut down the length of the sermon.

The responsive and receptive character of Christian worship becomes downplayed and our words become less and less controlled by God’s Word. The Scripture content of the liturgy and prayers plummets, to be replaced by evangelical clichés. The texts for sermons become ever shorter. Some evangelical preachers pride themselves on preaching huge sermons on a couple of words in a text. This often has the effect of leaving preaching largely uncontrolled by the Scriptures. For many sermons the ‘text’ is merely a pretext or springboard to explore a dimension of systematic theology or the like.

Evangelical worship is full of the noise of our own voices. We continually speak at God but don’t take the necessary time to attend to and to digest what He might be saying to us. Having more times of silent response to readings of the Word of God, for instance, would be a huge step in the right direction, as would having more lengthy readings that are not preached on (throwing out the technology that eclipses the simplicity of worship would also be helpful). Sometimes we need to resist the urge to continually rush to say what the Scriptures mean and just allow them to work on us, practicing the art of listening to Scripture together (which means that we do NOT read along in our own Bibles). Contemporary evangelical worship, with all of its technological bells and whistles, provides us with dozens of distractions from the simplicity of the Word of God and from the terrifying silence that might actually lead to personal or theological epiphanies.

Preaching has come to be understood as a great rhetorical event. I believe that significant changes in popular evangelical preaching styles would have to take place in order to bring them more in line with Scripture. Calm Scriptural exposition should replace many of the impassioned rhetorical displays that one hears from evangelical pulpits (rhetorical displays that often disguise a depressing lack of content). The pastor should teach the congregation as a father teaches his children. This means that the ideal position is sitting, not standing, and that shouting and the raising of voice for rhetorical effect is generally unnecessary.

The pastor should also remember that he is like a father teaching children, something that many evangelical preachers forget. If unbelievers attend worship they are eavesdroppers; the gathered worship of the Church is not for their benefit, but is about the relationship between God and His people. The fact that preaching in the Church is for children means that preaching is for the converted. Sin and unbelief are still addressed, but they are addressed as issues in the lives of the children of God — the baptized.

The oratory model of preaching tends to place orator and audience at different poles. The model presumes an initial distance between orator and audience that needs to be overcome by rhetoric. Standing behind the lectern, the orator tries to win over his audience with clever rhetoric and artificially exaggerated emotion. Preaching becomes drama; preaching becomes an ‘act’ in which the preacher adopts an affected style of speech.

The pastor should address the congregation as one who already has a relationship with them. The father or the pastor should not have to ‘win over’ their hearers in the way that the orator does. They ‘win over’ their hearers differently, by powerful truths plainly and lovingly spoken and by teaching with a gracious authority. The pastor should teach the congregation entrusted to him much as Jesus taught His disciples. He speaks naturally to his hearers and does not employ an affected style. The passion and emotion that arise are natural and not exaggerated or affected.

Many of the problems of emotionalism and rationalism in evangelical circles arise from distorted models of preaching. If pastors were more concerned with plainly addressing the truths of the gospel to the consciences of the saints in the context of the gathered ‘family meal’ of the Eucharist I suspect that we would not have the same problem with the rationalism and intellectualism that arises from the rather silly idea that the intellect is primary, for instance.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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19 Responses to Preaching

  1. Jim says:

    You write there is a lot of bad preaching around.

    That’s hurtful… because I don’t recall seeing you at one of our services. So how do you know it’s so bad (aside from the fact that you’re very bright and have doubtless guessed aright!)?

  2. Mark Jones says:

    A lot of good stuff in these posts! Didn’t we agree (years ago) that Albert Martin is one of the finest living preachers, though? He certainly falls under a lot of your criticism!

  3. Al says:


    Yes we did, and I would still stand by that assessment to a large extent. What evangelicals generally refer to as ‘preaching’ has much value to it and Al Martin is one of the finest examples of it. The traditional evangelical sermon is not without a place in the life of the Church. However, my point is that it should not function in the life of the Church in the way that it generally does.

    I will readily acknowledge the great preaching gifts of people such as Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Al Martin. However, I will not present their gift as the answer to the Church’s problems. I will also strongly argue that a healthy church must be built around far, far more than their gift supplies and that the way that the gift of such preaching is often exercised within the Church is not entirely conducive to the Church’s healthy growth.

  4. david shedden says:

    How can a pastor win over his or her congregation apart from his or her preaching? It’s a chicken/egg situation – the only reason that churches have pastors is so that they can lead services and preach at them, and, in some cases, administer baptism and eucharist. So, if your analysis is correct, which it probably is, a huge change in ecclesiology is required – a change which pastors are hardly able or willing to initiate (turkeys for Christmas?), and which churches barely have the will or insight to carry out, not least because it would inevitably cause strife and division.

  5. What a terrific post! I’m so glad you are back to blogging.

    There is so much I heartily agree with here, and you put it so well. You managed to write out what was only an uncomfortable itch that I couldn’t quite locate.

    There were a couple of points, one of which I’ve now forgotten, so I’ll press on with the one I do:
    “The pastor should also remember that he is like a father teaching children”
    I understand what you are saying, but I oh so easily almost misunderstood you to mean children in the more complete sense of intellectually immature. It gave me a shiver as I thought you were promoting the parenting model of leadership for a horrid moment. My misunderstzanding, but I wouldn’t be suprised if others read something into to this point that I don’t think you meant!
    All the best,

  6. Al,

    Like many of the other commenters, I find much to agree with in your article. Some of what you said sparked some questions in my mind.

    Do you think the Lord’s Supper was a full meal, rather than a “token” meal? If so, why?

    When you say, “service,” in reference to the gathering of the church do you see a “service” as something more than the gathering of the church or the same thing? If the same thing, then why use the word “service”? If not the same thing, what is the Biblical basis for that distinction?

    Do you think that “preaching” is really the right word to use for what you are describing? I ask because I am currently conducting a study on the Greek words that get translated as “preach” or “proclaim” in the New American Standard version of the Bible. I never realized there were 8 different Greek words that get translated as “preach” or “proclaim.” This makes me think there is probably some nuance that we lose in English as opposed to the Greek. For instance, it seems to me that the Greek word “euaggelizo” should most often be translated as “evangelize” rather than “preach” or “proclaim.”

    I will say that I am much more happy with the NAS’ translation (which incorporates many more instances of “proclaim”) than the King James (which I grew up with). “Preach” has such a powerful connotation of a Sunday morning, pulpit address whereas “proclaim” does not. I wonder if the word “preach” is right or necessary. How can we know why translators used “preach” versus “proclaim” in the first place. It seems arbitrary.

    Also, after I collate all the uses of all the 8 aforementioned Greek words I plan on asking some specific questions like, “Who is speaking?” “Who is being addressed?” “What is the context of the oration?” I’m hoping this will shed light on the whole concept of preaching and the role it takes in our churches.

    It seems the cardinal evangelical sin is to downplay the importance of preaching. Of course, it seems to many that that is exactly what I am doing when I ask questions like these. It’s true that I may actually be seeking the downplay of preaching, but only in accordance with Scripture.

    I’m curious to know if you have explored any of these ideas. If so, I would love to read more lengthly posts about your findings. Also if so, what resources did you use? Have you found any books/articles helpful?

  7. Al says:

    I think that you are right in thinking that (in some churches) this would demand considerable change, largely because many churches do not think that they need to function as communities. The ‘church as spiritual gas station’ paradigm would have to be dropped in favour of the ‘church as family’ paradigm. There is a huge difference between the two.

    Thanks for pointing that out; I can see how it could lead to serious misunderstanding (and to outright contradiction with points that I have made in other contexts).

    I think that the Lord’s Supper is a rite that can be celebrated (and, I suspect, often was in the early Church) as part of a full fellowship meal. However, the Supper is not itself a full meal.

    I am not using the term ‘service’ in a very strict sense. By ‘service’ I am referring particularly to the weekly ‘covenant renewal service’, when the whole Church gathers and receives both the Word and the Sacrament.

    My use of the term ‘preaching’ is, again, not particularly precise, largely due to the fact that I am generally using it in the sense that evangelicalism uses the term.

    The distinctions that you suggest are exactly the sort of thing that we need to work towards. The problem comes when people confuse evangelistic messages such as Peter’s Pentecost sermon with the sort of message that should regularly be heard in the context of the gathered worship of the people of God. I do not deny that there is an important place for such evangelistic messages, just that they are not the sort of message that generally belongs in the context of gathered worship.

    I think that one way to work towards distinctions might be to distinguish between dialogue partners. There are times when the Church addresses the world as the ambassadors of Christ. God addresses the world through the Church. There are other times when God addresses His people in the Church, with the pastor as His representative. There are then times when the Church addresses itself. The first is the evangelistic situation; the second is the gathered covenant renewal worship situation; the third is like a Bible study. Different things are appropriate and inappropriate in the various contexts.

    I don’t know of any resources of the top of my head that have really clarified this issue for me (although some comments by James Jordan in various contexts have helped).

  8. Al,

    Great post.

    I would simply add that I believe a lot of bad preaching simply reflects preachers not knowing what they are talking about.


  9. boqpod says:

    Thank you! I stumbled upon your blog through a friend of a friend’s blog. I only read half-way down & I’m marking this site on my favorites list. May the Lord continue to bless you!

  10. Brian Penney says:


    Would you be interested in being on our board of reference for Heart & Voice. We are in the planning stages of a new ministry, and we are on the same page, I believe, with worship and music. Email me and I’ll give you more info.

    Rev. Brian L. Penney
    Christ Covenant Church (CREC)
    Copiague, NY, USA

  11. Jim says:

    Excellent thoughts. Many of the points you make point to the very reasons someone I love dearly has left evangelicalism in favor of the liturgy, seriousness, and silence of the Roman Catholic Church.


  12. Gary Held says:


    What a great post and great topic! I’d like to bring a perspective to the conversation from outside of American Evangelicalism. My background is from a biblically/socially conservative branch of Lutheranism. Preaching is a vital activity because St. Paul tells us that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” Also, in the Old Testament, while prophets occasionally received visions from the Lord, much more frequent is the refrain, “The Word of the Lord came to…” Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jonah, Zechariah, and others. The witness of both Old and New Testaments is, therefore, that the faith once given to the saints has been all along an aural-based faith; we hear what the Lord says to His people. The Word, it says in Isaiah 55, does not return to the Lord void, but it achieves the purpose for which He sends it. Furthermore, Jesus tells his apostles to “Go into all the world and preach the Good News.”

    Martin Luther in his day placed a renewed emphasis on the sermon as a means of building up the faith of God’s people. There’s a balance to the Lutheran approach; we like to speak of coming to the worship service as a time when God’s people are gathered around His Word and Sacraments. The pastoral ministry itself, while admittedly encompassing more (such as administration, counseling, etc.), is often referred to in our circles as “Word and Sacrament ministry.” The chief means by which the faithful under-shepherd feeds and waters the sheep is by preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as Christ himself instituted them. Therefore Lutheran worship services invariably include, not only prayers and hymns, but also the public reading of Scripture, and proclamation (the sermon), and, increasingly, every-Sunday celebration of the Eucharist.

    The practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly is not uniform in American Lutheran congregations, but it is a trend that is catching on, and even in those congregations where it is not practiced weekly, nearly all of those offer the Sacrament every other week. It would make a good Bible study to see where we may observe signs of this being the normal practice in the New Testament Church.

    The main paradigm for Lutheran preaching is that a hearer should experience an encounter with the living God by hearing both God’s Law and His Gospel preached to his (the hearer’s) situation.

    The Law for us is not merely the Jewish regulations, or even the Decalogue, but every command or imperative found in Scripture that reveals God’s righteous demands. In other words, Lutherans don’t really care whether you call this dimension of God’s Word commandments, or ordinances, or proverbs, or rules, or principles for Christian living—if ultimately the message focus is on us (our behavior, our hearts, our priorities), then we call that Law. From the Law we learn how righteous, loving, faithful people are supposed to live, but the Law is powerless to make us righteous, loving or faithful people.

    Consequently, the Law is not preached in our churches with the chief aim of getting our people in the pews to shape up. Indeed, Lutheran preaching regularly gets criticized for not being “practical” enough. It would be a rare Lutheran sermon that would leave a hearer with six things he should try to work on this week, or four principles for Biblical living that will “really” make Christ Lord of his life. When we preach God’s Law, we not only preach the imperatives, what He wills for us, but also the sense of falleness and dread that should properly accompany our awareness when we realize how far we fall short of the mark. In other words, our understanding of the Christian purpose for preaching the Law is that it should drive us again to the Cross, not that it should primarily become a how-to manual for more godly living.

    A compelling sermon should then, in my view, aim to proclaim the Law in its fullest severity as the best way to prepare the hearers for what should come next, namely the proclamation of the Gospel in all its sweetness. The Gospel is, of course, is not merely Theocentric, but Christocentric. “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Corinth 1:23) In the Gospel, the hearers, whether they know it or not, are being drawn into the life and presence of God by the calling voice of their Savior. The disciples said to him in John 6, “You have the words of eternal life.” His words still impart eternal life today.

    And so, in a Law and Gospel sermon, you have the inerrant Word of God acting upon the believer in two entirely different ways: The Law simply shreds any imagined self-righteousness that we might hope to offer God, as the old Adam in us is once again crushed to death under the weight of his guilt. But then that in us which is born again of the Spirit, the new man who is part of the new creation in Christ, is raised up again to live a life that is hidden with Christ in God. (Col 3:3) The Law kills, but the Spirit, through the Gospel, makes alive again.

    I have death and resurrection happening in my congregation each and every Lord’s day.

    Al, you replied to one comment:
    “The distinctions that you suggest are exactly the sort of thing that we need to work towards. The problem comes when people confuse evangelistic messages such as Peter’s Pentecost sermon with the sort of message that should regularly be heard in the context of the gathered worship of the people of God. I do not deny that there is an important place for such evangelistic messages, just that they are not the sort of message that generally belongs in the context of gathered worship.”

    I would agree that preaching to the baptized is a different kind of occasion than is proclaiming Christ to non-believers. But as I have outlined Law and Gospel preaching above, both those who know Christ and those who do not yet can be powerfully acted upon by God’s Word in both its dimensions.

    Jim said: “Many of the points you make point to the very reasons someone I love dearly has left evangelicalism in favor of the liturgy, seriousness, and silence of the Roman Catholic Church.”

    I sense the dissatisfaction and disorientation many evangelicals are experiencing these days as they try to find a richer paradigm for worship and a more compelling Biblical theology, that includes a greater appreciation for the Church’s history. But I think it is profoundly disappointing that any Christian grounded in the Bible should feel he has to put himself under the humanly-invented papacy to satisfy his hunger for “meatier” spiritual nourishment. Obviously, I’d much rather see an evangelical set out on the Wittenberg Trail than on the Road to Rome.

    “The Wittenberg Trail,” by the way, is also the name of a very good website, for those wanting to learn more. There is also a pretty good article by Mark Noll in First Things that is entitled “The Lutheran Difference,” and is available online.

    Finally, I have a part in a podcast unrelated to Noll’s article, but also called the “The Lutheran Difference,” and it can be found at:

    I’m not trying to convert all you folks into joining Lutheran churches, but I’m not shy about advising you to cast your eyes and ears our direction, at least so you can get a handle on what we’re talking about. Every blessing in Christ to you all.

    Pastor Gary Held

  13. Shawn says:

    What an excellent post! Well said. I agree completely and have much to think about as a result of reading this. Thanks.

  14. Mike Ogden says:

    As for the Biblical model for preaching, where do we find “sermons” in the context of NT worship? The format we recognize today was of pagan origin, appearing in the church at the time of Constantine and receiving the solidifying support of Augustine who had been accustomed to paid lectures as a pagan philosopher.

  15. Gary says:

    In Acts 20, the Apostle Paul was gathered with the saints at Troas “on the Lord’s day,” and he preached until midnight. Clearly his sermon was not what we normally expect a sermon to be, if for no other reason than its length.

    While I’m sure, Mike, you need no evidence for preaching, per se, the form that we call the sermon has doubtlessly developed from what would have been synagogue practice in that day. There is much evidence that the early Christian church borowed its worship patterns (even in Gentile churches) from the synagogues.

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