The Curse Of The Shallow Sermon
POP GOES THE GOSPEL (Part VII)
I don’t want to appear to be a grumpy old man who bemoans the modern world and hankers after the “good old days” when things were much better. But the fact is that I have lived long enough to witness a significant shift in the content and style of preaching in churches. Sermons have become shorter, simpler, shallower, more repetitive, less theological and more inclined to focus upon the psychological and emotional needs of the listeners rather than focus on Christ.
Sermons Of Old
This shift is particularly obvious when one compares the average sermon today with the sermons of the great preachers of the past, such as George Whitfield, Charles Spurgeon, Alexander Campbell, R.C. Sproul, Alexander Maclaren, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Matthew Henry, J.C. Ryle, John Wesley, John Calvin and D.L. Moody. These sermons were deeply theological, complex and Christ-centred. They also treated the Bible differently. The Bible was used as the source text upon which the message was based, rather than as an illustrative text to support the preacher’s message. The sermons of old were often expositional, relying upon scholarly exegesis of the original text. Listeners were required to think deeply. By comparison, in many churches today, the sermon often glosses over the surface of a Bible passage, merely using it as a springboard into the preacher’s topic, rather than properly exegeting the passage and delving deeply into its meaning.
Example Of A Shallow Sermon
I recently listened to a podcast sermon, supposedly based upon John 17. This is the prayer of Jesus as he prays for his disciples and for all who will follow him. This Bible passage is filled with marvellous theological truths:
- The irresistible grace of God (vv. 6, 24)
- The Lordship of Christ over all humanity (v.2)
- The eternal existence of the Son (vv.5, 24)
- The nature and ontological order of the Trinity (vv.1, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10-12, 18, 21-26)
- The defining characteristics of salvation (v.3)
- The crucial nature of Christian unity (vv.11, 20-23,
- The serious reality of spiritual warfare (vv.11, 15)
- The inevitability of suffering and persecution (v.14)
- The sovereignty and of God – evident in Judas’ betrayal of Jesus as a fulfilment of prophecy (v.12)
- God’s pre-election of the saints from eternity – (vv. 6, 9, 12)
- The relationship between sanctification and knowledge of the Truth (vv.17, 19)
- The mission of the church (v.18)
- The certainty of eternal salvation (v.24)
- The indwelling of Christ within the believer (vv.21-23-26)
Sadly, the preacher did not mention any of these incredibly profound truths (except a very brief, one sentence reference to Christ’s pre-existence). He ignored all these marvelous truths, saying “There is so much in this passage that I don’t have time to go into”. Instead, he gave a 3-point sermon:
- Prayer is a dialogue, not a monologue (a point which cannot be made from this passage, because Jesus’ prayer WAS a monologue! What appalling exegesis!)
- Jesus had an intimate relationship with the Father (which the preacher compared to his close, yet flawed, relationship with his own son)
- We are invited into the same intimate relationship with the Father
While points 2 and 3 are not wrong, they constitute an incredibly superficial exegesis of this profound passage! If I could meet with that preacher I would ask him, “If you didn’t have time to go into all those other profound truths, when will you have time? Will you ever come back to that passage and expound those incredibly profound doctrines? Why did you choose not to speak about them this time?” Sadly, this kind of shallow exegesis is typical of much of the preaching within today’s church, because preachers are scared of boring seekers with doctrine. I also suspect that many preachers exist at a very superficial theological level, themselves, and are much more comfortable paddling in the shallows.
The Dumbing Down Of The Sermon
The style and content of the modern sermon is significantly different from sermons only 50 years ago. Obviously, some changes in grammar and vocabulary are inevitable in response to the ongoing evolution of language. But this is mere window-dressing. The changes that concern me are more profound and deeply disturbing. In my previous post, “Pop Goes The Gospel VI”, I discussed one of those profound changes – the influence of pop psychology upon the proclamation of the gospel, resulting in a focus upon the concepts of self-esteem, self-fulfilment and relationships. A second, equally disturbing trend has been described as the “dumbing down” of the sermon. Today’s sermons are, on the whole, much more simplistic than in previous eras, and are generally pitched at an intellectual level of about 12 years of age.
The Influence Of The Seeker Sensitive Movement
This has come about as a result of the hugely influential “Seeker Sensitive Church” movement, started by Robert Schuller and subsequently spear-headed by Bill Hybells (Willow Creek Community Church) and, more recently, by Rick Warren (Saddleback Community Church). The Seeker Friendly movement has profoundly influenced almost every church in the western world. Basically, the seeker friendly church tries to reach out to the unsaved person by making the church experience as comfortable, inviting, and non-threatening as possible. The idea behind the concept is to get as many unsaved people through the door as possible. Key elements include a hot band, snappy technology, a good creche and an effective kids program. The sermon, in particular, has been radically transformed by this movement. In order to appeal to outsiders, sermons are shorter, simpler and focused on self-improvement, fulfilment, success, marriage, relationships, communication and a myriad of other “practical” topics that are appealing to modern ears.
The seeker friendly church is a consumer driven church that regards the gospel as a product to be marketed, with packaging to make it attractive to the consumer. For example, on the office door of Bill Hybels (Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church) is a poster which reads, “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?”[i] This says it all!
While the seeker sensitive movement has had widespread influence upon the general style of modern day church services, it’s most significant impact has been upon the content of the sermon. Preachers of today are taught the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid. Sermons are pitched at a much simpler, shallower level. Repetition abounds. Points are ponderously developed. Illustrations have become the foundation of the message, with the Bible used to provide occasional support. Seeker friendly sermons avoid those aspects of the Bible that are offensive to outsiders or considered to be too cerebral or theological. It has been estimated that once a person has attended church for approximately 3 years, they have learned everything that they will ever learn from the sermon. Every message from then on will be a repeat of the same simple themes with slightly different packaging.
Preacher and Bible Scholar, John MacArthur, laments this “dumbing down” of the sermon, referring to it as “condescending”[ii]. He’s right. It treats people as though they are idiots. This “dumbing down” of the sermon has had profound consequences within Christianity. Churches are now full of people who have not progressed beyond the basics (and even these basics have often been distorted and sugar-coated).
Willow Creek’s Painful Lesson
Several years ago, Willow Creek Community Church undertook a multiple year study of the effectiveness of its seeker friendly services. It interviewed and surveyed church members to investigate the spiritual maturity of its congregation and their satisfaction with the seeker friendly program. The results were damning. The final report indicated a serious lack of spiritual maturity amongst the congregation, including an appallingly shallow understanding of the Bible. It also revealed a strong desire amongst the congregation for deeper, meatier teaching, together with a general dissatisfaction with the shallow nature of Sunday sermons.
Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek, while speaking at a subsequent leadership summit, confessed, “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become self-feeders. We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own”[iii]. This frank confession, together with the disturbing findings of the Willow Creek church report, sent shock waves throughout Christendom. Sadly, many churches today are continuing blindly down the seeker friendly path, offering a watered-down version of the gospel that has already proven to be ineffective in producing mature disciples of Christ.
The writer to the Hebrews lamented a similar lack of spiritual maturity within some of the churches throughout the dispersia: “Although by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to re-teach you the basic principles of God’s word. You need milk, not solid food! Everyone who lives on milk is still an infant, inexperienced in the message of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained their sensibilities to distinguish good from evil.…” (Heb 5:12-13)
There Is A Hunger For “Meatier” Sermons
A couple of years ago I conducted a mid-week course in a particular church that I called “Deepening Your Faith”. It was held one night each week for ten weeks and consisted of a one-hour talk followed by questions and answers. I dealt with weighty doctrinal topics that don’t get much airplay in Sunday services – including biblical inspiration and inerrancy, Bible manuscripts and variants, the two covenants, progressive revelation, interpreting the Bible Christologically, developing a theodicy (a theology of suffering) etc. The pastor of that church thought we might get a dozen or so people interested in pursuing this kind of weighty teaching. Instead, we got 65 participants who turned up enthusiastically week after week. They expressed great joy at being able to study Biblical issues at depth. They also expressed a desire that Sunday sermons should deal with Biblical issues at greater depth. Subsequent to that first course, I ran 3 further mid-week courses at the same church, all with similar weighty content, and all similarly well-attended. Throughout these courses I was regularly asked, “Why don’t we learn these sorts of things in church?” To be fair, the church in question has quite sound biblical teaching most Sundays. There is usually nothing wrong with what it teaches. It’s just that it doesn’t often go beyond the basics.
There is a hunger amongst Christians for meaty biblical teaching, and a general dissatisfaction with the simplified messages of our seeker-friendly pulpits. Preachers who deliberately avoid dealing with complex doctrinal issues in their sermons should consider the Bible’s plea for Christians to be growing in knowledge and depth of insight;
“Make every effort to add to your faith, virtue, and to add to virtue, knowledge” (2 Pet 1:5)
“And this is my prayer for you, that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (Phil 1:9)
These verses indicate that both head and heart are important in our faith. Love needs to be more than mere shallow emotion; it needs to “abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight”. This infers continual growth in our knowledge and understanding of the deeper things of God’s Word.
Are you continually growing in your own knowledge of God and of salvation? Is the preaching in your church substantial and meaty? Does it tackle the complex theological issues of faith? Does it deal at depth with Biblical truth? Are you regularly learning new things? Or are you hearing the same kind of simplistic messages over and over again? Do you feel like you’ve heard it all before?
Maybe that’s because you have.
[i] Quoted in the article, “Willow Creek Repents?” on Christianitytoday.com
[ii] John MacArthur, in an interview with Phil Johnson, in his Grace To You broadcast on gtv.org, entitled, “The Church Growth Movement”
[iii] Quoted in the article, “Willow Creek Repents?” on Christianitytoday.com