Monday, May 05, 2008

Be Careful How You Build: A Plea for Boring Preaching

While washing up the dishes with my wife the other night, conversation turned again to the U.S. presidential election and the whole Obama-Wright thing. As we discussed Wright's "performance," another lesson learned long ago and taught by many long before me came back to mind: be careful how you build a church. Humanly speaking, whatever you do to build the church is what you'll have to do to keep the church.

It's another cautionary lesson for pastors.

If you saw either the Detroit speech or the Press Club event, the first thing that probably struck you was Wright's delivery. His gestures and posture and for lack of a better word "theatrics," all made the scene quite entertaining or macabre depending on your perspective.

Wright employed his pulpit persona on a national stage set for reflection, analysis, and discussion. I wondered if he had been so accustomed to preaching as public speaking that he was unable to find a different (more appropriate?) mode of address for these venues.

Wright has built a large church and following with this pulpit persona. Whatever you think of what he's saying, he is engaging. Any time you can begin a sentence about a preacher with "whatever you think he's saying," you know you have a problem--engaging or not. The danger of building a church on exaggerated personality seems to be at least two-fold.

First, it traps the preacher in the entertainment expectations of so many churchgoers. If we entertain rather than edify, we're not far from becoming the little monkey in the red suit that does tricks on the street corner for his owner. And it's awfully difficult to escape that arrangement once you start building the pulpit on an exaggerated personality like that. The pressure to "perform" is already great in many African American contexts. A man can "preach" if he can excite emotion and response. But if he calmly and clearly opens the text, then he is "a good teacher." Culturally, African Americans have always placed great value in oratory. So much so, emotional oratory has become to litmus test for preaching.

One young man approached me at T4G feeling the weight of this pressure from people attending his church. They want him to 'hoop; he wants to feed them meat. Two dear brothers have been called "black white preachers" because they are committed expositors (with fire I might add). But exposition belongs to "whiteness" in the minds of too many, and the preacher is potentially tempted toward or enslaved by the pressure to entertain.

The second danger of building on personality is the congregation gets very accustomed to two things: feeling as the end of worship and lazy listening as the means of worship. If we entertain people rather than instruct and edify, we will create a body of people who want the fleeting feelings of a moment rather than the meat of the word. They will want a glitzy god rather than the glorious God of Scripture. They will not think they have "worshipped" or served God until they have felt something or been moved in some way. That's emotionalism, not genuine emotion that comes from the truth.

And a congregation accustomed to being entertained will be a spiritually lazy congregation. Entertainment increasingly puts the cookies on the bottom shelf (actually the floor). It makes everything easy to reach, requires little/nothing of the one entertained, and encourages comfort and ease. In short, today's entertainment generally makes people lazy. The same is true in a church if entertainment is the dominant philosophy. People are not made into Bereans, searching the Scripture to verify the truth. They're reduced to blank-faced popcorn and goober eating moviegoers, taking in whatever glimmers on the silver screen. Except the silver screen is increasingly the church service.
So here's a plea. Please, please Lord build your church on "boring" preaching and "regular" personalities owned and fired by your Holy Spirit, so that your people will find excitement and emotion that comes from the truth and their affections will rest on You rather than the earthen vessel that proclaims your Name.

And please, please brothers, let us be "weak" in the pulpit that Christ might be seen as strong. Let us preach in the personality the Lord gave us, only careful not to build the church on it.


Anonymous said...

Here, here!

Powerful passionate, preaching is not the problem.

Performance preaching is! Contentless preaching. Christless preaching is the real problem.

Wright's succesor, is a perfect example of your welltimed warning.

This poor young preacher is driven by precedent to keep up the show.

Having listened to many of his sermons of late, He is hitting and missing. And more missing than hitting, and I am sure he feels it.

More embarrassingly, he is a poor facsimile, of His predecessor.

UNFORTUNATELY, most of our black Churches have fallen prey to your vaudville, sawdust trail

I was at the National, Black, Baptist Bible Conference, in March and one of the professor of preaching from Baylor, mentioned that white people do NOT want PREACHING, and Black people do not want TEACHING.( generalization)

I was told one time by a prominent national radio manager, that I was cursed with the white mans curse;
because I taught, rather than hooped. He was white!(No type-O)

I had an African American women, of mid fifties age, who has been attending our Church the last month or so, tell me, just yesterday, that the reason she drives an hour to come to our traditonal, simplistic, expository ministry, was because she no longer wanted to be preached at.

POINT! Wether black, white or other, eventually the spiritually hungry will seek the meat ministry of sound Christ exalting, teaching.

And for my money, I can assure you, that the task of laboring to expound and preach the gospel, whether there is passion with it, or not, is far more challenging, and far more rewarding, than learning the ropes of rethorical manipulation.

Especially, when you hear your people learning,growing, and becoming more commted to the glory of God, and the message of Christ and Him Crucified.

Moreover , it is my experience, for which I hope to never change, that a balanced delivery, which should never be boring, but also not exaggerated, will reach across the spectrum of ethnicities,and fill your church with the demographics relfected in your community!

By Grace, Alone

Steven said...

This post is RIGHT ON! A great word for all aspiring pastors/preachers. As I prepare for ministry I don't want to "sell" a congregation on my personality, my humor (or lack thereof), or my entertainment value. He should be increasing - I should be decreasing.

KG said...

Great post. Preaching and emotion and expression are OK as long as they are really who you are in representing the truth that you are sharing.
Content is far more important then the presentation. Thank you for this well thought and encouraging word.
The African-American and white members of our church are both there because they are attracted to expositional Biblical teaching based on the original context with practical application for today.

Pastor Pablito said...

Well said Pastor T.,

Great post and I could not agree more! I have to say I sprayed Diet Pepsi across the room when I read the “They're reduced to blank-faced popcorn and goober eating moviegoers” comment!

Entertainment is easier than teaching. Teaching requires one to study, think about, pray over, read, reread and reread the scriptures. Like you said, entertainment is what people want these days, but those who know the truth in their hearts, will seek after sound teaching. I believe the Holy Spirit moves where the sound teaching is and probably “grieves” at the entertainment.

The Gospel and the Scriptures should be presented pure. God does not need our help with HIS message.


DjR said...

I am so grateful for these reflections. These words popped out at me: "...feeling as the end of worship and lazy listening as the means of worship." I can see myself there. "Be careful how you listen", I say to myself!

David Reimer

R. D. Bailey said...

what is it about our culture today that makes people want follow Wright/O'steen/you fill in the blank? It just blows my mind. It makes me uncomfortable, even in my own wonderful church when someone seems to be absorbed with the preacher(L. Quinn). I love him, but he is not the reason I attend here

Lionel Woods said...

I wonder what style Paul used in Acts 20? It is true that many of the blacks I know really don't have a great worship experience unless they have had some type of estatic preaching style delivered to them on Sunday. Most of the time Christ becomes the secondary purpose and technique becomes the priority. All the while no real life giving Gospel is proclaimed. If Christ is not proclaimed the sermon was WORHTLESS. I say that with no conviction. If Christ is not the front and center of all you are proclaiming then you have reduced the pulpit to nothing more than a really good Toastmasters presentation.

The results of this is evidence enough to why this post is relevant in every way possible. I am usually saddened by the lack of Christ and Him crucified being proclaimed and the overarching "Reposition Yourself" that is. My heart is troubled dear friend and thank you and others for proclaiming the Gospel truth in a way that is palatable but first and foremost Christ Centered.

Arthur Sido said...

Great post and very timely! Just give Christians the Word of God and that will suffice.