The Hunt for the Good Sermon
Are American churches really suffering a crisis of bad preaching?
By John Wilson
Is preaching in America in a particularly bad state?
Several commentators have recently raised the question, yet it has a long history. “It has become an impertinent Vein among People of all Sorts,” wrote Jonathan Swift in the 1720s, “to hunt after what they call a good Sermon, as if it were a Matter of Pastime or Diversion.”
And often those on the hunt declare their disappointment, as when Britain’s Lord Hugh Cecil said in the mid-20th century that “the two dangers which beset the Church of England are good music and bad preaching.”
Today’s complainers include Ross Douthat, whose recently published “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” describes churches whose preachers promise prosperity to the faithful or dispense the gospel of narcissism. Others wonder about a pulpit presence so charismatic that it draws more attention to the preacher than to his message.
And yet, on the basis of a lifetime of churchgoing, I have to report that week after week, year after year, I have heard the Word of God faithfully preached. And I am particularly skeptical of sweeping claims, as by the Barna Group’s David Kinnaman, that the upcoming generation of churchgoers has tastes and needs radically different from those of any previous generation in human history.
So what explains the recently announced million-dollar grant from the Lilly Foundation “to cultivate excellence in preaching” at Calvin College’s Institute of Christian Worship? Does this eye-catching grant suggest that worship is on perilous ground?
It doesn’t. Preaching—and worship—is in need of renewal because it is always in need of renewal. No pastor, congregation or denomination will ever get it right once and for all.
At the Lilly-funded program, pastors—men and women from various denominational backgrounds—will study together in “Micah Groups,” named for the biblical passage that has become a touchstone for many Christians of this generation: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). The goal of the program, says director Mark Labberton, is “the convergence of worship, preaching, and justice.”
“Justice” (a notoriously elusive concept) wouldn’t have defined a comparable program in the 1950s, especially not in evangelical circles, where the accent would have been on saving souls. To put “preaching” and “justice” together doesn’t imply indifference to the eternal fate of our souls, but it does propose a corrective—a stress on realizing the Kingdom of God here and now. The history of the church is made up of moves like this.
Consider the alleged exodus of young people from the church. “We won’t lose students because we didn’t entertain them,” said the dreadlocked Philadelphia activist and preacher Shane Claiborne on Twitter. “We will lose them because we haven’t given the FULL gospel.” Mr. Claiborne’s comment made me think of another gifted preacher, Jesus, who also met with a mixed reception. “From that moment,” we read in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel—after Jesus said that “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”—”many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.”
Why did some disciples draw back while others continued to follow Jesus? Why does the church surge to life here or there, while at the same moment, across the street or across the ocean, it seems to be increasingly moribund? Can’t we find a method—underwritten by neuroscience and evolutionary psychology—to guarantee successful preaching? To ask the question is to answer it.
In his memoir “The Pastor” (2011), Eugene Peterson identifies one of the most serious threats to biblical preaching—a “pragmatic vocational embrace of American technology and consumerism that promised to rescue congregations from ineffective obscurity” but that “violated everything—scriptural, theological, experiential—that had formed my identity as a follower of Jesus and a pastor.”
The obsession with measurable “results,” the rebranded promise of some technique or strategy: Preachers are bombarded with this stuff every day (four keys to success, six marks of a healthy church, seven principles of growth). Many ignore it and get on with their work in “scripture, sermon, and sacrament.” Praise God for that.
Mr. Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture, a bimonthly review.
A version of this article appeared June 1, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Hunt for the Good Sermon.