By Bob Hiller –
I was recently engaged in a conversation with some theological minds on the question of preaching (Besides sports, what else is there to really talk about?). The hypothetical question was raised: “Should a pastor ever preach a sermon with no Gospel?” This is like asking: “Should Steph Curry actually be the NBA MVP?” It will create a conversation even though it is a ridiculous question with an obvious answer. But I was bored, so I bit.
If you’ve spent any time reading the Jagged Word, you know that I am not alone in answering this question with another question: Is a gospel-less sermon truly New Testament preaching at all? That is, if Jesus is not the central focus of the sermon, is it even a Christian sermon? Or, is it okay to exalt my doing over Jesus’ doing and make a sermon about me and not him? At one point in the discussion, I said: “Thinking about my congregation, I can’t imagine a Sunday where I would look out on the people of God and say: ‘You know, these people don’t need to receive Christ’s free gifts this week.’” To this, one of the other theologians of preaching replied: “We are not talking about your congregation. We are asking, hypothetically, if such preaching is ever appropriate.” Then it struck me. That response is precisely the problem.
See, the conversation was a hypothetical conversation, but preaching is never hypothetical. It is never theoretical. It is always occurring in the real, living, breathing, sinning, and suffering life of the congregation. The one who is sent by God to proclaim His Word must never ask: “Could I ever say X” or, “Is such and so ever okay to do in a sermon.” The question is always, “What does God want these people to hear?”
Conversations about preaching should never take place without the lives of God’s people flashing before the preacher’s eyes. One must never talk about “repentance” in the abstract but only in view of Frank’s struggles with lust or Diane’s propensity to gossip. Preachers must never consider the concept of forgiveness apart from the confessor’s tears that have stained the carpet of his study. Theories on hope help no one. Preaching the resurrection over a teenager’s casket soothes the sting of death. Preaching is not hypothetical or theoretical. God actually works in the sermon on His people where they sit on Sunday mornings.
Where we run into trouble in the church is when we turn “Law and Gospel” into theological abstractions to be debated instead of words from God to be delivered. However, many uses God’s law has is superfluous when you have an unrepentant adulterer sitting in your office. God wants that man put to death before He raises him. How much fruit the Gospel will produce is not something worth discussing when you have a pregnant teenage girl terrorized by thoughts of God and her parents. Those who have the Word of God are simply to deliver it, not debate it. Proclaim Jesus, hand Him over, and get out of the way. Theology is not theory; it is an announcement from God to sinners.
Our propensity to live in the world of theory causes even more problems beyond preaching. I think this really gets at much of my frustration, not just with conversations about preaching, but with most of the conversations I have among pastors in general. We love to theorize and solve problems in the abstract. Consider how churches deal with differing age groups. We do massive studies, psychological analyses, demographical research, and internet surveys to figure out what makes millennials tick or boomers boom or busters burst. God hasn’t called us to deal with abstract groups of people. He’s called us to love our neighbor (admittedly, such a phrase is an abstraction itself. However, it is an abstraction that deals with people as humans, not sociological case studies). To be a bit clearer, for the pastor, or for any member of God’s church, how millennials function doesn’t matter. But, Joe, the new 20-something who is sitting in your pew, does. He may or may not fit the mold of a “millennial.” That doesn’t matter for the church. What matters is that his pastor or brother or sister knows him well enough to preach repentance and forgiveness to him. As the church, we need to spend less time on sociological case studies and more time in living rooms and coffee houses.
Theology, God’s Word at work, never takes place up in heaven. Jesus is always at work on earth in the context of a people gathered around His Word and gifts. As necessary as talking about God is, it matters not and is damaging to the church, if it doesn’t end in giving Christ. We don’t need to waste time theorizing about what hypothetical people need to hear. We need to spend our time with the people of God, our brothers and sisters in Christ, so we know best how to deliver Jesus into their ears and hearts. There is nothing hypothetical about preaching. There is only killing and making alive. So hand over the goods!