Preaching Trends: A Word Of Concern

By Harry R. Osborne

The words of Elihu may be well to note at the outset of this article. He started his speech to Job and his friends with the admission of his youth and the general rule that “days should speak, and multitude of years should teach wisdom” (Job 32:7). I do not pretend to be an expert giving advice to preachers and other brethren far older and wiser than myself. At the age of thirty, I would feel far more comfortable just continuing to read this magazine than attempting to write in it. However, I am deeply concerned about the current trend towards non-biblical preaching and its effect on preachers of my generation. I ask, therefore, that those of us who are younger consider the content and direction of our preaching.

The apostle Paul through inspiration of the Spirit clearly expressed the divine mandate for both the content and direction of gospel preaching. He said, “Preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). The advice was not to “make people feel good about themselves,” but to preach the Word.. The advice was not to “‘accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative,” but to preach the Word. The advice was not to “turn a catchy phrase” for oratorical appeal, but . to preach the Word. If the Word is preached, people are made to “feel good” not upon an artificial high, but as a result of the privileged place one has as a child of God in serving the Master. Jesus’ handling of the rich, young ruler should show us that one who refuses to serve the Master should not leave our preaching with an artificial high still lost in sin. By simply preaching the Word, the positive will be accentuated in God’s way which does not include the elimination of his negative admonitions. When the Word is preached, the Scriptures are upheld as the product of divine wisdom which cannot be matched by a catchy phrase turned by mortal man. In short, the divine mandate stresses a focus on God and his product rather than man and his techniques as the tools for reaching the world.

Without the benefit of the wisdom of age, I freely admit a difficulty in accurately spotting trends, but one seems to be obvious. Over the past several years, there seems to be on abundance of preaching which has little or no real biblical base. Among my peers, I have noticed a tendency to use very little Scripture and a mass of personal stories and experiences. All of us recognize that an illustration of a biblical point is well in order, but when the illustration is emphasized to the overshadowing of the Scriptures, priorities have been confused. At the close of our preaching, does the audience have ingrained in their mind the Word of God or what happened to us while driving down the freeway? I am riot attempting to set a quota of verses which must be read, but that our preaching have its solid foundation in a “thus saith the Lord” (cf. 1 Pet. 4:11). As younger preachers, we must be careful not to take a shortcut in our work by de-emphasizing biblical exegesis and trying to compensate with oratorical technique. It may be enthusing to the audience, but it is artificial.

A Proper View of Older Preachers

Those of us who are younger preachers need to pay careful attention in our admiration of preachers of experience and wisdom. In our rightful eagerness to learn, we sometimes misinterpret their advice. For instance, when one says there is a need to be “more positive” in preaching, he takes it for granted that we understand his plea is for a balance. Regretfully, many of us have construed that as a plea to eradicate reproof and rebuke, replacing such with preaching which lacks the militance of New Testament preaching. I know of no sound preacher who would for a single moment encourage anyone to forsake a balanced teaching of Bible principles whether positive or negative.

We also tend to look at some more experienced preachers and attribute their success to a distinctive style or type of speaking. We ought to recognize the fact that any lasting success that any preacher has is due to a knowledge and communication of God’s Word. Brother James P. Miller told several of us who were students that imitation of a style was a quick way to attain two things: short lived popularity and long time hypocrisy. Those preachers who are highly esteemed even after their death are esteemed because of long hours of preparation in mining the text and doing their best to impart that text to the people as clearly as possible. More importantly, however, that is the kind of preacher the Lord esteems because that is His charge (2 Tim. 4:1-5).

Dangers of Subjectivism

When our focus becomes style or positivism or whatever else, rather than preaching the Word, we are inviting apostasy. From ancient times to the present, when God’s people ceased to concentrate on His message, they began to “do that which was right in their own eyes” and forsook God (cf. Deut. 12:1-8; Judg. 21:25; Phil. 3:17-19). I believe that philosophy of subjectivism is at work in the following statements which I have heard in recent years.

“What we need Is more short sermons and less sermons on shorts.” Let me pause to say that this statement is not suggested for Sunday’s sermon title. Instead, it is imperative that we do all we can to counter such teaching with the truth. It is hard to imagine, but some among my generation have difficulty in saying that a cheerleader in the typical almost non-existent attire is immodest. The same hesitation is seen to condemn social drinking and unclean movies. Are the principles that hard to understand or do we just not want to be negative? Let’s stop compromising with the devil for fear of being “negative” and preach the Word.

“We try not to cool people off by fanning through the Scriptures.” I suppose that one could mean by this statement that we ought not to use an abundance of Scripture superficially. In that case, I would only question the wisdom of stating such in this way. However, in the times I have heard the phrase used, it appeared the speaker was urging limited usage of Bible and profuse reliance on personal conjecture or subjective thought. The denominations of today got where they are by implementing that advice fifty years ago. The Bible and doctrinal teaching “turned them off,” so they started using psychology and social consciousness to “turn them on.” If we really believe that the Word of God is a living and active sword which is able to touch and discern the heart of man (Heb. 4:12), why would we seek to cut Scripture to a bare minimum? An ill-prepared and shallow lesson from a misused text may be boring, but one which rightly divides the Word, letting that Word speak to men’s hearts, is not going to “cool off” the people who want to listen to God (2 Tim. 2:14-15).

“We need to get out and witness to the world.” In any drift away from biblical emphasis, there is a departure from biblical language. The student of the Bible who reads the Gospels, Acts, I Corinthians 15, or a number of other similar passages quickly understands that Bible witnesses were those who saw firsthand the pertinent evidence. I can and must carry the witness of the New Testament writers to the world, but what Scripture suggests that I inake up my own testimony of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, or teaching? The denorninationalist calls people to faith through his “witness” or “testimony” based on some personal experience or subjective revelation, but the apostle John says the written record is the initiator of faith (John 20:30-31). If our terminology starts echoing the evangelicals, our doctrine ill not be far behind.

“We need to admit that In a sense we are saved by faith only. ” Where is the passage to support such? Faithful gospel preachers have for years pressed Calvinists for the proof text. For years, faithful brethren who held fast to the Word noted the denial of such by Scripture in James 2 and by the very nature of New Testament faith. The Bible clearly teaches that we are saved by faith, but not by faith only. the very use of the term “by faith only” suggests the user is unaware of the fact that biblical faith is an allincompassing trust which dominates thought and action. Peter notes that we are saved by baptism (1 Pet. 3:21). Would anyone dare to say we are saved by baptism only? Why then with faith? The obvious reason is some use this non-biblical terminology is to minimize conflict with denominational thought. Not only does such a phrase fall short of describing man’s responsibility in the conditions of pardon, but it also denies God’s gift. If one says salvation is by “faith only,” he has just disregarded the fact that we are saved by grace. We need to stick with God’s message and that message does not have an “only” behind the “faith.” I know of a case where a member’s Baptist parents are now unreachable because of such being preached by one seeking compromise terminology. Later, the preacher joked about it as his “Calvinism sermon.” May the Lord grant us sobriety when we find humor in giving false teachers the idea that we are with them.

Our preaching needs to be more practical and less doctrinal.” Since when is doctrine not practical? What other basis for our practice is there than the doctrine of Christ (2 Jn. 9)? Paul uses the doctrine taught in Romans 1-11 as the foundation for appealing to them for a transformed life (practice). The more one knows about the doctrine of salvation, the more he ought to be moved by a compassion for the Lord to follow him in practice. As one understands the doctrine of divine inspiration, he ought to have an increased respect for the precepts of conduct found in the message from deity. People will be motivated to act right in the long term, not on the basis of an emotional hype, but as a result of the engrained teaching of the Lord’s doctrine.

A Final Plea

A number of other examples could be given, but the above amply demonstrate non-biblical thought, practice and speech. The time has come when those of us who are younger should cease being enamored with Charles Swindoll, Vance Havner, and Tim LaHaye and get our noses into God’s Word! Enthusiasm need not come from a denominational writer or speaking with a purely subjective basis. It can and must come from the objective message of the Christ which dwells in us richly (Col. 3:16).

I do not intend this to be an indictment of younger preachers in general. From my experience, the majority of my peers are sound in thought and speech (Tit. 2:7-8). Most of them are also concerned about the trends presented. The point must be made, however, that we are the ones who are most easily influenced toward “new images.” We have a choice before us. The easy way is to follow the trends discussed. Very little study, thought, or courage would be required. The difficult way is to fight these trends and declare the truth. A great deal of study, thought, courage, prayer, time, and work will be demanded. The main difference, however, is this: the first way puts our soul and the souls of them that hear us in jeopardy – the other way will help us to both save ourselves and them that hear us (1 Tim. 4:16).

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 11, pp. 336-337
June 4, 1987