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The Ineffectiveness of Preaching

January 30, 2007

From the intro to a sermon on Luke 8… 

“In the parable of the sower, 3 out of 4 the four soils are people who do not hear with understanding and therefore do not have persevering faith and do not bear fruit. This teaches us to expect and shows us how to explain the frequency of unfruitful responses to preaching. 

Many today criticize monologue as inappropriate for our postmodern TV attention span culture.  They say we need dialogue and discussion and multimedia interactivity in order to communicate because preaching is ineffective today.  

But what this parable tells us is that preaching has always been ineffective.  But the answer is not updated modes of communication.  Because the problem is in the hearts of the hearers.  The sower, the preacher, is radically unemphasized in this parable.   He is handing out the same seed to everybody and yet there are these four different responses.”



Traditional church continues to be provocatively deconstructed over at the Kamp Krusty blog.   But this time I’m a little less sympathetic because lately preaching itself has been called into question.  In the comment thread of his 1/29 post Brant writes…

“I certainly hope that, by having a professional-teaching-tier of Christianity, we don’t engender that same sort of thing, a consuming complexification of a simple message. If we did, that would be tragic, wouldn’t it?

We’d wind up with a bunch of people constantly trying to get fed, thinking they don’t ever really quite know enough, and never being activated to be who they’re supposed to be.”

And I replied with this serious question that I invite you to discuss (politely) here or at his blog.

I believe that prayer and preaching, Word and Spirit, activate people. In your view, what will suffice to activate people?

19 Comments leave one →
  1. January 30, 2007 11:56 am

    That’s a really hard question. First, because really, the only thing that activates people is God- which is why some of the seeds didn’t take in some of the soil, correct?

    Secondly, because prayer, preaching, worship, fasting, and other spiritual disciplines tend to entwine together, I think. When you are praying, it can turn to worship, as you are worshipping, you are preaching the Gospel to yourself. In hearing others preach, you may be activated to continue praying about that topic, or to get out and do some act of service that then becomes an act of worship. I don’t think any one of these disciplines is enough- I think they all work together… but I don’t think that’s the heart of the question, either.

    Really, what Brant is saying is that in seeking more and more knowledge of God (which is good, but ultimately, we will never fully know God until Heaven), some people sometimes use that as an excuse to avoid the other spiritual disciplines. They’re too busy studying Greek lexicon to get out there and do a service project. And who knows- God may want them to be studying Greek, and I don’t think it’s our place to question peoples’ actions when they’re not inherently sinful. Is it better to be sitting in a theology class than praying with your spouse? I don’t know. It depends! I think it’s one of those cases where everyone has to examine themselves, their motivations and constantly thinking about whether this is the path God wants them to be on.

    And maybe for Brant, he’s had some bad experiences of people choosing the academic complexification of the Gospel over the simple call to fellowship with other Christians (or maybe he thinks too many Christians have their head in a textbook instead of singing worship songs). But I think as long as we are all examining our choices, our motivations, and submitting to God, then we don’t really have to worry too much about whether we’re being “activated” by a certain spiritual discipline or not. It’s kind of like worrying about the strength of your faith, I think, which is asking the wrong question, right?

    Why not just use all those things to focus on Jesus and not worry overmuch about which discipline we should be pushing ourselves in (because we can’t push ourselves enough anyway)? Less stress, more Jesus.

  2. January 30, 2007 12:21 pm

    In further reading Brant’s response to your question, I think he’s got a good point, if he’s counting “activation” as “how people start doing things for God.” I think I pretty much agree with him that believing in Christ, loving God and loving one’s neighbor are probably enough to be “activated.” However, I think the other spiritual disciplines keep one from becoming “demotivated.” :) Which is why I think we need them, too.

    As for how people come to know Jesus (so that they may be “activated”)… I think that comes in so many different ways I can’t even begin to touch on them, though preaching and prayer are probably the biggest nets. Worship catches a few. Service catches a few. But I wonder how many interacting with ordinary, everyday Christians catches. Still- the ordinary everyday Christians need (*all of the *) spiritual disciplines to stay “motivated.” So… I guess like I was saying before, it all kind of works together.

    I hope that wasn’t super-confusing. I’m mostly thinking out loud here :)

  3. egana permalink
    January 30, 2007 9:53 pm

    First I thought of Romans 10:14-17
    “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

    So preaching the good news (even badly preaching the good news) is a big way God gives faith to us: “faith come from hearing.” This seems pretty conclusive about the importance of some sort of Gospel preaching and teaching.

    Seems to me, we are blaming the preaching for the sins of the people. If the preaching is Gospel, and the person doesn’t respond, how is preaching the problem? You don’t stop talking about God just because the fools around you don’t think they need to hear it. You just keep preaching the words of God, the sweet “power of God for the salvation of all who believe,” and trust God to be big enough and wise enough and powerful and God enough to save and sanctify and glorify all the wretched, undeserving the listeners He has chosen to bless. The light doesn’t stop shining just because we either foolishly love the darkness, or forgetfully live as though we do.

    Speaking as one of those undeserving wretches, If Isaiah543 stopped preaching whenever I stopped obeying, it would be a mighty silent Sunday service. So often it’s hearing the truth of God through Isaiah543’s faithful exposition of the Word, that rekindles my love for God, exposes my own sin, and refreshes me with living hope to return again into the presence of Jesus, weeping and worshipping and rejoicing, as well as new-found strength and resolve to serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old slavish way of the flesh.
    And this leads me to another point: It seems strange to me that we have a “preaching” vs. “action” conversation at all. What sort of action would we be capable of without the heart-changing, life-giving, fullness of Christ? Only anxious striving and dead works, IMO.

    And how many of these “service projects” are filled with people who are slavishly serving the Lord in the old way of the flesh? People who are trying to gain favor with God through their good works. People who do it because they think they should, or are afraid to say no, or think that they have to add their thimble-full of works into the vast ocean of Jesus’ perfect obedience continually offered to God on our behalf?

    So often these service projects appeal to my fleshly guilt and fear of displeasing others, instead of my fullness in Christ. We all are pretty darn good at serving in the flesh. And it looks pretty good on the outside, doesn’t it? We get lauded and praised for our actions, our devotion. My flesh loves to be respected, worshipped, held in high esteem. And the driven unbelievers, the activists, look really really great, don’t they? Their actions put my inaction to shame, and I am rightly convicted. But my right-worship through the fullness of Christ puts their not-worship to shame, and that’s a much bigger deal.

    I know that as he convicts me, he will also strengthen me to show my faith by my good deeds. Gospel preaching is not antithetical to spiritual service, helping the poor, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, serving the “least of these.” It is preaching that reminds us of our fullness in Christ that frees us to love and serve in the power that fullness provides. It is preaching the believers’ fullness and satisfaction and hope of perfect holy joy in Christ that activates them to serve others in the spirit.

    And I know that he will preserve in his Church here in America a remnant who are filled by Him and serve Him in that fullness. And he will preserve it through the faith that comes from hearing.

    As I type this, I have thought of 2 other things to say, but it is late, and my hands a freezing, and my head hurts, and my yummy Gorf will be home any minute, so I will kindly leave room for others to comment instead of blathering on and on myself.

    I lied: are we really “too busy” to serve becasue we are pursuing too much knowledge of God? If only we had that problem. If you are too busy, don’t axe the preaching! axe the programs, and the activities, and the home-improvements, and the projects…

  4. January 30, 2007 10:54 pm

    “This is precisely how Paul can plant a church in a week and then say they have no need for any further instructino because they received the gospel in its fullness. (e.g. Acts 17:1-9, I,2 Thess., Acts 16:11-40)”

    I am very curious about this quote from the Hirsch book. I went to a lecture last Saturday that took a tour through Acts 13-28, and by all accounts Paul was quite actively involved in the new churches for much more than a week. He would take a missionary journey, planting churches on the way out, and then return to visit those new churches on his way back home. Then on his next trip, he would visit the churches again and correct and admonish them as necessary. He wrote them letters to encourage them and further their knowledge and their faith. He sent people to visit them and train them. And he directed that elders be appointed in every town to “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that (they) may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1.9) He stayed in Ephesus for three years, teaching and sending out missionaries. So, while I apologize for looking at this Hirsch quote out of context, and for reiterating facts that are probably really basic for anyone who is familar with Acts, I don’t understand how Hirsch can make the claim that the new churches only needed the barest minimum of instruction. Could someone edify me?

    Also, and this is just me talking purely from personal experience, but I know that before I became a Christian I was totally clueless about God – I didn’t grasp the concepts of heaven and hell and sin. I had nothing that counted as absolute truth – everything was relative. It took a LOT of explaining and conversing before I had enough of a Biblical worldview to allow room for God in my concept of life, I am sorry to admit. After I believed, the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn and be taught. I didn’t really understand what had happened to me. I didn’t know how to act. I didn’t know how to pray. I didn’t know how to deal with my sin. And I have been very thankful for good teaching which has begun to straighten me out on some of these issues.

    But honestly, what I have been most thankful for is the people who have been doing that teaching. I am thankful for people who love Jesus and who strive to be holy and righteous because they love him. I am thankful for the theology in Paul’s letters, but I suppose I am even more thankful that Paul was a real living person who worked and suffered and (aided by the Spirit) took the time to share his knowledge and thoughts and requests with all those people, and that he cared enough about those people to write letters to them and be jealous and fretful over them. I am thankful for the gospels in my Bible, but I am infinitely more thankful that Jesus was a real person and that he really said and did all of the things in those gospels, and that he really loved me, and that real people who love him now love me too because of him. The teachings are super important, but the people who are living out the teachings are vital.

    So, Isaiah543, I would answer your question by saying that people suffice to activate people – people who are loved by the awesome person of God the Father, called by the excellent person of God the Son – people who are indwelt by the holy spirit, strengthened by prayer, and encouraged by powerful preaching and teaching of the gospel message – are what activate other people. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.” I am always amazed to think that the verse does not say that the good news is beautiful – instead it is the feet that carry it from place to place that are beautiful. How strange, and yet how great.

    I hope that is not too mushy or confusing of an answer. I suppose it is a fine line to draw, but I am reminded of a quote:

    “I became a Christian not because someone explained the nuts and bolts of Christianity to me, but because there were people who were willing to be the nuts and bolts.” – Rich Mullins

  5. egana permalink
    January 31, 2007 7:35 am

    hmmmm… trying to decide if I am a nut…


    or a bolt…


  6. January 31, 2007 8:47 am

    Good morning Egana :)

    I should have said something about how while it seems to me like God often uses people (cities on the hill) to activate other people, he certainly can and does spontaneously activate people whenever he wants. Moses for example. Martin Luther was “activated” by A) a bolt of lightening, and B) a hard-won, spirit-led understand of a particular verse/attribute of God. (This word “activate” is a little wierd – I guess it means “to make someone leap into action” or “to make someone become what they are supposed to be”, huh?)

    Also, I should have backed up my thoughts in yesterdays post scripturally, so I apologize for just flinging ideas out there like that. I would do it now, but ho hum, I’m at work. I’ll try to do it later, unless the conversation has digressed way past that point by then.

  7. January 31, 2007 9:09 am

    I’m totally with you on the whole conversation being kind of pointless, egana- I don’t think any one of these things can stand without the other.

    But I think Brant’s previous post sheds a little more light on where he’s coming from and the importance of having time for fellowship/community/discipleship/relational evangelism/whatever you want to call it:

  8. egana permalink
    January 31, 2007 10:46 am

    Actually, Bethlo my friend, I think you have misundertood me. And if I can be so entirely misunderstood, then I regret my failure to communicate correctly. I will reiterate somewhat more plainly, in the hopes that I may do better this time to clearly state my position.

    I do not, in any way, consider the conversation pointless. I think it is very important NOT TO ABANDON PREACHING and TEACHING. If faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the word of God, then we need to preach and teach each other. And I, for one, intend to listen carefully to those who have earned a hearing. If you had a choice between MY preaching and Isaiah543’s, I hope it would be a no-brainer! He is a valuable resource for our growing faith, and God uses Him each week to faithfully exposit His word.

    In my original post, I attempted to say: I think it is very important to sit under the teaching of a Jesus-loving, Bible-loving, people-loving elder or recognized pastor.
    I think Brant are hashing through these issues exactly because the answers a person comes up with effect how they think and live, what they value, how they spend their time, etc.

    Far from beign pointless, I think it matters very much.

    Another thing I attempted to say in my super-long (but hopefully not boring) post was to point out the pointlessness of serving others without listening to preaching and submitting to the teaching of an elder or pastor, ince we become like Him as we behold Him. And I attempted to offer scriptural support for the futility of serving for the sake of serving, instead of serving in the fullness of Christ.

    On a more personal note, I have been keeping a close eye on the conversations over there at Kamp Krusty, and although I woudl not want to go head to head with Brant (he’s pretty amazing with the sarcasm, man) I think he is heading in a direction that will ultimately cause him harm. That said, he certainly is not in a church situation that is causing him growth, so he may or may not be any worse off at the end of it all. I share their frustration about not finding a good church family in Florida.

    For years now we have been friends with his family, and watched them struggle to find a place where they fit in, were fed and challenged, were loved and inspired to serve, etc. It has been an ongoing issue. And although God has been so good to us to give us just such a place (CEFC is such a blessing to us, I could go on and on and on) He has not yet done the same for them. And I truly grieve over this. I love them, and want to see them happy in Christ.
    I know that is what they want, to. And they are activly pursuig it, instead of sitting frustrated in the pews. And I think that pursuit is excellent. I just don’t think they will find what they are looking for by rejecting teaching for service and fellowship.

    Thankfully, Brant does not have to answer to me about it. But neither must I answer to him. Not his experiences, nor his rhetoric, nor his sincerity will induce me to leave the blessings of preaching and teaching behind. That is where I meet with my sweet Lord. I’m not giving it up.


    no way.

    not happening.

  9. egana permalink
    January 31, 2007 10:48 am

    Good morning Ellie:

    I am happy to be a nut and/or a bolt. The thing is, without missionaries and such, none of us non-Hebrews would even know about the Gospel. We would have only the revelation of the creation that the early chapters of Romans talks about. So again, teaching and preaching is so so so important. I can think of several “hilltop” experiences the Lord created throughout history, but many more times he SENT someone to TEACH the unknowing to know Him better.

    I am so thankful He did.

  10. January 31, 2007 11:14 am

    I’ll attempt an answer here for Brant. I’m sure he would agree with the importance of evangelistic preaching to unbelievers. What he is saying we have overemphasized is the necessity of a lecture event for the continuing education of Christians.

    I think the reason why this is so compelling to many is that most Christian education is not gospel-centered. What I believe he’s missing is the importance of preaching the gospel to Christians and nonChristians alike. If we really are gospel-centered in our preaching, then it minister to both audiences. I’ll post a sermon excerpt on this soon.

  11. January 31, 2007 11:58 am

    Maybe I wasn’t being clear- I thought the discussion was pointless, because I think the answer is so obvious- I think we need preaching (and all other spiritual disciplines) as part of a whole that encourage us to further deepen our relationship with God. I don’t think it’s worthwhile setting up different spiritual disciplines against each other to see which one is most important to “activation”- I think they all are, and that we need to hear the Gospel as much as we need to pray as much as we need to worship, and that all of those eventually tie together. But maybe if it’s not that obvious to other people, the conversation must not be pointless.

    I do, however, sympathize with Brant’s plight- I don’t know him, but I feel pretty sad for him that it seems like he’s not getting fed, and that God has not blessed him with a healthy church body where he feels at home (honestly, I think he just wants more fellowship, and I can certainly understand that). And if someone was too busy studying Greek to go minister to him and his family, I think that’s kind of sad, too, but I am sure that God has a plan for them through these times of dry fellowship.

    Certainly, Brant’s trials have called upon us to be more cognizant of our fellow attendees, and whether or not they’re slipping through the cracks and not being discipled and not being fed. But part of the problem is that people have to be willing to speak up to say that they need help, too. I can think of at least one case where someone I care about goes to church and desperately needs fellowship, but isn’t willing to ask for it, or isn’t willing to engage when invited to further fellowship. That’s not EV Free’s fault, but lies firmly on the shoulders of this person. The responsibility is on the church body *and* the individual, I think. But that’s just my lengthy $.02…

  12. January 31, 2007 12:04 pm

    P.S. Egana, if it were up to me, I’d hear teaching from *both* of you every Sunday :D

  13. egana permalink
    January 31, 2007 12:57 pm

    Beth: thanks for the clarification about what exactly you meant to say was “pointless.”

    And thanks for the encouragement. *grin*

    Isaiah543: yeah, I know, but listening to Gospel sermons is my main source of spiritual food, so I am quick to argue for thier importance. Because of preaching, I am beginning to understand the fullness of Christ. And it is so precious, so joyfu, such a wonderful life-giving knowledge, that i am quick to defend and lobby hard for the delivery medium, as it were. I think he would be EVEN HAPPIER if he could find good fellowship AND good gospel-centered “lecture events.”

    But I am beginning to say again what Beth has already said: not just one or the other. And she said it pretty well, so I wont bother repeating it yet again.

  14. January 31, 2007 8:13 pm

    It seems there should be some distinction made here between the ineffectiveness of preaching the gospel and the particular ineffectiveness (except to frustrate believers who hunger for more) of some who are preaching and rarely even open the Bible for their discourse/show. It seems that Brant & family must have experienced quite a bit of the latter in FL. I am thankful that I have only endured such hardship on rare occasions of visiting out of town churches.

  15. January 31, 2007 10:28 pm

    I was attempting to do some Bible study in order to sort out my thoughts from yesterday, but man, I just feel like I couldn’t even being to do that topic justice anytime soon, if ever. Everywhere I looked the “doing” and the “teaching” were intertwined, like in Acts 1.1, “all that Jesus began to do and teach.” He healed and cleansed and resurrected and served, and also preached and taught and explained and illustrated (and not just with a simple gospel message all the time either – he made complicated and detailed use of Scripture). And the expectations that Paul lays out for elders as shepherds of the flock, like in Paul’s letter to Titus, require that they be good and godly men who can also teach. The end purpose of all that teaching and instruction in sound doctrine is to make God look good (Titus 2) and to create a people who are zealous for good works. So, if Brant is frustrated with churches that aren’t “doing” anything, the problem, as you all have said, is probably unsound doctrine that doesn’t produce fruit, and those who are “insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers” – not preaching in and of itself. People should be living the word before they should try to teach it, and then they should teach it so that other people can learn to live it. Does that sound about right?

  16. January 31, 2007 11:45 pm

    I’m a little confused by the term ‘activated’ . . . I keep thinking of activated charcoal *sigh* Is this just to say that people are out there doing good works? James — faith w/o works is dead?

  17. Heather/Mothergrace permalink
    February 1, 2007 2:53 pm

    I came across this on a link from a ezine I recieve – I didn’t go looking for it!

    “In the circle of churches that I travel, we have a strong, almost, insatiable desire, for hot, strong, passionate preaching. We want speakers who grab our attention and fuel us with a passion for God by their mere oration and public speaking talent. We have people flocking to the best preachers and filling up their churches by the thousands, all the while justifying it by an apparently just desire for good preaching. That is what raises my concern.
    … how much of our desire for passionate preaching is simply a different version of the same desire for entertainment that we despise in other wings of evangelicalism? How much of our desire for passionate preaching is really nothing more than a kind of vicarious living through the lives of a few men who have actually fallen in love with God? Does such preaching help me love God? Or, does it only help me love loving God? There is a profound difference! A person can have a zeal for God that falls short of his glory (cf. Israel in Romans 10:2).”

    Do I love being preached to? Yes, I like knowledge! Do I have knowledge, but have no love. Maybe. Then I am nothing.

    Is that what this conversation is about? Having zeal, knowledge and love, all in one place – that being the church? I suggest that a church that is missing one (or two) is also “nothing”.


    PS – On the first page of this blog there is a wonderful recitation of Hebrews 9 and 10 – watch it if you can.

  18. gorfchild permalink
    February 1, 2007 6:18 pm

    I think I’d go a bit further and say that knowledge is the necessary precondition for love, and passionate love is called zeal. But knowledge is at the bottom of it.

    On one hand, it seems appropriate that a preacher of the Gospel should look like he actually cares a lot about what he’s saying. On the other hand, the preacher’s zeal is not supposed to get us excited as though he were a motivational speaker.

    Walking by faith means caring about, cherishing, and being excited about facts and promises. We know that something is true about God, and because we have been given new hearts, we care about these truths; they are not impersonal facts, but truths about people we care about (God, ourselves, the Church).

    If the preacher is really preaching the Gospel, and his exposition of the scriptures is Christ-exalting and God-centered, then that is enough.

    If it somehow appears not to be “enough,” it is not a problem with the content or the preaching. The problem is that people DON’T CARE.

    The implication is that we have to stir people up to love and serve God by other means than gospel preaching because gospel preaching “isn’t working.” But the only thing that really stirs up genuine passion for God is biblical, gospel-centered truth.

    We can certainly move people to action by other means: lawyers, orators, actors, musicians, and advertisers know that very well, and they know all sorts of motivational tricks to get people to act, buy, volunteer, give, vote, etc. And it’s all completely natural, unspiritual. No Holy Spirit involvement is necessary for these things to “work.”

    When a church begins to depend on these unspiritual means to move people to feeling and action, it is an admission that they don’t believe that the Gospel really changes people. They don’t believe that trusting God’s promises is the foundation of true spiritual passion. And although they’ve given up on the power of the Gospel, they still are plagued with the necessity to DO SOMETHING. So they make it happen however they can.

    This activity is indistinguishable from the activity of any number of political groups, service organizations, conferences, and motivational aids out in the world who desperately complete for mindshare and dollars in the larger culture. For the non-Christian world, this is only natural. What else would they do?

    But when a church does it, it’s twisted. What are we to make of churches who say they believe the Gospel but live in such a way that shows that they think the Gospel is impotent?

    Waiting for Gospel preaching to bear fruit can be a difficult thing. Its effects are often not immediately evident. But responding to the discouragement by casting about looking for something else is an admission that we think we have to manipulate people into caring about God, because poor God doesn’t seem to be able to communicate to people.

    Our fleshly indifference to God’s Word, his promises, his Gospel, is tragic and evil, but to lay the blame for our indifference on some problem with the truths of God or his Gospel is much more terrible.

    We can certainly talk about communication styles and forms, linguistic accommodation and cultural contextualization, these are good and useful conversations. But we must be careful to distinguish perceived weaknesses in communication styles from a tacit disbelief in the power of the very message that holds forth hope and life to the saved and unsaved.

  19. February 2, 2007 10:15 am

    The dramatic recitation of Hebrews is great! Thanks for pointing that out, Heather.

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