In a lecture at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, John Piper once observed, “The common strategy of preachers today for awakening people’s emotions and engaging their hearts is to find the areas of human life where the emotions are already running high and where the hearts are already engaged; and then we root the sermon there: the pain in the marriage; the anguish of wayward teenagers; the stress at work; the power of sexual temptation; the breakdown of community; the woundedness of past abuses; the absence of intimacy and vulnerability. We preachers know that if we plant our sermons here—if we tend this garden with modest skill in anecdote and illustration and personal vulnerability—we will move the hearts of our hearers; we will accomplish what the worship tunes accomplish. Our listeners will experience the good feelings of empathy, and we will feel the satisfaction of attentive, resonating faces.
“Now at this point I could put either a positive or a negative spin on this development in preaching. Positively, I could say: A lot of preaching is in touch with where people are and where they feel pain, and that is certainly not a bad thing. Preaching that is ignorant of people and unempathetic with their pain will not bear biblical fruit.
“But there is also a negative spin that we can put on this development…It is this: The reason we preachers do not believe that the greatness of God, the spirit of transcendence, the glory and majesty of Christ, the deep things of the Spirit, will move the hearts of our people and awaken profound affections is that these things do not move us; they don’t awaken our affections. We preachers prefer to read books about anger and intimacy and marriage and success and all manner of how-to strategies for home and work and church, than to read books about God. Ask any publisher what sells—even to pastors.
“What gets preachers’ juices flowing is a new psychological angle on family dysfunction; a new strategy for mobilizing lay people; a new tactic for time management; a fresh approach to dealing with depression; an empathetic focus on his own resentments and pain and anger after years of being beat up by carnal Christians. But not a book about God. Not the infinite expanse of God’s character. Not the inexhaustible riches of the glory of God in Christ.”