He had a way with words that is seldom equaled and (in my opinion) never surpassed! For example, he said, “Too many church services start at 11 sharp and end at 12 dull.” In many ways, those unforgettable words from Vance Havner in the early 1970s caught my attention. He was right! So much of what is offered in the way of worship—including what is preached—ends up dull. A friend of mine says his rule for preaching is, “If you haven’t struck oil after 10 minutes then stop boring!”
The other side of that coin is this new era of what I call “preacher-tainment”—the idea that we preachers have to be quasi-entertainers to be considered good at preaching. That’s a lie!
Preachers who approach preaching as an extension of entertainment are being suckered into “the medium is the message,” the famous communication philosophy of Canadian Marshall McLuhan. Still today, 35 years after his death, communication specialists debate exactly what McLuhan was saying. In Understanding Media, he said that a medium is any extension of the communicator (i.e., preacher). Another way to say this is that people who communicate should regard content as being inconsequential compared to how the message is delivered.
The message you and I are called to deliver is too eternally consequential to be cheapened by some attempt at entertainment. Let me suggest the following three-way test for every preacher and every sermon:
What message does our preaching really communicate? A.W. Tozer writes, “Christ calls preachers to carry a cross!” That’s a far cry from “Come and see how funny our preacher is.” One preacher I succeeded had his ear pierced and an earring inserted in his ear lobe before the congregation. His defenders say he was making the point that wearing an earring did not change who he was. I will grant that, but his action communicated some other things, too: things such as, “Am I not cute? Sharp? Entertaining?”
The message Christians are called to preach is not entertaining but offensive and foolish. Paul, under the Holy Spirit’s influence, said, “The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside” (1 Cor. 1:18-19).
Are the things we do or say before our people really communicating the gospel we’re called to preach? Sorry, McLuhan, but when it comes to speaking for God the message is all-important! It is the only lasting message this world will ever hear.
Where is our preaching spotlight truly focused? John the Baptizer provides us the finest example of this on two different occasions recorded in John’s Gospel. The first, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29); and the second, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
John knew the job of any preacher is the same as the job of a highway signpost. It is to point to what truly matters. When a sign draws attention to itself, it totally fails to do what it is designed to do. A preacher-tainer makes the same mistake but multiplies the error 10,000 times! Our job is to point people to Christ Jesus!
How is our preaching changing lives? “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20). I almost can hear the kickback now: “Holmes doesn’t get it! He doesn’t see that people love how I preach. He doesn’t understand that what I am doing is winning a crowd!”
My response: Your call and mine is not to win a crowd but for our listeners to win crowns! Peter called it “the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet. 5:4). Getting that great crown calls people not to smile but to surrender, not to hype but to holy living, not to contentment but to carry a cross for Him who bore our sins upon His cross and who challenges us, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24).
The results of preacher-tainment last only a little while, but “the Word of our God stands forever” (Isa. 40:8). The real power of preaching is not in the preacher but in the Word preached. The Word is the message, not the medium. God’s Word does the work.
Leslie Holmes holds the John H. Leith Chair of Theology and Ministry and is dean of the Institute for Reformed Worship at Erskine Theological Seminary. Reach him at LHolmes@Erskine.edu.