The Thompsons made a promise to their kids. “If the weather is good this weekend, we’ll take you to the zoo after church.” Saturday evening they turn on the news in hopes of a Sunday outing. The veteran weatherman stands before a map of the United States covered with temperatures and frontal patterns. Someone reaches for the remote control and turns up the volume.
Let’s take a quick look at the jet stream analysis this evening. This reading was taken within the last hour at 34,000 feet above sea level. Generally, I prefer a reading at 35,000 feet, but no matter. Notice that the jet stream has picked up in the last few days. This southwesterly flow is now up to 200 miles per hour That is some strong current. What effect is that going to have on our weather? I don’t think it’s going to affect us.
Finally, he predicts fair skies and warm temperatures for the next several days. The Thompsons will visit the zoo tomorrow afternoon.
The next morning they settle into their pew as their pastor mounts the pulpit. He distributes his notes, positions his Bible, and clears his throat. After a lengthy gaze at his listeners, he begins:
If you have your Bibles, open them to the seventeenth chapter of Acts. Acts, chapter seventeen, beginning at verse one. This passage, you will no doubt recognize as Luke’s record of the second missionary journey. It is an accurate accounting of that journey, though Luke does not accompany the apostles on this particular occasion as he does in the well-known “we passages.”
Luke notes that their journey took them through Amphipolis and Appolonia en route to Thessalonica. Both of these cities were lesser-known but strategic ports on the southern coast of Macedonia.
Only a minute into the sermon and yet the Thompsons’ thoughts have turned to the zoo, and who can blame them? What chance does such preaching have when competing with watching monkeys play or bears catch peanuts? Not much, and that is the problem with jet stream preaching.
Jet stream preaching is most readily identified by a preoccupation with irrelevant details. Thus, the weather forecast and the sermon have something in common, other than both being “over people’s heads.” People tune in to a forecast to find out what the weather is going to be like, not to hear about what the wind is doing miles above the earth. People “tune in” to the sermon for much the same reason, to hear a word from God for where they live, not something far removed from life as they know it. When the latter happens, they often “tune out.”
Jet stream preaching occurs anytime we as preachers fail to be relevant, when we become fascinated with details which contribute little, if anything, to the sermon. It occurs, in Fosdick’s terms, when we assume “folk come to the church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites.”1
Some weather enthusiasts will quickly point out that the jet stream analysis is a helpful tool for predicting weather changes. Granted, but does that analysis have to be included in the weather report when that is not the case? Staunch defenders of a certain form of expository preaching will point out that an analysis of background matters is a must for accurately interpreting a given biblical text. Granted, but does the preacher have to include it in the sermon when it has no relevance for the congregation? I do not think so.
Jet stream preaching occurs when we become preoccupied with irrelevant details and refuse to let what belongs in the study remain there. It occurs in various forms from week to week. For example, some demonstrate it in a preoccupation with background material, like the Thompsons’ pastor. Others get caught up in the details of a personal illustration, details which contribute little to the thesis of the sermon.2 Still others make applications which do not relate to their hearers.
At the root of all jet stream preaching is a failure on the part of the preacher to perceive the fundamental purpose of preaching. J. Daniel Baumann is right: “The ultimate goal of preaching is not the transmission of information, but the transformation of persons; not simply data exchange, but behavioral change.”3
A. W. Tozer agrees wholeheartedly. He writes, “There is scarcely anything so dull and meaningless as Bible doctrine taught for its own sake. Truth divorced from life is not truth in its biblical sense, but something else and something less.” He adds:
No man is better for knowing that God in the beginning created the heaven and the earth. The devil knows that and so did Ahab and Judas Iscariot. No man is better for knowing that God so loved the world of men that He gave His only begotten Son to die for their redemption. In hell there are millions who know that. Theological truth is useless until it is obeyed. The purpose behind all doctrine is to secure moral action.4
We can only imagine the number of “amens” such statements would bring at a preacher’s conference. The problem is that while many, if not most, preachers would agree, what happens in the pulpit week in and week out is a different story.
Many of us seem to operate on the assumption that the purpose of preaching is to explain. It is for that reason J. Randall Nichols, in his book Building the Word, writes, “Let us begin with a heretical suggestion: the purpose of preaching is not to explain anything, not even the Bible. The purpose of preaching is to extend an invitation.”5
Still we might ask, “What about the gross biblical illiteracy so common among our listeners today? Shouldn’t something be done to combat that situation?” Nichols believes that while it may be true church members today know very little of their Bibles, theological heritages, and religious matters in general, it does not follow that what is called for is an explanation of these matters.6
Richard Jensen, a systematic theologian by training, has done homiletics a great service in his work Telling the Story. He characterizes two models of preaching as popular in our time and proposes a third alternative. The most prevalent type he calls “didactic preaching.”7 Two of its trademarks are as follows:
1. The goal of preaching is to teach the lessons of the text
2. The sermon is aimed primarily at the hearer’s mind8
If Jensen and others are right, two concerns become paramount. How do we meet the needs of our hearers yet responsibly deal with the text, and what indicators should we watch for to avoid slipping into jet stream preaching? I have some suggestions which should prove helpful.
First, we must beware of flaunting biblical knowledge for vanity’s sake or some quasi-spiritual tradition which teaches that the use of the biblical languages in a sermon constitutes a “real” sermon. Tracing Hebrew stems to their roots and parsing Greek verbs is, in some cases, indispensable in exegesis but rarely, if ever, necessary in the pulpit.
In the same vein, we should watch for the tendency “to turn over every stone along the roadside.” There will be, by necessity, some items left untreated in the sermon.
The distance between Jerusalem and Jericho may help in preparation (though I am not sure how since the text is a parable), but in preaching on the Good Samaritan the important thing is to keep the sermon’s purpose the same as the text’s purpose. No one in our church will be better off for knowing the geography of Palestine. That is jet stream material. It will affect their lives very little. Their thoughts might easily turn toward the zoo.
On the other hand, if we focus on to whom they should be neighbor, that could make a difference. John Killinger’s advice is worth noting. He writes:
The scholarship should be there; it should lie like steel girders beneath the presentation of the sermon. But it need not poke out at odd angles all over the structure, as if some capricious architect had taken it into his head to display what costly materials had gone into the substructure. Sketch enough of a biblical background to show the relationship of the text to its environment, but don’t bore the congregation with details of composition and archaeology that are extranous to the thrust and movement of the sermon.9
Second, we must navigate the distance between the two poles of preaching carefully. The two poles to which preaching must be true are “then” and “now.” Harold Freeman refers to this as “the bi-polar construct of biblical preaching.” He writes, “Biblical preaching has, on the one side, a reference point in the biblical revelation; it has, on the other side, a reference point in the present situation of the hearer.”10
Others have referred to it. John R. W. Stott suggests the metaphor of “bridging the gulf” which is fixed between the biblical world and the modern world. “Our task,” he notes, “is to enable God’s revealed truth to flow out of the Scriptures into the lives of the men and women of today.”11 Clyde Fant’s “incarnational” model of preaching stresses this. He warns:
Preaching must recognize that it stands between the attraction of two powerful poles: to its right, “the faith once delivered,” the historical given of the eternal Word; to its left, the present situation, the existential given of our own contemporary culture. Christian proclamation is intimately connected with both.12
Unfortunately, the tendency, as Jesus said of another tension, is “to hold to one and despise the other.”13 This tendency is what Fant refers to as “homiletical heresy,” using terms from the early christological heresies. He describes “homiletical Docetism” as being preoccupied with the biblical pole of preaching and “homiletical Montanism” as being preoccupied with the contemporary pole.14
So how do we navigate between these two poles responsibly? One option is to incorporate a teaching time as well as a preaching time in our worship services. Jensen suggests that during the customary time of Bible reading the preacher could teach some of the pertinent exegetical matters involved in the text. Perhaps then two gulfs might be bridged at the same time — the one, between “then” and “now”; the other, between clergy and laity.15
Another option is to adopt as a guiding principle the following dictum: Explain only that which can be applied. For the weatherman this might mean employing a jet stream analysis only when he can demonstrate its relevance.
For the preacher this might mean including an exegetical excursion only when he can demonstrate its relevance for his hearers’ real life concerns. Explanation for explanation’s sake is the kind of mentality which promotes jet stream preaching; it accomplishes little in the lives of our hearers.
Ultimately, we must construct our sermons bearing in mind the purpose of preaching: to change lives. We must take seriously Fosdick’s charge:
Every sermon should have for its main business the solving of some problem — a vital, important problem puzzling many minds, burdening consciences, distracting lives. This endeavor to help people to solve their spiritual problems is a sermon’s only justifiable aim.16
1. Harry Emerson Fosdick, “What is the Matter with Preaching?” Harper’s Magazine, July 1928, p. 135.
2. The use of so-called irrelevant details can enhance a story but only when used in moderation. For instance, see Harold Freeman, Variety in Biblical Preaching (Waco, TX., Word Books, 1987), p. 154; Bruce C. Salmon, Storytelling in Preaching (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988), pp. 40-41; and Marie L. Shedlock, The Art of the Story-Teller, 3rd ed. (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1951), pp. 4, 20.
3. J. Daniel Baumann, An Introduction to Contemporary Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1972), p. 236.
4. A. W. Tozer, “Expositions Must Have Application,” in Of God and Men, compiled by A. W. Tozer (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., 1960), pp. 26-27.
5. J. Randall Nichols, Building the Word (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1980), p. 2.
6. Ibid., p. 3.
7. Richard A. Jensen, Telling the Story (Minneapolis: Augsburg House, 1980), pp. 8-9. The other prevalent sermon type is the “proclamatory sermon.” Jensen proposes, in addition to these, using the “story sermon” occasionally.
8. Ibid., p. 27.
9. John Killinger, Fundamentals of Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 18-19.
10. Harold Freeman, “Making the Sermon Matter: The Use of the Application in the Sermon,” Southwestern journal of Theology 27 (Spring 1985) :33.
11. John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), p. 138.
12. Clyde E. Fant, Preaching for Today. rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1987), p. 69.
13. Matthew 6:24 (NASB).
14. Fant, pp. 71-79.
15. Jensen, pp. 29-30.
16. Fosdick, p. 134.

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