It was a great moment for my desperately wicked, idolatrous heart. The woman was approaching me with a Bible clutched in her arms, a look of awe akin to that of a rock star groupie getting within striking distance of Bon Jovi. I could almost predict what she was going to say.
“Pastor, how do you do it? I would have never been able to understand that psalm without you?”
I put forth my best Eddie Haskell “who me?” face of humility, and said, “Well, the Lord is good, isn’t He?”
Driving home that Sunday I found myself comfortably easing into a sense of deep satisfaction. I had done my job, after all. The preparation, the parsing, the illustrations, the quotes, all came together in a brilliant burst of homiletical splendor, and this particular woman had benefited from it. Or had she? To be honest, my sermon did little more than enslave her to her “faithful pastor.”
If the goal of ministry is to “equip the church for works of service,” then how should we preachers feel about a comment like “I would have never been able to understand that psalm without you?” Sure our egos purr like a kitten with that sweet stroke, but what about the dear saint who has just confessed an inability to discover the riches of Scripture on her own? Shouldn’t our preaching lead our listeners to become better and better interpreters? Won’t good preaching make others less dependent on the preachers?
My goal in this article is to walk the tightrope between sermons that bless and sermons that bully. I have spent too much time on the latter side of that divide, and I want to go public with how I’ve done it. If you find yourself using these techniques, I invite you to come clean with me.
1. Tyrannizing our people with Greek and Hebrew will make them need us more than their Bibles.
If we are not careful, one of the most potentially bullying phrases we utter could start with the following words: “Now in the Greek this term means…” I remember sitting with a good friend who had told me why he did believed that tongues and prophecy were not for today. His pastor had just done a twelve-week series on spiritual gifts and had concluded that the miraculous gifts had ceased. I have no axe to grind in this article concerning one’s theology on that issue, but I am concerned with how my friend arrived at this conclusion, via his pastor’s teaching.
I asked if I could borrow the sermon tapes, something my friend was happy to do, and within fifteen minutes, I could tell why my friend was so convinced. This particular pastor could not speak for two minutes without referencing a Greek term or phrase. Thinking that the countless references to the “original language” probably played heavily in my friend’s thinking, I asked him how his pastor had so effectively persuaded him to this point of view. His response confirmed my suspicion, “Are you kidding? Didn’t you hear all the Greek he quoted?”
I am certainly not suggesting that preachers should never make use of the original languages. But we must strive with all our might to not make Greek and Hebrew secret codes that will “unlock” the treasures of Scripture to the linguistic scholar. First, we should be mindful that other capable interpreters (who know the languages as well!) still come to different conclusions using the same data. Wayne Grudem and Gordon Fee, for instance, are two charismatic scholars who will defend their positions with the Greek, too.
Second, we don’t always need to “show our math” by calling attention to the mechanics of our preparation. A good surgeon does not overwhelm the patient with technical terms; rather, he takes the knowledge he has and contextualizes it for his patient. I want my listeners to have confidence in their English Bibles. If I flaunt my Greek and Hebrew, they will rely more on me than on the Scriptures that I am preaching.
2. Brilliantly creative interpretations will make them need us more than their Bibles.
Here’s another dangerous statement when it comes from a listener: “Pastor, how do you ever see such things in Scripture?” I used to think that this was the slam-dunk of sermon compliments. Yes, yes, I’d think, I have shown them the beauty of the text! When a preacher’s sermon is a “work of art,” it may be the furthest from the plain meaning of the text.
I remember hearing a message with a great title years ago from 2 Kings 2 called “To Kill A Mockingboy.” It was based on the passage where Elisha is mocked by several youths about his baldness, and the prophet calls down curses prompting bears to come out and kill 42 of the hecklers. If there were ever a passage that needs careful handling, this one is it. Let me take you through the preacher’s outline.
Point #1: We will often be mocked in the Christian life? Elisha was mocked, and we will be, too (though not all of us for hair loss I presume).
Point #2: God will see to it that the resources we need are always around to take down our enemies. The bears were right around the prophet. (We may have angels, friend, family, etc.)
Point #3: God will always bring total victory to us when we are mocked for our faith. (Elisha had faithfully endured the taunts of his enemies, and God showed Himself faithful as well).
Depending on our theology and exposition, we will range anywhere between admiration and shock in our reaction to this sermon. But I want to ask a more basic question. Would the average laymen EVER arrive at such conclusions from reading 2 Kings 2? I daresay “never!” Instead, listeners will be in awe of the preacher’s ability to “see” things in the text that they could never see. Once again, the Bible cannot be properly understood apart from the preacher.
3. Not acknowledging our dependency on commentators and tools will make them need us more than their Bibles.
Sometimes my listeners have been impressed that I know so much about the history of Thessalonica, or the geography of Babylon, or the cultural climate of Corinth. “Wow! The pastor is a first-rate scholar, and I would be lost without him.” But with a trip to the Christian bookstore or a click of the mouse to bible.org, my listeners can be as scholarly as I am!
There is a danger in exposing our congregations to the benefits of modern study tools; they may become more biblically knowledgeable than the pastor! But what an incredible phenomenon that could be. Many of the preachers who decry the woeful deficiencies in the biblical understanding of most Christians today are just as deficient in helping believers overcome this problem.
Since the discovery that I am one such pastor, I have tried to call attention to the wonderful tools that are available to any serious Bible student. When I start a series on a book, I create powerpoint slides that show the commentaries, books and sermon websites (yes, the sinister secret of the trade!) that I will use in my preparation. To go the extra mile, I will try to get copies of these materials for our book table. I want the congregation to know that we are in this together, that studying the Scripture is a community project.
Imagine a church where the members love and appreciate their pastor’s preaching, not for its brilliance and its scholarship, but for its simplicity. Imagine Christians who say, “My pastor shows me how to study the Bible for myself, and I have been deeply blessed by it.” As I survey the current state of the congregation that I am blessed to shepherd, I realize I have a long way to go, but I am grateful for learning some hard lessons along the way.
Lord, help us preach the Word in such a way that your sheep can be transformed by your Word. Help them fall in love with the Bible all over again. And help us fade to the background. Lord, help us decrease that you might increase.
Greg Dutcher is Teaching Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Abingdon, MD.