Why Do We Preach? Understanding Our Audience of One
What is the central focus of our preaching?
“That was a great sermon, Pastor!” “Pastor, you sure can tell a story. You really told it like it is in that sermon!” “Pastor, you really stepped on my toes. I like it when you make me squirm in my seat.” So go the comments to the typical preacher on a Sunday morning following the sermon. So, also, goes the dilemma faced by everyone who stands up to proclaim the Word of God to the people of God: what is the central focus of our preaching? Are the congregants impressed with how great a preacher their pastor is? Or are they overwhelmed with how great God is? Is the lasting impression of the hearers the oratorical skills of the preacher? Or is it concentrated upon the person and nature of God? Is the congregation moved to trust God in a deeper and more practical way that impacts their lives outside the church environment?
There is a need for a serious consideration of the nature and purpose of preaching regarding its central focus. The issue is the focal point of preaching, whether upon human need or upon God. It is clear that human need is to be addressed in the content of each sermon because a sermon without application is merely lecture. Yet, on the other hand, exhortation without grounding in theological content is little more than Christian self-help techniques. Where does this leave the theological nature of preaching?
We are not the first to notice the ineptitude of much preaching heard in our pulpits. Years ago, David Wells noted a striking trend in regards to the type of preaching that gets celebrated, when he wrote, “It is as if God has become an awkward appendage to the practice of evangelical faith, at least as measured by the pulpit” (No Place for Truth – Eerdmans, page 252).
J. I. Packer wrote about the lack of impact by much preaching:
The reason lies in its own character and content. It fails to make men God-centered in their thoughts and God-fearing in their hearts because this is not primarily what it is trying to do. One way of stating the difference between the modern gospel being preached and the biblical gospel is to say that it is too exclusively concerned to be “helpful” to man-to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction-and too little concerned to glorify God. The subject of the old gospel was God and his ways with men; the subject of the new is man and the help God gives him (A Quest for Godliness - Crossway, 126).
It seems that our ethical exhortations must be rooted in the Lord. Too often the Christianity being preached in contemporary pulpits falls far short of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
The focus of our preaching must be God-centered, and we must lift high this perspective. Brian Chapell writes in his wonderful book Christ-centered Preaching, “To preach matters of faith or practice without rooting their foundation or fruit in what God will do, has done, or will do through the ministry of Christ creates a human-centered (anthropocentric) faith without Christian distinctiveness” (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 279). Thus, what sets Christianity apart from other religions is its God-centered (theocentric) nature. The accepted fact that the preacher of the Christian gospel is not endeavoring to promote self-reliance belies the necessity of God-centered preaching. A pulpit ministry that truly seeks to exalt the glory of God in Christ by its very nature is centered in the person of God and His revelation.
Another popular writer put it this way, “If God is not supreme in our preaching, where in this world will the people hear about the supremacy of God? If we do not spread a banquet of God’s beauty on Sunday morning, will not our people seek in vain to satisfy their inconsolable longing with the cotton candy pleasures of pastimes and religious hype?” (Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching - Baker Books, 109) Thus, if God is not central in preaching, then the hearer will have no time in their lives when it is.
Pastor J. H. Jowett summed it up well when he wrote, “What we are after is not that folks shall say at the end of it all, ‘What an excellent sermon!’ That is a measured failure. You are there to have them say, when it is over, ‘What a great God!’ It is something for men not to have been in your presence but in his.” (Context, Christianity Today, July 2002, 62)