This post and the next few like it are based on article by David Fitch, “3 Myths About Preaching Today,” posted in “Out of Ur,” the Christianity Today blog. Fitch is a pastor at Life on the Vine, in Long Grove, IL.
I’ve not written much about preaching because, you see, I’m not a preacher. I’ve not preached since “High School Day” back when I was in high school (and woolly mammoths roamed the earth). For some reason, no one has ever asked me to speak from the pulpit again. But I think this article makes too much sense not to talk about.
Myth 1: If You Preach a Good Sermon the Church Will Grow
Many a despondent preacher has discovered that this notion is no longer true. It has become a dying myth in post-Christendom. Nevertheless, it gets reinforced by mega churches who leverage (by video screens, etc.) one or two gifted teachers to build crowds coming to consume a good sermon. These examples are largely drawing on the leftovers of Christendom—people still looking for “good teaching” that is portable and user friendly to somehow improve their Christian lives. I take no offense in ministering to those of us who are still part of Christendom, we need to be fed and nurtured too! I just want all pastors who aim their ministries in this direction to realize the pie is getting smaller and the competition hotter. Anyone still holding onto the premise—if I just preach a good sermon, they will come—and ministering in a post-Christendom context, must either compete or be grossly disappointed with the continued dwindling of his/her congregation.
Having said all this, the “great halls” (stadiums) of preaching distribution will not connect to the lost souls of post-Christendom. Post-Christian people are not attracted to the sermon as the first place to go in their spiritual distress. We must help leaders understand that if you spend 35-40 hours a week in your office preparing a good sermon on Sunday, making it not only theologically competent (which is worthy) but slick, you are ministering to the dying vestiges of Christendom.
For those of us who are “churched,” well, we love a good sermon! And the church with the best preacher in town likely gets the lion’s share of transfer growth as members of that church’s denomination move into town and shop for the best church.
And lousy preaching will unquestionably stifle growth. No one wants to suffer through a bad sermon!
Fitch argues that trying to convert the lost by great preaching will in fact only attract those already converted — a shrinking percentage of the population. And I imagine that’s true. After all, what church advertises: “Great Sermons!” No, they advertise “Great Worship!” Did you ever stop to wonder why that might be?
The marketing assumption is that the unchurched will have little desire to hear a great sermon but might be persuaded to participate in a great experience (which would include a sermon, of course). I think there’s some truth in that. But I think not much. I think the people likely to respond to a billboard advertising a higher grade of worship will be almost exclusively those who are already converted.
None of this dismisses the value of excellent preaching. The point is that even the best sermons will not grow a church — from among the lost. We need great preaching. It’s just not the driver of church growth.