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The Troubled State of Christian Preaching
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The Troubled State of Christian Preaching

Today we celebrate the second inauguration of President Obama, but we do so without the benediction of pastor Louie Giglio. In the controversy that erupted after his selection to and withdrawal from that honor, it became clear again how much the gospel has been sidelined, not in the culture, but in the church.

Given the ubiquity and gravity of sex in our culture, it's not surprising that sexual ethics was at the center of the controversy. Giglio was initially invited by the President's inauguration committee in part because of his work against sexual trafficking, and then encouraged to withdraw because of his sermon condemning homosexual behavior. The national indignation, especially of those sympathetic to the LGBT community, about this sermon was matched by the indignation of many evangelicals at the pressure applied to Giglio to withdraw.

As these things go, the specter of "persecution" was raised. It nearly goes without saying—and yet it must be said againthat Giglio is not going to jail, let alone was he manhandled or murdered for his faith. We can continue to be grateful that we live in a nation where one of the worst things that can happen to a Christian for articulating a Christian ethic is that he is pressured to not pray at a national event.

What Is Our Gospel?

That being said, the incident raises the question about the exact nature of the gospel we have communicated to this culture. David Kinnaman's UnChristian signaled that many Christians have concluded the big problem is that the evangelical church has aligned itself on the wrong side of some social issues, or with social issues that have little or no cultural cachet—and thus they move to champion more popular social causes to win a hearing for the gospel. It would uncharitable and unfair to suggest that Giglio and his church have done this, but if other evangelicals are like me, it remains a temptation for any who have a heart to introduce Jesus to others. Sometimes it works, as Giglio's invitation to pray suggests. But as a strategy, it will invariably backfire, no matter how much we try to hide our work on unpopular causes, as the fury against Giglio's 20-year-old sermon illustrates. The degree to which we employ this approach merely as a tactic to gain a hearing is the degree to which we will eventually be spurned by the very people we hope to attract.

In the long run, we cannot gain a hearing for the gospel through our admirable ethics or social justice because in the end, we are still sinners, with hearts, as the prophet Jeremiah put it, that remain desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9). When we do live well or accomplish a social good, we will be admired for our moral success, not because Jesus died to save a rebellious world. And when we fail to live up to our values—and we invariably will--well, we will look like every other sinner on the planet. Not much of a witness there, except to our humanity.

In the end, we cannot gain a hearing for the gospel because God has already done so in the preaching of the Cross—there is no more dramatic, arresting, attention getting "tactic" than that. Note the response to such preaching as describe by Paul in 1 Corinthians: some were scandalized, and others thought it foolishness, but for some, it was their very salvation. But in every case, the preaching of the cross made a hearing for itself.

In the end, we cannot gain a hearing for the gospel because God has already done so in the preaching of the Cross—there is no more dramatic, arresting, attention getting "tactic" than that.

Who Is First and Last?

Looking at how this message scandalized the ancient world opens a window into our preaching today. When the culture takes issue with the church today, it carps about our oppressive sexual ethics (especially our opposition to homosexual behavior) and our various prosperity gospels (from the most egregious health-and-wealth messages to the more subtle but equally dangerous sermons on how faith in Christ can improve your marriage, your business, and your self-esteem). And then there is the regular complaint about our self-righteousness—our incessant habit of pronouncing judgment on our culture, which is grounded in the assumption that sinners are found mostly in that culture, outside the church walls. Thus all the sermons about how we need to reform and stand against the culture, as if the "we" is in no need of fundamental reform, or that the Lord does not have a controversy with his people.

In the New Testament era, by contrast, the big problem was the scandal of the Cross. It's not hard to see why. Among the many things the Cross says is this: We're as dead as Jesus. He hangs there as the true human, the sign of all humanity, dead to the world, dead to the future, and especially dead to God, who it seems has forsaken us. The situation is so bad that only the sacrifice of Another—again Jesus, who hangs there as true God—can remedy it. For people like us, who imagine we're not so much dead as suffering a cold, and that if we take our vitamin C and will ourselves out of bed, we can make a go of it—well, this verdict can sound unnerving. Worse, to be told we can do nothing to revive ourselves, that we are left completely at the mercy of this Other—well, this doesn't sit well in any culture, let alone in a culture that prizes individual initiative and heroic effort.

It's interesting that our culture is rarely scandalized by this preaching of the Cross. That's probably because it is a rare theme of Christian preaching these days. Instead we have been smitten with practical preaching that helps people become successful in life and business, and with ethical preaching that tells people how to live better. This is done for the noblest of reasons—to show the gospel relevant to people's daily needs, but one can see where this has gotten us. When the Cross is preached, it is often preached in a way that falls on deaf ears. It's seen as a theme for theologians to wax eloquent about with strange words like propitiation and justification, or something comforting to guilt-ridden religious types—but meaningless to regular human beings.

Even when we try to make Jesus first, we end up inadvertently making ourselves first. Giglio noted his priorities when he said, "Clearly, speaking on this issue [homosexuality] has not been in the range of my priorities in the past fifteen years. Instead, my aim has been to call people to ultimate significance as we make much of Jesus Christ." Giglio is exactly right. Unfortunately, in a desire to reach the world for Christ, some inadvertently reverse Giglio's priorities and make much about our ultimate significance. Jesus becomes merely the means by which we feel better about our place in the universe. Need purpose and meaning? Follow Jesus, that will do the trick. In this subtle shift, we become the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega.

We tend to think that postmoderns have brought relativism down upon us, but it seems we Christians have been the culprits the more we make our message about meeting people's needs.

Need-driven preaching—even of the highest order, that is, our search for significance—communicates that Jesus is just another way to solve our problems. It is no wonder that the culture looks at us, pats us on the head, and says, "But we've found other, equally valid ways to solve our problems, thank you." We tend to think that postmoderns have brought relativism down upon us, but it seems, we Christians have been the culprits the more we make our message about meeting people's needs.

The most needful and difficult task of the church today is to again preach the message of the Cross, and to do so in a way that alarms, surprises, scandalizes, challenges, invigorates, and inspires a 21st century world. What that would look like exactly is hard to say; our theologians and pastors need to help us here. In the most general terms, it has to be about Christ first and last. It has to be about the Christ who came into the world not to improve generally good people, but to resurrect the dead, not to bolster our self-esteem but to forgive us, not to make people successful but to make them loving, not to win the culture but to establish a kingdom without end. Even more scandalously, the message of the Cross is about a universe saturated with grace, where nothing we have done or can do earns us the right to participate in this stunning new reality; all has been done for us. The best we can do is acknowledge the reality (faith) and begin to live as if it is reality (repent).

The current state of our preaching is driven by an admirable desire to show our age the relevance of the gospel. But our recent attempts have inadvertently turned that gospel into mere good advice—about sex, about social ethics, about how to live successfully. This either offends or bores our culture. A renewed focus on the Cross, articulated in a culturally intelligent way, is the only way forward. Some will be scandalized by it, others will call it foolishness, and yet some will cling to it as salvation. But at least everyone will be talking about that which is truly First and Last.

Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.

(This article was modifed on 1/22/13 with the addition of two paragraphs that were inadvertently left out of the original--the editors.)

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The Troubled State of Christian Preaching