The Danger of Practical Preaching Part 2: Allowing scripture to civilize our thinking

Lee Eclov thinks people need more than helpful applications in a sermon. Rather than being told what to do in three easy step, Eclov argues that good preaching should teach people how to think differently. In the first part of his post he discussed the "bottom line fallacy." In part two Eclov uncovers the second danger - the practical fallacy.

I only vaguely recall the world of geometry - axioms, theorems, conclusions. I do remember the inevitable question: "Why do we need to know this stuff?" And I remember Mr. Cermak's answer: "Whether or not you use these formulae, geometry teaches you to think logically."

Some preachers are afraid of the question, "Why do we need to know this stuff?" so they try to make every sermon "practical," meaning it is about everyday issues like money or kids. Doctrinal preaching, or the week-by-week exposition of a biblical book appears not to scratch where people itch. People want sermons about things they can use on Monday. Like the sophomores in my geometry class.

But Paul tells us, "All useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." All Scripture. All Scripture is practical. It is practical, not because it all addresses everyday concerns, but because it all "civilizes" our thinking.

As I preached my way through Colossians, for example, we gradually tromped out a wide path to the truth that simply trusting Christ equips us with greater wisdom and righteousness than any counterfeit wisdom can offer. Put that way, it seems like an esoteric, impractical truth, far removed from the water cooler and van pool. But it was Paul's purpose, and therefore mine, to show just how practical this is for the believer. How freeing, simple, and safe. When we eventually arrived at the "practical" passages later in the epistle - "clothe yourself with compassion," for example - we could see not only the command but we had come to better understand the spiritual thinking that makes Christian compassion possible.

The Bible spends much more time on shaping the spiritual mind than commanding particular behavior. We need far more training in the ways of grace, of spiritual perceptions, and of what God is really like, than we do in how to communicate with our spouse. Understanding the glory of Christ is far more practical than our listeners imagine. Properly preached, every sermon based on a passage of Scripture is fundamentally practical. Every author of Scripture wrote to effect change in God's people. It is our job as preachers to find the persuasive logic of that author and put that clearly and persuasively before our people through biblical exposition.

September 07, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 14 comments


September 28, 2006  8:57am

Good thinking! You're right, we don't need more self help, 12 step groups; we need the 'practical & relevant' teaching of God's Word. The point is, God's Word is relevant to our lives, one only needs to read it to see how this Word brings life to our lives. But if I may challenge your thinking a bit, was not scripture written to very practical situations? Did Paul not write a letter called Colossians to a group of people in Colosse who were being 'lied' to by a group of Gnostics? Did he not deal with the issues of the day through the powerful teachings on Jesus Christ in this letter? Much of scripture was written to deal with the issues of the day. Now this doesn't mean that we talk about some kind of psycho babble and throw in verse or two here and there. But the last thing we need is preachers who are too lazy to read the word, exegete it, and apply what they've learned to everyday lives. Trust me, I find it a lot easier to just read and teach what Colossians says, than to also see how what Paul is teaching can make a relevant difference in my life right here and now, like Paul did when he wrote the letter. A good thought was brought out, "New believers, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, almost immediately begin to understand spiritual realities that eluded them before. It is like a gifted child," but would you like to prove that theory? If this is the case, then why do we even need to disciple and train up believers, shouldn't they just simply "grasp" it all? Overall, I do agree that some times preachers try and talk about and life's issues, and apply a verse or two and try and solve it, that 's missing the point of preaching the word, but let's never forget that even our Lord brought spiritual truths to light by applying them to situations which His hearers would grasp.

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September 13, 2006  12:49am

An excellent article. Much has been said in support, highlighting the fact that many have reached the place of questioning the way existentialism has hijacked the church. No longer do we want purpose driven anything and everything. We want, or more specifically need, the knowledge of God (Col 1:10; 2Pt 1:2). I would add though that most forms of preaching could be "justified" from Scripture, even Paul's failed sermon (which gave rise to his declaration in 1Cor 2:1,2) to the philosophers of Athens, has been touted as an exemplar message (Acts 19) when it was clearly a flop. Jesus seemed to have one purpose in mind; to make disciples. His preaching drew people to him as disciples; and with those disciples he shared his life, not a sermon on Sunay, but his life. I agree with the need for preaching, as discussed by Lee, as a part of the disciple-making process (Matt 28:19) and would add that making disciples also requires shared life not just Christian club membership.

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September 12, 2006  12:33pm

Excellent article. We've make the message "all about us" to paraphrase Rick Warren. Thank you for calling us back to making all about God's truth — the whole truth!

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September 12, 2006  11:26am

While I agree in principle with the author, I think this whole discussion runs the risk of putting too much weight on preaching. In a day when people are less informed biblically than ever, we must develop a more well rounded approach to the word of God in our local churches. (I am not advocating that we do away with preaching.) One dilemma the church faces is that preaching has become the primary or in many places the only training ground for spiritual muscle. I try to make preaching the catalyst for biblical muscle building. I see preaching as the place for me to move people to grow and make decisions that bring growth rather than the place of doctrinal and theological instruction. This does not mean I avoid doctrine or theology. In order for this to work I must build infrastructure that allows doctrine, skill in handling the word and theological knowledge to be infused into the lives of Christ followers. Here is how it works in my church. The scriptures must have multiple entry points. Simply spoken, when we rely upon a sermon for doctrine, logic and scriptural knowledge, we will always fall short. There is no way possible for 52, 30-45 minute lectures on a Sunday morning to build that kind of depth. Rather, shouldn't preaching be a catalyst to other entry points? At least two times a year I will put in the hands of every willing person in my church a 30 day inductive Bible study of a particular book of the Bible or section of scripture and at least once a year an exhaustive study of a particular topic, this year it was stewardship. During our Small Groups we do Bible Study, we encourage people to daily read their Bibles, study, meditate, memorize and apply scripture. I will often invite a group of people to memorize 20 verses in 30 days just for the purpose of saturation with scripture, go on a bible reading journey with me or some other kind of corporate activity that informs and instructs people. The direct benefit is that this infrastructure has allowed me to develop and use more people whose gifts are in keeping with teaching. It has kept our church from developing an unhealthy dependence upon me to be the only voice of God in their lives. People do not run around saying "well pastor says…" Finally it is equipping our people to rightly divide the word of truth.

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September 11, 2006  8:26am

These are great thoughts, that preaching can and should transform our thinking (cf. Romans 12:1-2), and in an idealistic world, this would be a great approach to preaching to a ready and captive audience. However, just like you can lead a horse to water and you can't make them drink, there are many people who can be invited to great ideas but you can't make them think. The majority of people don't think and can't be made to think, but instead, they have to be communicated to in bottom line, pragmatism, sound bites, and salient supposedly memorable quotes and slogans. Sadly, thinking is relegated to the minority, the elite, and the arm-chair philosopher wannabes.

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colin lamm

September 10, 2006  5:14pm

Perhaps, as I reflect on this, the issue is more prevalent than just preaching. Many people's approach to personal devotions (i.e. Bible reading), and corporate bible studies are just as guilty. Now, I am not saying that one has to have an advanced degree in Bible to read their Bible, or to lead a Bible study. One should, however, be a 'student' of the Bible. Currently I am involved in a Bible Study in which there are many professionals – some blue-collar, some white-collar. Most of them have had to undergo some form of intensive training to get their respective tickets, or certificates. The problem is that when some of them come to the Word of God they suddenly have the impression that they can just open up the Bible read a verse and make hay with "what it means to me." One particular fellow with a master's degree in his field, who has been known to 'put people in their place' when challenged by uninitiated individuals in his field, seems to feel that all he needs to do is open the Bible, point to a verse, and take it to the bank. How is it that we feel the Word of God somehow deserves less serious study and effort than our vocational interests (or even hobbies)? Of course it is the Spirit of God who communicates His truth to our hearts and transforms us. This doesn't mean, however, that the truth comes instantaneously, kind of like the wishes granted by the genie in Aladdin's lamp. Unfortunately, when it all boils down, whether it's our sermons or Bible Study, it looks as though we are just bone lazy.

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September 10, 2006  1:14pm

The analogy to geometry class is quite astute and appropriate. To equate the notion that everything must have an immediate and specific *usefullness* reveals some definite cracks within the current evangelical culture. When we consider high school geometry we are able to reason that such an approach as described in this article is a sign of immaturity - there is a need to grow and develop. The same can be said of sermons which refuse to engage at a deeper level. One cannot expect believers to feast upon the meat of the word if only milk is being offered.

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September 09, 2006  6:29pm

I wonder what is becoming of our churches today. With the bottom line preaching that is so common, or is presented as the desired type of preaching, can my fellow pastors handle the scriptures. If all scripture "is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16 NIV), then can such bottom line preachers work their way through the entire book of Leviticus? Not just a select few verses but the whole book. It is a daunting task but it should be doable unless the Bible is less useful than we evangelicals believe.

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September 09, 2006  8:39am

Amen! Great article. Teaching people to think is a purpose, and a noble one. At the same time it is also noble for mature Christians to guide others in practical application. Scripture has the power to transform us as we live in this world, so understanding your experience in applying what you know may help me apply it as well. Learning geometry may help me think logically; that's important and reason enough to learn it. But, if you show me how I can use it as I am building a table or landscaping my yard, that drives the point home that much more. Probably, as in many things, balance is good.

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Dave Vander Laan

September 09, 2006  8:20am

It seems to me that us Christians (maybe even those who don't follow Jesus but still believe in a God) want God's help but are reluctant, perhaps even unwilling, to allow God to transform us. We want the information found in the Bible as long as it will help us, but we don't want to deal with God on God's terms. It is high time the Church put God back into the center of all things (preaching, culture, marriage, family, morality, lifestyle) including an emphasis on asking God to transform us from navel-gazers into Christ-followers. Enough of the "I want to be a better person - help me do that, Church" consumer mindset. We need to think along the lines allowing the King to transform us. We live in his kingdom...

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