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myk habets: preaching the husk, discarding the kernel

We are all familiar, no doubt, with the well worn adage that there are ‘many sermons in search of a text’. This expresses the idea that many sermons are well constructed, have well chosen illustrations, apt applications, and well crafted affective impact – but they lack any explicit exposition of a biblical text. It is not that these sermons are necessarily unbiblical; many of them display all the elements of time spent in the study with an open Bible (for those with finely tuned ears to hear!). These sermons may even appeal to ‘Biblical texts’ in general, sometimes even going so far as to specifically name one or two or even read them out in passing. But the sermon does not rely on any Scriptural text in its delivery, it does not invite the congregant to open the Bible and turn to a passage and read it with the preacher and follow it through for the duration of the sermon (or part thereof). There is no exposition of a text, despite the repeated assertion that this is variously a ‘biblical truth,’ a ‘key biblical theme,’ or a ‘word from God to us.’ In such sermons a topic eclipses a text.

I have sat through many of these sermons and no doubt will have to endure many more. I have one such sermon in mind as I write this; it was preached over 6 months ago by a competent and trained pastor in a very good church. The overall message was great, the impact was measurable, the delivery was faultless, the biblical truths that were mentioned were, in my opinion, well founded. It was a good talk – but, and again this is just my opinion – it was an appalling sermon. I talked with a number of people who attended the service and all spoke highly of the talk and each of us received something from it (and so all of you who rate pragmatic concerns over biblical ones will be asking yourself what my ‘problem’ is), but as I reflected on what we were saying I came to the conclusion that we each went home with the pastors opinion on our minds. We took his idea with us into the week, his perspective, his passion, and his words with us. He did not direct us to a text in Scripture that we could look up through the week and meditate upon. He did not work through a biblical passage so that we could go home and do some work in it ourselves so as to have the opportunity to let God speak to us through his word by his Spirit. In short, I think the preacher spoke to us on Sunday morning in such a way that he stood in front of God and drowned out his voice and eclipsed his word.

Why? Why did this good, respected (and for good reason), and trained preacher do this? I have no doubts he did this for a variety of reasons, some conscious many not. But may I suggest that acknowledge it or not, one of the reasons he and so many others do this week in and week out is this: we do not believe and trust in the power, efficacy, or attractiveness of the Word of God to speak to people and inspire them. And for this reason we feel we must substitute the exposition of the Word of God for illustrations, topical-pragmatic talks, and passionate oratory. We have lost confidence in God’s Word; and when I say ‘we’ I mean we evangelicals! There is no other conclusion that can be reached.

What! Really? You tell me.

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Myk teaches systematic theology at Carey Baptist College and is Director of the R.J. Thompson Centre for Theological Study. Myk was an itinerant preacher for over a decade but now with his wife Odele and two children he attends Windsor Park Baptist Church.

7 Comments

  1. Joseph says:

    I often think similar thoughts. But possibly for different reasons.

    If we want good expository preaching (which it seems may be what you were primarily looking for)
    then I can understand where your coming from, and I am frequently in the same boat. Though I am almost over the boat ride.

    Anyway, I find that if the integration of the word and the topic are not only impacting but accurate, then what’s the point of using Scripture in the first place? It is often to my ears like hearing white lies just to make a “good” point!

    I also prefer a genuine story about the pastors week with God and life etc (so I can hear he actually is following God), without scripture at all! If the topic is good, and leads us closer to a relationship to Christ, I am also happy with it. At least they are not projecting their ideas and experiences onto a coagulation of scriptures from willy and nilly.

    I also think it is impossible to avoid “the pastors opinion on our minds. We took his idea with us into the week, his perspective, his passion, and his words with us.”

    Naturally, we rely upon his concepts, because most of us don’t know how to interpret Scripture and God into our world. So, therefore I don’t see anything wrong with this, apart from any lack of discernment from both preacher and hearer. After all, God will hopefully speak above preachers mistakes to those with listening ears.

  2. Dirk Jongkind says:

    “We have lost confidence in God’s Word; and when I say ‘we’ I mean we evangelicals! There is no other conclusion that can be reached.”

    Which leaves the question how the preacher can ‘teach’ trust in the Bible – and how the teacher has been taught before that. I don’t know too many preachers who are able to make the case for the trustworthiness of Scripture without relying solely on the handful of quick arguments found in the popular apologetic books. Though the confidence we have in Scripture exists because we have confidence in its Author, this theological argument in itself is hardly satisfying in the reality of life and critical historical reflection. So, Myk, how should the preacher and the church be taught to have confidence in God’s Word?

  3. Myk Habets says:

    Hi Dirk, how about they read it for a start, then study it in depth, and then put it into practice. Same way as always. Then, from first hand intimacy with God through his Word they can minister out of it. How would that be?

  4. Dirk Jongkind says:

    Hi Myk,
    In practice, Yes, I agree, and this will suffice in most cases. But will this be intellectually satisfying for our students who go off to Uni? After all, reading, studying and living the Scripture assumes rather than establishes its trustworthiness. It will be the experience of many that they have come to know the living God by ‘simply’ reading and living out the Scriptures. But if this experience forms the only basis for our confidence in Scripture (at least, the only basis which we understand intrinsically), I can imagine why some preachers feel a little feeble in presenting the Bible as a sufficient authority in the public arena of preaching.

    At the same time, trust is by and large a function of experience. That means that as one get to know God better, confidence in his revelation through the Bible increases as well. And this should indeed be reflected in the preaching, which brings us back to your initial post. So, yes, I agree, and also agree that we need to make these things perhaps a little bit more explicit.

  5. Jo Weise says:

    Myk,

    I couldn’t agree more. It concerns me that we’re more about entertaining and less about the text. I had real fears of the God I understood of the bible due to my own simple reading of scripture and the trouble I had as an individual finding decent teaching let alone books that helped me understand meaning behind biblical texts. I remember going up to a preacher once after he had interpreted the fall in Genesis during a sermon and asked him how he had drawn such radical conclusions, and what understanding of the original language he’d based such claims. He told me he had read the ‘New King James’ version and ‘The Message’. Hmmm.

    The more we understand the depths of scripture the more we see how thorough, how intentional, how wide and long and deep and high is God’s love… and as a result we have that depth to gird us as we struggle through the ups and downs and wrestling that this life involves.

    The more I have understood the bible, the more I have felt firm in God’s love for me, and understood his plan for my life and others. I found the apparent inconsistencies, violence, and strange stories too monstrous to overlook. It is very scary trying to read the bible without strong cultural, historical, and contextual knowledge as well as understanding the languages they were originally written in. Until I had an experience of teaching that incorporated those aspects of interpreting scripture I lived with alot of fear as to God’s nature. Extending people that understanding during a sermon gives people an opportunity to then go away and explore that text for meaning in their own lives. It also sheds light on a God of love, love so great that He’d die on the cross ‘for the joy set before him’. That he has spent history in pursuit of us, and that He takes our humanity: the good the bad and the ugly and redeems it. We know this, because we read it over and over again. The more we examine the Old Testement deeply the more we see Jesus. Jesus who is the exact representation of God in human form.

    As we gaze at the bible we must consider that it requires much intelligent help when we are Western, English speaking people in an entirely different age, drawing radical conclusions about life and others through scriptures that are far from simple to literally apply without serious consideration to those issues. How else do we interpret God’s views on marriage, relationships, war, giving, forgiveness, pain, suffering? What shallow conclusions we draw without this depth. That is why as a people group we are right up there, worse than most other people-groups in divorce statistics, amount of debt, posture towards our enemies, etc.

    I feel really sad as I look at the present and the past as to the damage that that has caused creation. I am passionate about the ‘power, efficacy, or attractiveness of the Word of God to speak to people and inspire them’ that you wrote about. That is one of the ways I have ‘experienced’ God most intensely.

    It’s true and it’s good news.

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