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john catmur: bottom-line preaching

Last week one of the elder statesmen of our church preached on the fundamental question of eternity and where we will spend it. He used the classic question from Evangelism Explosion: ‘Suppose you were to die today and stand before God, and He were to say to you, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” what would you say?’

We may look on this as rather crass, but actually the congregation that morning loved it! At least it gave them something to kick against.  If they responded positively they wouldn’t be able to walk away unchanged.

My question is this: do we need more ‘Bottom Line’ preaching? Preaching where the stakes are high and the chips are down. In our concern to provide sophisticated and holistic preaching I wonder whether we are too tentative, either because we like being generous, or fear being fundamentalists. Bottom Line preaching is preaching with certainty and conviction. The hoped for result is that our people, in turn, believe and act with conviction.

It would be a mistake to equate Bottom Line preaching with bland theology. Our doctrine of atonement should still be scintillating whether we’re a penal substitution-only-ist or see it as a multi-faceted diamond; the implications should be enormous either way. The risk is not in a more nuanced theology, but rather in a tentative one. Surely the realities about God should pin people to the wall and demand their money (figuratively speaking!). I’m not sure preaching four views on hell and suggesting which might be the strongest one on balance would have that effect. I like the term Generous Orthodoxy and I like Brian McLaren, but I wonder whether sometimes we enjoy looking at the smorgasbord more than we do picking the thing we actually want to eat.

Sure there are tensions and paradoxes in the Christian faith – the eschatological tension we live in day-by-day, the incompatible truths of divine sovereignty and human free will. There are also multiple views on the same subjects – no need for examples there! How can we recognize these, school people in them and yet leave them with something to rally around?

One thing we can say: when the stakes are high then people have to respond with conviction. I’m becoming tired of sitting on the fence and calling everything ‘interesting’. People don’t get passionate about ‘interesting’ things. One thing that could be said in favour of fundamentalism is that it seems to make people more activist.  One charge that could be leveled at ‘sophisticated’ preaching is that it leaves people intellectually rich but practically unchanged.  How can we get the best of both worlds?

John Catmur is on the pastoral team at Auckland Baptist Tabernacle. He arrived there after a journey through a music degree, a government job, a dash of theology in London and a flight across the world.  He likes bicycles and cheese.


  1. Paul Long says:

    I think bottom line preaching is needed. I tire of “political correctness” and stepping on egg shells so as not to offend … ending up with a “christianized” form of relativism.

    But I too also like Brian McLaren as think he has much to teach me about ministering to a generation that is disillusioned with the “traditional church” and who are more “postmodern” in their world view. It’s a much needed reminder that a bottom line approach could lead to greater distancing and rejection of the Gospel.

    I am hoping that the right balance is having the right person at the right time preaching bottomline sermons. I think I have gotten some positive responses with some bottom line preaching and will continue to do so when I think it is needed in some subjects. Key factors I think is when I have won the respect and trust of those I have ministered to faithfully and have been seen to be trying to live consistently with what I preach.

    At other times, I think a guest speaker can do a better job for a certain subject because he can better come across as not having a personal agenda.. … After all a prophet is often not welcome in his own hometown …

    By God’s grace, I hope I get it right one day ….

    1. Cameron says:

      I think preachers who have become increasingly generous in their orthodoxy or have made suggestions rather than shared their convictions linked with take home moral lessons are what drive people away from church. So becoming more post modern and open in speaking and thinking in my mind will further drive a wedge between my generation (Y) and that of the older generations.

      Instead I implore our preachers to focus not on making a message relative but distinctive. How will people know what you stand for if you are continually trying to establish common ground without then communicating a flaw in their thinking and a need that they have for a life change.

  2. Shannon Richmond says:

    Excellent thoughts. The danger of preaching relativism week after week is that when you actually want to take a more direct approach on a subject, the congregation react poorly. And you can’t blame them really, afterall they are used to listening to suggestions about their faith. When they are confronted with ‘non-negotiables’ they are more likely to ‘rebel’ and claim the pastor is authoritarian and fundamentalist in their approach.
    As with all things we need to find a balance without watering down the gospel message – it is an ongoing tension i think we must wrestle with. What is grey? what is black and white? What role does culture play? What are our non-negotiables?
    plenty of questions – not so many answers!

  3. Joseph Collins says:

    Hi fellow priests,

    Maybe preachers (I am not one), need to share with the congregation about how they really feel, become more vulnerable, take the “im a good pastor” mask off and bear some heart?

    i.e. Be upfront about how YOUR feeling CONVICTED about how you have been trying to keep your people happy and comfortable, after-all it is not really the congregations problem, it IS the preachers (SHEPHERDS).

    Then you get people on your side of the pulpit rather than them feeling they are on the other side.

    Personally, even though I have been asked to church plant last year, (I turned it down for study reasons) I am soo close to not going to church (I attend less and less nowadays) because of “perfectly sweet little messages” that are so barren of conviction, presence, and guts, that I feel like I am going to get sucked into being… “nice and cozy” and rot like cotton wool gone soggy, and be one of those Christians that leave the church when someone says “I don’t like that shirt your wearing” or “I’m going to tell the elders about your realism!”

    I understand that Paul asked us to live peaceable lives, however, he still desires us to be strong in the Lord, morally empowered, crazy about God, and spreading his gospel like a brush fire.

    I agree with you Shannon, we need to help people see the difference between ourselves (our Christian worldview) and the Western (and now Eastern one) that is slowly strangling the living life out of us.

    We need to be wise and share this with questioning from the pulpit, engaging in dialogue – finding out what people truly think, bring in further questions that promote deeper thinking, challenge those thoughts and then passionately share the truth.

    I believe if NZ don’t take prayer and evangelism seriously, we might be facing a uphill battle where we loose this country for a long time. I really don’t want to see Chinese and Indian Christians coming to our shores trying to convert a mostly agnostic/muslim/new age country.

    Maybe we need more orthodox pentecostal charisma back in the church?

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