I’ve been thinking lately about how my preaching style has changed recently. In previous pulpits, I considered myself to be more of a theologian. My mission with each sermon was to get people to appreciate, embrace and conform to the deep rich truths of doctrine. While it still matters to me that my preaching be Biblically sound and theologically true, I have come to see my listeners less as students needing educated and more as sheep needing nurtured and fed. So I’m finding that my sermons are less systematic but more human. Less philosophical and more practical.
That being said, I still long to be able to better connect the average pew sitter with doctrinal glory. For instance whose soul wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be aroused upon contemplation that Jesus is God incarnate; that Scripture is the literal and perfect message of God to mankind; that communication with God is not just possible but can be a regular occurrence, accompanied by the inner assurance that God has heard your prayer and is already at work?
Truly we might reason that anyone content to maintain a poker face while being drenched in the eternity of God just might be a spiritual swine unworthy of sacred pearls.
So how can the minister who is trained in the divine doctrines present the Word in a manner which magnifies the glories of Christianity without oozing his hubris or confusing his hearers?
First it must be said that theology must be couched in application. Truth is not given for the mind alone but for the heart and hands. Even the most theological of theological truths can be applied. Take for example the great truth of election. Scripture explains that God chose to save us (Eph 1:4; 1 Thess 1:4. 1 Peter 1:2). The point of this doctrine is not that some are elected and some are not. Rather election means God was not obliged or tricked into saving us. Salvation is intentional. Therefore our salvation was not accidental. It was not coincidental. It was planned and we were chosen by God. One application we can make is that we should resist the urge to take credit for our salvation. Without Him choosing us we could never be saved. Further we should act out our salvation in the light that God is not just tolerant of us but has embraced us purposefully. This should produce humble confidence and joy in us.
Secondly? we cannot avoid theology or doctrine in Scripture. Every passage is by nature theological. Thoughtful prayer can Illuminate our spirit and mind to see how the theology of each passage applies to life. Theology is so often like a code which underlies a software program–invisible but necessary for the software to operate correctly.
Lately in sermon preparation, I have been letting the theology and doctrine come to me rather than me seeking it out. My focus has been more on the message to the heart and as I find that message, usually a great theological truth emerges for exploration.
To avoid over salting our sermons with theological hubris or spiritual pride, I recommend that we guard our use of technical terms unnecessry for clear communication. The use of terms like sublapsarianism, Docetism, or anthropomorphic may be appropriate in a lecture format where we may be trying to stretch and inform students but our sermons are not typically expected to be lectures. John Wesley described a good sermon as “sublimity and simplicity together, the strongest sense and the plainest language!” His practice was to read his sermon to a servant who would stop him each time he used a term she did not know. At which he would change his term to a simpler one.
Isham Holland, patriarch preacher of the Church of God (Holiness), once said that a sermon is supposed to help people.
In closing let it be said that where theology and doctrine arises let us not insist it sit down. And where it is content to remain silently present in sitting position let us not draw undue attention to it. Let our sermons be messages linking sublimity with simplicity. Let our sermons help people. Let our sermons be more like a floodlight enlightening the pathway of people and less like a fireworks display which captures their attention for a few moments, only to fade from the longterm memory of the listener.