Q. I’ve been looking for a church in my area for some time now and I’m starting to get discouraged. The pastors of the churches I’ve visited don’t go very deep in their preaching. I haven’t yet heard anyone preach exegetically through a passage, for example, and they often get sidetracked talking about superficial matters. Some of them actually seem to get their sermons off the Internet and then just adapt them with personal anecdotes. I’ve talked with some of them about my concerns and they’ve told me they’re “trying to keep it basic” for the sake of new believers. But it seems to me that this is just keeping everybody in perpetual immaturity.
My main point of frustration is that pastors either don’t seem to take their roles very seriously and seem to be just providing entertainment, or they teach really basic stuff super dogmatically but don’t really challenge their congregations. My understanding of what a pastor should be is someone who is there to equip and guide the congregation in terms of what the Bible really teaches, how to apply it to one’s life, and then how to understand our culture in order to engage it. As it is, half the time I stay home and listen to podcasts by people whose vision and style I appreciate such as Tim Keller. I know Christianity is about community and about giving back and being part of the change, but I don’t know where to begin.
I think I can address your concerns from the “other side of the table,” so to speak, because I was a pastor myself for over twenty years. In this post I’d like to affirm some of the things I think you can legitimately expect from the preaching at any church you attend. In my next post I’ll describe some things that may not quite be realistic expectations, which I hope will help you recognize where you may indeed find a good church home in your new community.
• First, I think you can and should realistically expect that the sermon will be the fruit of the pastor’s own personal engagement (in many cases wrestling!) with a biblical text that God has led them to preach on. In other words, the sermon should be an original effort, based on diligent study, prayer, and reflection—not something pulled off the Internet and dressed up with a bit of local color. Pastors need to heed Paul’s admonition to Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”
• Next, I think you can also realistically expect that the sermon will have some real depth to it, both in its approach—working exegetically through a passage, explaining its natural parts sequentially in light of their original language, culture, context, and audience, and noting present-day implications—and in its content: it will fulfill the admonition in Hebrews, “Let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity.”
• I think it’s also fair for you to expect that the sermon will stick to the point and communicate a clear and consistent message. Yes, individual observations can and should be elucidated with pertinent illustrations. But pastors are not fulfilling their callings if their sermons are typically rambling and incoherent, frequently straying from the main point (assuming there is one) into irrelevant and superficial topics.
• Finally, as you say, I think you can reasonably expect that the primary effect of the sermon on you will be to challenge you—to greater godliness, to more devoted service, to more effective engagement with the culture, or something along those lines. It will give you a “growing edge” to live out in the days ahead. The essential purpose of the sermon should not be to entertain or to indoctrinate.
I’ll follow up on these thoughts in my next post with some reflections on what we might not realize we should actually not expect from the sermons in our home church.