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Temptations Preachers Face

October 29th, 2011
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the quality of the preaching in the pulpits of our church and I am growing increasingly concerned that we are moving further and further away from the unique strengths of Lutheran preaching as we have received it from generations previous to ours. I’m going to frame my concerns by referring to temptations preachers face. I’m coming at this, of course, from my perspective and convictions as a confessing, orthodox Lutheran, committed to the Sacred Scriptures, having vowed to preach and teach the Word of God in conformity with the Lutheran Confessions as contained in the Book of Concord. As you’ll see, this is no mere finger pointing exercise, this is also a chance for me to reflect on how these temptations impact me when I preach.

The Therapeutic Temptation
The “Therapeutic Temptation” is one that would have preachers use their sermons to give what amounts to little more than a pep talk, often in the context of cute, touching, emotional or an otherwise manipulative story, either real, or made up. I’m referring to the infamous, “There was once a little boy who…” or the, “There was a man who said/did…” These sermons will be marked by a preaching of Law that is soft and squidgy around the edges, it’s not a preaching of God’s holy, righteous wrath against sin and a warning against it and a rebuking of sin and sinners. It is Law preached in such a way that bad things, bad people or bad situations are lamented in doleful tones. It sounds often like this, “Isn’t it sad when….” or “Have you ever…..” and the tone is one of sounding “oh, so sorry about that” and “shouldn’t we all feel bad” about this problem. Then the sermon goes on to offer encouragement and support for getting out of our bad and negative feelings and circumstances. The Law is soft, the Gospel therefore comes across as antidote to feeling sad and bad. I face this temptation when I preach. I want so much to make people feel better, to feel good, to leave feeling positive. That can get in the way of good Law/Gospel preaching. I would say this is what I’m hearing more and more in pulpits. Law becomes simply lament. Gospel becomes simply encouragement and reassurance.

The Entertainment Temptation
Public speaking, once becomes fairly good at it, is a place where one’s personal ego can really get in the way of God’s Word. It is so tempting to get wrapped up in the moment and begin to feel a need to amuse, delight and entertain the listeners. Now, granted, the use of the classic art of rhetoric is important, but it is tempting for preachers to work very hard to elicit a laugh, a chuckle, to amuse, to entertain. They mistake audience reaction with effective preaching and they mistake emotionally manipulating the congregation with preaching God’s Word effectively. The problem with the entertainment temptation is that often the effort to entertain and elicit a positive emotional reaction from the congregation causes the preacher to neglect the doctrine in the text he is preaching on, to neglect, frankly, the Scriptures, and to spend an inordinate amount of time developing his story that he just knows will get the kind of response he is looking for. Public speaking is heady stuff. I have been tempted to go for the cheap line, the little quip, the comment I know will get chuckle and spend too much time on that, than on preaching God’s Word. And here again, in this context, Law is neglected, or ignored, because, after all, the Law is not “upbeat” it is not “entertaining.” It will not delight and amuse people to hear that they, by nature, are poor, miserable sinners who have nothing but wicked, evil deeds to offer to the holy and righteous God. And when the Law is neglected, the Gospel then loses the force of its power to convert and regeneration. In such a context, the Gospel is watered down to be part of an entertaining experience for the listeners.

The Hurry It Up Temptation
This is quite an insidious temptation that I think we all have fallen into, nearly totally. For many centuries, and even millennia, in the church’s history, sermons, where they were taken seriously, were thirty, forty or even sixty minutes long. The sermon was the opportunity for the pastor to preach and teach God’s Word carefully and thoroughly, from Sunday to Sunday, but then, and here I’m speaking only of my own church body, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, sermons that were forty-five minutes long, became only thirty minutes, then they dropped to twenty minutes, and now it is often the case that sermons now are only twelve, or ten or even eight minutes long. Simply put, these are no longer sermons, they have become rather formulaic quick devotional thoughts. There is not enough time carefully to delve into the text, and open it up to hearers. A text become more a pretext for the sharing of what becomes quite repetitive themes: some talk of something bad (Law), some talk of Jesus taking care of it all for us (Gospel) and then reference to the Sacrament. I’m tempted to do this when I know that there is a full service with communion. It is tempting to skip lightly over the text and instead use the short time I have to make a couple devotional points and then get on to the Sacrament. For all I love the Sacrament of the Altar and love that we are celebrating it more often, the Sacrament of the Altar must never become an excuse to make our sermons shorter and less substantial. We are the church of Word and Sacrament, not word AND SACRAMENT. I think that we are forgetting this.

The Grind My Axe Temptation
This temptation is characterized by a preacher managing to “find” in any Biblical text, a pretext for him to yet, once more, grind his axe on his hobby-horse issue, or subject, or theme, no matter what it might be. The hobby-horse might be quite correct and what the preacher says about it is quite true, but it is a temptation preachers face to turn nearly every sermon they give into an opportunity once more to repeat the same issues, over and over again. Perhaps he will be wanting to talk always about the liturgical practices in the parish, to turn every sermon into a little discourse on some point of church history, or to keep referring to some particular event or trend in society. Every sermon manages to include a reference to the issue that is really “bugging” the preacher and it comes out in his sermon. I am tempted to do this when I find myself wanting to warn people against the “feel good/health and wealth” prosperity preachers. I find that I can easily find myself bashing this error in every sermon. And while I’m perfectly correct in my warning, it is not appropriate for me to hijack every sermon on every Biblical text, to interject my own particular agenda. The lectionary is a good corrective, and if the preacher resolves actually to preach on the subjects, issues and topics that flow naturally from the lectionary readings, there is much less of a chance that the preacher will fall victim to the “Grind My Axe” temptation.

Do you have more temptations to add to this list?

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Categories: pastoral ministry, Sermons
  1. Jack Keene
    October 29th, 2011 at 10:12 | #1

    I like the article. I love our LCMS Church, but one thing troubles me most of all. Very few people know who CFW Walther was, or know about the walkout where Dr Preuss in the footsteps of Luther defended the Word of God. Our history is not presented adequately to the people. We should be so proud of Walther and Preuss. Why is this not being laid out in sermons? I wish Pastor Harrison would call for LCMS history day and ask pastors to talk about our history. In an age where modernism has ruined many churches, ours has bucked the trend and stood firm. People need to know this.

  2. Rev. Alan J. Wollenburg
    October 29th, 2011 at 10:42 | #2

    Well said, Pr. McCain. I have occasionally witnessed the “7-11″ phenomenon which is common to “contemporary” music now also in preaching. It goes like this: read the text – pause – read the text again – pause – read the text from another translation (not the original language but the more obscure “modern” translation, the better, it seems) – more pausing – paraphrase – and so it goes for almost 10 minutes. It’s bad enough that our sinful nature despises preaching and God’s Word, but when we preachers do it poorly (God, forgive us our sometimes laziness and for sometimes being so incredibly obtuse) it further denegrates the right preaching of the Law and the Gospel. And immortal souls are at stake!!

  3. October 29th, 2011 at 11:21 | #3

    How about the temptation to preach to particular people in the congregation instead of the congregation as a whole.
    Or preach to the congregation as if they are not Christians who struggle with sin. i.e. as if they never sin… or are ALL, ALWAYS guilty of a particular sin.
    Or to apply the Gospel generically instead of aimed at the particular malady presented in the sermon.
    Or to be too general with the law so the people only think of sin as something that happens “outside” the church.
    Or to preach the preacher’s story instead of Christ’s story.
    Or to the temptation to use the preacher as an example of what’s going right (or wrong) in the Christian life.

    Wow! This list could go on forever! I’ve such a great many temptations that I have to watch for in my preaching. I’ve fallen on every one of them. Thank God, His Word does what He sends it to accomplish.

  4. Dagan Siepert
    October 29th, 2011 at 11:27 | #4

    I am not sure where this fits into your schematic, which is all unfortunately true, but there are those who, and I quote “avoid the Law because I dont want to come across as too preachy.” Umm? Hello? Hence, we get a lot of warm and fuzzy “Jesus loves ya man!” sermons. For what its worth…

  5. Haleigh
    October 29th, 2011 at 13:23 | #5

    What about sermons that are more about “life application” or practicality than true Law/Gospel? Would that be comprehended under the 1st category? These sermons, for example, might typically be part of a “How to” – how to have a happy marriage, how to raise your kids right, how to plan for your future in a biblical way.

    There is also a temptation to add relevancy by drawing from pop culture or other non-scriptural sources. I am reminded of a sermon (non-Lutheran, though still relevant for illustration purposes) in which the pastor used “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” as the primary “text” on which the sermon was based. The points he made were relevant to the everyday lives of the congregation, but had very little if any connection to scripture. Where he did connect his points to scripture, he used a hunt and peck method of seeking out isolated verses and passages to support the point he already wanted to make rather than beginning with the scripture and extrapolating from it.

  6. Rev. Seth Mierow
    October 29th, 2011 at 14:34 | #6

    Pr. McCain, I agree with your assessment. Will there be a follow-up on how to correct these errors/avoid these temptations? I know, I know – preach the text! I’m thinking particularly, though, of #3 – too short. If a pastor who typically preaches 15-17 minutes begins preaching 25-30+ on a consistent basis, how should he respond to the incoming criticism?

  7. Michael Mapus
    October 29th, 2011 at 14:48 | #7

    Great aritcle! Particulary the section on the “Hurry it up temptation”, the short sermons now a days, have turned into Law Gospel devotions.

  8. David Schultz
    October 29th, 2011 at 16:02 | #8

    In seminary, we would really tear apart each others sermons… but I find out in the parish, there is little real feedback that I can get, on the CONTENT of my sermons… plenty on delivery style, length, etc. But, what I really want to know is, did I get across the text in an understandable way.
    I really wish we still did visitations, that examined What was being taught, preached and practiced, as much as anything else…

  9. October 29th, 2011 at 16:37 | #9

    Regarding the “Hurry Up” temptation, I think the pressure to “Hurry Up” comes both from the people (who want liturgy, lots of music, Lord’s Supper, but get us out in 1 hour!) and from the pastor himself (who is often so busy with various tasks during the week that he only has enough time to write a generic devotional rather than a meaty, text-based sermon). Even though I’m a fan a preaching the lectionary, I’ve been doing something different for the past 3 years or so – and that is preaching through an entire book of the Bible. This takes a lot of work, but my people seem to appreaciate it because the sermons (at least the way I do them) are done within the context of the entire book of Scripture on which I’m preaching and they end up having a solid understanding of that book of Scripture once the sermon series is completed. Also, for those who hunger for “how to” sermons, there is plenty of parenesis in Paul’s Epistles, for exmaple (I’m preaching through Colossians now!), that allows one to preach on a particular aspect of the sanctified life within the context of justification. My sermons usually go 25 minutes, but the people don’t seem to mind because they get so much out of them. Also, I write detailed sermon notes for each sermon, and the people seem to appreciate this as well.

  10. October 29th, 2011 at 16:42 | #10

    Winkels would be a good opportunity for that.

    Out here in Wyoming District we call our Circuit Counselors “Circuit Visitors” because they focus on the traditional triennial visitations at the request of the District President.

  11. Tim
    October 29th, 2011 at 18:28 | #11

    What about preachers who preach on their theological bent without any regard for the content of the text. Stick to the Scriptures and preach Jesus. Always preaching closed communion or another piece that doesn’t appear in the text. It’s their thing not from the text.

  12. October 29th, 2011 at 18:42 | #12

    If you can put up with an observation from a layman, a temptation I think pastors face is to avoid rocking the boat. By that I mean staying away from doctrines that non-Christians and even some who call themselves Christians find distasteful and “intolerant” (example: grace being a gift from God we can never earn).

    I’m not saying that pastors should be “shock jocks” who says anything whatsoever in order to cause an uproar. I have come to despise the phrase “speaking Truth to Power”, since it all too often means promoting some in-your-face doctrine irrelevant to or even at odds with Christianity. But if a pastor never says anything that pricks my conscience at least once in a while, he is not doing his duty. I am an experienced sinner well versed in excuses and alibis who needs to be reminded of that fact.

  13. David Likeness
    October 30th, 2011 at 18:32 | #13

    The “Hurry Up” offense (no huddle/shotgun) is great for
    football, but not in the parish. Too many pastors are
    not willing to put in the time to prepare meaningful
    sermons. However the laity are not fooled when a
    pastor tries to get by in the pulpit without any serious
    study of the text and Law/Gospel application to their
    lives It takes serious self-discipline to preach every
    Sunday and realize that this is the most important hour
    of the week for the parish.

  14. October 31st, 2011 at 08:42 | #14

    To provide another layperson’s perspective: One seemingly common temptation for pastors is The Back-of-the-Book Temptation. You know you’re supposed to teach on the lectionary verses for the day. You know you’re supposed to explain to your congregation what God is saying to them in those verses. But what is God saying? You could exposit the text, but you’ve already read the answers in the back of the book (the Book of Concord). As it turns out, it’s much easier to talk about how the daily reading reminds you generically of law & gospel before making an awkward segue into the sacraments, than it is to actually explain the text. In addition to being shallow & repetitive, these sermons also tend to appear to the parishioner as the “Grind my Axe” temptation. Ironically, the commitment to Law & Gospel/Sacraments that is co-opted by this temptation makes these essentials seem merely like the preacher’s hobby horse.

    So preach the whole counsel of God honestly. Unless Lutheranism is completely off base, you will end up preaching Law & Gospel, and the sacraments will come up alot. It may not be the perfect 49% law 51% gospel mix each and every Sunday that many pastors seems to think is absolutely essential, but your flock will be fed with what God has given you to feed them. So if your flock complains that every sermon sounds the same because it’s “just” law & gospel? Don’t just automatically chalk it up to “itching ears” and dismiss the complaint. Though poorly phrased, it might be hiding a legitimate indication that you are falling victim to this temptation.

  15. Ken Larson
    October 31st, 2011 at 14:06 | #15

    ONE: With all the preaching aids available (CPR, Internet, sermon “services,” etc.), it is a temptation to skip the serious exegetical work in the original language and begin writing. I don’t say these are valuable, but using these aids too early in sermon preparation can cripple the preacher with misunderstandings, poor application, and outright false doctrines. On the other hand, when the preacher has a solid and confident understanding of the *text* in its various contexts, he is better able to preach with all the content the Holy Spirit intended, and hopefully none of those tangentially interesting but distracting afterthoughts. TWO (I confess I am guilty): If the preacher does not fully master his sermon (whether manuscript, outline, notes, or “no notes” in the pulpit), his delivery can be seriously hampered by lack of eye and “heart” contact with those real people out there in the pews. Having listened to many sermons from several area pastors during 3 years of retirement has shown me how I could have done a better job of delivery, just by mastering the sermon. I believe this second temptation is related to the first; confident understanding results in confident and personal delivery.

  16. Rev. Allen Bergstrazer
    October 31st, 2011 at 16:29 | #16

    I would add what I call the “Max Lucado syndrome,” in which we have an illustration that is so good we cannot resist using it, even if it doesn’t apply or completely overshadows the actual text you’re preaching on. If you’ve heard one of these you’ve probably heard them all. Also known as pounding a square peg into a round hole.

  17. Rev. Kory Boster
    November 1st, 2011 at 12:54 | #17

    could you give further definition to what you mean by ‘therapeutic’ sermons? Would you agree that preaching the law involves more than “preaching of God’s holy, righteous wrath against sin and a warning against it and a rebuking of sin and sinners”? It seems to me the Scriptures approach to the law goes beyond repeating “you are sinners” to giving a lot of attention to sin through its consequences, e.g. broken relationships, fear, shame, confusion, frustration, hopelessness and similar circumstances that impact the lives of God’s people. The Gospel proclamation that “Jesus dies to forgive you, and rose to assure you of eternal life” can then be expressed in other terms or facets of restoration, peace, comfort, promise, etc. Jack Preus’s book “Just Words” gives examples of the breadth of Jesus’ saving work. Is this therapeutic?

    • November 1st, 2011 at 15:08 | #18

      Kory: Not sure I can expand on this though more than I what I said in the post, but I’ll try. I have in view sermons that have as their aim, chiefly, making people “feel better” about their situation, and achieve that “feel better” through the various manipulative, weak Law/Gospel content I mentioned in the post.

  18. john
    November 1st, 2011 at 13:13 | #19

    How much of the preaching deficiency can be traced back to a not-vigorous-enough embrace of theology in general?

  19. Jonathan Trost
    November 2nd, 2011 at 10:27 | #20

    Great article, Pastor!

    As one who sits in a pew Sunday mornings, I’d add “The Little Preparation Temtation”.

    Many decades ago, a famous preacher in the Church of Scotland (Reformed) had this as “a rule of thumb” for a sermon: “one hour of preparation for every minute of delivery”.

    That’s alot of time. And, perhaps, although still a happy ideal, that was back in the day when a Lutheran pastor’s role was “limited” to preaching the Word, administering the sacraments and rites, and being a caretaker of souls (i.e., a “Seelsorger”.) Today, often parish pastor’s have the additional burden of also serving in the capacity of a congregation’s “CEO”, its chief administrator, busy with all kinds of matters extraneous to his office. And, those matters take time.

    So, that may explain why a sermon appears to have been ill-prepared. But, when it happens, the fact that it was doesn’t go unnoticed by a congregation. Although poor preparation may result not from succumbing to a temptation but rather from time constraints, the result is the same.

    I had a great-great uncle whom, of course, I never met. In the early 1900s, he was one of the pastoral staff of the “Gedaechtniskirche”, the Memorial Church to the Protestation of 1529, in Speyer, Germany. His role there was as its “Hauptprediger”, i.e., chief preacher. Other pastors there performed different roles. I suppose he was able to follow the “rubric” suggested by that Presbyterian preacher. As an alternative, perhaps pastors’ remembering to recite Luther’s Sacristy Prayer before The Service would be helpful

  20. Eric Buus
    November 2nd, 2011 at 19:25 | #21

    Rev. McCain, I appreciated this article very much. My wife and I feel that our current pastor falls into most of these categories when he preaches. It’s become bad enough over the past year and a half that we dread the sermon portion of the worship service. I even joke with her that at least his sermons are short since they are usually all law and no gospel (and not even proper law). We spoke with him about a year ago after one particularly bad one, but they have continued. We’ve tossed around the idea of going to a different church, but the next closest LCMS church is about an hour away. Any further advice would be much appreciated.

  21. Rev. David Sidwell
    November 7th, 2011 at 06:52 | #22

    To Jonathon’s comment I will add: an hour of “visitation” (of some manner) for every minute of preaching. Then you will know who you are preaching to. Now we are up to 40 hours. That leaves a solid 20 for administration…

  22. November 9th, 2011 at 12:40 | #23

    Do you have actual facts or statistics to substantiate your claims? I ask because it could be argued that Lutheran preaching has always been lacking in one way or another. For example, if I remember correctly, early to mid-twentieth century LCMS preaching was generally void of the Law/Gospel distinction. It was Dr. Richard Caemerrer who was responsible for reintroducing the Law/Gospel distinction to seminarians in the 1950s. Once again, I just think this may not be fair or accurate, at least in relation to the former periods of our history. There has been good and bad preaching in every era. Same temptations, same errors, hence “nothing new under the sun”.

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