[Please welcome with me Clinton C. Roberts. Clint is becoming a good friend of mine. He lives here in Edmond Oklahoma is a member of the Credo House. He has a Ph.D. from the University of South Africa, he is a professor of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma and Liberty, and he served as a missionary in Utah to the Mormons for some time. While in Utah, they set up a coffee shop to serve their cause (sound familiar?). Clinton has an increadible personality and have a life with many deep and sometimes complex issues that will benefit our readers here on the blog. You can find him on Facebook here. I am very excited to introduce him to you. The following is his first blog. Give him some trouble but welcome him with me!]
Maybe this is due in part to having simply grown older and having heard so many sermons from so many preachers over the years – in person, online, by television, etc. – but I find myself increasingly annoyed by things preachers say and how they say it. Maybe it’s the repetition of all of those preacherly terms & phrases, or the pulpit personas that preachers adopt. Maybe I’m just cynical & unfair in my overall perspective on the subject.
Or maybe T. David Gordon was onto something when he wrote a book a few years ago arguing that “preaching today is ordinarily poor” as a result, more or less, of our culture. His book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach (the title being an intentional knockoff of the widely read Why Johnny Can’t Read of the mid-1960s), points out that society has shifted dramatically and speedily from being text-based to being image-based. That, and a few other elements of the media and entertainment dominated landscape, has made everyone, including ministers, less able to deal with an ancient text, less adept at language in general & careful exegesis in particular, less skilled rhetorically, & frankly too distracted to spend much time caring about these shortcomings.
Since I spend a lot of my time trying to get people to grasp the principles of critical thinking, to follow the steps of logical argument, and to gain some level of appreciation for things well expressed, I fully understand and agree with Gordon’s observations. You can’t read the papers that college students submit these days and conclude anything else. But when it comes to the specified communication known as preaching, there is something more than this that seems to bother me.
This far into the American experiment it is no surprise that unfettered freedom of religion has spurned a thousand varieties of Christian preaching. And while there is unquestionably a very impressive and praiseworthy subgroup among that vast lot, there is another tragically large and perhaps growing subgroup of preachers who have a knack for wasting precious breath & either boring us with the banal or butchering the airwaves with a Benny-Hinnish clown act. Whether they ambush me on TV or online, too many painful pulpit atrocities make my ears bleed, even as they cause me to realize afresh the double-edged perversity of the situation, which is that some of the worst examples attract the largest crowds. Why is that? Why do the biggest throngs clamor for the most inane sermonic drivel? I can think of possible avenues of explanation, but I’ll leave that part of the discussion to one side.
What should have our attention most acutely is that these examples of bad preaching accomplish two simultaneously destructive ends. They lead their regular disciples & devotees down a path of false teaching and irrelevant mind-candy, on the one hand. And they inoculate a lot of outsiders against anything smacking of Christian preaching, on the other. They doom discipleship & they hamstring evangelism. I remember some years ago listening to a young business professional talking about why he wanted nothing to do with churches. He had heard various preachers, as he explained, that he’d decided were all hucksters with hair-pieces. My initial knee-jerk reaction was to rush to the defense of preachers in general, but then I immediately remembered a story I had read earlier that day about investigations into a televangelistic megachurch pastor couple, the female of which calls herself “Paula White” (whom you may have seen on TV before: think bleached hair, plasticky face, and an awkwardly contrived preacher cadence that sounds like she’s been slain by the ‘spirit of the brain injury’ – Beelzeboob, if you will); in a development that shocked absolutely nobody with a lick of sense, this couple was reportedly under fire for misuse of funds. I’m not sure what drew anybody’s attention to them: their modest mansion, maybe, or the Bentley, the jewelry, the exotic trips, or their ridiculous wardrobe straight from the TBN Spring fashion line.
But I could hardly dispute what the man was saying about the assortment of preachers that outsiders are likely to encounter on television. And while most of us recognize the couple in that story as a walking stereotype, there are many far less obvious cases of people pretending to ‘play pastor’ when they are qualified for something more along the lines of Botox-tester. American evangelicalism is a wide-open playing field where anyone can self-apply a title like pastor, bishop, minister, etc. Consider the range of characters with “Rev.” in front of their names; they span a sordid continuum from Fred Phelps to Al Sharpton. And unfortunately many biblically illiterate Americans are all too willing to give unquestioned respect to anybody who dons a collar, grips a microphone, quotes a verse, and pretends to have authority from God to speak for and about Him. Take a moment to consider who has the largest churches in America, who sells the most books, and whose messages are broadcast the furthest. Consider the preacher who apparently had the primary spiritual influence on the man who holds the highest office. We’re told that among the scream-fests that Obama slept through over the years at his Chicago church were messages about how the white government invented AIDS as a tool of racist population control.
Am I being too negative about the situation? I’m trying to put it as plainly and semi-politely as possible. If I were more blunt about it, I might say that the spiritual democracy has tilted toward idiocy so that the biblically inept & sub-logical hordes are beguiled by the combination (in varying portions) of the smooth talk, the lofty promise, the self-designation of prophetic witness, the appeal to greed, & the assurance of self-help strategies for every neurosis of modern suburban life. Thus are the stale loaves of empty and false preaching broken over the empty heads of the pew-warming chimps who further enable the decadence of their spiritual masters. They recline at the table to share a festering turd that they have mistaken for true spiritual nourishment. This, I reiterate, is what I MIGHT say about it, were I less a person of tact.
But seriously, fellow church-goers, there is more than a rant to be endured here. There is a lesson and a warning. We now live in the confusing information-choked superhighway, with several million lanes full like it’s rush hour. Data is too plentiful but discernment is on the wane. It’s a dangerous environment for the naïve or the intellectually lazy. Theories, interpretations, trends & movements are legion, tempting every casual or curious cyber investigator to decide, in the absence of a standard by which to judge them all, that the best choice is the one that simply appeals to me personally. But sermons (like any source of information about anything important and objective) are not to be selected the same way you buy shoes. It’s not mere preference. It’s not taste. It’s not a whim. You wouldn’t select a surgeon for your life-saving procedure in that way, would you?
We probably can’t keep the hucksters of heretical homilies from hounding us on TV, the internet, & elsewhere. But every Christian can take truth, belief, & discipleship (which is essentially a lifelong education) seriously enough to hold the standard higher for preachers than we have been lately. We could stop giving time, money and admiration to shallow & shoddy proclaimers of things either untrue or just not that important. And though some will think we shouldn’t go this further step, we can openly condemn & shame the pompously pious puffy-pompadoured pimps & peddlers of prosperity nonsense. The sooner they are put out of business & have to foreclose on their island vacation estates, the better.
Let’s increase the ranks of those laboring to be worthy of the calling & responsibility of handling profound truths that carry such weight & magnitude, who have studied with diligent intensity, who utilize rhetorical skills wisely & efficiently for the sake of clarity. They are the kind of truly anointed communicators who can lead out in the shaping and framing of Christian minds, which is the primary biblical solution to so many people being ruined by so much poor preaching.
 T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers (New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2009), 17.