7 Dec 2008

The Problem with Preachers …

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Hermeneutics, Holy Spirit, Ministry, Preaching, Spiritual Disciplines

What a dangerous title. I am after all a “preacher!”

Here it is Lord’s Day afternoon and I got home a little while ago. Here sitting on my couch lamenting BAMA’s loss (but hey it was a great football game. Florida over Sooners!) reflecting for a brief moment upon what I have done on this day. I gathered with God’s People in the Presence of his Majesty. We opened the “book divine” to hear afresh the empowering, liberating and convicting Word of the Lord. In the last three weeks we have explored how Matthew presents Jesus as the “Hinge,” both the “End” and the “Beginning.” Matthew sees Jesus the Hinge as the Goal of the “Old Testament” Story, he sees Jesus as the “Fulfillment” of the Promises in the Hebrew Bible and he sees the Hinge of Jesus’ Identity as the “Son of God” embedded in the Hebrew traditions of old. As we have looked at the opening chapters of Matthew I have been astonished at the wondrous depth and texture to Matthew. It is deep indeed.

As I sat in a moment of reflection I was reminded of Eugene Lowry’s bold words:

The problem with preaching is that we have been trained to be answer people … By the time we get ready to start preparing next Sunday’s sermon we already know what we believe and hence when we engage a text we often bring ourselves to the text rather than letting the text come to us ...”

What insight! What Lowry seems to be saying is that we preachers often “come to the text” as if we are in control. We already have an agenda and so often the biblical text is nothing else but a “second” to what we already want to say. In some sense we have kidnapped God’s Word! This is heavy duty stuff. Have I done this?

Is there a difference between using a text and preaching a text? I have seen sermons where scripture was certainly used but it was not scripture that was preached. Is this a problem with preachers? I am sure that I have been guilty of this myself and for that I am grateful for the never ending mercy of our Abba.

What can we do to overcome this problem? How can we let the text “come to us?” How can we give up control of the text and let it take the lead (it is after all the living word of God right?).

First I believe we need to embrace the text in all its complexity. The dimensions to Matthew’s Gospel is mind numbingly vast. Let the text overwhelm us. Embrace its intertextualities, its echoes of previous parts of the Story, get lost in the text.

Second, as we enter into a conversation with the text cultivate the mindset that we do not know what we are getting into. We do not come to the text with a “topic” but let God’s message through that portion of the biblical narrative be used by God’s own Spirit to address us and our community. I have found that lectio divina is an essential part of sermon preparation … here we embrace the text, love the text, we eat the text. And like Ezekiel of old we find that eating God’s Word is not without effect.

Third, and this is probably repetition, is surrender. We must sacrifice our ideas to the word. We must be willing to be led, to embrace even mystery for a time as we enter into the text because we do not know where it will take us. Like Israel of old we know where we are going but the direction of each day was determined by a Cloud and not themselves.

There is a difference between the word “ministry” and “preacher.” All Christians minister in some capacity. Preaching is one aspect of the ministry of God’s kingdom of priests. As preachers, not just ministers, we have to at times deal with the “problem with preachers …” that is of using God’s word rather than preaching it. None of us want to be guilty but we all are. Thus my mid-afternoon reflections are upon this struggle to be a tool to be used by the word rather than being a person in charge who uses God’s word as his own tool.

If this makes no sense … blame it on Bama’s loss.

Bobby V

20 Responses to “The Problem with Preachers …”

  1. BillyWilson Says:

    You mean “other” preachers, right Bobby? Not us. Surely. Thank goodness. Ok, now that it’s not directed toward “us” I think I can agree.

    In any event, my brother. Even if you were wrong (and I am convinced you are not) it wouldn’t hurt us to listen as though you were not. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve expected nothing less from “our” listeners. =/ Thanks for the rebuke.

  2. Steve Puckett Says:

    I like Peterson’s idea of “turning eyes into ears” as we approach the text. Good thoughts, bro. I’m heartbroken over Bama’s loss, but smiling overall about our season.


  3. Stoogelover Says:

    Good thoughts. Early in my years of preaching (being from North Alabama) I brought almost everything to the text. Later I did my best to let the text speak … my preaching improved greatly as did my focus on Jesus over issues.

    If Bama had to lose, at least it was to another SEC team. What a great season after last year. The future looks bright for the Tide.

  4. kingdomseeking Says:

    Alister McGrath speaks of “belief systems” that “are created through social and cultural means” (McGrath, “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea,” 232). While such social and cultural means are not limited to the local church and wider church fellowship we preachers preach within, I believe the expectations are greatly shaped by these two realities. Just think of how our Restoration history shapes our expectation of the message being told in Acts 2. Depending on whether the local church has a history of engagement with progressive or traditional churches, institutions, and events will surely shape the expectation of the message being communicated in John 17. Now we preachers are often aware of this but whether sub-consious or overt, we engage the text understanding the expectations of those belief systems and that has an impact on our message.

    We would like to believe that we read the text afresh everytime without any rose-colored glasses but the truth is that no-one does theology in a vacume.

    Grace and peace,


  5. Anonymous Says:

    Your post would make a good argument for a heavy emphasis on expository preaching over topical preaching. Quite often in topical preaching one not only has the topic in mind as one approaches the text, but also one has an outline in place and conclusions already drawn. In expository preaching it is somewhat easier to approach the text saying, “I’m going to preach on Romans 5 or Galatians 2 this Sunday,” and dive into the text to discover the theme, outline and message.

    Yeah, Bama lost, but our coach still makes more money than the other guy’s coach. Some consolation, huh?

    Joel Stephen Williams

  6. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    Great to have you looking in on my blog. A privilege to have you.

    Yes we do have a richer coach. The game could have gone either way Florida simply made a couple plays that Bama didn’t.

    Yes we need “expository” preaching. We need good theological preaching (not in place of expository preaching).

    In my own life I have found that living with the text involves more than other sermon books (what some preachers do) or good exegetical commentaries but extended periods of simply meditation on that word … loving it like an expensive piece of chocolate.

    Blessings be on you,
    Bobby V

  7. Candle (C & L) Says:

    observations – While I’m not a preacher (nor the son of a preacher)at least in the sense you use the word, I have often “filled the pulpit” over the years — and I think I have almost always started with an “agenda” that I wanted to find scripture to support – I have come to realize that this doesn’t work well. — but it sure is easier than doing it the way you suggest — and it takes a lot of faith to start with just the written word — what if that’s all that you have in front of you on Sunday — what if you aren’t inspired with something to say beyond just reading the Word — what would people think.

    Anyhow — just some rambling of my own on a break from grading papers.
    (and wondering how your preacher’s lament might apply toteaching — and not just Bible teaching)

    God Bles

  8. Candle (C & L) Says:

    I meant to start with
    “Good observations” (I guess my brain was going before my fingers started hitting the keys 🙂 :))

    God Bless

  9. Wade Tannehill Says:

    Great Post! And not only a great argument for expository preaching, but also for preaching series on books or perhaps even lectionary preaching. This way, not only do we not pick our agenda. We don’t even choose the text. A series on a book or lectionary texts forces us to preach passages we might otherwise ignore.

  10. sojourner Says:

    Alas the paradox of being an earthen vessel called to dispense spiritual sustanence! Knowing where the cracks exist is the first step in protecting the integrity of the vessel and allowing the Master to pour insures the purity of the content. Your points are great applications for these safeguards.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    I agree with you Wade. Another advantage to preaching series from books of the Bible is that the preacher can preach on touchy, sensitive issues without it appearing that he is picking on anyone. Once when I preached a sermon series on 1 Corinthians, I had to preach on some issues over which a small handful of people were touchy about. While one of them reacted negatively to a couple of sermons out of a dozen or so in the series, what he was unable to complain about was that I chose the topic and was picking on him. Paul chose the topic 2,000 years ago. I was just preaching the next chapter in Paul’s epistle.

    Joel Stephen Williams

    P.S. – I’ve preached series on the life of Christ, John, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 John, possibly another NT book or two, and on probably 20 OT books (that includes the minor prophets).

  12. mcgarveyice Says:

    This is worth looking at: http://www.jbc.edu/college/friends_churchlink_issues_1-3_linton-lectio-divina.php


  13. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    You and Wade are quite right about the importance of expository preaching and just working your way through a book pericope by pericope or oracle by oracle or narrative sections. There is tremendous value in this.

    But I have found that one can still assume control over the text and “use” it rather than “preach” it even in the guise of expository preaching. Going through First Corinthians it is quite easy to predetermine the meaning of texts from what we already have been conditioned to believe. Discussions of To Toleion” are rarely conditioned by the text and context.

    But then expository preaching is not merely a history lesson either. This is where lectio divina and simply letting the text “stew” in our hearts and minds is so rich.

    We are on the same page …

    Bobby Valentine

  14. Jeanne Says:

    “BAMA”: isn’t that a brand of jelly or something? So, you’re saying some football players fumbled some jelly on the field and it spilled all over in a crimson tide?

    As for the preaching thing, well, I’m afraid that whether the pulpit-filler is trained at a university or a lowly preacher training school, the entire focus of his literary education from elementary school onward has been all about proving a thesis. That’s just how our culture has always approached a text of any kind, and certainly how we approach writing and public speaking. You have an opinion and you find your proof text. It’s so ingrained that most people don’t even realize what they’re doing. Some people just do it more eloquently or with more sophistication.

    Unfortunately, a person educated in such a manner can “prove” just about anything, even using the Bible as his (or her) “evidence.”

    I’m sure those trained in number-crunching do the same thing with their data sets, making the numbers say anything they want them to say. Of course, the consequences of mismanaging numbers are not nearly as serious.

    The good news is, being aware is half the battle.

  15. cwinwc Says:

    I think by virture by asking (Am I using or preaching the text?) the question you and other preachers can try and you honestly can, come to the text without an agenda.

  16. Anonymous Says:

    So I take it BAMA’S loss won’t make the World Series….:):):)

    Bummer!!! :):):)

  17. Justin Says:

    I’ll add my voice to the list of those advocating more expository preaching. I still believe there’s a legitimate time and place for topical sermons. I suspect we’ve all seen sudden crises come upon individuals and churches. On those occasions, not only is permissible to suspend the series to address the needs of the moment–I say it is often the only empathetic thing to do.

    That being said, however, there’s quite a difference between being sensitive to the crisis needs of the moment, and simply “playing it safe” as a general rule by ignoring the verses we don’t want to talk about and tiptoeing around our local sacred cows.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    All of those who engage in preaching are called upon, by others or the circumstance of the moment, to preach on a certain topic. Some of those times, though, we can still do an expository sermon. The preacher I listen to here in Alabama preached a lesson on the Christian citizen right before the election. He did an expository sermon built around Romans 13. Nice.

    Some topics, though, do not have a crux text that one can use. They may not even have a whole pericope that focuses on the proposed theme. Sometimes we have to go to a collection of verses or even a word study.

    Joel Williams

  19. drjmarkh Says:

    I agree with the last few posts that sometimes a crisis (funeral, tragedy) or circumstance (like a themed Bible conference or seminar) could warrant a topic being picked first, though an expository sermon can still be preached.
    But I fully agree that the text be preached and not just what we want to say about it.
    Thanks for the great post,

  20. JT Says:

    Extremely refreshing, Bobby.

    Although I’ve not been a paid, career preacher, I’ve preached when the need arises. Having 60 years exposure to the teachings within CoC, it wasn’t until later that I began to sense an undervalue, generally, a de-emphasis if you will, of the Holy Spirit for us today.

    My eyes began to open, my trust began to strengthen, and I can honestly say that approaching sermon preparation through prayer and reliance on the H.S. is far more important and helpful than having one’s pre-set agenda and then finding scripture to fit. There’s no substitute for diligent study of the Word. That done, trusting the Spirit with much prayer seems best to me. Or as you said, “letting the text “stew” in our hearts and minds”.


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