I’ll never forget the first time I saw my first “fire and brimstone” street preachers. I was descending the stairs outside a Denver Nuggets basketball game at the old McNichols Sports Arena when I caught my first glimpse: two nicely dressed men with bullhorns, standing on the cement block of the light posts, barking at people to repent. From the top of the staircase I heard the name of Jesus and the word “salvation.” My heart leapt! I was so thrilled to see these men preaching about Jesus to a crowd of so many people. But, as we got closer, I noticed my father’s brow furrow. I heard the name of Jesus recede as demands of repentance were coupled with threats of hell for all the sins of the culture. I mean, I knew it was tough being a Nuggets fan, but I didn’t know it was this bad!
These men did not seek to engage any conversation, there was no response to anyone who may actually have wanted to repent, and there was certainly no hope delivered in the name of Jesus. These men had just come to preach at the crowds.
That is one of those formative childhood moments I have stuck in my memory. For the longest time when I heard the word “preaching” I thought of them. My father is a pastor, a preacher. I heard blood-soaked, Jesus-filled sermons every week. And yet, when I hear the word “preaching” my mind’s eye sees those men and their bullhorns, hanging from the street lights, lecturing the crowd on their inevitable damnation.
Good preaching does something for you. It delivers to you a Good Samaritan.
I have a fear that in the American psyche, the word “preaching” is hopelessly bound up with hell-fire threats street-corner screamers (I shudder to even call them preachers). Here, preaching exists to terrify. We think of it as a harsh lecture that aims to scare you straight. It promises nothing but the inevitable flames you’ve earned for the lustful thought you had towards those Nuggets cheerleaders. Preaching is something done “at” you with no real concern “for” you.
Such preaching is bad for the church’s PR—so many pastors seek to be more friendly, inviting, and practical in their approach. But, I’m not convinced this has made matters much better. In an effort to make God less terrifying and more marketable, sermons in many services focus on practical advice for Christian living. Topics cover everything from how to enhance your Christian devotional life to how to enhance your Christian sex life. To stay provocative and relevant, every political topic imaginable is expected to be covered from the pulpit. This is useful in helping you know which party God wants you to vote for and which news station has his approval. But, none of these “hot button” issues are covered in a way that might upset you.
The sermon has just become another voice in the cultural conversation, showing you how your particular brand of Christianity wants you to think, be it liberal or conservative. To safeguard our share of the market, we simply say that this is the “church’s view.” But, if you don’t like it, that’s between you and God. Let your conscience guide your vote. Here, again, preaching is not “for” you, but it is “about” you and what your “worldview” needs to be if you want to be the right kind of righteous.
Preaching needs to be rescued from all of this. I tell my congregation that I am on a mission to change how we conceive of preaching. Preaching is not a boring or terrifying lecture someone with a microphone makes at you. Nor should it be a hip, provocative message that is merely about you and your way of life (though your way of life and your “worldview” will be addressed). Preaching, rather, should be something that is done “to” you and “for” you. The sermon should attack you in your sinfulness and leave you dead. Then, once you have no life left in you, the gospel of Christ crucified is proclaimed so that, in that Word, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on you and your dry bones walk.
Preaching should be the gift of Jesus for you.
The problem with the street-screamers is not that they preach the Law and cry out for people to repent. It’s that they preach at you and never raise you to life. That is, they kill you and expect you to climb out of the grave on your own. “Repent or burn!” But, if you are as dead as they say you are, then you cannot raise yourself to a new life, you can only wallow in your shame. This smug way of preaching the law places burdens on backs that no one can carry. The goal of the Law is to carry your dead body to Christ so He can raise you. These preachers serve as the thugs who strip and beat the man on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho and leave him for dead.
Delivering the Goods
But, the friendly “how-to” preaching is no better. Being all about you and how you should live, it seeks to make you look a certain way, think a certain way, and vote a certain way. It gives you steps that will make you look properly religious and it will help you fit the clean, Christian mold. But, when that preaching comes up against the real problem, that you are bloodied, bruised, and helpless in a ditch, it simply looks at the rest of the clean congregation and explains how you are a sad case study of what happens when you leave Jerusalem alone. In other words, these preachers point at your sinful condition, stare, and move to the other side of the road, lest they find themselves dirtied with your impurities.
We need to rescuing preaching from such so-called “preachers.” Preaching needs to be done in a way that doesn’t ignore your plight, but names it, and then rescues you from it. Good preaching does something for you. It delivers to you a Good Samaritan who comes along and finds you as good as dead in the ditch and has compassion, binds up your wounds, pours out oil and wine for your healing, and takes you to the inn to rest and recover. In other words, preaching should give the gift of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who lays down His life as a blood sacrifice for your sins, and raises you to a new life.
Preaching should never short-sell sin, but it also shouldn’t exalt it the way the bullhorn bullies do. But, neither should preaching avoid the messiness of life with quick-fix, how-to messages. Preaching that kills in order to make alive is what we are after. Preaching that dives into the worst of sin with the atoning work of Jesus is what we need. Good preaching gives Jesus-for-you to you. That sort of preaching brings death and resurrection, repentance and faith, forgiveness and hope. What is more, it produces lives that bear fruit for the sake of the neighbor. Lord, deliver us from preachers who preach at us and about us and grant us preachers who preach for us by giving the crucified Jesus to us.