A woman once approached me after a service and said, “I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do, pastor! You never give me any advice on how to live my daily life in your sermons.” This unfortunately was not the first—nor will it be the last time—that someone has registered a complaint that my preaching is not “practical enough.”
Many Christians (including preachers) have succumbed to the idea that good preaching must be about practical living, and so most sermons are geared to scratch this pragmatic itch. Instead of hearing about the finished work of Christ in too many Evangelical churches today, we hear about ourselves. It’s the Sunday equivalent of Bette Midler’s line from the movie, Beaches, who said, “Enough about me, let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?” Even in my Lutheran tradition where good Law/Gospel preaching is taught in our seminary preaching curriculum, I can pinpoint when a preacher has moved to the “application” section of his sermon (hint: the pronouns shift from Christ to you and typically involves a list of things for you to work on). One of the reasons for this is because the guy in the pulpit believes that the way to change people’s lives is by telling them how to change their lives.
I find practical preaching boring because I don’t come to church to hear about myself. I’d much rather hear about Jesus. I agree with Phillip Cary that one of the reasons practical sermons are so rampant is because we no longer understand what kind of word the Gospelactually is. If the Gospel were a theory, then it wouldn’t be worth much until you put that into practice. Practical application would be the only way to make it a reality for your life. As Cary argues:
But the Gospel is not a theory to apply; it is a story to believe. It is good news; not good advice. It is good news that gladdens the heart, and it changes our hearts precisely by giving us something to be glad about—something we embrace by faith alone. To be more precise, it gives us Someone to be glad about. For the Gospel, being the story of our Lord Jesus Christ, does not give us practical advice or a theory about how to live our lives. It gives us God in the flesh (Good News for Anxious Christians, 161).
Good News as Promise
The Gospel is a promissory Word, a declaration of the historical fact that Jesus of Nazareth, the long awaited Messiah of Israel, has arrived, fulfilling the Law in your place, being delivered over to death for your sins and raised to life for your justification (Rom 4:25). Therefore, when the preacher ascends the pulpit, he is called to be a herald of Good News, much like the old street corner newspaper boys, “Here ye, here ye, read all about it!” In fact, the Greek term for preaching in the New Testament is kerusso. It was a common word for public heralds announcing news. This is not to say there isn’t a place for good teaching and catechesis, but at the end of the day, the preacher is there to “hand over the goods,” to use Dr. Jim Nestigen’s phrase. By “goods,” I mean nothing less than authoritative pronouncement of the forgiveness of your sins in Jesus’ name.
Listening to a sermon should never be a passive endeavor. Paul tells us in Acts 17:11 that the Berean church "received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, whether these things were so." One might have expected the Bereans to be criticized for daring to scrutinize Paul's teaching. On the contrary, they were commended for their commitment to testing every doctrine according to Scripture. Additionally, Paul thanked God that when the Christians in Thessalonica heard the good news of Jesus they “received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God” (1 Thes 2:13).
You see something important happens when we hear a biblically faithful sermon: God speaks to us. The Holy Spirit uses the words of His servant to calm our fear, comfort our sorrow, disturb our conscience, expose our sin, confer faith, and constantly reassure us of the hope that is ours in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
I don’t need advice—I need Jesus
The world has always had prophets of self-help like Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Tony Robbins, profiting from their worldly wisdom. Give me a faithful Gospel preacher any day!
And in particular, I need to hear about the Jesus who loved me enough that He died a bloody death upon a Roman cross and rose to life three days later in victory over sin, death, and the devil. And I need to hear this often. And I especially love it when a preacher does so creatively, with an earnest passion—but, Lord help us all, most importantly let him do so faithfully.