Not Every Sermon Is Worth Hearing

By Lucas O’Neill, author of Preaching to Be Heard

Many sermons are like meals from typical fast-food chains—flavor at the expense of nutrition. It’s easy, fast, cheap, and tastes addictively good. Your

We begin with the text and we surrender the sermon to its dictates.

preaching may be drawing a lot of people, but are they being fed well?

It’s easy to master the art of drawing an audience. If we give them something pleasantly palatable we can fill empty seats. But if we don’t supply nutritious meals it is the people that are left empty.

Sermons that nourish souls

I believe sermons that actually nourish souls are sermons that explain what a portion of Scripture means. This is called expository preaching. In Mark Dever’s words, it is simply “the preaching which takes for the point of a sermon the point of a particular passage of Scripture. That’s it.” In it, preachers begin with a text and look for the point rather than begin with a point and look for a text to support it.

This means we do not begin our preparation with the end in mind. We begin with the text and we surrender the sermon to its dictates.

But we must say more. Expository preachers do not only communicate the point of the text, but they stick to the passage throughout the entire sermon. Everything in the sermon serves to shed light on the passage and what it communicates. This is preaching in its most ideal form.

If we are not clear about the need for sound exposition, we are handing our churches over to a generation of pastors who have a better understanding of ailers and seating dynamics than they do of God’s Word. We are starving our churches to death.

It is wrongheaded to begin the sermon process by asking, “What do I want to say?” The question must be, “What does this Scripture passage say?” The expository preacher wants to find the intent of a particular passage in the Bible and preach that.

This is not to say expositors should turn a blind eye to what people are feeling. Indeed, even the most anchored expositor must surely think of the listeners’ needs when deciding which text to peach or which book of the Bible to begin working through. It is good for the preacher to factor the particularities of any audience into the sermon planning process.

This is why Paul’s sermon to the Areopagus (Acts 17) showed a different approach than his sermon to his audience in Pisidia Antioch (Acts 13). But being mindful of needs is altogether different that making those needs the starting point. The text, inspired by the Holy Spirit, must remain in the driver’s seat. Not the needs perceived by the audience.

A generation of fast-food preachers

I met a young man who had recently finished a degree in ministry at a renowned evangelical theological school. Until his conversation with me, he had never heard of “expository preaching.” Students pour into seminaries, many of them having learned what they know about preaching from their

Sermons must be engaging—we want to help audiences lend their attention to Scripture. But attention doesn’t matter if what they are attending to is not a careful examination of Scripture.

felt-needs pastors back home. If we are not clear about the need for sound exposition, we are handing our churches over to a generation of pastors who have a better understanding of ailers and seating dynamics than they do of God’s Word. We are starving our churches to death.

When I have taught introductory courses in preaching, I have typically begun with a definition of expository preaching and then a host of reasons why preaching must be done in this way. If students can grasp how much is really at stake, it could be that more of them will carry a commitment to exposition with them into their ministries. Sermons must be engaging—we want to help audiences lend their attention to Scripture. But attention doesn’t matter if what they are attending to is not a careful examination of Scripture.

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This post is adapted from the preface of Preaching to Be Heard by Lucas O’Neill (Lexham Press, 2019).

Comments

  1. While I prefer expository preaching, there are times when a topical approach to a Biblical theme can also be a good, and Biblically-driven sermon. For example, I recently preached on how the devil can tempt and in other ways harass us, gain a foothold, etc. No single passage covered all of what I thought needed to be in that sermon, though I anchored it in 2Cor.10:3-5

    The discipline of a topical sermon should be the same: to say no more (and no less – if possible in one sermon!) than the Scriptures say, though one may need multiple texts to fully develop the thought. For example, what does it mean for the believer to “demolish strongholds” or to fight with weapons that are “not the weapons of the world (lit. ‘flesh’)?”

    A good and honestly Biblical topical sermon is much more work (IMHO), but it is still worth listening too. Also, I’ve heard some marginal expository sermons too – which illustrates that people can mess up just about anything.

  2. Beautifully shared. indeed it is very much essential that sermon should nourish the soul. Must preach what Holy Spirit guide you not what pleased the audience. Thank you for the article.

  3. Fred Arnold says:

    This was an excellent article and draws attention to the reasons why our churches are so theologically bankrupt today. It is no wonder that gay marriage and pre-marital sex are accepted in many congregations when scripture is being twisted to fit the message. Although there may be innocent motivations, the result may end up like satan’s use of scripture to mislead Jesus in Luke 4. Thank you very much for your insight.

  4. This is an important topic and it is truth. But why do we Christians feel we have to make our point by saying how wrong someone else is? I think the article could have started with, “Sermons that nourish souls,” and it would be just as strong if not stronger.