By Scott M. Gibson, adapted from Preaching Points: 55 Tips for Improving Your Pulpit Ministry.
Charles Gore, formerly bishop of Worcester, Birmingham, and finally Oxford, wrote more than a century ago, “The disease of modern preaching is its search after popularity.”
There is a certain disease that seems to bite, infect, and overtake us in ministry. We like to be liked. We like to be looked at. We like to be adored. It’s a problem if we get ourselves ahead of Christ. I think Bishop Gore was right in saying that the disease of modern preaching is its search after popularity.
Preaching for self-importance
In a consumeristic culture we’re faced with a lot of people after star-power. Star preachers appear on television, on the Internet, at conferences, and in the publication world through books, tours, speaking circuits, magazine features, and polls. These preachers are raised to pedestals and platforms, adored and almost worshiped in a twenty-first-century marketed way.
We live in a culture of self-importance. We’re aware of these challenges that we face as preachers.
What often happens is that we believe our own press. Someone might approach us at the end of the service and tell us how wonderful we are, what a tremendous sermon we just preached, and right there the germ of popularity starts to take root in our souls.
Preaching for star-power
The cult of personality has been emphasized in our twenty-first century. The tendency of people to be attracted to star-power is not new to the human race. Throughout the ages, men and women have been hailed by their contemporaries and adulated by them.
Even the Bible charts the cry of Israel for a king and they got one, even though their king took attention away from God, the ultimate king. Saul, the first king, was compared in the popular culture of the day to the up-and-coming, eventual candidate for king—David. Following David’s defeat of the threatening Philistine, Goliath, the heart of the crowd went toward the young, handsome victor: “Saul has slain his thousands,” the people chanted, “and David his tens of thousands.” The cult of personality is begun.
“What has a preacher to do with popularity?”
The popularity factor has become part of what it means to be a preacher in popular culture. No doubt, there has been a Luther, a Calvin, a Whitefield, a Wesley, an Edwards, a Spurgeon, and thousands of others. In his 1893 lectures on preaching, Robert F. Horton laments, “And before I go any further, let me utter my protest against the danger of popularity. Popular preacher—it is a term that fills one with misgiving. What has a preacher to do with popularity? Is it not enough that the disciple should be as his Lord?”
Horton gives us a great question to consider. It pushes us to think about our motives. Why do we preach? Why do we serve? Why do we do what we do? I trust it is not for popularity because that in and of itself is like a mist and it will evaporate before we know it. That is what happened to Saul. He thought he had the world by the tail, but it didn’t happen. The same has happened to all kinds of preachers in these centuries. They have arisen in their popularity and they have been pulled down by their own deceit.
Modern preaching at its best
Our call is to be not greater than our master but to follow our master. Our call is to recognize that we are utterly and totally dependent on Him because He is the one who receives all glory, praise, and honor, not ourselves.
These words by Bishop Gore are chilling words, but they are a good reminder to us. We, as preachers of God’s Word, aren’t to get ahead of God. Our task is to announce who God is to this generation. The disease of modern preaching is its search after popularity.
This post is adapted from “The disease of modern preaching is its search after popularity,” by Scott M. Gibson in Preaching Points: 55 Tips for Improving Your Pulpit Ministry, edited by Scott M. Gibson (Lexham Press, 2016).