Take the method of delivery—often without a pulpit (at best, a transparent lectern), and often by walking back and forth across the stage while preaching. And doing so for 30 to 45 minutes, at least half if not up to 75 percent of the worship hour. What all this communicates is this: The preacher is by far and away the most important person in the room. The preacher is the person upon whom we are riveted for the greater part of the service.
I didn’t realize how theologically important the traditional pulpit was until I received a comment after one guest sermon I preached. The church’s pastoral team liked to preach from the center of the stage and wander back and forth during the sermon—the standup comic style. I, however, stood behind the makeshift pulpit—a wooden lectern sitting on a small table. I did so mainly for practical reasons—I’m pretty dependent on notes and/or a manuscript, and I didn’t wander from them.
After the sermon, one man said to me: “Thanks for preaching from the pulpit.” When I asked why, he explained, “The pulpit reminds us that the authority of the preacher comes not from the preacher and his personality. The pulpit is a symbol that the sermon derives its authority from the church, which in turn derives its authority from Scripture.”
Pondering his comments for weeks afterward, I realized how much a pulpitless sermon, and especially the sermon delivered in standup comic style, does an extraordinarily good job of entertaining people and making the preacher, and not the preached word, the center of attention.
We evangelicals are suckers for the practical sermon that tells us how to live for Jesus. But too often, the practical crowds out the biblical. A sermon on “Five Ways to Keep Your Marriage Strong” might mention Jesus or the Bible here and there, but take away those references and the substance of the sermon remains the same: great, practical relational psychology. In a similar vein, we hear sermons on how to manage one’s finances, with the key insights drawn from financial self-help literature, decorated with verses from Proverbs. And then there are the sermons on raising children and finding a career and work against abortion so on and so forth. Such sermons are full of sound and wise advice, and we need sound and wise advice on many topics.
The question is: Is this the most vital, relevant thing we have to communicate in worship? The one time in the week in which we gather to praise and glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is this really the most important thing we can say? Have we exhausted the treasures and wonders of God’s Word? Have we said all we can say about the glories of salvation? Or are we bored with talk about God, so that we revert once again to talk about ourselves and how to make our lives more manageable?
There was a time when preachers were discouraged from using their own lives as sermon illustrations. But sometime starting in the 1960s that began to change. The idea was to show listeners that the preacher was no different from the listeners and faced the same challenges, difficulties, and temptations as everyone else. This led to more attentive and appreciative listeners, who now felt they could connect psychologically with their preacher.
Today, it’s not uncommon to hear a sermon in which the opening, closing, and key illustration from the sermon’s main point is taken from the life and experience of the pastor and his family. Such sermons do a wonderful job of helping listeners connect with the pastor. And pastors keep using them precisely because when people leave the service and shake their hand, they say what a wonderful sermon it was, with comments like, “I love hearing about your family” and “Your kids are so cute” and “I really identify with you.”
Really? We want our congregations to identify with us? This is precisely the problem with personal illustrations: It inadvertently puts the spotlight on the preacher. Within a few months of such preaching, everyone knows the quirks of each member of the pastor’s family, his triumphs and failures in key parts of his life, his passions and his dislikes, and so forth. In the end, they know more about their pastor than they know about Jesus.
Some pastors defend the practice by saying they only use negative examples of themselves—talking about ways in which they have failed to live up to the call of Christ. What they don’t realize is that this just raises their status even higher with the congregation. Invariably, the illustrations turn on a moment or realization when the preacher recognized his flaw and changed direction. So now the pastor is someone who is a model of humility! And even if the pastor says, “I still struggle with this,” either no one really believes her or they exalt her as a model of spiritual seriousness—they think, She really is working hard on her spiritual life!
There is, in short, hardly a way to use an illustration from one’s personal life without it distracting listeners’ gaze from Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. That role has now been subsumed by the preacher, who depends on the personal illustration to make the sermon relevant.
Too many evangelical pastors have become addicted to using them because, let’s face it, they love the feedback. People pump their hand after the service and tell them how much they enjoyed that little story. I know of where I speak. Pastors are a lonely and insecure lot, and we need affirmation as much as (and maybe more) than everyone else. It is very difficult to resist this temptation in a day when the personal, the intimate, and tell-all is the order of the day everywhere else.
(It is no wonder that we’ve stopped understanding this part of the service as “worship.” It isn’t in so many of our churches. In this regard, I thank God for praise choruses—they at least keep the service from completely collapsing into the horizontal.)