The Danger Of Practical Preaching

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Rob, a stockbroker, thought sermons should be 20 minutes. No longer. To him, a good sermon was what others call the conclusion. “Cut to the bottom line,” he said. “That’s what I expect at work, and that’s what I want at church.”

Stan, a preacher, didn’t see length as the issue, but he was determined every sermon be “practical.” He preached on five principles of friendships, six secrets of managing money, and four ways to win over worry. He believed in sound doctrine, but he felt he had to give people something they could take to work on Monday morning.

These men illustrate two fallacies about biblical preaching: The Bottom Line Fallacy and the Practical Fallacy. Both reveal a misunderstanding, not merely of preaching, but of the workings of Scripture.

Picture a wilderness. A pioneer carves out a path, chopping away brush, felling trees, marking the way to a new outpost. As years pass, that path is traveled a
thousand times till it becomes a wide, paved road. From it, other trails branch off, leading to other new outposts. Trails intersect, becoming crossroads. More outposts become towns. More trails become roads. More links are made till what was once wilderness is civilized.

Preaching is the work of spiritually civilizing the minds of Christian disciples. Preaching—especially expository preaching—cuts truth trails in the minds of our listeners. Our task is not only to display God’s “point,” but to instill God’s logic—how he gets to that point.

We may expose people to a conclusion without the thinking that makes that conclusion work.

For example, we do not simply preach the conclusion of 1 Corinthians 13—that “the greatest of these is love”—but we move people through the dimensions and definitions of love in that great chapter. We show that Paul intended such love be not only at weddings but also at church meetings as well. In other words, we not only establish the outpost—”the greatest of these is love”—but the truth trail as well.

But here is where we confront the fallacies.

When our goal is to “bottom line” our preaching, we look in our text for the “so” and preach that conclusion. For example, our sermon drives home the truth that we need not be afraid. If we have been effective, our brothers and sisters go home with this outpost of truth established or enlarged in their thinking. But here’s the rub. On Tuesday, when some frightening crisis looms in their lives, they may remember, “the Bible says we are not to be afraid,” but they don’t know how to be strong. They don’t know the trail, the process the mind and heart follow to fearlessness. We exposed
them to the conclusion without the thinking that makes that conclusion work.

Perhaps you have read an abstract of an article—a short summary of a longer work. After you read it, you know what the article is about. You know what the point is. But you haven’t been exposed to the careful reasoning, to the illustrations, to the step-by-step logic and careful writing of the author. The abstract may interest you, but without the author’s careful development, it is not likely to convince you. Nor is it
likely to be important or memorable in your thinking. And you can be sure the author will not think you know what he wrote.

Sermons that are abstracts of Scripture may properly summarize a biblical truth, but they are unconvincing. They do not reorient our thinking. We may know the bottom line, but we don’t know how to live what we know. Without a truth trail, people cannot find their own way to the outposts of truth in their own hearts. Sometimes laying down that truth trail, showing the step-by-step thinking of a text, simply cannot be done in 20 minutes.*


Lee Eclov
Lee Eclov has been a pastor for 35 years, and is currently the Senior Pastor of the Village Church of Lincolnshire (Evangelical Free) in the northern suburbs of Chicago where he has served since 1998.  His 2012 book, Pastoral Graces: Reflections on the Care of Souls (Moody Publishers) won Leadership Journal’s “Best of the Best” 2012 book award in the category, “The Leader’s Inner Life.” He is a mentor to many seminary students and younger pastors.

Lee has long been a contributor of both articles and sermons to PreachingToday.com and to Leadership Journal, both publications of Christianity Today Inc. He has been an adjunct professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Ill., for over ten years, currently teaching pastoral counseling. Lee is a native of South Dakota and the product of a rural church. He and his wife Susan have been married for over 40 years and have one son, Anders.

* This article was originally published at preachingtoday.com and is used by permission of the author. If you would like to read the rest of this article click here. To learn more about Lee’s ministry you can also check out his website at leeeclov.com.

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