Most fundamentalist churches and institutions have a “zero tolerance” policy on their music ministry. You’re as likely to find a drum set in the auditorium as you are to find a crucifix. “Not on my watch,” is the pastor’s attitude. “Over my dead body.” I get that, and I appreciate it. No problem. I just wish we were as serious about what’s preached as we are about what’s sung.
Unfortunately, that’s often not the case. I’ve heard more than my share of silliness from the pulpits of fundamentalist colleges, conferences, camps, and churches. Some have been famously bad—I walked out when a preacher at a camp/conference compared the high priest’s going through the veil of the most holy place with marital intimacy, for example. (No kidding. And I’m being discreet in my description.) I’ve developed a pretty high tolerance of pulpit pain in my lifetime, but even I couldn’t sit still for that one. It was evil.
But even when it’s not that bad, I’ve heard far too many preachers who apparently structured their message around laugh lines; who were more like stand-up comics than heralds of the truth; who started with a Bible passage, only to quickly and permanently depart therefrom; who mocked theology with lines like “doctorates are the enemy of revival” or “the church is dying by degrees” and such nonsense; who took swipes at the Pipers of the world even as they themselves had about the same Bible-per-story ratio as the Osteens of the world. Seriously, I’ve heard messages in fundamentalist meetings which were as “seeker sensitive” and “doctrine lite” as any you might hear at Willow Creek. It angers and saddens me to hear preaching that’s every bit as irreverent as the music we criticize, if not more so. Our tolerance of it doesn’t make sense. Do we think it’s not that important? Do we think it’s a subjective matter about which we can’t speak with authority—even as we speak in absolute terms about music? Our putting up with poor preaching needs to stop, first to honor the Lord, but also to stop literally chasing young people out of fundamentalism.
I urge those who have the privilege and responsibility of choosing guest preachers to choose those who preach the text, every time. God has promised to bless His Word, not funny stories. Insist that those you put in the sacred desk have a reputation for preaching the Bible, verse by verse, preferably expositionally. That’s not to say that I’m opposed to topical messages. I’m not, as long as they’re exegetically sound. I’m simply arguing against messages that arise from the preacher’s creative juices rather than the Scriptures. And preachers generally have reputations for one or the other. It’s time for us to be conscientious—even relentless—about this.
On a related note, choose preachers that are obsessed with the Scriptures, not themselves. It may occasionally shed light on Scripture for the preacher to share a story from his past, but not usually. Maybe I’m just a cynic, but I think I can tell when a preacher reaches a “this-will-knock-them-dead” moment in his sermon. It might be the way he smirks. It might be the way he increases his intensity. It might be the way he launches into a fail-proof joke when he gets the sense that he’s losing his audience. But when the highlight of a sermon is an intense or comical story, something’s tragically wrong. If a preacher seems to get more joy from his own stories and the congregation’s laughter than he does from the glories of Christ and the congregation’s reverent silence, pass him over.
That’s not to say that I’m opposed to a quick(!) bit of humor that illustrates the point of the text. I’m even okay an appropriate icebreaker, I suppose. But I’ve also been in a very public situation in which I intentionally avoided starting with a joke, knowing that I was preaching on Christ’s passion and it would be inappropriate to start with a display of my wit. I just needed to get out of the way, John the Baptist-like. That’s Mark Dever’s point when he says that he intentionally tones down his personality while in the pulpit, lest people be distracted by him. That’s not arrogant; it’s humble. Turning preaching into an opportunity to “make ’em laugh” by perpetual jokes and 5-minute rabbit trails is the height of arrogance and irreverence. It’s not supposed to be about the preacher, after all. Right?
Finally, choose preachers that preach Christ, not moralisms. Though this may make me look like a fault-finder, I actually think that most of the sermons I’ve heard from fellow fundamentalists are lacking in this area—sometimes including my own. Too often, what we preach could be well received by an orthodox Jew or a Mormon. We tell the self-condemned, for example, that they need to confess harder and more specifically, when we should point them to the propitiatory death of Christ (1 John 2:1-2). We preach to college students that they should “be holy” without pointing them to Christ as both the means and motivation of holiness (2 Cor 3:18; 5:14; Rom 6). We urge decisions (especially during invitations), but base them on emotional pressure rather than the unpacking of the Person and Work of Christ, starting our sermons in the Ephesians 4-6 portions of Scripture without rooting them in the Ephesians 1-3 portions of Scripture. By doing so, we’re setting people up for failure and despair by preaching law without preaching Christ.
Frankly, this is what concerns me most. Sure, I grieve when we don’t preach the text with sobriety—but even when we do, we often highlight what we must do for Christ more than what He has done for us. Sure we must remember the former, but we need to base it on the latter—without fail. The truth is, we don’t exult in Christ. Seriously, listen to what gets the most “Amens” in your next fundamentalist conference. A message that focuses on compromising evangelicals or rebellious teens or worldly music is apt to be met with a chorus of people saying “Amen!” and “That’s right!” Meanwhile, a message focused on Christ’s atoning work and it’s affect on every day living can be met with silence or a “tell me something new” inattentiveness. It grieves me. I urge those choosing special speakers to choose those who make much of Christ. What else do we have to offer sinners, after all?
I don’t have it all figured out. I’m a young guy. I tend to preach too long. I tend to rant to show my enthusiasm. I’m embarrassed to review my own messages that were moralistic, or light, or too comical. But I do try to conscientiously preach the text and preach Christ. And it’s contagious. The young church I pastor is filled with men who are serious about ministering the Scriptures. Week after week after week we hear the Bible proclaimed and Christ exalted, and not just from me. From Joe Tyrpak, who has a conscience that is bound to the text. From our elders, whose classes I visit each week only to hear the text being soberly and fervently explained and discussed. From countless others—maybe as many as 20—who have had the opportunity to preach the Word on a Wednesday night or Sunday night or at a retreat and who never dare to chat about themselves or meander about Christian-ish themes in general without biblical backing. They can’t imagine taking pulpit time for horseplay. By God’s grace, they’ve learned to have “zero tolerance” regarding nonsense in the pulpit. And that’s important. Because the preaching people hear is the preaching they learn. If you want to help raise up exegetes, bring in exegetes.
This shouldn’t be controversial. Paul urged Timothy to “preach the Word” in 2 Timothy 4:2. Not stories. Not red meat. Not jokes. Why? Because the Word is the only thing that is able to save (3:15), that is inspired and therefore profitable (3:16), that is life-changing and equipping (3:17). Clever stories can’t do any of that.
Paul went on to warn that people wouldn’t want sound doctrine but would instead prefer preachers who would scratch their itching ears with silly myths (4:3-4). I know fundamentalists typically use those verses to criticize what’s happening “out there”—and it is—but there is plenty of fabling and ear scratching going on in here, too. Too much. And it makes me want to weep.
Preacher, get serious about preaching. Get a conscience about it. And for mercy’s sake, if you’re going to criticize John Piper or Sovereign Grace, you’d better bring it. You’d better drive your message deep into the text. You’d better have the approach of a prosecuting attorney who knows that every single thing he says has to be verifiable by hard facts, not clever jokes or circumstantial evidence. Because if you criticize men who are passionate about preaching the text even as you give it a back seat to your own wisdom, you’ll be deservedly ignored. And it’s happening a lot. A lot.
And those who choose preachers, whether in churches or camps or colleges, I’m begging you: Put a zero tolerance policy on your pulpit ministry. You might regret putting out an invitation occasionally. It happens. Sometimes there’s “a swing and a miss.” But it’s not a guessing game. Preachers have reputations. Choose those who are known for years of sound exegesis, not those who can spin a tale and work a crowd. You, too, need to have a tender conscience about preaching. “Not on my watch. Over my dead body.”