What Should Sermons Say?
More people are listening to sermons than ever before. But are popular sermons saying what they should say?
“GREAT sermons ninety-nine times in a hundred are nuisances,” once said American clergyman Henry Ward Beecher. “They are like steeples without any bells in them; things stuck up high in the air, serving for ornament, attracting observation, but sheltering nobody, warming nobody, helping nobody.”
Since sermons can attract attention and even be called “great” without helping anybody, we ought to take time to examine the sermons we hear. This will prove valuable. God’s Word declares: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” (Hos. 4:6, AS) We ought, then, to be certain we are getting the knowledge that will preserve from destruction.
It is especially timely, too, to examine sermons. The so-called religious revival goes on apace, but so does the rate of crime increase. Churches increase; morals decline. And we hear expressions such as, “Crime flourishes best where church steeples are thickest,” and, “Sermon-saturated heathen of the pew.” We hear about incredible Bible ignorance; or, as Billy Graham put it: “Very few of us know anything about the message of the Bible.” To what does such a shameful state of affairs point? Does it not point to sermons? For if sermons are saying what they should say, the sermon-saturated people should know the message of the Bible and they should be conducting their lives in harmony with the moral principles of God’s holy Word. Clearly something is wrong. To find out what, let us look at today’s popular sermons.
KINDS OF POPULAR SERMONS
Radio and television have made the sermons of the revivalists well known. The knowledge content of these sermons, if one examines them carefully, is usually limited to exposing the sinful state of the world and asking people to repent and accept Christ. Out of the vast ocean of Biblical knowledge the evangelist’s sermon imparts only a few drops. It may be said that it is not the purpose of the evangelist to explain the whole message of the Bible, that rather it is his purpose to stimulate people to go to church. But after going to church what do the people hear? More of the same, more about “repentance from dead works, and faith toward God.” This is called in the Bible “the elementary doctrine about the Christ.” (Heb. 6:1) Today’s popular sermons, however, often say even little about elementary doctrine, and the Bible is neglected. Sermons then generally fall into one of four main categories or a blend of them.
First, there is the political sermon. Local, national and international politics offers an abundance of subject matter. Almost everyone has read in the newspapers about some political sermon a clergyman has delivered. Politics has been the sermon subject so often in America that David Lawrence felt obligated to write in a business magazine, U.S. News & World Report, about the clerical tendency. “This is the time of all times,” said the writer, “for clergymen to teach Christianity and not to become sinners themselves in the unmoral precincts of present-day politics.”
Second, there is the current events sermon. It is similar to the political sermon except that it is more likely to deal with sociological problems. As to the knowledge value of these sermons, Professor Marcus Barth of the University of Chicago’s Federated Theological Faculty says, in speaking of the return to religion in America: “The churches are full, but the problem is whether the congregation hears anything in the sermons which its members have not already read in their morning newspapers.”—Time, February 18, 1957.
Third, there is the sermon about divertingly light matters. This may deal with the latest best-selling book; it may feature the interesting thoughts of some non-Biblical writer of note. Often these sermons tend more toward entertainment than instruction. The preacher may even play to the audience in much the manner of a television performer. What is conspicuous about these sermons is their almost complete neglect of the Bible. The few scriptures used are stretched out into springboards for jumping off into pools of diverting subjects.
In this regard there was an editorial in the religious magazine Theology Today of April, 1953, under the subject “The Decline of Bible Preaching.” It said: “The modern eclipse of Biblical preaching does not mean merely that preachers are not using Bible texts; on the contrary, texts are frequently used, but so often they are torn out of context and violently forced to give some semblance of Biblical authority to ideas and sentiments which are quasi-Biblical. . . . A great deal of preaching is a mosaic of interesting stories or personal anecdotes. This preaching aims to please, to keep people coming. In our day, Biblical preaching has suffered.”
And it was George Jeffrey who, in his 1949 Warrack Lectures, described the sermons of preachers “whose method of preparation seems to be the search for three anecdotes, setting them down like three islands in a homiletical sea, the rest of the sermon consisting in swimming breathlessly from one to the other in the lively hope of coming safely to land.” Fluffed up with humor and matters of an airy nature, many popular sermons more closely resemble the flossy cotton candy sold at amusement parks to children than they do the solid spiritual food of God’s Word for Christians.
Fourth, there is the sermon that has come into vogue in recent years. This is the peace-of-mind, have-faith-in-yourself sermon. This sermon purveys confident living and positive thinking. It usually says that one can achieve whatever he wants to achieve with the help of God. Pointing to Norman Vincent Peale as an example of this psychological sermonizing, a former editor of The Christian Century, Paul Hutchinson, wrote in Life magazine of April 11, 1955:
“His sermons follow one pattern; he himself will say, ‘When you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all.’ Take the topics of the first six sermons he preached this year and you have the pattern: ‘The Key to Self-Confidence,’ ‘How to Feel Alive and Well,’ ‘Ways to Improve Your Situation,’ ‘Wonderful Results of Faith Attitude,’ ‘Life with Joyous Vitality,’ ‘Empty Fear from Your Thoughts.’ . . . He is frequently criticized by other clergymen for not paying much attention to social and political questions.”
IRRELEVANT TO NEEDS OF MANKIND
After having examined the main types of popular sermons, what are we to think? We would think little of it—if these sermons were being given by psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, politicians, news analysts, book reviewers and television humorists. But they are not. Clergymen are giving them! They are being delivered by men who are supposed to be preaching the Word of God! They are being delivered by men who should be providing spiritual food, the knowledge people need to know about God’s purposes and how they can harmonize their lives with God’s will, instead of using God for their will. Popular sermons, then, have missed the mark. They have become irrelevant to the kingdom of God, irrelevant to the moral obligations of mankind, irrelevant to the needs of life seekers.
This is an observation that clergymen themselves not infrequently make. Witness the statement by Episcopal preacher-writer Bernard Iddings Bell, as recorded in the volume Treasury of the Christian Faith: “It is largely because of the clergy’s faithlessness to the prophetic task that most Christians in our time do not know what God demands or Christ teaches; that Christianity has become not much more than a vague and polite conventionality! As such, it is meaningless, impertinent. It is about time that we parsons start again to teach in no equivocal terms what Christ reveals about man, about why civilizations drop into anarchy, about why individual lives mostly come to frustration and unhappiness, about God and what God can do in us to make the earth endurable! We parsons have sinned.”
Here are things, indeed, that sermons should say; but the parsons are not saying them. The people need to know why lawlessness has taken control of this world, especially since 1914; why wickedness has increased so alarmingly. Sermons should give the meaning behind world events. Sermons should explain with all clarity that we are living in this world’s “time of the end” and how we know this is so. Sermons should reveal the basic cause for increased wickedness, that it is the result of a war in heaven in which Christ and his angels hurled Satan the Devil and his demons down to the vicinity of the earth. So, “woe for the earth”! Why? “Because the Devil has come down to you, having great anger, knowing he has a short period of time.” These are vital facts if we are to understand today’s topsy-turvy world. And yet popular sermons, though spending much time on wickedness in the world, seldom if ever explain this root cause of world distress.—Rev. 12:7-12.
In the words of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, “Religion has not only to explain the world. It has also to respond to the need I feel of giving my life a purpose.” Yet what clear-cut purpose have popular sermons given the people? The way to worldly success by psychology and the use of God, yes; but that is not the purpose the Bible holds forth. God’s Word shows the vanity of material pursuits and that the one thing that really matters is serving God, obeying his commandments, seeking to have a share in the vindication of his name. The great issue today is not who will rule the earth, but who will rule the universe: Satan the Devil or Jehovah God? That is the issue soon to be decided in God’s favor. Blessed are those who purpose to be on the right side of the issue. To do that one must know about God’s kingdom.
SERMONS SHOULD STRESS THE KINGDOM
But how many popular sermons ever say anything about the kingdom of God as the main theme of the Bible? The sermons of Jesus stressed the Kingdom. Before Jesus spoke an illustration he often introduced it by the term “the kingdom of the heavens,” thereby stressing that the illustration taught a truth about the Kingdom. So sermons ought to stress the Kingdom, showing that it is heavenly but that it will bring blessings to the earth; for it must rule the universe. Instead of to this world’s corrupt politics sermons should point to the Kingdom, since Christ clearly declared: “My kingdom is no part of this world.” (John 18:36) Above all, sermons ought to explain that God’s kingdom, in the hands of Christ Jesus, has already been established in heaven, with the resulting war in heaven. This is momentous news, headline news! Yet the world is sleeping, and popular sermons show it.
Sermons ought to teach people what they pray for when they pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Let your kingdom come. Let your will come to pass, as in heaven, also upon earth.” People should know that they are praying for God’s heavenly kingdom to come against this world by destroying it, by doing what the prophet Daniel foretold God’s kingdom would do: “It shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.”—Matt. 6:10; Dan. 2:44, AS.
And how many popular sermons ever mention the event by which God’s kingdom destroys this wicked world? How many times the Bible refers to the great work of destruction that God’s kingdom will do at the war of Armageddon, called “the war of the great day of God the Almighty”! Mark just a few of the many references the Bible makes to this event: “The day of Jehovah’s anger,” “the day of wrath and of the revealing of God’s righteous judgment,” “the day of judgment and of destruction of the ungodly men,” “the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his powerful angels in a flaming fire, as he brings due punishment upon those who do not know God and those who do not obey the good news about our Lord Jesus,” and the climax of the “great tribulation such as has not occurred since the world’s beginning until now, no, nor will occur again.”—Rev. 16:14, 16; Zeph. 2:2, AS; Rom. 2:5; 2 Pet. 3:7; 2 Thess. 1:7, 8; Matt. 24:21.
A sermon should show, then, what God’s kingdom will make possible—a new world! The Bible speaks of this as “new heavens and a new earth that we are awaiting according to his promise, and in these righteousness is to dwell.” God’s war of Armageddon, by wiping out this old world and putting Satan the Devil and his demons out of the way, will make way for a new world. So a sermon ought to show the new world’s blessings, how men will live on the earth in human perfection, how God “will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be any more.”—2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:4.
ANSWERING THE QUESTION: WHAT SHALL I DO?
And a sermon should do still more. It should answer that question: What shall I do? It should show clearly man’s moral obligations, how he must live according to the high moral principles of the Bible if he is to gain life in the new world, either through a resurrection of the dead or by surviving Armageddon. And a sermon should stir listeners to live for that new world by obeying the good news of the Kingdom. How? By sharing in sounding the warning witness that Christ foretold must be done: “This good news of the kingdom will be preached in all the inhabited earth for the purpose of a witness to all the nations, and then the accomplished end will come.” (Matt. 24:14) Before the accomplished end of this world at Armageddon, a witness must be given concerning God’s established kingdom and what it will soon do to this wicked world. Popular sermons are not giving this witness.
What, then, do we behold? Just what British prelate H. R. L. Sheppard, onetime dean of Canterbury Cathedral and canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral, observed in his book The Impatience of a Parson:
“I am compelled, with the greatest reluctance, to believe that the Churches have corporately so misunderstood the message of their Founder . . . that what survives and does duty nowadays, through the Churches, as Christianity is a caricature of what Christ intended. The Churches need much more than patchwork repair. There must needs be a Christian Society founded on the revelation of Jesus Christ; but if that Society is to be according to the mind of Christ, I fancy it will have to be so wholly different in breadth and outlook from any Church that exists today, as to be scarcely recognizable as belonging to the family of Churches as we now know them.”
What a revealing statement—that if people are to practice Christianity according to the mind of Christ there will need to be a society vastly unlike the organized churches of Christendom! Well, then, do we see a society of Christians living according to the mind of Christ, preaching the mind of Christ and who are so unlike the organized churches that this very fact is striking?
Do we see a society of Christians whose sermons explain the world, explain the root cause of wickedness, explain why things are as they are in the world?
Do we see a Christian society that is witnessing to the good news of God’s kingdom already established in the heavens and that is sounding the warning of Armageddon’s imminence?
Do we see a society of Christians whose sermons are helping people live by the Bible’s moral principles, whose sermons are warning people with the hope of everlasting life on earth in God’s new world, and whose sermons are pointing out the only way to survive Armageddon into God’s new world?
Indeed we do! That society’s identity is obvious; for there is only one organization in the world today that is preaching all this, doing all this. That is the New World society of Jehovah’s witnesses. At the Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s witnesses—and it is likely that one is in your neighborhood—you may hear these sermons, sermons that say what they should. There is no collection, no cost to you. So in the words of the Bible: “Come, buy grain without money, and wine and milk without price! Why should you spend money for what is not bread?”—Isa. 55:1, 2, AT.