Reflections on human-centered preaching

Human centered preaching

When we moved into our rental property this summer in Cambridge, England, our landlord left only a few instructions for us. One of those instructions was how to descale our appliances and how often we should do it.

Descaling appliances? I had no idea what she meant.

It didn’t take long, however, to learn. You see, we have very hard water in Cambridge. So what follows is a simple cause and effect equation. The continuous use of hard water builds up limescale on your appliances.

By the way, I hate hard water. (Just see a picture of our shower head below.)

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Not only does it make the appliances all yucky and green, but also it makes your skin dry, your hair like sandpaper, your clothes rough and your showers difficult to clean.

Another cause and effect at work

Growing up listening to a preacher who preached Christ-centered sermons kept me shielded from what I have since come to experience many times, and that is human-centered preaching. While my dad is not a perfect preacher (who is?), he faithfully preaches Christ week in and week out.

For a long time after I left home and went to college I heard sermons that – from what I know now – were human-centered. It wasn’t until I sat under Dr. Robert Smith Jr. in his preaching class at Beeson Divinity School and read one his required textbooks, Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell, that I could put a name to these types of sermons.

Since then I have purposely kept my ears and eyes open to how these types of sermons were affecting its hearers. When you continuously wash with hard water, you will have limescale buildup. What do you get, then, when a preacher continually preaches human-centered sermons? What effects do these sermons have on people?

What is human-centered preaching?

(Disclaimer: We do not listen to sermons in order to find faults; at the same time we are to listen with discernment.)

Before we go any further we need to know what I mean by human-centered preaching.

First, I believe it refers to a certain kind of hermeneutic used of a biblical text. “Hermeneutic” is a big word, and what I mean by it is how one interprets a biblical text. A human-centered sermon will use the following hermeneutic: “What is in it for me?” This question is the grid through which interpretation and application always flow. And in this way, you and me, are the centerpiece of the sermon; it revolves around us.

Second, human-centered preaching will be heavily weighted with application. If the question, “What is in it for me?” is driving the sermon, then little time will be spent on expositing the text (its context, background information, meaning of words/phrases, genre, etc.) and the majority of the sermon will be application based (“here’s how you should respond”). Also, within human-centered application the responsibility will lie with the person and what he or she should do. It will be heavily works-based. God is not an active participant in the application, and taken in isolation it can be moralistic and secular at worse. Application alone is not bad and sometimes a certain text will be jammed pack with ways we are to respond or things we are to do or not do (just look at the Epistles!). But it is one thing to give application when the text demands it as a response to what Christ has done for us and out of worship of Him. It is another thing to force application void of the gospel and with the intended goal of feeling better about myself or doing it for myself. (As an aside: I wonder if some preachers often feel pressured to jump over the details and the theology of the text because there’s an expectation that people would stop listening if the sermon is not mostly about “self-help” techniques.)

Third, connected to the second point, human-centered preaching will have a tendency to use a lot of stories, illustrations and jokes to fill-in space and time. Often, if the time in giving illustrations is longer than the time spent on the biblical text itself, then it is probably a human-centered sermon. I remember very distinctly Dr. Smith talking about the use of illustrations in sermons in our preaching class. Illustrations are to be used rarely and when used they are to be short and to the point. Their purpose is not to be the content of the sermon but rather to reinforce a biblical truth. Often time, however, illustrations can be too much about the preacher. Also, overuse of an illustration is often used to mask a lack of grappling with the biblical text.

Here are some other indicators or tests:

  • Are God and Christ rarely mentioned whereas “I, you and me” are mentioned ad nauseam?
  • Who is the subject of the sermon? Does God take center stage? Is He the object of our worship? Is He the reason we respond in a certain way? Or, is God mentioned as a supporting actor? Is God the means or agent through which we get what we want or become a better person?
  • Is the sermon built around a text from which everything else flows or are biblical texts only used or mentioned to support a point in the sermon?
  • What is the end goal of the sermon? What does the preacher want you to walk away with? If God, the gospel, or Jesus Christ are not a significant part of the goal, application or response then it probably is a human-centered sermon.

What are the effects of human-centered preaching?

First, human-centered preaching feeds into and reinforces a narcissistic, me-centered culture. The gospel cannot co-exist in this kind of culture for it is antithetical to everything that makes the gospel what it is. Denying self is on the complete opposite scale of elevating self, and unless one denies self and acknowledges the sin in our lives then the gospel is rendered insignificant. Preachers, what kind of culture are you creating in your sermons? The effect of human-centered preaching is a culture that is unreceptive to the gospel, and once a church gives into this kind of thinking and living it is no longer particularly Christian. I cannot tell you how many times I have listened to a sermon and thought, perhaps without a few mentions to God and the Bible, this sermon could have been given in any secular context and welcomed.

Second, human-centered preaching results in depressed people. People were not created to turn inward in order to find hope, redemption or healing by looking at self. Rather, just like any other idol, turning inward is destructive. We were made and designed in God’s image to worship God. Preacher, if you believe that salvation comes only from God and by being in relationship with God, then resist the temptation to preach anything else. Unfortunately when people are fed on a diet of human-centered preaching it is like a poison to them and can result in depressed, messed up people.

Third, human-centered preaching gives way to theologically and biblically illiterate people. Pupils of human-centered theology and teaching do not know how to read the Bible any other way. In fact, I have witnessed people under human-centered preaching stop reading their Bibles all together. As a result, they do not know how to think or talk about God anymore, and because of this they are more prone to believing in and spreading false teaching.

To preachers

Preaching every week is a huge responsibility. It can be extremely difficult to prepare a sermon week in and week out in the midst of very busy schedules and needy parishioners, not to mention what’s going on in your personal life. My heart goes out to you, and I pray for you.

Yet, I want to caution you, as a sister who loves the Church and its ministers, to be aware and wary of human-centered preaching. It creeps up so easily because it is in our nature to focus on self.

James writes, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Probably most of us take this warning seriously; perhaps some of us need reminding of it. The effects human-centered preaching have on people is serious, dangerous, and hurtful. To be even more direct with you, I believe human-centered preaching is sinful.

One way to keep us from preaching human-centered sermons is just by being aware of it. Here are some further suggestions I hope will help you to preach Christ, and only Him, instead of a what’s-in-it-for-me sermon.

First, after writing your sermon, review it with the these questions in mind. Circle all the “I, me and you” pronouns and compare their use to the mentions of God in your sermon. Time how long you are spending expositing the text versus giving practical application and illustrations. Is God the subject and object of your sermon or is He just a supporting actor? Is the biblical text so important that you want to spend most of your time there in it or are you trying to move as quickly through the text as possible to get to the application?

If we are honest with ourselves, perhaps part of the problem is that we are not spending time in preparation like we were taught in seminary. Spend time diagramming the sermon in the original language. Read up on different genres. Read reputable (and updated!) commentaries on a particular passage. Read some new biblical theology books that show the continuation of certain themes in Scripture. Spend more time with the text in your preparation than with prepping illustrations and application and it will show in your sermon. What happens in your sermon is a result of the kind of preparation you put into it (another lesson Dr. Smith taught his students).

Second, request feedback. Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C., meets weekly with a leadership team in which he invites and receives feedback on the service and his sermons. Here’s what was written about Dever’s leadership style in The Gospel Coalition:

“Structuring a time into a church leadership’s weekly schedule for giving and receiving feedback over Sunday’s services teaches men to evaluate, to think, and to love the congregation better. It grows them as leaders. Plus . . .

Be willing to receive criticism. Mark sets the example by inviting criticism. This gives other would-be leaders room to spread their wings. If you never invite criticism, you’re teaching everyone around you that they must conform to your preferences or be punished. Leaders don’t grow in this kind of environment. They whither or leave.”

Feedback and criticism help keep our sermons and us in check. It is called being held accountable. Listen to your sermon on the following Monday or Tuesday with one or two others and make some notes, just like you would in a preaching class, so that you can be exposed to blind spots where human-centered preaching might exist. Don’t be resistant to godly counsel.

Third, Read Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching.

Fourth, instead of asking, “What is in it for me?” ask, “What does the text have to say about God and how does it fit into the story of redemption?” Or, “What can we learn about God and His story of redemption?” Let that question drive your sermons. Don’t approach Scripture with a preconceived idea that you want to impose on it. Rather, in a spirit of humility, submit to Scripture and ask God to show you through His Word what you should say. Then, application should flow naturally out of this.

Lastly, my brother-in-law Alex suggests this question when thinking about application: How is Jesus the solution to the application? He says, “Sometimes I think we can do a great job of exposition and then when we get to the application we revert back to (human) works, which could be just as a travesty as missing the exposition. Our whole sermon should be Christ-centered, not just the exposition.”

More of Him, less of us

Parishioners, remember to pray, pray, pray for preachers who communicate God’s Word on a weekly basis. Be gracious to them knowing that they are humans like you and will make mistakes. At the same time listen with discernment. From my experience, most preachers preach Christ-centered sermons and are doing a great job of being faithful to the text. However, if you see a pattern of human-centered preaching, then approach the preacher (after lots of prayer!) about this concern, or in some situations, reconsider if you are at the best church. If a pastor preaches regularly human-centered sermons then it is very likely that the church is not being shepherd as a Christ-centered church. In these cases, pray for and seek wisdom and discernment.

Let everything we do, say and preach exhibit the spirit and example of John the Baptist who said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn. 3:30)