Several years ago Donald Miller wrote, “If Protestantism ever dies with a dagger in its back, the dagger will be the Protestant sermon.” Unfortunately, Miller was on to something. It is no secret that mainline Protestantism is on a steep decline. Some mainline leaders tap dance around the issue but, as they say, even if you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. The church is not the pig but the statistics are ugly, and mainline preachers have no one to blame but themselves.
It feels better to blame cultural shifts, old stubborn churches and outdated ministry techniques as reasons for the mainline church’s demise, but let’s get real. Although those reasons have played a role, the deadly dagger is over 40 years of weak and ineffective preaching. The reality is people are drawn and attach themselves to churches with effective preachers. Recent studies by Pew and Gallup show that the number one reason people choose a church and remain there is the quality of the preaching.
So Miller was right. While many pastors and leaders have been preoccupied with ministry fads and church trends, they have neglected their primary role as preachers. They have forgotten that bold and passionate proclamation is what sets a church on fire and keeps it burning. The result: dying mainline churches.
Here are three things that have poured water on the mainline pulpit and quenched the fire within many mainline preachers:
The New Homiletic
In the 1970’s Fred Craddock helped to create a major homiletic shift that birthed creative ways of preaching that were less deductive and authoritative. This preaching shift became known as the “New Homiletic.” Much good has come out of the “New Homiletic” and its inductive approach. The focus on changing traditional sermon structures to accommodate how listeners hear and process sermons has been a significant contribution to modern preaching. However, the shadow side of the “New Homiletic” is that it softened preaching and turned the sermon experience into hearing a creative and artistic essay on scripture instead of a penetrating proclamation of the gospel. So we have had a generation of mainline preachers who have sought to be novel artists in the pulpit rather than convicted proclaimers of God’s word.
One of the wonderful things about the mainline church is its solid grasp of the bible and theology. We mainliners are proud of our “good theology” and responsible interpretation of scripture. The trouble is many mainline preachers believe good theology and passionate proclamation are mutually exclusive. The underlying idea is that only conservatives or fundamentalists preach with boldness and conviction. John Wesley is rolling over in his grave! Thousands did not gather around a tree stump to listen to Wesley preach because he was dull. Wesley did not lead an historic spiritual movement with dreary sermons.
Another big shift in preaching in the last several years is the move from rhetorical, oratorical, and “preachy” sermons to a more conversational style of delivery. This shift has been very important because conversational preaching certainly engages listeners a lot more than “top down” preaching. However, the downside of this shift is that many preachers don’t feel comfortable preaching with conviction. They are so concerned with appearing casual and non-threatening that they are terrified to passionately declare the truth in God’s word.
We must be sensitive to listeners and not turn them off by being “preachy.” However, I have discovered that listeners become even more engaged when you preach with passion and boldness. People are hungering for genuine expressions of truth, not preachers wearing skinny jeans sitting on stools trying desperately to appear trendy. Most of your listeners are also not looking to be impressed with your knowledge of the Bible and theology. They have not shown up for a lecture. They want you to speak from your heart to their hearts. When you get in touch with that you will find the sweet spot of preaching.
The absence of bold and passionate proclamation is one of the main culprits to the decline of the mainline church. This is the big elephant in the room that is not being addressed. You can have a balanced faith and preach with conviction, so throw your head back and let it fly! Your preaching will go to another level and people will respond to the gospel. Who knows? You may spark a revival in the mainline church!