Destroying good preaching...

The unmentioned scandal of late-20th/early-21st century preaching is not the number of preachers seeking outside inspiration for their sermons. That's well-documented. Just as baleful in its effect on modern preaching has been the number of preachers who have turned from preaching sermons to a flock to writing sermons for an audience.

My father used to tell his children that written and spoken English are two entirely different languages. And it's true. Equally distinct are sermons addressed to a particular flock and sermons written for a broad reading audience.

Throughout the centuries a number of great preachers have had their sermons collected and published. But the sermons contained in such volumes were seldom prepared with publication in mind. Rather, they were preached to a congregation (often from notes or extemporaneously) and later made available for publication. For instance, John Calvin's sermons are available in written form due to the work of a French shorthand expert named Denis Raguenier who took verbatim shorthand notes from Calvin's extemporaneous preaching. Luther's sermons were carefully recorded by a variety of listeners. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' sermons were mechanically recorded and later transcribed. Jonathan Edwards sermons are still being culled from handwritten manuscripts and must be edited for publication.

Today many preachers write sermons with minds divided between a local congregation and the national audience they hope to reach through a book they intend to publish out of their current sermon series. The result is wretched preaching (and often wretched publishing to boot).

Many of the greatest preachers of our time have declined in power as they have shifted focus from a local church and specific congregation to a national audience. If you listen to early sermons by many preachers whose sermons are routinely published today you find power not present in current preaching. Sadly, the powerful preaching of a young pastor often leads a publisher to offer book contracts for future sermons and those book contracts become the death of the preacher's power.

It's also true that preachers whose sermons are routinely broadcast often fall into a similar trap of preaching for a broad audience rather than preaching to build a particular Church

Preaching for posterity rather than for the current needs of a particular flock leads to emasculated preaching. Those who preach for publication can be divided into two camps: populists and scholars. Populists tend to become more oratorical, to illustrate more liberally and to over-simplify. Those preaching for more scholarly publication (commentaries, for instance) become more pedantic and theoretical. Both types of preaching are devoid of pointed application.

Many good preachers also write great books. But in the end, I am convinced that preaching for publication is preaching for pay and honor. And that always bodes ill for power.


I would dare say it's like the running back who gets the ball with his eyes on the record books, not the 1st down marker or goal line. In the end, the back gets neither the 1st down, nor the goal, nor the record--while the one concentrating on getting 3 yards before his pile of dust (GO BUCKEYES!) gets the first down, the touchdown, and his name in the record book.

In the same way, we remember the preachers who faithfully preached to their congregations (Luther/Calvin/Spurgeon/Wesley), but have forgotten thousands of their "more educated and erudite" colleagues who looked to get directly to the record books.

Thank you for these thoughts, David. I wonder if this same kind of degradation also happens with pastors who post their sermons on-line? In other words, are there pastors out there where the thought that others outside of the church lead them to craft and preach a more appealing message in order to increase blog traffic? Maybe this isn't just happening with those pastors who are "successful".

Dear Pete,

There are dangers online, but I think they're different. Financial temptation isn't usually present online--and I don't think we can overestimate the role of money in the sermon-publishing trend.

On the other hand, if we're publishing our sermons on a sermons-for-pay site, the danger is very similar.

I have felt the temptation to seek readers and influence online. This is something I'm continually dealing with.

One interesting distinction between publishing for pay and publishing online is that those who publish for pay are usually loath to say anything negative in their sermons while those who put their sermons on the internet are often quite willing to be negative, indeed, we're sometimes rather pugnacious.

May God bless your work in church and on the internet.

Your brother in Christ,



You mean like Maurice Clarett? Or is that bad luck to say on the eve of the Michigan game?


Pride is key. When I want my flock to think me bright, a scholar, well-read, cultured, theologically precise, deep, etc., God's glory is diminished and the "freedom" that Lloyd-Jones equated with unction or the Holy Spirit's anointing is absent. This is as true for those of us with an entirely-local ministry as those with a larger platform.

Maurice would be a good, bad, example, yes. :^)

(but at least his team beat Michigan in his one year, right?)

This made me think of Paul & other "preachers" in the Word. They spoke God's true words to a specific people. I don't know if this has any correlation or not. Although their words affect our lives today & parts of their ministry were recorded, they didn't miss the mark in speaking truth. Money would be a temptation that would make anyone stray from speaking to the specific people God has a message for.

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