Preaching is as popular and unpopular today as ever.
I. Popular Preaching.
Preaching has always been a powerful and popular craft in America, whether it comes from politicians or preachers. Today, little “g” preachers (government) seem to go farther than big “G” preachers (God). Exceptions abound, but let me make my case.
On the merits of long sermons and little else, Barack Obama sailed through two national elections, preaching his way to the top. The vast majority of his communication came on a one-way-street–monologues on a stage, often with a sea of faces as his backdrop. Remember the Greek columns? Meaningful dialogue was avoided.
Some presume that sermons and lectures work for the 50-and-over set but not with young people. I’m not so sure. The “I don’t want to be lectured to” complaint comes from some of the same youthful listeners who swooned over our celebrity lecturer- in-chief. Again, exceptions abound. Still, a few sermons on hope and change propelled an inexperienced community organizer straight to the top of this world’s pecking order. Throngs of young people swooned over his presence and his preaching.
His “war on women” sermons during the 2012 campaign lacked substance but sounded good to enough political pew-sitters to get him re-elected. When four Americas (including an ambassador) were murdered in Benghazi, Libya, President Obama passionately preached against some film-maker in America as the villain. It was a false narrative but we immediately re-elected him. After all, he could preach!
President Obama preached about a “red line” that must not be crossed. It mattered little when it as crossed because the sermon sounded good. In a sermon to the American Medical Association in June 2009, he preached, “If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. If you like your healthcare plan, you’ll be able to keep your healthcare plan, period. No one will take it away, no matter what.” Never mind the facts; preach the fantasy!
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have mastered the art of illustrating their culture sermons and making us laugh. They tap into the insatiable hunger Americans seem to have for hearing other people and their ideas skewered and ridiculed. Radio talk shows do the same thing to the raves of listeners, left and right. Sometimes, the ridicule is justified. Sometimes not. Either way, America loves it.
II. Unpopular Preaching
The apostle Peter preached to his Pentecost audience, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36). Ouch! I don’t know if they liked the sermon, but thousands repented! Later, he was not seeking high office when he preached, “But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses.” (Acts 3:14-15). He was not a warm and fuzzy preacher.
George Whitefield (1714 – 1770), the great open-air preacher during the Frist Great Awakening, put it this way; “It is a poor sermon that gives no offense; that neither makes the hearer displeased with himself nor with the preacher.”
In his commencement speech to the graduating class at Harvard University in 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918 –2008) said, “We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life.” He sounded like an Old Testament prophet, which did not make him popular with the elites. Still, America did not resent him as harshly as the Soviets who imprisoned him, stripped him of his citizenship and exiled him. In his Harvard speech, he said, “Truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.”
Persecuting prophets and preachers is nothing new in polite society.
III. Two Kinds of Preaching
There are two general types of preaching today:
- Other-people-are-the-problem preaching.
- You-and-I-are-the–problem preaching.
The first type is enormously powerful and popular today. The second is, well, not so much. The first wins elections, attracts popularity and raises tons of cash. The second got Jesus killed and eventually, most of his followers, plus Paul. It was Paul who said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). That word, “gospel,” is the ticket. It means good news but only to those who understand who their main problem is, and who the only solution is. And they are not the same person.