What Does a Revival in Lutheran Preaching Look Like? (7 Thoughts)
I am convinced that the greatest catalyst for church health, renewal, and growth is preaching. I suppose I should qualify that—I believe the single greatest catalyst is good preaching. I’m talking about Jesus-centered, God-exalting, Word of God focused, lean on the edge of your seat and want to hear more kind of stuff. This what we need more and more of in the days to come.
It’s really sad how local churches and the leadership of denominations often pine after anything and everything other than the God ordained means for congregational health. Paul instructed young Timothy to “preach the Word in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). He did not exhort Timothy to excel in edgy marketing strategies or even to construct elaborate liturgies. He said, “Preach the Word. Devote yourself to these things. Let everyone see your progress” (1 Tim. 4:15).
The church to which I belong—The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod—is part of a great preaching tradition. In fact, you could say that Luther and his contemporaries were part of a great preaching revival. While all the resources for this preaching tradition are as close as the Bible and the Confessions, I'm not convinced that preaching in the LCMS is living up to its potential. I remember in seminary I shared in passing conversation with a Reformed friend from Europe that the Lutheran church is a “preaching church.” How did he respond? He almost laughed out loud—“Are you serious?!” He had been around Lutherans and Lutheran preaching, and he was incredulous about my claim.
So, what’s wrong? How do we get back to that great tradition of faithful preaching? What does a revival in Lutheran preaching look like? I’m not claiming to be an expert at all. The path from text to pulpit can often feel like mile 18 of a marathon. The more I learn, the more acutely aware I am that I need to learn more about the craft of preaching, and that six years of ordination has left me with a hard drive full of below average sermons. However, I do think about this from week to week. Here’s what I think. I’d love to hear what you think as well.
1. Longer Sermons.
The ten minute sermon is not long enough. I don’ care what Pope Francis says—we need to give our people longer sermons (not that we're taking direction from Rome, but he recently told priests to make shorten their homilies). Now, I’m not saying we should go Baptist and preach for forty-five minutes to an hour. I think twenty to twenty five minutes is the sweet spot—perhaps half an hour when necessary. We want to be able to say what we need to say with conviction, but not to the point that we’re repetitive or that kids begin to melt in the pews. But in all honesty, I don’t think we can make an impact on a culture that is by default biblically illiterate in ten minutes. We need to have time to flesh out the history and context of the Scripture passage we’re preaching on. We need to take time to patiently apply the text to the hearts and minds of our hearers. I don’t believe you can do that in ten minutes. This may mean that we have to cut a portion of the liturgy or even abbreviate our use of the lectionary, however, liturgy should always serve the proclamation of the Word (and yes, I understand that our liturgy is almost all Scripture, but we are also called to give people the meaning of the Word).
2. Sermons Anchored in the Text.
Every sermon is an exposition of a particular text in Scripture. However, many sermons may start with the text, but not end there. Or the sermon may use the text as a launch pad to preach on some particular point of interest. I know this because I’ve done it. In fact, I would venture to guess that most of my sermons during my first years of ministry were really just opportunities to address the hobby horses I collected at seminary. Eventually, I ran out of things to say. That pushed me back into the text, which has ended up making the process of sermon preparation interesting again. The text must drive our theme, content, and often structure—illustrations, and even the occasion of the sermon (liturgical, cultural, or congregational) are all secondary and in service to the text.
By the way, if you want to hear how this is done with excellency week by week, check out the sermons from Dr. Reed Lessing at St. Michael Lutheran in Ft. Wayne. While suffering on the treadmill this winter I listened to his series on Job. You can sense the love Lessing has for the text as he preaches through entire books of the Bible in a way that is full of faithfulness to the history and context, while at the same time engaging and relevant to the modern hearer. We need more of this!
3. The BIG story Is Always Front and Center.
If you cant’ get people to come to Bible class, then bring Bible class to the pulpit. Now, I’m not saying the sermon should be a dry, academic lecture on the various opinions of when Paul wrote Galatians. Not everyone is as excited about that question as you are. However, we should make it our aim to tell the BIG story of the Bible every time we preach. Even though the Bible is a big book, we can still do this rather quickly. We recognize that the text we preach is a small story within the BIG story of creation, fall, redemption, and final restoration. Our people may not be able to recount for us all the details of the book of Judges, but we should preach in such a way that they know the flow of the biblical narrative instinctively. So, in short, we preach best when we are always plugging our message into THE message (I can’t think of a better resource for seeing how this is done creatively than The Jesus Story Book Bible. I have a feeling that this book is going to make a huge impact on future biblical literacy).
4. People Bring Their Bibles.
The Lord called me to know him in an Assemblies of God church. One of the cultural norms of that church was that you brought your Bible to church. People even had really cool Bible “trapper-keepers” with everything from pink quilt patterns to G.I. Joe camouflage. As I moved around to a few other non-denominational and Baptist churches, I found the same “bring your Bible to church” culture. Then I came into the Lutheran church. I found great theology, but I did not find people bringing their Bibles to church. I also noticed that people did not know their Bibles as well. I don’t know why this is. We’re supposed to be a Word-centered people. Is it because people really, really trust their pastors? I don't want to be trusted at that level—I want the text to show that I'm being trustworthy. Or is it because too often pastors don’t point to the text and say, “Look! Here!” I would say that one of the best habits we can engender to undo biblical illiteracy is to continually encourage people to bring their Bibles to church, have them open during the sermon, and take notes as the sermon progresses. This fosters what I call a “Word-centered culture.”
5. A More Lethal Law.
When we proclaim God’s Word, we aim to “kill and make alive.” The Word must convict and kill our sinful nature so that the new man in Christ rises anew. In other words, the goal of every sermon is to rehearse what happened at baptism. However, often our proclamation of God’s law is more like a “tisk tisk” than an attack on our old Adam. A friend of mine once called this the “awwwww shucks” proclamation of the law—“Well, we’re all sinners and sometimes we’re not nice and let God down and do naughty things… aw shucks….” But isn’t sin “cosmic treason?” Shouldn’t the law lead us to say, “What should I do to be saved?” and then leave us no option but Jesus? The gospel will only be sweet if we taste the bitterness of our own sin, and I can’t help but wonder if much of the complacency in our churches all goes back to the fact that many sermons are more like advice than an intervention. A revival in preaching will carefully apply the law of God like a surgeon uses a scalpel—pointing out with gentleness the things we don’t want to see, but that Jesus always has the remedy for. We don’t do this by being louder or harsher, but rather by speaking carefully and clearly to the heart. We becomes experts in locating what our people worship, and then experts in exposing the futility of such idols.
6. A More Creative Gospel.
“Jesus died and rose again and you are forgiven.” This is very true, and I need to hear this week by week (actually moment by moment), however, the Scriptures offer us a multitude of creative ways to communicate this cornerstone message in ways that engages our hearers. Tim Kellers’ new books on preaching exhorts us to preach Christ from biblical themes such as the Kingdom of God, the covenant, exile and return, the temple, rest and Sabbath, justice and judgment—only to name a few. In his book Just Words: Understanding the Fullness of the Gospels, J.A.O Prues offers a rich variety of biblical metaphors in service of the gospel. A revival in solid preaching will make good use of these images, themes, and metaphors, with the end goal that every Sunday our people are never bored with the most captivating message ever—the gospel.
7. A More Eager Exhortation.
Here's where I find myself needing to take a breath and count to ten—when Lutherans get legalistic about not telling people to do things in sermons (also known as "soft antinomianism"). The idea here is that if we just preach the law and the gospel, people will naturally do good works. Well, sanctification isn't that clean cut. If we follow Paul (and Luther for that matter), we won't be afraid to consistently exhort God's people to good works. The gospel certainly gives the power and the willingness to do good, but we also need the law to show us what good works look like. I can't help but think that many of our churches are in decline because we have failed to offer exhortation (and yes, I recognize there are demographic and cultural reasons too, but I still think this is a factor).
With that said, we need to be careful that all of our exhortation flows from the gospel rather than from the law. I have a feeling that many Lutherans have an aversion to preaching good works because they suffered under years of "David slayed giants and so can you" kinds of sermons. In contrast, Tim Keller points out that we are called to preach Christ in every text in such a way that the gospel invites obedience rather than demands it without giving any resources for it. Commenting on the calming of the storm text in Mark 4, he writes:
If you don't see the storm in Mark 4 as pointing to his finished work, then you will end up almost scolding, "Have faith in the midst of your storms!" But you must go deep enough into the gospel to stir in the heart faith in Christ's work, to show people what he did for us. That will actually instill the trust right in the sermon. Otherwise, you will just be beating on the will to say, "Be faithful."
As Christians who love the gospel, we have plenty of resource to exhort people to good works in a way that invites rather than burdens. The gospel creates a new reality—a new plausibility structure in which selflessness is possible in ways the law could not conjure before our regeneration. A revival in Lutheran preaching will ignore "soft antinomianism" and "law/gospel reductionism" (which I prefer to call "soteriological selfishness") in favor of Paul's words: "Reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching" (2 Tim 4:2).
This is what I think. What about you?
Pastor John Rasmussen—Our Savior Lutheran Church—South Windsor, CT