At LifeWay Research, we recently studied the variety of ways pastors use the Bible by looking at 450 different sermons (all by different preachers). We gave our research team the audio files of these sermons and some objective questions about how the preacher handled God’s Word. Let me share about the research and my views on preaching at the same time.
In these sermons, the preachers handled God’s Word differently. The way pastors organized their sermons varied widely. Half of pastors traveled verse-by-verse through a passage, and almost half organized their sermons around a theme. Almost one out of five pastors named and explained a Greek word in their sermon. More than half explained verses by using other verses in the Bible.
Even though different preachers handle the Word differently, I believe they’re all obligated to teach it as authoritative, not merely as a scriptural footnote proving something they already wanted to say. Four things have to be true about a pastor’s handling of the Bible if that pastor is to preach authoritatively.
1. The Word should be heard.
Our central task as preachers is to present God’s Word. Paul asked a series of questions that should haunt all of us who preach: “How can they call on him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14 HCSB) A preacher isn’t a self-help guru. A preacher is not a political activist or an entertainer. Those who preach are truth-dispensers, proclaimers of the Word. If we don’t do our job as preachers, people will not hear the good news, and therefore can’t respond to it. What we do is crucial.
At a surprisingly high level, most of the preachers we studied seemed to understand the need for the text. Four out of five of these sermons conveyed the correct meaning of the chosen text, according to our research team’s analysis (which was not denominationally specific). I’m encouraged by this. People will not really hear God’s Word in our churches if we’re not preaching it accurately.
Of course, you can preach the Word accurately and still no one will really “hear” it; we must share God’s Word in the way our hearers will understand it. No matter how accurately the Bible is preached, our message can get lost behind jargon and phrases that mean nothing to our congregations. This doesn’t mean that we should gloss over difficult words within Scripture. But we do need to explain the original language and “churchy” words we use. Words we only hear in church—such as “holy,” “righteousness” and “propitiation”—can help hearers understand God’s truth only if properly clarified.
Many of the preachers we studied did this. In fact, 41 percent explained at least one church or theological word during their sermon. Another 21 percent avoided such words altogether. This means more than half of the preachers we studied either avoided or at least explained some of the church or theological words they used. While this is notable, it still means that one out of three preachers are not speaking in the vernacular of their audience—at least if the uninitiated or unchurched are in attendance.
Paul could have just asked, “How can they believe without a preacher?” But he didn’t. Without people hearing—really hearing what you say—they will not believe the message.