Mark Galli on How We Inadvertently Create a Cult of Personality Around Preachers

Mark Galli is editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.


Here is the “most effective” and terrible sermon illustration I’ve ever used:

One day my wife and I were arguing about something—the exact subject has long been forgotten. In the course of the argument—probably when she was getting the best of me—I became so frustrated that I hit our dining room wall with my fist. The wall didn’t move, of course, but I expected to at least put a hole in the drywall. As fortune (or providence) would have it, the place I decided to punch with all my force was backed by a two-by-four stud. Let’s just say it hurt.

We both fell silent after that, and I set about sweeping up the kitchen and dining room (we were remodeling at the time). It became immediately apparent that there was something wrong with my hand, as I could barely hold on to the broom with my right hand.

My wife noticed that I was in pain and that my hand didn’t look right. She gently lifted my hand to look at it. “I think it’s broken,” she said. “We need to get you to the emergency room.” Her diagnosis was soon confirmed by the medical staff at the clinic.

From the point where she looked at my hand, there was no anger, resentment, or moral superiority on her part—all of which would have been justified. She was just concerned about my welfare. She very well knew that there was some part of me that was striking out at her when I hit the wall, but instead she focused on the fact that I vented my anger elsewhere than at her and was in deep pain as a result of my foolishness.

I used this illustration in a sermon on grace. It was the final illustration, tailored to drive home the truth that God treats us with kindness and grace even when we show ourselves to be hostile and angry, even toward him. I thought it the perfect illustration.

Turns out, very few listeners heard all that. Comments after the service, and for a few weeks running, were of three sorts:

“Thank you for being so vulnerable and sharing that story.”

And, in a low voice so no one else could hear, “I’ve done that but was too afraid to tell anyone.”

And of course, “That was so funny!”

No one ever told me that as a result of the illustration they understood God’s grace better. No one.

But they understood me better. They learned something about my temper. My remodeling efforts. About my wife and my marriage. And they were entertained.

By contemporary standards, it was effective: It was riveting; it was funny; listeners remembered it for weeks, even years.

But they remembered the wrong thing. They remembered me. They didn’t remember anything about God’s grace, as far as I could tell. Therefore I have concluded that it was about the worst illustration I ever used.

The problem is this: This type of sermon illustration is the order of the day in evangelical preaching. And it’s one reason evangelical preaching is in dire straits.

When Style Becomes Substance

Preaching is one time in the week when we have the opportunity to hear about something other than ourselves, other than the horizontal. It’s the time to hear about God and the wonder and mysteries of his love, of what he’s done for us in Christ. But more and more, evangelical preaching has become another way we talk about ourselves, and in this case, to learn about the preacher.

Once again, in the interests of identifying with the culture, the entertainment world has become the model here for many churches. To begin with, the sermon in many evangelical churches represents a cross between the patter of a standup comic and the opening monologues of late-night television. The idea is to be “authentic”—that is, natural and unscripted and funny to boot.

This, of course, is naive as naive can get, because you can be sure that those opening monologues are hardly unscripted. The patter of the comedian, as well as his or her persona, has been fashioned and sharpened with months or years of practice. Late-night TV hosts and comics are entertaining, no question about that. But they are entertaining precisely because they are anything but authentic. Instead, they are deeply practiced in their profession.

The evangelical sermon mimics all this but without the use of a teleprompter or without repeating the same shtick honed over months of gigs. There are no podiums or pulpits, no notes, not to mention a sermon manuscript. You can be sure, however, that the preacher has practiced the sermon in the quiet of his or her office and memorized his or her best lines, as well as the right gestures at the right moment—all so that he or she can appear authentic.

It’s not just the setting but the content that communicates the most troublesome thing: that the sermon is, in the end, mostly about the horizontal. Given the length of the sermon and the method of delivery and the personal illustrations from the preacher’s life to drive home the message—it all brings an inadvertent focus on the one who is preaching.

Let me emphasize that word inadvertent. Because I doubt if many preachers invest in this style of contemporary preaching so as to exalt themselves. These men and women love God and strive to make him known. What they don’t recognize is that the style they are engaged in thwarts their desires.

Whatever happened to the pulpit?

Take the method of delivery—often without a pulpit (at best, a transparent lectern), and often by walking back and forth across the stage while preaching. And doing so for 30 to 45 minutes, at least half if not up to 75 percent of the worship hour. What all this communicates is this: The preacher is by far and away the most important person in the room. The preacher is the person upon whom we are riveted for the greater part of the service.

I didn’t realize how theologically important the traditional pulpit was until I received a comment after one guest sermon I preached. The church’s pastoral team liked to preach from the center of the stage and wander back and forth during the sermon—the standup comic style. I, however, stood behind the makeshift pulpit—a wooden lectern sitting on a small table. I did so mainly for practical reasons—I’m pretty dependent on notes and/or a manuscript, and I didn’t wander from them.

After the sermon, one man said to me: “Thanks for preaching from the pulpit.” When I asked why, he explained, “The pulpit reminds us that the authority of the preacher comes not from the preacher and his personality. The pulpit is a symbol that the sermon derives its authority from the church, which in turn derives its authority from Scripture.”

Pondering his comments for weeks afterward, I realized how much a pulpitless sermon, and especially the sermon delivered in standup comic style, does an extraordinarily good job of entertaining people and making the preacher, and not the preached word, the center of attention.

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Source: Christianity Today