In these days people seem to measure the average pastor’s pulpit ministry alongside countless other dynamic media-driven preachers. A pastor may feel the temptation to alter his approach to preaching in order to accommodate the congregation’s media-driven expectations.
The Demand of the People –
There is a growing demand in churches all over America today for “sensational preaching.” Congregations seem to desire a pastor who can preach with thunderous voice while lightning emanates from his fingertips. It is not enough that their local pastor is faithful in his study, diligent in his care, cares for the sick, and tends to the widowed. No, Christians are constantly longing for a man of God who can at least once a week stand before them with a hallowed voice and blow the trumpet of Scripture so loudly they feel their cages being rattled and bonds loosened. They crave stimulation while desperate for motivation. They continually relish and rehearse the memories from the last conference they attended where a well-know pastor/teacher/evangelist visited their city and “brought down the house.” This is what feeds their Christianity and prompts their spiritual growth. For many believers it’s an event they must experience.
The Dilemma of the Preacher –
In an attempt to meet this budding demand, some preachers find themselves inordinately challenged because their best rhetoric lies between a theological lecture and a pregame pep-talk. They want to be more dynamic but are unsure how to accomplish it. Sensing their peoples’ desire for motivation they conclude something must be done or else they might lose their flock. So slowly but surely they find creative ways to give the congregation what they want. They might not be able to yell as loud as the preacher on the radio, but if they’re careful they can create the same affect. Therefore, they begin to experiment with “sensationalism in the pulpit.”
The Definition of the Problem –
The dictionary defines “sensationalism,” “The use of exciting or shocking stories or language at the expense of accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement.” Then if you flip back a few dozen pages or so you’d find the definition for, “pulpit,” “A raised platform or lectern in a church or chapel from which the preacher delivers a sermon.” Combine both words together into one phrase and quickly we have created one of the most dangerous expressions in the Christian church. Sensationalism preaching is, “The inaccurate use of shocking and exaggerated language in a sermon for the expressed purpose of provoking interest in the listener.”
The Danger to the Preacher –
In one of the most unexpectedly haunting verses in the New Testament the Apostle Paul states believers must “learn not to exceed what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). Some in Corinth exalted wrongfully a few of the early church leaders for their rhetorical skills. He diagnoses their underlining presumption as the tendency to desire to do more than Scripture actually says. The warning ultimately instructs believers to remain humble and focus on the Word of God.
In the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul spoke with the pagan philosophers of his day, he understood their interest was generated by a form of sensationalism. Luke writes, “Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). The human heart has a built-in longing to hear something “new.” What God revealed over time becomes ordinary. Therefore believers and unbelievers, over time, desire something different. However different is not always better. Remember the axiom, “If it’s true it’s not new; and if it’s new it’s not true.” Paul instructs the man of God to anticipate superficiality, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled they will accumulate teachers in accordance with their own desires” (2 Tim 4:3-4). Therefore, the preacher can be tempted to make his sermons “more interesting” to his listeners than he should, even to the point of distortion.
The Demonstration of the Process –
With that in mind it’s important for preachers to recognize that there are at least three ways that they can slip into “sensationalized preaching:”
1.) Over-Exaggerating the Truth –
It is important we admit, from time to time, the possibility that a conservative, evangelical preacher can begin to exaggerate a point in his sermon for the sake of sensationalism. Usually the exaggeration happens while building a case for some theological truth his audience believes. Thinking perhaps that he has explained his point too thoroughly in the past, the preacher my find himself going into no-man’s land just to make his congregation think he is on the theological cutting-edge. Usually this kind of exaggeration finds itself manifested in preaching concerning the Trinity. Instead of leaving what is unknowable alone and bowing to its profundity, some men choose instead to take license with the explanation of the Godhead finding themselves right in line with heresy instead. True, what they are saying has never been heard before and therefore is shocking, but the reason it is shocking is because it is wrong. It is over-exaggerated and therefore error.
2.) Over-Emphasizing the Truth –
Most commonly this particular issue is seen in how a pastor/theologian allows a nuance that is clearly seen in a word study or exegetical digest, to completely dominate his interpretation of the passage. Again he can bring forth a so-called biblical truth that his congregation will be astonished to hear, but his teaching comes at the expense of accuracy. Narratives are easiest to manipulate. The preacher finds an unclear antecedent in the Hebrew and uses this wiggle-room as an opportunity to state with surety something that is only a possibility. His people have never heard it, nor should they have ever heard it, and it gives an illusion to his preaching as if what he is saying is compelling. The truth is it’s not compelling; it’s merely wrong.
3.) Over-Projecting the Truth –
Sometimes a preacher projects our Lord Jesus Christ in passages where quite frankly He doesn’t appear. This is “over-projecting the truth.” When the Lord opened the minds of his disciples on the road to Emmaus and explained to them where He appeared all throughout the Old Testament, that particular act didn’t give modern theologians hermeneutical permission to project him into every passage they uncover. Nowhere is this seen more than in the Psalms where a type of Christ is portrayed in passages where no one would ever (or should ever) believe references our Lord. Congregations come away from such preaching both astounded and discouraged. They will scratch their heads wondering how their gifted pastor received such biblical enlightenment beyond their own, while at the same time wondering how they will ever be able to read their Bibles without him. For the price of a “wow” the preacher has accidentally robbed his congregation of their biblical confidence.
Ultimately the best way for any preacher to avoid over-exaggerating the truth, over-emphasizing the truth, and over-projecting the truth, is to commit himself to proclaiming only that which is the clearest and historically dependable. Then strive with all his heart to make these truths new to his own soul for the benefit of his people. The best correction to sensationalism in the pulpit is a humble admission that all biblical truth is timeless. Its true relevancy shines greater in the spiritual synthesis occurring in the pastor’s heart than in the secularized acceptance from his people.
Tom Patton pastors at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA. His friends know him as a true shepherd gifted to preach. He is married and has three boys (and a labrador retriever). Check out his messages online. Tom is a knife, truck, and coffee lover (everything manly), yet he knows the true definition of manhood. You can also hear him discuss it here.