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Summer Reading Group: Deep Preaching

This is the sixth post in a nine-part series for the SPECTRUM/re-church Summer Reading Group. The nine posts will be drawn from chapters of Deep Church, by Jim Belcher. You can find the reading schedule here.

Chapter 7 – Deep Preaching

I believe that preaching is much more an art than a science. If that is the case, then excellent preaching may take many different forms. Thus, looking for the “perfect” sermon or the “perfect” preaching style is a futile search. Malcom Gladwell makes this point as it relates to the attempt to find the “perfect” spaghetti sauce in an interesting talk.

However, we can still discover some principles that are common in all good preaching. This is what Belcher seeks to do in this chapter. He begins by addressing what he feels are the pitfalls of traditional preaching. This is the moralistic style of “speaching,” where the preacher tells people what they are doing that is wrong and tells them to stop doing it (in three alliterated points). He captured the worst version of this type of preaching very succinctly in the phrase: “You suck, so try harder.” Most of the younger generation does not appreciate this type of approach and it may be a major reason why this generation is fleeing the church. This approach wrongly assumes that everyone who sins does so out of hard-hearted rebellion towards God.

Imagine a golfer out on the course with his instructor yelling at him after every missed shot, “Don’t hit it in the water you idiot! Don’t chip it over the green! Don’t putt it 20 feet past the hole!” as if he did these things on purpose. Would this help someone get better at the game? I doubt it. One of the origins of the word sin in Greek is an archery term that means, “to miss the mark.” When we are preaching to sinful people we are dealing with people who are unskillful when it comes to living in the kingdom of God. I think most people are honestly trying to do the right thing in their lives, they just have not quite figured out how to do it. Or, because they don’t really trust God deep down, they are scared of what might happen if they choose to rely on Him. Consequently, a far more empowering form of proclamation is to share some insight into how to approach life more skillfully.

This is one aspect of the relational style of preaching that is characteristic of the emergent church. Belcher’s concern with this type of preaching is that it de-emphasizes the role of the Scriptures. He fears that eventually the preaching will sound no different than whatever is trending in the larger culture at the time. And so, as always, he has found a third way, which he calls center-set preaching.

He distinguishes center-set preaching from traditional preaching in two ways. First, center-set preaching tries hard to be interesting by using the homiletical plot and other methods to keep the listener’s attention. Secondly, when it comes to the content of the sermon, he sees justification as the basis for every call to sanctification. This is the point that I found most helpful personally. He points out that it is easy to forget God’s grace as something in the past that I needed when I was having a conversion experience. However, we need God’s grace on a daily basis. This is what makes it possible to live in the present kingdom of God. It is also what transforms us (or sanctifies us if you prefer).

To take Belcher’s concept a step further, I prefer to see it in the context of a relational metaphor of salvation (2 Corinthians 5:17-19). In this understanding, we begin each day with the assurance of God’s love and acceptance of us through Jesus. We approach Him with confidence that He is “for us.” (Romans 8:31). The relationship we have with God is constantly being restored by grace and this is what leads to the transformation of our characters. Thus, preaching is an opportunity to remind people on a weekly basis of God’s loving acceptance and transforming grace. It is also an opportunity to cast a vision of what life in the present kingdom of God could look like if we “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). It is painting a picture for people of what they would look like if they were living out the best version of themselves.

In the end, I believe the best preaching comes out of a well-lived life. As someone has said, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.” The preacher must be aware that what people are really listening to is his or her life. Maybe the best questions a preacher can ask herself is this, “Am I creating space for God’s grace in my life on a daily basis? Am I soaked in the Scriptures so that they affect both my mind and heart?” If the answer to these questions is yes, then the art of preaching is simply to share that experience in the most interesting way possible with the congregation.


William Johns currently pastors the Waynesboro Seventh-day Adventist Church in Waynesboro, Virginia. He has pioneered many ineffective ways to preach over the past several years. He is now relying on God’s grace to speak through his life.

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