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If It's Not How-To, It's Not Preaching (pt. 2)

A forum on protecting and respecting this practical preaching style.

This is part two of a three-part series. In part one, Ferguson and Smith discussed a healthy definition of how-to preaching and the place for this style in their pulpits.

Let's talk about advantages and disadvantages, the "why" of how-to preaching.

Dave Ferguson: The advantages, to me, feel like part of our calling. I feel like a message has to be a challenge, and the challenge is to move people along on this Jesus mission.

Colin Smith: In speaking to folks who like myself are committed to expository preaching, I come across a number, particularly of younger guys, who are so committed to preaching Bible and to the expository method that what they're doing is expository but it's barely preaching. They're teaching Bible. They're giving a collage of biblical information.

And so the big positive that I would want to take from how-to preaching is, there is something to be learned about connecting with the people who are listening, and not simply thinking about imparting information. Preaching is, in its very essence, imparting a message. And so there must be that sense of message, and message does not exist without audience.

As we think about disadvantages, is there anything about the broader definition of how-to preaching that could be considered a downside?

Ferguson: It's possible that it could degenerate into a talk-show format where it becomes a self-help kind of thing. At the point when it ceases to be biblically grounded and Christocentric—at that point, maybe you've forgotten what you're really doing.

Smith: If I get to the place of deciding what to preach on the basis of what people want to hear or what is going to be comfortable for people to hear, then I'm going to have a serious problem.

I have to watch myself so I don't end up teaching in a way that communicates God as my servant and God fulfilling my agenda, but rather me being swept up into his.

Another concern is that the Christian life is a lot more than what we do. In fact, it arguably is more about what we are, what we believe, what we embrace, what we become.

Some will say that the underlying message of how-to preaching is that it's all about the hearer rather than the glory and purposes of God. The Christian life becomes something you make work by technique rather than by dependence on God.

Ferguson: Ireneaus said the glory of God is man fully alive. If our message is allowing people to be reconciled to God through Jesus, I think we're going to be fully alive, and I think that is the glory of God. That was his whole intention in Jesus. So I don't see that as a technique. I see that as complete dependence on God, either style.

Smith: But why would you want to separate these two things? The glory of the gospel is that believers are caught up from our tiny little lives into the immense plan of God for the ages. So we want to show the connection between these two things. But the connection is between the minute me and the awesome, eternal God. And so the perspective between these two things is important. I have to watch myself so I don't end up teaching in a way that communicates God as my servant and God fulfilling my agenda, but rather me being swept up into his.

Ferguson: When we prepare messages answering the questions what, so what, and now what, you can capture both the importance of depending on God and of what we should do. There is a genius to the and. You don't have to reduce a message to the level of solve-every-world-problem-in-twenty-five-minutes. There can be mystery and still challenge people to a real, solid application.

In the series I was previously talking about, "Impossible Is Nothing," the last sermon in the series was, "What Happens When the Mountains Don't Move?" There had been some awesome stories of God answering prayer, but other times—and every one of us have this—you go, "Hey, Jesus said, if I have the faith of a mustard seed…" and you know you had at least that much faith and it still feels like the mountain didn't move. What's up with that? In our teaching team, we banged our heads against the wall and said, "We don't know the answer to that." The talk ended up being: "You know what? We don't know. It's a mystery. But here's what we can do…." And we ended with the application that we're going to pray the way God asks us to pray. I'm going to do my very best to pray as best I can, with all the faith that I can, and do everything that I can, but accepting that there's going to be a part of how God responds to prayer that I'm still not going to understand. And that's okay.

So, in that way, you give practical help without sucking the mystery out of the Christian life. Everybody lives in that mystery. But at the same time, it doesn't leave people thinking they are stuck in a situation they can do nothing about. No, they can continue to trust God, continue to hope, and continue to be faithful. But it's still a mystery.

In part three of this interview, Ferguson and Smith continue their discussion of potential downsides to how-to preaching. They also address the value of this style and alternative ways to approach it.

Dave Ferguson is the lead pastor of Community Christian Church in Naperville, Illinois. Dave provides visionary leadership for NewThing and he is the president and board chair for Exponential. Dave is also an adjunct professor at Wheaton Graduate School and the author of many Christian leadership books including The Big Idea (Zondervan, 2007).

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