Perhaps you've heard the story of the young man who went to the library and spotted a book titled How to Hug. Interested in this provocative heading, he took it home. It wasn't until he tried to read the book that the man discovered it was merely volume seven of the encyclopedia.
Just as How to Hug is an incomplete portion of the encyclopedia, the how-to sermon is only one of many ways to preach. Although how-to sermons can be biblical and appealing, a steady diet may become tedious, or worse, distort the text.
What qualifies as a how-to sermon?
Four characteristics of how-to sermons
The how-to sermon is prescriptive
Prescriptions are necessary. Every day I take a medication prescribed by my neurologist. The medicine prevents seizures, and without it I wouldn't be able to drive or swim. My doctor diagnosed a problem and prescribed a solution.
How-to preaching does the same. It says, "Here is what's wrong, and here's how to fix it." Obviously, this is a necessary part of preaching. We point out the human condition, sin and separation from God, and then offer God's solution, salvation and reconciliation through Christ.
Some examples of prescriptive sermon titles would be: "Getting Right with God," "How to Find Peace," "Five Steps to Improve Your Marriage," and "Secrets to Financial Security."
The how-to sermon is practical
While messages on supralapsarianism do not readily fit into the practical category, a how-to sermon deals with everyday issues. It focuses on subjects most people recognize as necessary to their lives. Practicality is a good thing. Many passages of Scripture offer useful counsel on ordinary matters, common to human experience. Some examples of practical sermon titles would be: "Five Steps to Forgiving Others" and "How to Be a Godly Parent."
The how-to sermon is relevant
Who among us doesn't want to hear, "Pastor, you spoke directly to me; that was just what I needed today"? God's Word is supremely relevant. All of Scripture, even the genealogies and lists of temple items, is ultimately applicable to us. How-to sermons make a felt need the main focus. Because of that, such a sermon can feel intensely relevant and significant to the hearer. Some examples of relevant sermon titles would be: "How to Deal with Discouragement" and "Overcoming Your Fears."
The how-to sermon is didactic
Moral instruction is evident in such a message. It may be presented in the form of, if you do X, then Y will happen. For example, take the title "How to Be Holy." A didactic sermon would give three attitudes, or four ways, or seven steps to achieving greater holiness. In "Choosing Relationship over Religion," the how-to sermon might identify the traits of religion as opposed to genuine faith. It may be presented as, If you find yourself at A, and you need to get to Z, here's how.
None of these characteristics necessarily signal danger. However, the how-to sermon form does have a potential downside. Here are four possible concerns.
Downsides of how-to sermons
How-to sermons may ignore genre
The bulk of Scripture is actually in narrative form. While some of that may be used prescriptively, not all of it can be. To do so would be similar to taking a feature-length movie and turning it into an instructional video. Lord of the Rings becomes Guidelines for Withstanding Evil. Genesis was not handed down to us as a list of propositions. Jesus could have said, "Here are three attitudes you need to have to truly love your neighbor." Instead, he told a story. Narratives can be principlized, but to do so in every case may obscure the plot.
Approaching everything in a how-to fashion will not give biblical poetry the honor it is due. Developing the beautiful imagery of Psalm 23 into Ways to Experience God as Shepherd may not be the best technique for handling the text. We do not communicate poetry to full effect through a list of principles or instructions.
How-to sermons may subvert the point of the text
The point of the text may be more about who or why than how. We can draw how-to points from a text that may have validity, or at least be consistent with biblical principles stated elsewhere, but we may be answering a question not intended in the text.
For example, using God the Father's words of approval at the baptism of Jesus as a guideline for good parenting is obviously not the main thrust of the text.
Since we believe the Bible is God's Word, we view all of it as profitable for us. It is because we take the text seriously that we can mistakenly grab for a how-to approach that may contradict the text's purpose.
Consider the somewhat introductory material of Romans 1:815. One expositor with a high view of Scripture selected that portion of the chapter and developed principles of good leadership. To whatever extent that is a legitimate secondary application, it may detract from the thrust of Paul's passion for the power of the gospel, culminating in verses 16 and 17.
How-to sermons may ignore emotion
The practicality and didactic elements of such sermons tend to focus more on the head than the heart. How-to sermons can fall victim to a lack of passion, or fail to evoke an emotional response in the hearer. It is the difference between saying, "I love you," and, "Take two aspirin and call me in the morning." Both can be said with deep concern and feeling. The difference is that one expresses an emotion, the other an instruction. One is relational, the other directional. When it comes to the biblical text, how-to sermons focus more on the latter than the former.
Take Genesis 1, for example. When reading that text in our day, one of the more prominent concerns might be the issue of creation versus evolution. But to address themes like "Seven Reasons to Be a Creationist," or "How God Created the Universe," would be to miss what the text shows about the joy and wonder of creation. Preaching the creation account should not leave people primarily thinking, God really did do it. Instead, there should be a sense of awe and wonder in our majestic, powerful God who made all things good. The Bible contains some passages that are meant to be emotionally evocative more than they are to be instructive. How-to sermons may neglect that emphasis.
How-to sermons may become human-centered
Every text is not about me and my needs. Ultimately, every text is about God. To focus constantly on the how can subtly influence our perspective of Scripture. For example, the awe-inspiring scene from Isaiah 6:14 should probably not a sermon on "How to Meet with God." There is nothing doctrinally wrong with that; it simply turns a God-centered passage into a human-centered one.
Dave is a friend of mine who admits to disliking reading. He finds it a challenge to go through a Bible study book and would never read a novel. However, he does enjoy reading technical manuals. Whereas I won't even bother to read the instructions before putting something together, he loves to discover how things operate and devours mechanical and engineering books in his spare time. Dave recently sent me a book titled How Candles Work. He wanted to share his joy of discovery with me. I found about two and a half chapters interesting. The remaining seven chapters were simply a jumble of equations and scientific principles that brought candle-lighting to the level of anesthesia.
There is a line between useful, interesting information and tedious dissection of the laws of thermo-dynamics. How-to preaching has its place. But there are times when, instead of explaining how it works, the sermon should simply light the candle.
John Henry Beukema is pastor of Cypress Bible Church in Cypress, Texas, and author of Stories from God's Heart (Moody). He served as associate editor of PreachingToday.com.