How Sermon Analysis Can Lead to Soul-Death

Zac HicksWorship and Pastoral Ministry, Worship Theology & Thought3 Comments

We evangelicals love, love, love those Bereans.  They were proto-sola-scripturites:

As soon as it was night, the believers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. As a result, many of them believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.  (Acts 17:10-12, NIV)

Some of us take the Berean model of scripture-reception as the hard and fast methodology for how to listen to Sunday morning sermons.  When the sermon rolls around in the worship service, we turn off our feelers and turn on our analytic receptors.  We slice and dice every word, every phrase, every proposition.  We analyze everything so that we know what we can agree with and “take away” and what we can leave behind.  We want only the meat, so like a dead carcass, we pick at it to ensure that we digest no bones, fat, or entrails.

We go out to lunch and do some more carcass-picking with our friends and family.  We tend to find the things with which we disagree and hone in on them, probably because we feel like we’re being good, faithful Berean-style Christians.  If we’re honest, it makes us feel pretty good to know that we probably understand the Bible better than our pastor, and it makes us rest easy, knowing that we haven’t fallen for anything false.

There are other ways we analyze sermons, too.  We not only dissect content, but delivery.  Was it too “fluffy?”  Were there too many drawn-out illustrations?  Was it engaging, compelling, convicting?  How did the pastor do in all those ways?

Don’t get me wrong.  There’s plenty of bad preaching to go around.  There’s probably too much placating, not enough prophecy.  There’s probably an over-indulgence in being culturally relevant to the neglect of being biblically rooted.  Nevertheless, for us sermon-analyzers, the question is before us: Has the preaching of the Word lost its effectiveness in shaping us into the image and likeness of Christ because we are so analytical that we’ve lost our ability to receive?  

Maybe for some of us we’ve moved to a new town, started at a new church and just can’t shake how this pastor isn’t like the old pastor we came from.  So, week after week, we approach the sermon more disgruntled, more ready to pounce on all the things that we don’t like.  Maybe some of us are deep students of theology and philosophy, and by nature we’re surgeons about everything–cutting, examining, doubting.

What’s wrong with this approach?  Well, for one, it’s not really the Berean approach.  Perhaps we missed it.  Not only does the text say the Bereans examined Paul’s teaching, but they “received the message with great eagerness.”  They didn’t just hear the message.  They weren’t just attentive.  They weren’t even just eager.  They were greatly eager.  It was like their thirst for God and His Word so trumped everything else that their first instinct was to sit at the well of preaching and drink, drink, drink.  One wonders whether we sermon-analyzers really approach the sermon first as thirsty pilgrims.  We tend to be more like doubting scientists, skeptical until our hypothesis is proven.

I have to confess that I’ve been through my own journey.  Toward the end of college, and throughout seminary, I became a sermon-connoisseur.  I approached preaching with a very, very selective palette.  I poured over every flavor and made sure that each part of my tongue received some travel time before I dared swallow, but many times I spit.  I got together with my friends and wife and complained about the lack of hearty exegesis, the over-abundance of illustrations, the avoidance of the “big idea” of the text, or whatever other important rule that I found broken.  I’ll be honest.  It had a soul-killing effect.  I found that I was feeling less “spiritually full” from worship.  I found myself growing more bitter, hard-hearted, and cynical when I came to worship.  I knew the preacher’s weak points, and I was just waiting for him to cave so that I could roll my eyes, whisper an annoyed comment into my spouse’s ear, and pray to God that He put a godly person in the pulpit…maybe someone like me, who knew how to preach.  

Pride.  It became a wall erected between me and God.  I had successfully dammed up a major source of life that God had ordained to be one of the main water supplies to the citadel of my soul.  I sat at the feet of the preacher, not to receive like a good disciple, but to nip at his heels like a starving dog.  And starving dogs do just that…starve.  Ultimately, healthy analysis mutated into a hyper-critical spirit.  I had crossed a line to my own demise.

My way out came largely through two realizations: (1) God intends for preaching to be a source of life and health for me; (2) God has ordained authorities–pastors, elders–over me, and I need to trust the vetting process.  I didn’t give up analysis, but I tried to reposition it in the right place on the Berean hierarchy–after eager receptivity.  I wanted to approach the sermon with an empty cup, desiring it to be filled, rather than with a clipboard and upturned nose.  I wanted to be a first-row pew-sitter, not a back-row skeptic.

Maybe you’ve reached the end of your analysis and found your methodology less than satisfying.  Maybe you’ve hopped from imperfect church to imperfect church, flawed preacher to flawed preacher, and you’re starting to realize that your dissatisfaction has less to do with all the bad preaching out there and more to do with the rusty pipe that leads to your soul.  There’s a wonderful road ahead when you begin to switch your approach to “God, I need You, and I’m here to receive what You have for me today.”  

3 Comments on “How Sermon Analysis Can Lead to Soul-Death”

  1. Well said! I've found myself often wondering exactly this: The abundance of podcasting of undercutting local servants of the Gospel, yet the preached word is the direct cause of our faith. "Thirsty pilgrims" is an outstanding phrase to illustrate the ideal approach to listening. "Bereanism" has always bugged me because people use it to justify becoming doctrine/practice police, but I think that in context the story about them referes to the Bereans testing the apostolic claim that Christ was the fulfillment of old testament prophecy. It was finding a matching gospel in Old and New Testament, not necessarily straining for precise uniformity in all soteriological and ecclesiological jots and tittles.

    It's ok to disagree with your pastor. It's not ok to refuse to allow him to water your soul.

  2. I says nowhere in scripture that I require a single professional speechmaker to water my soul for a half-hour every Sunday morning surrounded by ceremony and ritual. There are many sources of spiritual nourishment, and I don't need to be a church addict to be nourished by them.

  3. Eric, I think I hear where you're coming from, so in this instance, I'll strive for clarity, not agreement. It definitely sounds like you and I will disagree about what Scripture says, then, about preaching. I believe preaching is essential, and particularly the kind that happens in the context of the gathered people of God on Sundays. It also sounds like you and I disagree about the scriptural place for "ceremony and ritual." I see ceremony and ritual prized in Scripture, as it relates to worship. The only time it is (rightfully) challenged is when it is devoid of heart, as in Amos, but it seems clear that the ceremony and ritual is not the problem, but the heart behind it. Finally, it appears that you and I disagree about church. Because the church is the body of Christ, being a Christ-addict (which is who I hope to become more and more) really does mean that I will love and cherish His very body and bride, and, in a sense, I'll be a church-addict. I really do believe that I can't know and relate to God completely and rightly without my relationship to the church. I must have a personal relationship with Him, but that cannot be all. It sounds like you don't believe that.

    So, it makes sense that little of my post would be of value to you. It looks like we're starting from some very different presuppositions.

    Grace & peace to you.

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