What is the most lasting effect of preaching?

Far too much attention has been given to the sermon as an event. I don’t deny that it is one. I am named after one of the greatest preachers ever. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 was one of the most important events in the life of the early church. By the end of the day, a band of 120 has multiplied to an astonishing 3,000. It’s a story almost every preacher hopes will be repeated when they stand to proclaim the Word of the Lord.

The event nature of that Pentecost sermon is undeniable.

“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:37-38).

The Spirit is present. The gospel is proclaimed. Hearts are affected. Repentance, baptism, and receiving the gift of the Spirit follow.

It’s the type of event that preachers long for. I long for this when I preach.

But the thing about Peter’s Pentecost sermon is that it was a one-shot event. The scriptures record it for us because of its unique, historic nature, not because it was a common, weekly occurance. And weekly is primarily how most of us preach and how the hearers of our sermons experience them. Yes, there remains an event nature to our preaching — every time the Word of the Lord is proclaimed, an event takes place where people are called on to respond to the God who is revealed in the proclamation — but something else is taking place as well.

At this point in my life, I’ve preached somewhere close to 700 sermons. I’m not a preacher king, but I’m not a novice either. And somewhere along the line, I realized that by preaching about 45 sermons a year to the same crowd of people over many years meant that I don’t need to cram everything into one sermon, into one event. In fact, I am doing something by preaching many sermons to the same community that could never be done in Peter’s Pentecost sermon, as powerful of an event as it was. I am teaching the church I serve how to read the Bible.

The way we preach teaches people not just the content of the sermons we preach, but the way we handle the Bible.

In truth, we’ve heard over and over again that people don’t remember nearly as much of the content from our sermons as we’d like to think they do. But what people do pick up over time is the way we treat the scriptures — our attitude toward it; our humility before it; our contempt of parts of it; our “magical” view of it; whatever.

The problem with being too event-oriented in our preaching is that it is responsible for leading far too many preachers to mishandle the Scriptures. The potential of the event (with Acts 2 in the back of our minds) has many preachers so focused on the transformational goal of preaching that there is a willingness to take some shortcuts to get there.

Whole swathes of scripture are left unpreached because we don’t see any transformational event arising from them. And, yes, ignoring parts of the Bible is a form of mishandling it.

Verses are lifted out of context to support assertions they have nothing to do with. And, yes, even if our assertions are theologically true, forcing a passage of the Scriptures to say something other than what it is actually saying is a form of mishandling it.

Passages are made to serve sermons rather than sermons made to serve the passages. And, yes, an overly functional approach to the Scriptures is a form of mishandling them.

Too often, while our purpose is noble, our sermon-writing process is so functional that we reduce the Bible to a tool to use on people instead of a God-shaped world to enter into, like Lucy stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. And by doing this over and over again in an attempt to create events, our people observe us doing it and are led to believe that this is the best (and possibly the only) way to approach the Bible.

Preaching isn’t just an isolated event, it’s an on-going process of teaching those under our care how to approach and engage with the Word of the Lord. Therefore, the way we preach over time is as important as the what, the content, of our sermons. In fact, I am convinced of this:

The way we preach leaves a far deeper impact on people over time than those incredible insights we’re so proud of offering from our pulpits.

If this is true, it requires a change in the way we think about and go about preparing for sermons. If the way that we present the Word of God to the people of God is of that much importance, then the way we engage with the Word of God ourselves is of equal importance.

I will write more on this over the next four days, looking at four phases in the ancient practice of lectio divina as not only a method of personal Bible reading, but as a method of sermon preparation and delivery.