5 Signs Your Church Has an Unhealthy Preaching Culture
I remember guest-speaking at a friend’s church on a Sunday where everything felt alive. When I went up to the pulpit, the congregation seemed eager to hear what was about to be preached. And my initial feelings proved correct. During the sermon, the congregation scribbled notes at every biblical point I made, laughed at every corny joke, and even muttered “Amen” to a couple of insights.
It was strangely encouraging and, in my arrogance, I thought to myself, “Man, I really brought it today.” Perhaps I was growing into the amazing preacher I had always imagined I’d be.
Fast-forward a few weeks later, I guest-spoke at another church where I preached the exact same message. But this time, things didn’t turn out as well. When I went up to the pulpit, the congregation seemed so…dead. It looked like nobody cared what I was about to say. And once again, my initial feelings proved correct. During the sermon, the congregation yawned at my biblical points, ignored every corny joke, and looked sleepy throughout. I even noticed people getting up and casually roaming the hallways to talk to friends while I was speaking!
This was strange. I mean, I preached the exact same message that supposedly “worked” before. What happened? It could be the Spirit wasn’t moving that day or I didn’t “bring it” this time. But personally, I think it might be something more simple: some churches have healthy preaching cultures while others do not.
I realize some churches develop a mature view of preaching where they expect God to do something every week at the pulpit and some churches, well, don’t. Some churches have a low view of preaching because they’ve been conditioned to have a low view. In other words, some churches simply go through the motions of sitting through a sermon because they don’t really see preaching being central. And the problem isn’t so much the preaching - it’s the preaching culture.
How do you know if your church is developing unhealthy preaching culture? Sure, there are obvious signs such as people falling asleep, playing games, or roaming the hallways during the sermon. But I think at that point, your church is just spiritually dead. There are subtle warning signs that I think churches should spot as signs of unhealthiness. What are those signs? Here are five.
1. Your Church is Only Blessed by Great Sermons
When your church is only blessed by amazing, home-run sermons, you can bet there’s something unhealthy brewing on Sundays. While it’s good for churches to have a high standard of the pulpit, I think it’s problematic when the only time a congregation responds well to a sermon is when the preacher is spitting fire.
A church that’s conditioned to respond to “fire” is usually a church that’s conditioned to respond to super-emotional personal illustrations and long, funny anecdotes. In other words, they’re amped up by stories and jokes rather than what the Bible has to say. As one author writes, they’re like kids with weak spiritual appetites and only want junk food when meat and vegetables do far more spiritual good.
A friend recently told me he visited a church and preached what he thought was a horrible message. Sure it was biblical, but he thought the illustrations were weak and the insights were basic. But to his surprise, dozens of members approached him after service and shared how blessed they were by the message. According to him, “They made me feel like John Piper.”
Were they too easily pleased? Maybe. But I can’t help but think that’s a sign of a congregation with a healthy view of preaching. As Harold Best writes, “A mature Christian is easily edified.”
2. The Sermons Are Unnecessarily Long
Some Christians tend to think that the longer the sermon, the better it must be. I understand the logic. I mean, if the sermons are long, we think the preacher must have so much to say. He must have spent a lot of time studying the Bible and preparing the message. So for the sermon to be say 25 minutes long was something “shallow churches” practiced while churches whose sermons went an hour were churches that really care about the Bible.
But just know, there’s nothing intrinsically holy about a long sermon. In fact, I think more often than not, the longer the sermon, the more unprepared it was.
Think about it. It’s much easier to be long-winded than efficient. That’s why first drafts of any essay or movie tends to be far longer than the finished product. Anybody can ramble and be complicated. But to craft a message that’s efficient and simple - that takes skill and a lot of work. As artist Jony Ive writes, “[Simplicity] involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep.”
Now of course, there are occasions that call for the sermon to go long. But generally speaking, there’s nothing great about long sermons. In fact, long sermons often reveal a lack of preparation on the preacher’s part. So when you visit a church where the sermons are unnecessarily long, you’re likely going to a church that’s used to consuming unprepared meals every week. In other words, you’re likely visiting a church with an unhealthy preaching culture.
3. There’s a Lack of Plurality at the Pulpit
I think one of the most unhealthy practices that a pastor can do to his church is to preach every week at the pulpit. When I see churches where the lead pastor speaks roughly 85-90% of the times, I can’t help but get worried about the culture of that church. Why so?
First, churches that hear the same preacher every week are more prone to revolve around the preacher than the Bible. A cult-like spirit develops where they only trust their pastor’s preaching. I mean, how could it not? I don’t care how faithful a preacher is to the biblical text - it’s still always being filtered through the preacher’s voice, interpretation, and passions. That’s why churches with one primary preacher often become churches that simply mirror that preacher’s personality.
Second, churches that hear the same preacher every week aren’t developing future preachers. How will the other staff members grow if they’re only preaching 2-3 times a year? Yes, they may not be as gifted as the lead pastor, but the goal isn’t just about delivering good sermons (see point #1) - it’s about developing a healthy preaching culture.
How do you resolve this? Get more personalities up there. Diversify the pulpit so you can diversify your church. If churches truly believe the preacher is merely a vessel of God (2 Cor 4:7), then prove that by allowing God to use more vessels.
4. The Sermons Are Heavily Geared Towards Insiders
I truly believe the church is meant to be a gathering of the saints. After all, all of Paul’s letters are geared towards “saints,” so the primary audience of our preaching should be Christians. But Paul also anticipate unbelievers entering the congregation (1 Cor 14:23) and exhorts churches to make things understandable. So when sermons tend to only be relevant to Christians, there’s likely a problem arising in the preaching culture.
What problem arises? Well, when the preaching of a church is only relevant to long-standing members, than the church becomes tribal. I mean, why would any visitor stick around when the pastor is talking about gossip issues that’s taking place in community groups? As a result, there will be a spirit of stagnancy in the church and make the Sunday gatherings feel like a Christian ghetto rather than a city on a hill whose light can’t be hidden (Mt 5:14).
That’s because preaching is supposed to consider both the believer and the unbeliever. And when a church’s preaching culture is aware of this, then new faces walk in, visitors may stay, and baptisms may take place. But when preaching is only geared towards members, the preaching culture becomes so insular where everybody feels left out (including the Holy Spirit) except tenured members.
5. The Sermons Feel Underprepared or Over-prepared
How many hours does your pastor put into his sermon? You can probably tell when you listen to it. Sometimes the sermons feel under-prepared where you can tell the pastor didn’t put much time into it. The main points are disconnected; the illustrations lack depth; and it’s unnecessarily long (see point #2).
It’s like that cooking show Chopped where contestants have 30 minutes to make a dish. It’s usually obvious to the judges when the contestants didn’t use all 30 minutes to cook their dish. You just can't cook a nuanced, thoughtful dish unless you use all 30 minutes. Similarly, a congregation can tell when a sermon is unprepared. It lacks nuance and thought and won’t offer true spiritual nourishment. For preaching to be healthy at a church, pastors must set aside time to study and prepare.
At the same time though, sometimes sermons feel over-prepared where you can tell the pastor put a lot of time into the sermon but something feels…off. The sermon will be biblical and theological, but it will come off as distant and tone-deaf to the congregation. This often happens when a pastor sets aside time only to study and prepare his message but never spends time with the people.
So without the congregation explicitly knowing it, preachers can under-prepare and over-prepare a sermon. Both will slowly breed an unhealthy preaching culture because both half-baked and undercooked sermons will fail to nourish the sheep properly.