The danger of ‘how-to’ sermons
Several years ago a very dedicated church member pulled me aside. I could tell he had some important words for me, words that had been on his heart for quite some time. In a hushed, sober tone he said, “I’m concerned you’re being too hard on the Roman Catholics in your preaching and teaching. From time to time, you’ve specifically called-out Catholics as being wrong for this or that reason. But, frankly, when it comes right down to it, what Roman Catholics believe and what we believe is basically the same.”
At the time, I had nothing to say. I was so dumbfounded that I simply nodded my head and furrowed my brow and (to my shame) tried to change the subject. But in retrospect I concluded that this sincere man misunderstood what Roman Catholics believe, misunderstood what we evangelicals believe, or, most likely, misunderstood both. And to make matters worse, I really don’t think he viewed that as much of a problem.
Somewhere along the way, evangelicals embraced a different definition of what makes a Christian. While we once defined a Christian as someone who confesses the gospel and gives reasonable evidence thereunto, we slowly, imperceptibly but eventually, concluded that a Christian is someone who strives to follow Christian ethics. The entire ‘Christian’ core shifted from those who embrace the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints to those who live a certain lifestyle. And given this redefinition, I was being too hard on the Roman Catholics. “If my good Catholic neighbour attends church every week, reads his Bible, sings the same doxology we sing, opposes abortion, and supports traditional marriage, does it really matter if he thinks Jesus’ body is literally present during the Lord’s Supper?” I suspect the vast majority of our church members would answer in the negative.
How did this shift in definition take place? I’m sure the sociological, cultural, philosophical, and theological factors are legion, and one simple explanation can’t account for everything. However, I’m convinced that much of the blame must be placed on our preoccupation with the how-to sermon.
For several decades now, the typical sermon in many evangelical churches has been of the how-to variety: ‘Six keys for raising happy children’, ‘Four secrets for a healthy marriage’, ‘Five principles for managing your money’. In general, how-to sermons are the most popular and most requested messages. And we pastors have been only too eager to oblige.
Now please do not misunderstand me. Pastors must seek to apply God’s word to Christians’ lives. To be a hearer of the word but not a doer is the height of hypocrisy. However, a steady diet of how-to sermons devoid of the gospel, or weak on the gospel, or vague on the gospel, or which simply tack-on the gospel at the very end as a sort of formality, implicitly yet powerfully communicate that Christianity is a lifestyle first and a faith second. They place ethics at the core and beliefs in the periphery. And suppose the average evangelical notices that his Roman Catholic friend (or his Mormon friend) happens to manifest the four secrets to a healthy marriage? He will inevitably conclude that our doctrinal differences are really not that important.
If we evangelical pastors desire our people to remain evangelical and not become functional (or literal) Roman Catholics, we must fight this tendency tooth and nail. Reaffirm again and again and again that Christianity is a faith first and a lifestyle second. Don’t succumb to the allure of popularity and perceived relevance, even if the mega-church across town is attracting your members. Learn how to legitimately preach Christ from every part of the Bible, and how all practical application must be founded upon blood-bought grace. Preach through all of Romans or all of Isaiah, even if you must do so over the snores of some of your deacons. Don’t shy away from the difficult doctrinal passages in Scripture in favour of lighter, more ‘practical’ messages. Teach through your church’s doctrinal statement or one of the historic Protestant confessions. Read and discuss RC Sproul’s new book Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism with your leadership. From time to time, gently point out how Roman Catholics (or other popular religious groups) misunderstand core doctrines, and how misunderstandings of the gospel are deadly. In short, be a faithful minister of the gospel who preaches the word in season and out and refutes those who contradict it (2 Tim 4:2; Titus 1:9).
In the end, evangelicals are evangelicals not because we follow four principles, five keys, or six secrets. In the end, evangelicals are evangelicals because we build our lives on the gospel alone. Let us then go and preach and minister and live accordingly.