The Scandal and Malnutrition of Sermons for Sale
I remember sitting in a popular restaurant chain with some friends several years ago, when the waitress came to take our order. One of my friends, when asked what kind of dressing he wanted on his salad, abruptly stated to the startled server, “And I don’t want any ‘dead bread’ on my salad.” After letting the comment sink in, the sweet but stunned girl replied, “Oh, you mean croutons!” To which my friend simply nodded in confirmation.
That analogy has stuck with me all these years, and I remember it every time I order a salad that comes with “dead bread.” I actually don’t mind croutons that much, and have even purchased a bag when passing through the salad aisle at the supermarket. There are so many flavors now: herb, parmesan, bacon-ranch, etc; all so conveniently located that I just reach out and take them as I pass by while filling my cart. However, when applying my friend’s unflattering adjective to preaching, my heart is stirred over a phenomenon which has gripped America’s pulpits in recent years.
I recall opening my mail one morning some years ago and reading my first advertisement for “dead bread”:
“Pastors, are you too busy to spend hours of preparation on your sermons? Tired of feeling the stress of having to come up with original ideas week after week? If so, for just $199.95 you can have 52 weeks of quality sermons crafted by homiletical masters, complete with illustrations! Your congregation is guaranteed to be thrilled with the results or your money back!”
Could this be true? Are there people who actually do this?
My next encounter with the crouton crowd was at a breakfast meeting with a group of ministers when three men from the same “high church” tradition began comparing how their Easter season was going. I was stunned when each one began sharing from the exact same text, outline, illustrations, everything! They chided me for my naiveté and how I could expect to come up with fresh bread week after week after week. The last straw was when I found “sermon seed” in the back of my own former fellowship’s ministerial journal, giving even Pentecostal pastors a shortcut to perfectly prepared and portioned seasoned sermons.
Little did I realize that there was an entirely new “evangelical liturgy” which had been created in the name of pragmatic programming and church growth. There are many websites available to pastors across America (which I refuse to list here) where they can tap into high carbohydrate ministries by simply “clicking and shipping” a veritable supermarket of pre-prepared and pre-packaged food.
This truth was originally proclaimed (in type) in the account of God’s warning to Israel that He wanted them to gather fresh manna each morning, and that they were not to hoard up one crumb until the next day. They were supposed to learn that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8). They failed to listen then, and the result was spoilage and worms instead of a miraculous manifestation of God’s power (Exodus 16). The Apostle Peter exhorted those of us who preach:
We are to work, weep, and wrestle with the Holy Spirit, allowing Him to bring forth a fresh revelation of God’s mind and heart to His people DAILY. Today, all the over-worked and under-prayed pastor/CEO needs to do is click, ship, and unwrap the moldy manna, and sprinkle it liberally into the gaping mouths and itching ears of their “flock” (of pigeons not sheep).
Am I being too harsh? Please allow me to illustrate using the very words of some of the most successful ministry marketers and program exporters in America.
Bill Hybels' Self Feeders
Bill Hybels, pastor of the world-famous Willow Creek church in suburban Chicago, after taking an internal survey of his membership, was forced to admit in a recent statement that,
“I got the wake-up call of my adult life… parts of the data just ruined my day. That (“Reveal Now”) survey just rocked my world. Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars in, thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually; when the data actually came back, it wasn’t helping people that much.”
Pastor Hybels has been regarded as one of the foremost church growth gurus, having elevated drawing a crowd to both a science and an art. Thousands of pastors and churches have subscribed to the Willow Creek Association sermons, skits, and music; all with the hope of exponential increase in attendance. In addition to his initial confession, pastor Hybels continued by stating,
- “[The unsaved “pre-christians”] were giving us 9s [out of 10 on their survey].”
- “When we got to growing Christians, the scores began going down. And then we get to fully devoted followers of Christ, and the scores got scarily low…. That really bothers me.”
- “A lot of people in this category said that they’re not being fed… they want more of the meat of the Word of God…. That’s hard for me to hear.”
- “We’ve made a mistake…. We should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become self-feeders.” [emphasis added]
Isn’t it sadly ironic that the unregenerate audiences give Pastor Hybels his highest marks because his services are so “friendly” to them; but those who identify themselves as true followers of Christ are leaving hungry? Hybels laments that the problem is that the people are not learning to take responsibility for feeding themselves!
Mark Beeson's Self Feeders
This sentiment was parroted in a similar rant by Pastor Mark Beeson of Granger Community Church in Granger, Indiana, who experienced a similar rude awakening at the hands of his own congregation’s “reveal now” survey. Mind you, these numbers are attributed to “Christ followers” in the words of Beeson, and not to unconverted “men on the street.”
- 47% do not believe in salvation by grace,
- 57% do not believe in the authority of the Bible,
- 56% do not believe that Jesus is the only way to eternal life,
- 41% do not believe that God is personally involved in their daily life, and
- 71% don’t believe that a Christian should live a sacrificial life, instead of being driven by the pursuit of material things.
Listen to the evaluation of this nationally known purveyor of mass marketed spiritual croutons.
“Let me tell you something that the survey revealed, the people of Granger Community Church simply do not have a Biblical worldview…. We don’t know how to feed ourselves; we just don’t have any idea… The majority of Christ followers of this church said that the number one barrier to growth is that it is not a high priority to you… it’s just not really important. In case you have forgotten, you are the leaders."
See how he shifts the blame onto the 6,000 members? What is his solution to this travesty?
“We’re going to increase the length of our weekend services, just a little bit… We are not going to try and hold that [“real ministry”] experience to Thursday night; it will be on the weekend with 6,000 people. We’re not going to stop teaching, but we’re going to add to that the experience of the risen Christ… We’re going to program for it, and it’s going to take an extra two or three minutes.”
That long eh? They are also planning to…
“Add adequate transition time between services to enhance the guest experience… Give 45 minutes between services so that guests, they don’t have to fight, scream, and hate people when they’re parking their car.” [all emphases added]
Do you see the absolute blindness and directional destitution created by a steady diet of “dead bread”? Granger, by the way, has become infamous for very deliciously sprinkled sermon series based upon spandex, R-rated movies, immoral television shows, and many other elements of the fallen pop culture (www.gccwired.com). He also boasts new church plants using local movie theaters where the audience can sit in comfort and watch a prepackaged church service from beginning to end via video, with one of the main drawing cards being popcorn and cup holders!
If these pastors want their surveys to reflect a truly healthy church “body,” then they must feed it Manna and not Madonna. Unfortunately, they would then risk losing their customers who thrive on such apostate appetizers, thus reducing the impressive attendance figures which they routinely use to validate their “success”! Douglas M. White wrote in his inspiring book, The Excellence of Exposition (Loizeaux Brothers Pub. Neptune, New Jersey, 1977),
“A modern congregation is not disposed to show any depth of appreciation for exposition. Again, we are forced to acknowledge the correctness of the indictment. At the same time, this lack of knowledge is largely due to the fact that the pulpit has failed to instruct the people and thereby stimulate such an interest and desire for Biblical knowledge and understanding.” (p. 42) [emphasis added]
The Prophet Amos put it another way in the eighth chapter of his oracle when he wrote,
Churches built upon this malnourished diet of “dead bread” instead of the living Word of God continue to resort to the very thing that led to their famine… more surveys and opinion polls. Dead bread for dead flesh; with no power to nourish or save, no matter how much is consumed. The Apostle Paul urged the young pastor, Timothy,
(1 Timothy 4:6)
He would later plead with the young pastor,
The Apostle Peter also had a similar warning to the young preachers under his leadership.
(1 Peter 5:2a)
Peter didn’t scold the sheep for unfavorable survey numbers, but instead demanded that the shepherds “take the oversight thereof,” leading the church to green pastures filled with the life-giving Word of God! Sheep will eat what is put before them, so the wise preacher must lead the flock to hot, fresh bread instead of mass-produced, dried up garnishes.
Dr. H. Jeffs stated in his famous work, The Art of Exposition (Pilgrim Press, Boston, 1910),
“The Bible is the preacher’s book and the preacher’s glory. Bible exposition is the preacher’s main business. If he cannot or will not expound the Bible, what right has he in any pulpit? He is a cumberer of the ground that might be occupied by a fruit-bearing and soul-nourishing tree. If he does not expound the Bible, what else is there for him to do? He may deliver addresses out of his own head on any subject that occurs to him, and may do it well, but why do it in the pulpit? Is it his own gospel, or has he a gospel that can just as well be preached without the Bible, as with it? He is presumably a preacher of a Christian church, but there would have been no Christian church today if there had been no Bible…. Humanity that has once known the Bible will turn away, after the novelty has worn off, from every flashy substitute for the Bible that our modern Athenians push as the latest thing in the spiritual market.” (Ibid, p.35)
To be charitable, I do believe that many such spiritual restaurateurs are offering their bite-sized gospel because they truly do want to “meet the consumers where they are.” But it must be realized that true conversion is a miracle that can be performed only by the Holy Spirit Himself, and the only thing given to the church through which this miracle can take place is His Inspired Word!
When the church proclaims God’s Word instead of its own ideas of cultural relevance, then true saving faith can come! (Romans 10:17) The God of Israel is, however, raising up a generation of passionate lovers of eternal Truth who will not be intimidated nor seduced by these prophets of pragmatism, and who will give fallen humanity what they need, instead of what they want!
Our Lord Jesus gives us such an example of His strong and uncompromising leadership in The Gospel of John, chapter 6. After feeding a crowd of 5,000 men, He then turns around the very next day (not after months or years of stringing them along in a spiritual “bait and switch” routine) and challenges their motives; changing the menu from fish and chips to His flesh and blood. The horrified clientele became offended and decided to find another establishment more to their particular tastes and liking.
Once again the words of Paul ring through the centuries, calling the preacher to this deeper quest:
(1 Timothy 4:13-16)
When men and women of God labor over the hot oven of prayerful preparation, they are the first to taste the fruits of their labor. I always say that the first sinner to the altar each week is me, due to being confronted with the Lord’s divine demands repeatedly throughout my preparations. Perhaps we would see less moral failure and spiritual shallowness in both the pulpit and the pew if the first priority became the deep searching out of Truth and doctrine, instead of making sure all the smoke and mirrors were ready for the next dinner show. We are called to give the “sincere milk” and “strong meat” of the Word, not to merely click on the notes of someone else’s “30 days of this” or “40 days of that” in the hope of packin’ ‘em in.
They need the cross… we give them croutons. There is much idolatry to answer for from the pulpit to the pew, as well as within the front offices of number-crunching denominational bureaucrats.
Is there any hope? Oh yes! God is on the throne and has the situation well in hand. In the Book of Ruth we read of a time of famine in Israel, much like the conditions spoken of by Amos. However, after a long ten year exile in Moab, Naomi “arose with her daughters-in-law, that she might return from the country of Moab: for she had heard in the country of Moab how that the LORD had visited his people in giving them bread” (Ruth 1:6). After returning, Naomi (who had taken the name “bitter” while in exile) introduced her daughter-in-law, Ruth, to a redeemer who would bring her into the very bloodline of the Messiah and Savior of the world, Jesus!
When the spiritual exiles and pretenders who have been surviving on the crumbs and croutons of Moabite menus hear that there is freshly baked bread in the Father’s promised land, they will seek out its source and usher in a new season of fruitfulness! Let us all strive to stay true to His call, and to honor His eternal Word! Bon Appetit!
"Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread?" (Isaiah 55:2a)