It has become cliché to tell people to practice what they preach—that is, to live according to their words. But increasingly we may need to think about preaching what we practice.
In most activities we practice, a structure must be followed, even when creativity is involved. For example, the best cooks can add a pinch of this and a teaspoon of that to any recipe in order to add their own creative flair. But certain parts of the recipe simply cannot be changed without destroying the recipe itself. When making chocolate chip cookies, you have to mix all the ingredients before putting dough balls into the oven. If you only mixed chocolate chips, flour, and butter and put the mix in the oven, you would have an awful mess when you cracked the eggs and stirred in the sugar after the dough came out!
Yet how often do preachers jump around from topic to topic or scripture to scripture without seeking to understand the main passage itself? Preachers must take care not to crack the eggs after the dough has come out of the oven.
The power of the Gospel message derives from connecting people with God’s story. This entails explaining what the passage meant in its original setting so that we can better understand how to translate it into today’s culture.
It can be tempting for preachers to focus on quick principles for self-help instead of explaining the ways in which God has been faithful to God’s people throughout the generations.
Here are just a few of the ways that pastors sometimes stray from the power of God’s story when preaching:
1) Reading Scripture only to identify a topic within the passage, then preaching entirely on that topic without interpreting the passage itself. This teaches the congregation that the Word doesn’t really matter—it only serves as an introduction for what the preacher really wants to talk about. We wouldn’t follow this practice in other areas of our lives, but somehow this has become acceptable in sermons. For example, it would be insensitive to ask your friend to tell you all about their recent vacation to Florida, only for you to dominate the conversation by describing your own trip to France. When we engage in conversation with others, we must pay attention to the details of their lives and care about their perspective. The same is true with Scripture. We need to preach what we practice.
2) Skipping from passage to passage to prove a point. When this happens, the message never becomes grounded in the Word itself, but only in the preacher’s external vantage point. Prooftexting is like skipping stones across a pond: you cover a great distance but never really go very deep. In order to make sense of Scripture, a preacher needs to stay focused on the passage and remain faithful to the direction of the text. When we play a sport, for example, we have to follow the rules while making strategic choices. A baseball player might decide to bunt, hit a single to advance the runner, or swing for the fence. (There is creativity in the game, just like in preaching.) But if the player initially ran to third base, then to first and then to second before heading to home plate, no run would be scored – not to mention the fans would be confused and upset. Jumping around from passage to passage entails a similar chaos. We need to preach what we practice.
3) Ignoring how the passage fits with the surrounding material. A single story about Jesus can be compelling and profound, but it is only one part of the larger story. If you’ve ever put together a 500-piece puzzle, for example, you might find that a single piece can contain a clear image. But we’re not supposed to be content with one piece of the puzzle. The image becomes all the more poignant and understandable when fit together with the surrounding pieces. The same is true with the Bible: characters and themes develop throughout each book, and the overall story develops from Genesis to Revelation. In Matthew’s Gospel, for example, the angel’s pronouncement in the first chapter that the child born to Mary will be called Emmanuel—“God with us”—comes full circle at the end of the book. There the risen Christ promises the disciples, “I am with you always.” Matthew emphatically declares that the promises of God prophesied long ago have finally come true in Jesus. But we only recognize this key theme when we explore how the individual passage connects to Matthew’s overall story. If we don’t think a 500-piece puzzle is complete with just a few pieces, then why do we do this with Scripture? We need to preach what we practice.
4) Jumping straight to application. This often results in a highly individualistic interpretation, because the constraints of the passage never come into view. Preachers of health-and-wealth gospels make this error when they twist passages about God’s spiritual blessings into specific promises about financial wealth. It is important for preachers to investigate the author’s purpose and historical context in order to make appropriate application. For example, we would never use a wedding dress for a work outfit on a farm, because the material is simply too pristine and delicate for such a tough job. It wasn’t designed for that purpose. When we ignore the original context of Scripture, we do similar violence to the text. We need to preach what we practice.
5) Missing application. This is the opposite problem of the previous point. Occasionally a pastor spends so much time on the ancient context that church members never hear what this message means for believers today. We wouldn’t go to a job training seminar only to hear a history lesson about the company but not receive any actual training. We need to preach what we practice.
The Word of God is rich and powerful, God’s message of faithfulness and grace that compels believers to draw near to God. In other areas of our lives we practice common sense; we need to make sure we preach in the same way.
Thank you, Suzanne. I winced a few times as I read. Right on the mark, and cause for lament and repentance.