By the Rev. Zachary Bartels
I love self-help materials more than most people do. I realized today that I sometimes listen to Dave Ramsey talk about his “Total Money Makeover” concept for hours each week (usually whilst on my bike or out walking the dog), and I appreciate several other self-help based radio programs: Dr. Laura (don’t you wish someone would pay you to be mean to people?), Clark Howard (consumer advocate), and Kim Komando (tech help) among them. On top of that, I’m addicted to websites and books about time management and productivity. And, despite this pastorly gut I’m nursing over here (or because of it), I’ve also recently added books, blogs, and audio about healthy eating and weight loss to the pool of self-improvement information into which I daily immerse myself.
But as much as I love the concept of self-improvement, I will never (yeah, I do say never) use my pulpit to teach self-help tips and techniques to my congregation. Not even if I could slap some Scripture snippets on top to make it seem like I was truly preaching God’s Word. You won’t hear “Five Tips for a Better Marriage” or “Dealing With Debt God’s Way” from my pulpit, although I’d be more than happy to recommend a good book or even a class or support group (meeting in a church or not) that deals with a particular area of self-improvement.
What’s my problem with sermons based in “practical application,” you ask? Well, setting aside for a moment that the term “practical application” is a red herring here (after all, true biblical application can only be done when and if the Scriptures have been observed, studied, and interpreted correctly), my problem is two-fold:
1. Although self-help information and programs (in any number of fields) are of interest to me, and although I acknowledge that equipping people to make their lives better, healthier, happier, and more productive is a noble pursuit. . . neither of those are criteria for biblical preaching. Heck, I’m also into biking, NBC’s “The Office,” ‘90s punk music, and amateur carpentry; yet I don’t spend my precious sermon time each week recapping what Jim and Pam are up to or rating local bike paths. And, while I think everyone ought to know how to change his or her own oil, I’m not about to make that the subject of next week’s homily either (although I’m sure that someone, somewhere has). Simply because a topic is beneficial or of general interest does not mean that we should preach on it. Too often, the personal interests of a preacher—whether Right Wing (or Left Wing) politics, a hobby horse social issue, or love of professional sports—dictate the content of preaching, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
2. The preacher’s main task is to proclaim the Gospel: God saw that we were like sheep without a shepherd headed for eternal separation from him, so he came down and, in Christ, reconciled the world to himself by dying on a cross. The Gospel is about what God has done, not what we should do. Thus, this is the one area of human life where you cannot do anything to help yourself. In fact, for a sinner to try and improve his condition will only serve to further harden his heart against the Good News. If I preach self-improvement or self-help mixed in with the Gospel (or instead of it), I will be feeding the sense, native to fallen man, that he can and must become a saint by his own will and effort in order to please God. Lending false confidence to the flesh of unregenerate men and women is not what I’m called to do, and if I ignore my calling in order to get better feedback and more butts in the seats, I set myself up for a scathing rebuke from my Lord, who told the Pharisees, “You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.”
But, wait... Once you’re saved, shouldn’t you move “beyond the Gospel” to the good stuff? The real practical stuff? In a word, no. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not just for unbelievers; it’s what draws Christians together every Lord’s Day—the Gospel publicly read in God’s Word (Christ and his cross being found in all Scripture), preached from the pulpit, and tasted in bread and wine. What happens when churches assume the Gospel and instead preach tips for better living? This does: WHI Survey of Faith and Practice. Peruse those results for a minute. That’s right, 90% of respondents attend church every week. And 96% agree that “God is a helpful coach who’s there to help us when we need him.” 96 percent! Why? Because their pastors are preaching self-help, self-improvement, and tips for living your best life now instead of preaching the Gospel.
We are in desperate need of a generation that returns to the proclamation of the Gospel as the center of life, especially church life. Sure, as I preach my way through books of the Bible, there will come blocks of instruction about family life, business ethics, and a million other topics, but for a Gospel preacher, those are the side dish, the garnish. The main course of our Holy meal is always Christ and him crucified.
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