One of the most common complaints you will hear from someone about a pastor’s preaching is, “I just don’t get anything out of it.” Normally, when you ask this person what exactly is wrong, biblically, about it, they look befuddled that you even asked that. The typical reasons why they do find a pastor’s messages to be useless is because they don’t like his speaking style, they don’t think he’s eloquent, or they simply think he’s boring. While we should not discount the importance of developing and utilizing communication skills, this focus on delivery over content is very irresponsible and is one of the chief ways people get deceived.
Now I want to again make clear that communicating well is a vital part of preaching or writing. When I preached for class, my professor said he loved my manuscript and complimented my writing, but told me he’d like to see far more passion and nonverbal movement when I speak. Fair enough; I know that I’m much more of a writer than a speaker, but that doesn’t mean that I should not try to improve on the latter. Similarly, there are many who may speak well but write poorly, and they should certainly try to shore up their writing skills (even if they can more or less cheat and have editors/secretaries fix everything for them). Anyone who wishes to communicate something should try to do so in the most accessible and understandable manner possible.
However, the trend in most people, in and out of church, is to care far more about delivery than substance. For example, during the 2008 presidential elections, people would tell me that they loved Obama. When I asked them why, the most common response was, “Man… he’s just eloquent and charismatic.” I have no desire to comment on politics at the moment, but whether you agree with Obama’s policies or not, the mere fact that someone is a charismatic speaker is a horrible reason to vote for him if you don’t know squat about what he stands for. You know who else was a great speaker? Hitler. He was also an evil crazy person. (Quick aside: I did NOT compare Obama to Hitler, but rather the foolishness of focusing too much on someone’s speaking skill rather than the logic behind what they’re saying. Just throwing that out there in case some knucklehead comes and throws a fit.)
Bringing this back to communicating the Bible, it is no secret that the most popular preachers today normally tend to be those who are gifted public speakers, at least in some respects. They are either passionate, funny, witty, eloquent, motivating, or some combination of those. That, in itself, is not bad; in fact, if they are so gifted by God to do so, they should use those gifts to their fullest. The problem I have with many listeners is that that is all they seem to care about. They don’t analyze the logic behind what the speaker is saying, whether or not his exegesis of the text is accurate, or whether or not he even cares to base his sermon on the text. They just like to listen to him because it’s pleasant or entertaining, which is simply not wise thinking.
If this criticism is turned on those who buy into prosperity teachings, like Creflo Dollar, then most evangelicals would heartily agree that people are being drawn by charisma rather than being persuaded by good content. The problem is that, if we are honest, we have to admit that many who go to conservative churches have this same mindset. Let me ask bluntly: Why has a church like the Village grown so rapidly in the Dallas area? One reason, of course, is that Matt Chandler is faithfully preaching the Gospel and the leadership of the church is very Gospel-focused. Another reason, and one that I’m sure Chandler himself is aware of, is that Chandler is a gifted speaker and fun to listen to. The latter reason is not bad unless it is divorced from the first, because then it becomes mere entertainment. Look, I like Chandler too, but at the end of the day, as funny and passionate as he is, he should be evaluated by what he says rather than just how he says it. The reason that I’ve never been that impressed with Driscoll is not because I find his jokes offensive; I actually don’t mind most of them at all and I think a lot of people need to lighten up about them. It’s actually because I think he often talks big for his britches with very little argument to support himself, though I still affirm him too.
If you think I’m exaggerating, try criticizing something Piper has said to some of his fans and you’ll often be met with an angry response, as if you just insulted Jesus or something. I affirm Piper as a brother in Christ and as a preacher of the Gospel; he also isn’t perfect and I’ll critique his logic as I would anyone else. Sometimes I’ve heard him say things that I think are incredibly weak, no matter how passionately he says them. I respect his passion and I appreciate it, but that does not change whether or not what he says holds water under scrutiny. However, since many people just fawn over his speaking, they fail to see that and just get hacked off, which shows me that they’re concerned more about idolizing him as a speaker than analyzing him as a preacher of God’s Word.
Also, sometimes people simply have different speaking preferences and allow those things to cloud their judgment. Personally, I like dry humor, wit, and sarcasm, so Tim Keller and Chandler are right up my alley. I dislike excessive emo-ness, so Francis Chan and Piper are not. Does that mean that I can’t get anything out something Chan says? Of course not; as long as he’s at least trying to work with the text of Scripture, I can follow along. For others, they have different preferences and that’s perfectly fine, just so long as they remember to focus more on content than style. At the end of the day, the Bible is what will change people’s hearts, not great speaking skills.
To reiterate, communication skills are very important. For example, I despise reading bad writing and it makes me want to stab myself. Likewise, nobody wants to hear a speaker who can’t even articulate an intelligible sentence. Nonetheless, provided that the communication is not so bad that it completely covers up the message, the content of what is being communicating should always be center stage for both speaker and listener. To do otherwise is to replace the Bible with the personality and skill of the communicator, which is hardly faithful and makes the church ripe for mistakes.