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I am privileged to travel across Canada to connect with Christian business leaders and with the heads of a dozen non-profits and a half dozen Christian universities.

I am saddened to report that I have heard a recurring refrain throughout 2014. It comes in the form of a question and it is always asked with considerable anxiety: "Why is there such poor preaching in the CRC?" And it really hit home — literally — just recently when I walked into our living room to greet three of our adult children ... all of them parents of young children. Even before they said: "Hi, Dad" they asked that same question: "Why is there such poor preaching in the CRC?"

I can cite dozens of conversations right across the country where this question has popped up. It comes from people who grew up in the CRC, who want to remain loyal to the CRC, but who are regularly frustrated by sermons that — in their words — amount to nothing more than mere fluff. The pastor may comment on the latest TV show they've seen, or some questionable book that they're read. Those sitting in the pew simply want exegetical preaching that opens up scripture, that reveals God's grace. They want to 'learn' something. They don't want to be entertained by fluff.

Today's pew-sitting Christian Reformed member knows a good sermon when they hear one. They can tell when the pastor has given little thought or devoted little time steeped in scripture.

Whenever they asked that question about poor preaching, they subsequently wonder whether Calvin Seminary is to blame. After all, who is training these men and women to preach. They are wondering if Calvin's focus is on how seminarians can become a good church CEO, or how to manage a meeting, or how to train the elders to become good pastoral visitors.

CRCs are emptying out ... and it's the loyal, life-long members who are leaving. It has nothing to do with worship wars or the decibel level of the praise team. It all comes down to the quality of the preaching.

As a recently retired stated clerk of a classis, I have lived through enough Article 17s to determine that the quality of the preaching was the main culprit.

Our educational system — ie. seminary — has failed the church. Perhaps the blame rests with local church councils who should never have encouraged a young man or woman to enter the ministry when they realized that there was little evidence of 'extraordinary gifts'. Perhaps the blame rests with seminary for lowering their standards for admission to the MDiv program, or perhaps it rests with seminary for recommending a certain person to synod for approval as a candidate while profs simply held their noses and hoped for the best for this young man and woman.

Whatever the cause, the CRC is faced with a grassroots uprising. Folks are leaving the church in droves ... most of them quietly, without raising a fuss.


Mr. Knight's criticism of CRC ministers is couched in absolute terms. All across the CR world in Canada preaching is so bad, he implies, that members leave in alarming numbers.

Criticism in sweeping terms always makes me cringe, the more so, since it concerns pastors who, for a great part, I know as able people of vision who love the congregations they serve. They know themselves sent by Christ. Their tasks are heavy, their responsibilities always more than their congregations surmise. But they work without complaining.

The Form for the Installation of Ministers of the Word recognizes that. It asks the membership, "Do you promise to pray for him ... and to respond to his work with and respect?" And again, "Do you promise to encourage him in the discharge of his duties...?"  And also, "Sustain him with your fervent prayers?"  I recognize nothing of these godly sentiments in Mr. Knight's lines.

Mr. Knight also draws Calvin Theological Seminary into his scathing criticism. That, too, is seriously mistaken. In the North American world of theological education our seminary enjoys an outstanding reputation. The professors of preaching, John M. Rottman and Scott E. Hoezee, are nationally known for their outstanding teaching gifts. The Center for Excellence in Preaching, connected with the seminary, receives international recognition, Faculty members of the seminary travel regularly  around the continent to remain in contact with the members

These columns remain available for our membership to express their views, as did Mr. Knight. It grieves my heart when they are used to belittle our Ministers of the Word. I urge our membership to pray for their pastors as they promised  at the installation of their (new) pastor.

Louis Tamminga


To clarify, I mentioned 'dozens of conversations' with folks in CRCs across Canada. No, there isn't a mass exodus of Christian Reformed members leaving the denomination.

Granted, we have many excellent preachers across the denomination and those churches are thriving.

As a life-long member of the CRC who was privileged to have had a few leadership positions, my heart aches for the church ... especially for those congregations that have struggled with pastors who simply don't preach well. And it is proverbial slap in the face to suggest that things would change if the congregation simply prayed more. I have seen church leaders agonize over this issue.

I also recognize that Calvin Seminary has a stellar reputation for its theological and scholarly work.

This wasn't mean to be a finger-pointing exercise but to simply raise the issue and the concern. To put it crassly, some of our pastors preach poorly. Then again, I am sure that no pastor intentionally plans and preaches a poor sermon. There's the rub: is a sermon's quality in the ears of the beholder? I don't think so. One can quickly spot a sermon that has been thrown together without little exegetical thought: a few anecdotes here, a quote from Tim Kellar there.

It makes me wonder -- speaking broadly -- if we have pastors who don't spend enough time exegeting a text, digging into scriptures, spending hours chewing on the text during the course of the week. Is it possible that we have pastors who would rather do a lot of the usual pastoral/administrative work instead of searching scriptures for next Sunday's sermon.

The church today needs excellent preaching. That is how we grow, numerically and spiritually.

Hi Kieth,

I appreciate your forthright posting on a possible problem with our preaching in the CRC.  Since I graduated Calvin Seminary in 1969, I have had some preaching exposure on both sides of the pulpit.  One Sunday a married couple said I was the worst preacher they had ever heard.  Another couple said I was the best.  My present pastor graduated Calvin seminary in 2006 and is a remarkable preacher. I'm rather certain that he is not the only one. 

A suggestion.  Would it be possible to gather a few of the persons who have observed this flaw in us and commented to you about it to meet with a few of the professors at Calvin Seminary to discuss this issue?  Since these comments come from a rather wide swathe of the Canadian side of the CRC at least, we should not permit the discussion to die.  Perhaps a couple of poor sermons or audio/video examples could be provided the professors and whatever weaknesses that would be found could be shared with the pastors in a confidential manner.  Maybe relatively minor adjustments could be made by these pastors that would make their sermons much better.  Further teaching in preaching could be provided.  Nothing should stop us from addressing this issue with significant resources. No ones job need be at stake unless of course after considerable efforts there is no improvement.

Keith, I hope you are right about this.  Preaching is very important to the church and where it is lacking, it should be corrected.  This is something we can get our minds, hearts, and resources around relatively easily.

Larry Van Essen


To Larry (and I hope Keith is looking on as well): Thank you for your post (and thanks to Lou Tamminga for his initial reply).   Just a few comments so as to let those reading these posts know that we at Calvin Seminary both know how vital preaching is and some of what we are doing to improve that preaching.

1) We work very hard at the Seminary to filter out those whom we deem to be ungifted as preachers.   And we do filter some out, though no one knows about that as they never become preachers.  But we do not simply "hold our noses" and palm off disastrous preachers on the church.  That said, three other considerations: first, the shank of candidacy decisions was taken away from the Seminary years ago and is now handled by Synod and a denominational candidacy committee.  They do good and diligent work, but we at the Seminary do get overruled now and then.  Second, in terms of GPA and academic standards, we simply cannot deny graduation--and then through the denomination we cannot deny candidacy--to students who may be C+ or B- preachers.   We can try to steer them into other pastoral avenues of chaplaincy, counseling, pastoral care positions, etc. but just because we suggest to a student that his preaching is rarely going to rise above the level of a middling sermon does not prevent that student from pursuing a pulpit ministry (and now and then somewhat bad preachers are convinced they are actually very good and only John Rottman and I seem unable to see it and so . . .).   Finally, in recent years--again due to synodical decisions in this area--close to 50% of the candidates in the July "Banner" every year did NOT go to Calvin Seminary and so we are able to have essentially no influence over their preaching education whatsoever.

2) Ten years ago the way we taught preaching at Calvin Seminary changed significantly and our efforts at homiletics changed still more about about 6 years ago when we revamped the curriculum.   That new curriculum included weaving preaching more intentionally throughout the student's education, including in every single Bible core course, which is now co-taught by both the Bible Department Professor and a Preaching Professor.   I believe we have graduated much better preachers the last 5-10 years but it takes time for this to be felt far and wide across the denomination.  Of course it's also true that even with our efforts, many CTS graduates are more "pretty good" than "excellent" but the point is, we are trying.

3) The Center for Excellence in Preaching exists to help our preachers through the website and our conferences (although often both seem more utilized by non-CRC preachers than CRC ones).   This month alone nearly 15,000 different preachers have come to the website at least once (that is 15 times more than the total number of CRCNA pastors working right now so we know our reach is far and wide beyond the CRC too).   The same number came during November.   We offer outstanding resources but we cannot force anyone to use them (and I am often surprised to run into CRC pastors who seem to know nothing at all about what we offer).

4) More to your point here, Larry: The Center for Excellence in Preaching is currently in the first year of a 3-year $500,000 grant funded by Lilly Endowment as part of its nationwide effort to increase the quality of preaching and of homiletical education at the seminary level (if anyone thinks poor preaching is unique to the CRCNA, please note that Lilly Endowment is investing many millions of dollars to address this across the board).   As part of this we are convening peer groups of pastors who are talking about how best to meet the communication challenges of preaching in the 21st century.   What's more, the Seminary is harvesting the learning from these groups (this year alone involving over 100 pastors) to help us teach preaching and to help working preachers better and better.  We are also working very hard on some new web tools that will become available in a year or so that will steer preachers to the very best of what the Internet has to offer preachers (and away from grim clearinghouses of bad stuff).   Lilly Endowment is also helping those of us who teach preaching to network with other seminaries who have also received grants (about a dozen-and-a-half seminaries now) so that we can all help each other meet today's preaching challenges (and they are substantial). 

All of this to say . . . we are working hard, we are listening to the church, we are devoting massive resources to produce the best preachers we can.  Will we ever graduate an entire class of A+ preachers?   Probably not.  But will more and more preachers produce solid, thoughtful, pastoral sermons that teach Scripture, proclaim grace, and so equip people for lives of discipleship?   Probably, and that is certainly our prayer.

-- Scott Hoezee


Thank you so much, Scott, for pointing out the painstaking efforts that Seminary and its professors take in teaching, training and mentoring potential pastors.

I am particularly impressed by the work of the Center for Excellence in Preaching and for the amount of 'traffic' that the website receives. It is my hope and prayer that pastors continue to use the excellent resources that the Center offers, both online and in person.

The pulpit continues to be the single most effective way to disciple, teach and grow the congregation. Within an hour on a Sunday morning, the pastor is able to reach hundreds of men, women, young adults and children with a message that reveals God's grace, holiness, covenant relationship and love for his people. That is an incredible responsibility and opportunity.

This is such a hard topic to address with any objectivity. Nobody wants to trash Calvin Seminary, and nobody wants to think that their preaching is the cause for the downfall of their congregation, but... it all adds up.

I give Scott Hozee credit for outlining the Sem’s tack on putting preaching into more of a central part of a seminarian’s education. (also, he wrote a good blog article that sums up the stress of the question from a pastoral standpoint at: ). We’ve all felt that pinch of envy when someone in our flock quotes a rock-star preacher who speaks his own (trite? humanistic? heretical, even?) words to thousands each Sunday – and still is a rock-star. How do we compete? Should we? On what level?

Sorry, Scott – I am one of the 50%rs who did not do the bulk of my sem work at Calvin. And, a couple of things shocked me during my EPMC in 2008:  1) The little experience in actual sermon writing and preaching that Calvin students were getting compared to my education (God knows I needed the extra work). That may be getting corrected through many of the improvements Scott outlined here. If so, that’s awesome – practice may not really ‘make perfect’, but it is how you get to Carnegie Hall.  2) Some of the examples of ‘not boring’ = ‘good’ preaching techniques given to me were actually from people who are less-than-Christ-centered in their preaching. Barbara Brown Taylor and Jeremiah Wright Jr. are awesome public speakers, but many times even their method (as well as words) blurs or even detracts from Christ and his cross. Passion about ‘spiritual’ things does not equal a ‘good’ sermon if Christ is not central. 

So, there’s the delicate line Calvin (or any) Sem walks: teaching people with many different gifts how to connect gospel preaching to an increasingly wide variety of people over a lifetime in segments of 30 min. or less. Calvin (and other sem’s) has a tough job. Christo-centric preaching is necessary, and passionate Christo-centric preaching is even more so in today’s culture. I continue to pray for all preachers: that their passion for Christ’s gospel is the central point of their life, and that that comes through when they speak to the people God has given them each week.

Keith, I hear both your frustration and your agonized concern, though the frustration came through kinda loud and made your concern not so evident at first.

I have thought or keyboarded many such expressions of frustration myself. The guy in me that does that wanted to write one back saying 'The biggest problem in the church is reactionary, single symptom focused outbursts that keep us from really talking.' But that would be doing the very thing I was trying to decry. So I'm just admitting I was tempted to make it a CRC issue hockey fight, but am going to keep the gloves on and talk it out.

I too am very concerned and am gathering facts (so many of us speak out of perception) where I can find them to see if my perceptions are in line with reality. I am also gathering stories.

Quality of preaching can of course really never be measured. And there are zillions of factors, such as the zillions of variation of expectations of the people you spoke with and the multiplicity of ways of communicating gospel truth a particular preacher may use. If they don't line up, you will hear the things you did. Who is teaching the people in the pew what fitting expectations are? Their Television? Why do you not explore or challenge their expectations with them?

What you are naming is, I have come to believe, simply one symptom of an unhealthy system. To declare it the one cause of imminent demise comes across as narrow minded. A system such as our denomination and it's institutions is a complex web of causes and effects. As such then, at least in my view, poor preaching by itself cannot be the thing that is "killing" a denomination. It might be the medical equivalent of a raspy throat that is a sign of a deeper problem. Sure, meds can be taken to bring the voice back, but the root ailment remains.

I do believe we are unwell as a denomination, and I do believe this is a great opportunity to stop and do some deep reflection, individually, and collectively. I believe it is a God given opportunity. But if we don't get beyond expressing fear and frustration and singular category accusations, the decline will continue.

Well, let’s take a stab at really fixing it.

I’m not a big one for increasing the bureaucracy (actually I hate the idea), but it seems to me that the oversight that makes us good enough to become eligible for a Call is still needed once we’ve settled into that Call. Yes, I know that the elders are responsible for overseeing the preaching in their own congregations, but sometimes (and maybe more regularly) an outside ear can offer some helpful perspective. So, what would happen if we formed a classical preaching review committee?

  1. Regular and frequent review of preaching in each congregation;
  2. Evaluations based on a universal set of criteria;
  3. Review of evaluations by a meeting of pastors every 2 months (or so).

This is a basic idea, and in all honesty it means a lot more work for a lot of people. But, are our people worth better preaching? I’m open to suggestions and refinement (or scrapping altogether) of this plan.

Other than the time involved, I believe the biggest hurdle to this is a universal set of criteria that defines a ‘good sermon.’ We’ve all been helped (or been the victim of) the Calvin Sem. Sermon Evaluation Form. Is this a good set of criteria? Can it be made better? What is the thing we seem not to be getting right about preaching in the CRC? Let’s pin something down and move forward.


One of the things we are trying to do through the aforementioned Lilly Grant program at the Seminary right now is listen to the church and start conversations in the wider church precisely to see if we can possibly come up with a common answer to the question Michael raises: What constitutes a "good sermon"?  I doubt there is broad consensus on this and not sure if we can arrive at one but we're trying.  I would love to engage in a broad spectrum education of also those who listen to sermons to help them be more incisive listeners and feedback providers but that is a big project.   Still, these Lilly projects at CTS and in many other places and the wider consultations they are eliciting might advance this particular ball down the field.

Keith, there was something else niggling at me from what you wrote, and I think I have some clarity on it now. To fully understand my abbreviated describing of it, it will help if you know a bit about the writings of Edwin Friedman (A failure of Nerve) and Peter Steinke's follow up work. They are making us aware that we do well to pay attention to the emotional dynamics in a system, be it a family or a congregation or denomination. And within that, especially watching the negative and destructive power of anxiety. (See also Bert Witvoet's article in the Christian Courier "A History of Conflict") Anxiety can rule the roost and run things even as leaders are trying to do a good job of leading. Until it is 'outed' and named and begun to be addressed, solutions will not be found easily. In my own reading, interacting with people and thinking on what I observe, I have come to believe that our Immigrant History has left us with a lot of people who are emotionally immature in our churches as a result of emotional stunting from traumas like WWII, immigration itself, and beginning a hardscrabble new life in Canada. To name just three biggies. Maybe church battles would be a fourth. I find that these folks tend to be the wellspring of the anxiety I encounter in my work as a Specialized Transitional Minister. It is hard to immunize oneself to it. It is hard to attenuate the effect of anxiety in a church. It works like yeast. Often I have found myself in the past jumping on a soapbox to make declarations about some symptom or another of some problem or another. But I have come to learn it was a mix of the anxiety of others and of my own that was primarily energizing that. Not calm considered leading. And it was not effective to any real good.

So here's where I think I see it in your post. It's right at the beginning when you write:

It comes in the form of a question and it is always asked with considerable anxiety: "Why is there such poor preaching in the CRC?"

I put in the bolding. There is anxiety in the CRC system, possibly more so in Canada than in the south. Anxiety is a more important thing to notice and address than the thing(s) it wants to point fingers at. Anxiety makes us accusatory, and does not let us see big pictures, and networks of causality. It wants simple linear blameability. It scapegoats. (See Rene Girard)

Notice I am not denying some poor preaching might exist. But I do not see it as the sole biggie in our mix of challenges. Anxiety is of more concern in that regard.

Thanks Pete for your latest comment.  I think you are onto something here when you speak of the emotional dynamics involved with preaching.  I’ve seen, as may have others, a preacher to be considered terrible in one congregation, and then all of sudden be wonderful in another new congregation.  It can go from “we hate his/her preaching” in one setting, to “we love his/her preaching” in a different setting.  This just goes to show the very subjective nature of evaluating a preacher and his/her preaching.  I remember, from the past, a minister with a great singing voice, who would interject a song as part of his sermon occasionally.  One congregation loved this occasional practice, the next hated it and wanted him discharged from ministry.  There were definite emotional dynamics involved.   And yet, in both, the actual preaching was the same.  Again the evaluation of preaching is, in big part, subjective.  Even when using objective evaluation forms to evaluate a particular sermon, the comments from different evaluators will vary greatly, from high grades to failing.  Again it’s very subjective.  

And it also seems to me that popular Christianity, including the CRC brand, is moving increasingly to a more experiential expression of it’s faith.  Increasingly, our creeds and confessions are getting lip service while my personal experience is getting front stage.  (What is happening to catechism preaching or the second service?)  So what may have been considered solid substantial preaching in the past is not nearly as appreciated as a heart wrenching and moving sermon today.  Or the three point sermon of the past doesn’t get as high marks as a moving narrative that tugs at the heart.  Again, this says something to the subjective nature of evaluating what goes into a good sermon. It doesn’t depend as much on the quality of the sermon as the perspective of the listener.  Other times it may simply be the age or personality of the minister that determines the quality of the sermon in the mind of the listeners.  Again, subjectivity.

It also seems to be true that Christianity itself is very subjective.  Increasingly, you can make the Bible say what you want.  Hence, the thousands of different Christian denominations.  I even hear voices, from within our own CRC, voicing that the blending of different Christian groups, or accommodating them, is a good thing.  Of course that broadens the scope of what many CRC people will fit into what they believe.  And so the base by which you evaluate a minister and his preaching also broadens, causing one member appreciate a particular sermon, while another devalues it.  Again, subjectivity.  This just shows that the evaluation of sermons is no easy task and there will always be differences of opinion.  I doubt that the problem will go away, even with the sincere and genuine efforts made by our seminary and denomination.

Hey Jeff,  nothing wrong with being moved as long as there is substance.  I think what I picked up in Keith's original article is that sermons today are often lacking in substance.  And likewise, Christianity that is based on an emotional experience without substance does not go the distance in giving a solid foundation for life and thought.  Do you think there was substance to Peter's preaching at Pentecost?  That's a rhetorical question.

Thanks, folks, for your varied responses and for the interesting tangents that this discussion took.
I do understand that congregations are fickle and that a pastor can fit in wonderfully in one congregation but not in another.
I also understand the pain of churches and pastors in conflict and the growing need for transitional pastors and specialists to deal with that pain..
I do think that you've missed the fundamental point of the initial question: Why do we have pastors who preach poorly?
Your natural reaction as a pastor is to blame the congregation for being stressed or anxious or finicky. You've got to protect your own.
I think it was Peter who mentioned that "the quality of preaching can never be measured." I beg to differ. When a church loses it members because of what those members describe as poor preaching, that's measurable.
Maybe, just maybe, a more appropriate term is 'lazy' preaching. When one sits in the pew and hears a sermon that lacks substance and that clearly hasn't had much thought put into it, that's lazy preaching. When pastors are more prone to exegete a TV show or the latest newscast, that's lazy preaching.  Granted, perhaps those pastors consider their preaching 'relevant'.
Is it being old fashioned to expect a pastor to 'preach the text'?

I am delighted that Seminary's Center for Excellence in Preaching regularly puts on touring workshops across the denomination. Their very existence underscores the need for excellence in preaching.

And perhaps Seminary should create a Centre for Excellence in Discerning, Listening, Tolerance for those of us in the pew who are at the receiving end of that solitary Sunday morning sermon.

I don't envy today's pastor/preacher. He/she has a tough audience. Preaching isn't for the faint-hearted, nor for the lazy, nor for the person who is looking for a soft job and a fat cheque (check). Congregations not only deserve excellence in preaching; it's crucial in equipping the saints for the working world and the battles that exist in the trenches.


Thanks for bringing the point back to the discussion, Keith.  

I hear what you are saying, and at the same time just have to mention that as a solo pastor I get about one Sunday night off a month.  Since that has become my pattern, I have to say that I haven't heard a bad sermon.  I have always been able to get something edifying out of anything that has been preached.  I am eager to hear the word of God preached by someone else than myself, to be a receiver, and so I find myself taking in the sermon more like a hungry man and less like a foodie.  So yes, there is definitely a congregational component.  There can be bad listening as well as bad preaching.

That isn't meant to be a dodge, just an observation.

But to reflect on your question, as well as Roger's rhetorical question about Peter's sermon, we might say that yes, it had substance, or exegetical integrity.  We might also say that it had homiletical skill.  But it had more.  It had what older writers such as EM Bounds or Martyn Lloyd Jones referred to as "unction".  While hard to pin down, Lee Eclov defines unction as "the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon a sermon so that something holy and powerful is added to the message that no preacher can generate, no matter how great his skills."  We have all had those times when the Spirit "takes things out of our hands" and does something with a sermon that we would not say is our best.  At the same time, we may preach a sermon that is exegetically sound and homiletically skilled but that falls, as one of my professors put it "from the pulpit like a wingless duck."

Is unction the thing that our sermons are lacking?  Fred Craddock talks about the two chairs of preaching.  There is the hard, straight chair of exegetical legwork, what we are to say.  Then we are to move to the more comfy homiletical chair, where we formulate how we are to say it.  But there is a third chair, that perhaps must be paid more attention to, and that is the chair at which we kneel and beg God to add to our work what only He can.  I would be interested in hearing how preaching classes intentionally emphasize the Spirit's role in sermon preparation and delivery.



Apparently, Keith, you haven’t heard (or read) a response that quite satisfies you.  You still think that (in general) the preaching in the CRC has become poor and is the main culprit for people leaving the denomination.  Apparently “pew sitting CRC members know a good sermon when they hear one.”  So I’m guessing that the constant in this equation is your hearing.  Your judgement (of sermons) has remained the same, as it has for most pew sitting CRC members.  What has changed in the formula is only the sermon.  And according to your original comments, sermons today (in the CRC) are little more than fluff.  You even have questioned whether some of the safeguards along the way have become relaxed or removed so that today poor preachers are allowed to enter through the starting gates of ministry, and hence unload sub standard sermons on CRC congregations.

You mentioned your recent retirement as the stated clerk of a Classis.  Then you know, as well as anyone, that the last safeguard, the last gate, that these ministers (or wanna-be ministers) must pass through is the Classical examination before entering into ordained ministry. And of course, a key element of these examinations is sermon evaluation (New Testament, Old Testament, and Catechism).  As many of these exams that you have sat through, Keith, how many candidates did you see fail because of a poor sermon?  Probably not many.  Perhaps someone should point the finger at that final safeguard, and say, there lies the fault.  Perhaps it is these pew sitting CRC members who should tighten the reigns on who gets through that final gate. After a student has finally made it through all the intermediary safeguards, it’s the final, and perhaps the most comprehensive, safeguard that has let the candidate and our churches down.  So perhaps your concern should be presented to our Classes before they examine new candidates.

I also think, Keith, that there likely has been a shift, over the last several years, as to the criteria for judging a good sermon.  What you (or the average pew sitting CRC member) may judge to be a good sermon, may no longer hold true for the new and perhaps more evangelical church member.  What you consider “fluff” may be a gripping illustration for the newer and less traditional member.  And it does seem likely that the target audience the CRC is trying to reach has changed over the last several years.  In the past, growth from within our churches was where we set our sights.  Now that our churches are experiencing much less growth from within (even a backward trend) our sights have been set on our communities and the world out there.  We have become more evangelical.  And that will have an impact on preaching, and the training of preachers.  Hence the disappearing act when it comes to catechism preaching, especially in new church plants and churches that are trying to become a vitalizing force in their communities.  With the changes that are taking place in our denomination, it would seem natural that this change will impact preaching as well.  And such change or impact on preaching may constitute poor preaching in the minds of some.

Keith, it seems that you have written an article that has touched some nerves out in the CRC audience.  There’s been several interesting and good responses.  Jeff’s and my latest response must have been sent in at about the same time, because (even though Jeff’s response came in prior to mine) I didn’t see that post before I had posted.  I appreciate, Jeff, your thoughts and wanted to respond, but I do think you are standing on a slippery slope as you comment.  I don’t expect many others to agree with me as to my forthcoming comments, but I’ll say them anyway.  And Jeff, I imagine your comments resonated with many readers.

A comment about bad and good listening.  It seems as though you are saying, if you come to church in the right spirit, a spirit of hungering and thirsting for the word of God, then you’re much more likely to receive from the Holy Spirit’s bounty.  I love the minister at the church I attend regularly.  As far as I can discern I come to church with the same hope and expectation weekly.  But let me tell you, I’ve heard some real pearls and some real lemons from the same beloved preacher.  Now it might be true that there is truth in all the sermons I hear but some definitely are lacking in inspiration and take home value.  But apparently that isn’t true for you.

Now, a word about this “unction” or “anointing by the Holy Spirit.”  As you suggest, Jeff, it’s hard to pin down, which means, to me, that you are now standing on the slippery slope.  You have crossed over into the area of subjectivism.  It seems to me that you, as a preacher, do your utmost to do your exegetical and homiletical diligence and then leave your sermon with God to make it effective with your congregants.  What minister doesn’t pray that God will bless his efforts?  You make it sound like this kneeling and begging God to add to your sermon the anointing of the Holy Spirit is something that the minister can promote somehow by his actions.  Can we manipulate the Spirit into making our efforts even better? And why would it require some profound exercise by the minister for the Holy Spirit to use this sermon in the lives of the congregation?  Doesn’t the Holy Spirit want to bless all those coming to church to hear a meaningful sermon; and if the minister has done his due diligence, why would God turn his back on the minister and congregation?  What would you expect a seminary homiletical class to teach as far as being Spirit filled preachers?  Is there some kind of Holy Spirit wizardry that many (if not most, according to Keith) ministers are missing out on in seminary?  Is the absence of this unction or anointing by the Holy Spirit what makes CRC ministers poor preachers?  Your comments raise some red flags and muddies the water when it comes to evaluating effective preaching.  But I’m sure you don’t stand alone.

It's confession time, and this is only a slight digression from the topic. I will come around to Roger's comment about 'Spirit-filled preachers'.

I was asked a while ago to offer my personal testimony to a large gather of Christian media folks.

I began by saying that I always knew God: I grew up in a Christian home, attended Sunday school, the requisite Christian schools, and had a deep passion for the church. I owned a Christian newspaper, then worked in the national offices of three different Christian denominations -- Christian Reformed, Presbyterian and Anglilcan (Episcopal). I knew God, but it was a theoretical knowledge. I spoke the church language, served several terms as elder (usually chair of council) in several different locations.

It was only after I left my last 'church' job and spent a few months at home in prayer and 'letting go', that I finally began to 'experience' God. It took 60 years to move from my head down to my heart. For the first time in my life, I began to depend on God .. for everything. I finally realized what it meant to walk with God ... after mouthing those words for decades.

Roger concludes his latest piece with an interesting and pointed question: "Is the absence of this anointing by the Holy Spirit what makes CRC ministers poor preachers?" I would never, ever dare question a pastor's faith, especially as it relates to 'poor' preaching.  I do recall an incident many years ago when a parishioner asked to meet with her pastor. When they sat down in his office, she asked him: "How is your spiritual walk with God?" He was deeply offended. How could she dare ask him -- the pastor -- about his spiritual walk?  She was, and still is, a godly woman who was genuinely concerned about the pastor's spiritual life.

Maybe we need to ask that question more often of our pastors. After all, it is regularly asked as part of the traditional family visit ... if we still do that. And perhaps those who are concerned about the proverbial 'poor preaching' should sit down with that pastor and ask that pointed question ... without causing offense.

When a preacher truly experiences God, that is bound to profoundly affect the content of the sermon.

Thanks for this Keith. Such a revealing of yourself and God's work on you helps me understand and relate to what you are saying better. In my view you are closer here to naming the real core problem than in a "headline" that shouts about poor preaching. Spiritual poverty may well be the adaptive issue that is creating the symptom you name as poor preaching. It creates it in the pew and in pastors. Now we are talking!

Thanks, Roger, I'll take your words and reflect on them more deeply.  I realize, looking at my comment, that it might be a little hyperbolic.  Yes, I've heard (and preached) some stinkers too, but I've been able to be edified even by those that I've heard.  I recall a poem that Rog Van Harn had in one of his books about "Pew Rights" that talks about "listening for the one sentence", and found that to be true.  There is always that "one sentence" in every sermon.

 And by asking about unction I'm certainly not trying to say that God has somehow "turned his back" on the minister or congregation.  If that was my view, how could I have said that I was edified in the first place?   The Spirit will do what he wants with our work, whether that is through a greater display of his power or through his ordinary operations, but his work is a vital part of sermon preparation and delivery, and should be intentionally attended to.

Well Keith, it sounds like the right nerve may have been touched upon, at least by you Keith, Pete, and Jeff and perhaps others.  Keith: “When a preacher truly experiences God, that is bound to profoundly affect the content of the sermon.”  Pete: “Spiritual poverty may well be the adaptive issue that is creating the symptom you name as poor preaching.”  And Jeff: “The Spirit will do what he wants with our work, whether that is through a greater display of his power or through his ordinary operations, but his work is a vital part of sermon preparation and delivery, and should be intentionally attended to.”  I may be reading into your collective comments, but I’m sensing an opinion that our CRC ministers today could well be lacking in a spiritual vitality and even commitment to God, and when such vitality is lacking so will sermons be lacking in vitality and unction (the anointing of the Holy Spirit).  So Keith, is this where our CRC ministers are falling down on the job of being effective preachers?  Do you think this is the reason for what you see as poor preaching?  Lack of commitment to God, a lack of spiritual vitality? A lack of imploring the Holy Spirit to bless the ministers work?

I suppose the same could be said of any job, especially in roles of leadership and high responsibility.  If there is not a high level of commitment to the company and to the responsibilities that you hold, you will not likely achieve a high level of accomplishment.  But of course, in the church, we couch these sentiments in the working of the Holy Spirit and commitment to Christ, and spiritual vitality. How would you define this root cause of poor sermonizing?  You must find a way to define this deficiency so it can be addressed.

I hope you realize that this concern is not new, even at the seminary level.  From my understanding of what’s happening at our seminary, the spiritual development of each student is a key and core concern throughout the seminary program.  It seems to me that more is being done today than ever has been done in the past to address this issue. The nurture of the student’s spirit has been given a priority as never before.  If anything ministers of the long past in our denomination came up short on the spiritual shepherding aspect of their education.  In the past academics was the main concern, not spiritual vitality.  Spiritual vitality was just assumed.

And as candidates sit before Classis to be examined, the candidates spiritual vitality and commitment is never glossed over.  You must be well aware of that, after having witnessed many examinations yourself.  And isn’t the spiritual well being of the minister one of the significant concerns of the elders in their role of serving the church?  So where does this lack of Christian commitment and love for the Lord creep into the minister’s life that causes substandard sermons?

And how would you measure the proper level of commitment to the Lord and the high calling of being a minister?  If you were a southern Pentecostal, you might point to the ability to handle snakes with your bare hands.  If you were a more moderate Pentecostal, you might say that the ability to speak in tongues validates your commitment to Christ and his Spirit.  If you were a committed Baptist Christian you might point the Lord’s guiding voice directing you, even in the small decisions of life.  If you are a Reformed Christian you might point to one’s willingness to give at least a full tenth of one’s salary to the work of the church.  Pity the minister who doesn’t set the standard for the rest of the congregation.  For some others a commitment to a Christian Sabbath observance and celebration of such Sabbath is an indicator of one’s love for the Lord.  Others will point to their personal relationship with Christ through his Spirit as a significant affirmation of one’s spiritual vitality. By this close and personal relationship it becomes much easier to discern WWJD (What Would Jesus Do).  Other Christians, of whatever stripe, will point to one’s devotional life as an indication of commitment to God and his word. How many devotional hours a day do you spend in the word?  Others will want to know what kind of prayer life you have and do you really believe in the power of answered prayer?  Or what are you willing to sacrifice for the Lord, a second car, a bedroom for each of the kids, stylish clothes, time with your family so you can spend more time at church? You see this is really where the slope gets slippery.  We might all suggest something different that would validate ours or the minister’s commitment to the Lord.  It’s very subjective, and is based on my own opinion as to what validates real commitment to the Lord.

The minister you mentioned, Keith, that was offended by the woman asking about his spiritual walk with God, may have actually been fearful that he might not meet this woman’s criteria of spirituality and therefore was hesitant to answer.  And probably an answer of “my walk is fine.  Thank you for asking,” would not have satisfied her.  

My mom, several years ago was in the hospital and attended by a nice nurse.  My mom, being a committed Baptist Christian, asked this nurse if she was a Christian, to which the nurse said, yes, I am.  My mom, not quite satisfied, asked further, “what I mean, are you a Bible believing Christian, to which the nurse said, yes I am.  But still not quite satisfied, my mom asked further, what I really mean are you a “born again” Christian?  And then do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?  My mom explained to me that she just knew in her heart that this nurse was not a true Christian and wanted to pin her down so she could witness to her.  We all have our subjective criteria as to what constitutes true commitment to God and spiritual vitality, and I know I will not pass the test of many Christian critics.  And probably many of our ministers will fail these tests, as well.

So if the problem of poor preaching is caused by a lack commitment or not fully experiencing God what standard will you apply in determining a minister's spiritual fitness for ministry and the difficult task of preparing weekly sermons that are spiritually uplifting?

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