Archives For Audience Analysis

Preaching for My Own Ego

February 23, 2015

Gary Burge shares this account in his book Interpreting the Gospel of John:

As a newly-ordained Presbyterian minister I served as interim pastor at a small church in Appalachian Tennessee. This was not difficult since church responsibilities fit well with my college teaching schedule. But since I only had begun to teach, I was enamored with the disciplines of the “academy.” My congregation heard far too much about New Testament theology and interpretation. This church was nestled in a scenic valley where a number of outsiders had summer homes. When they came to church, everyone–including the preacher–noticed. At the start of one service I noticed that the famous Old Testament scholar, James Mays from Union Seminary in Richmond, was in the congregation. Panic set in. The sermon seemed too simple for him. Before I knew it my sermon was explaining how the traditions of the halachah of first-century Judaism affected the transmission of the Synoptics.

I’m not sure if Dr. Mays was impressed (he never came back), but the congregation in its wisdom realized what was going on: I was preaching for my own ego rather than for the needs of the people. My hard-won insights from Jewish literature were being flagged before my audience like so many credentials. Fortunately the people of East Tennessee are gracious, patient and wise–they never held such excesses against me.

Exegesis is the scaffolding of the building, not the building itself. When used correctly, exegesis becomes virtually invisible from inside the cathedral.

I wish I could say I’ve never given in to the temptation to parade my exegesis, but I have.

That’s why I have to keep coming back to this fundamental and corrective question when deciding what to include and exclude from my sermon: Why am I giving my audience this information? Why am I telling them this? Is it for their benefit or mine? Is it intended to help them understand the text better or confirm their belief in a particular doctrine by helping them see how it is rooted in the text (and context) of Scripture? Or am I on a homiletical and mininisterial ego trip?

God, deliver us from preaching that is self-exalting, and give us more of the spirit of John the Baptist: He must increase, but I must decrease.

It’s entirely too easy for preachers to be governed by a fear of man. “What will people think?” “Will they like my message?” “Will I get in trouble with so-and-so for making this particular point from the text?” And on and on the struggle goes.

In the context of concern for how the Corinthian Christians would respond to Paul’s earlier letter, he relates that people will always respond in one of two way to the preaching of Christ.

  1. To “those who are being saved” the “aroma of Christ” is “a fragrance from life to life.”
  2. To “those who are perishing” “the aroma of Christ” is “a fragrance from death to death.”

It will always be this way. Preach Christ and it will be a stumblingblock and foolishness to some and the power of God to others. That’s why we can’t be governed ultimately by the response of people to our preaching. Should we be concerned about how people respond to the gospel message? Sure. But listener response is not the ultimate gauge of success in preaching. The approval of God is.

Paul writes in v. 15, “we are an aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.”

Being a faithful minister of the gospel can be a grueling and burdensome task. Just read 2 Corinthians. A negative response to your preaching could break you if human response is your primary barometer of effectiveness in ministry.

But there is another audience member to factor into your assessment—God. Paul writes in vv. 14-15 that as we “spread the fragrance of the knowledge of [Christ] everywhere” we are “we are an aroma of Christ to God.

In other words,

Irrespective of the human response to the gospel, its proclamation delights God’s heart, because it centers on the Son whom he loves. (Murray Harris,The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 250, emphasis mine)

That’s what I really want as a minister of the gospel—the delight and pleasure of God. It’s like Martyn Lloyd Jones once said: “To me there is nothing more terrible for a preacher than to be in the pulpit alone, without the conscious smile of God.” And, according to Paul, “the smile of God” is present whenever His Son is faithfully proclaimed.

Charles Simeon reminds us that “God is pleased to speak of himself as delighting in the ministry of his Gospel”:

That which his servants labour to diffuse, is, the knowledge of Christ. They set forth incessantly his name, his work, and offices: and exalt him as the only Saviour of the world———This, like the sacrifice which Noah, and which Christ himself, offered, is to God “an odour of a sweet smell.” It is to him “as ointment poured forth.” (Charles Simeon, Horae Homileticae Vol. 16: 1 and 2 Corinthians, 436)

Is human response to the preaching of the Gospel important? Yes. Eternally so. It truly is a life or death matter. But in the end the verdict that ultimately matters is God’s.

Colin Kruse notes that “in the Roman victory procession the incense was offered to the gods, even though it was the people who smelt its aroma” (2 Corinthians, 87). Even so our preaching is to be offered first unto God as a sacrifice. And we can be assured and encouraged that whenever and wherever we “spread the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” we are “an aroma of Christ to God.

I have a friend who recently preached a powerful message from this portion of Paul’s letter. As an aspiring church planter he determined before the Lord that if he ever showed up to church and no one else was there, not even his own family, that he was going to do the service from beginning to end “for God’s pleasure.” That’s good. Real good.

Here are the questions, then, that I need to be asking myself:

  • Am I convinced that God loves to hear the gospel preached?
  • Do I preach ultimately for the pleasure and glory of God?
  • Is my chief concern in the pulpit to enjoy “the conscious smile of God”?
  • Am I unduly influenced in my preaching by the human response to my message (positive or negative)?

Question: How do you personally deal with the fear of man in preaching? What part should (or does) “human response” play in your preaching?