Junk Food in the Pulpit

Jan 26, 2021

In September of 1982—more than a decade before the rise of the Internet—journalist Allen Neuharth launched a newspaper that would revolutionize the world of print media. What made USA Today so unique is that its approach and design were based on the most thorough market research ever performed on behalf of a newspaper. By surveying readers about their likes and dislikes, Neuharth was able to present the news in a way that catered to the desires of his potential audience.

In his research, Neuharth discovered that people liked lots of color, lots of pictures, and lots of graphics. They wanted short, easy-to-read articles that didn’t continue on a later page. They wanted less international news and more human interest stories. In short, they wanted something that reminded them more of television than a newspaper. So that’s what he gave them. And even though critics began condemning USA Today as “the junk food of journalism,” the end product was an amazing success, at least in terms of circulation.

Unfortunately, many churches today have taken a similar approach to designing their worship services. Studies show that people want less doctrine and more drama, less preaching and more props, less declaration and more dialogue. They want short, easy-to-listen-to sermons that don’t get too deep and that don’t focus too much on God and not enough on me. In short, they want something that reminds them of the Sunday morning edition of USA Today. And that’s exactly what they’re given.

In the process, essential elements of biblical worship are often compromised, if not abandoned altogether. One of the most common casualties is the faithful proclamation of the Word of God. For this reason, churches that are committed to the expositional preaching of Scripture can be difficult to find. As David Jackman writes, “For every pulpit won, another seems to be lost, not necessarily to heresy, but to the Bible being relegated from the [driver’s] seat to the passenger seat, where it makes a useful companion, a map to be consulted from time to time, but does not really determine the direction of the car.”

One study of 200 evangelical sermons found that neither the content nor the organization of the message arose from a biblical passage in more than half of those sermons. In his book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach, T. David Gordon estimates that of all the sermons he has heard in the past 25 years, less than 10 percent were demonstrably based on a biblical text. Instead, the content of most sermons was simply asserted, presumably on the authority of the preacher himself. In too many churches the Bible has indeed been relegated to the passenger’s seat.

In contrast, the goal of expository preaching is to get back to the Book—to uphold the authority of Scripture by proclaiming the message of God Himself. The expository preacher has been divinely commissioned to stand before the people and declare with authority: “Thus sayeth the Lord!” He is, in a very real sense, the mouthpiece of Yahweh who has been called to speak forth the utterances of God (1 Pet 4:10).

To those who believe that the relevance of expository preaching has long since past, this may seem naïve. But for those who take seriously the biblical mandate to “preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:2), it’s the only option worth considering. After all, junk food may be relatively harmless when it comes to reading a newspaper. But not when it comes to feeding the soul.

Matt Waymeyer serves on the pastoral staff at Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, FL and teaches Greek and theology at The Expositors Seminary.