Reprise: Evangelicalism’s Got Talent (Part 1)

Jun 23, 2020

Not long ago I listened to a panel discussion of well-known pastors discussing the merits, if any, of establishing new churches whose primary shepherd/preacher is heard and known only by live-streaming video. Those in favor offered two main reasons: (1) It works! Patently faster than other numerically-driven approaches, the live-stream messages of admired preachers draws more people from, well, wherever they were before. (2) Only some men have the kind of giftedness to “bring it powerfully” in the pulpit, and so we should maximize their outreach potential through technology.

Now, aside from what I think are grave errors with that particular approach to feeding the flock (which weren’t addressed in the panel discussion, but that’s for another post), two issues cause me to think that evangelicalism is being duped when it comes to how we evaluate effective ministries and preaching. We make wrong assumptions about “giftedness” and this leads to an errant view of expository preaching. This post will simply focus on the first of those points.

Assumptions about “Giftedness”

Some of the panelists freely refer to superior giftedness in preaching without explaining what they mean. In fact, one of the younger pastors, in defense of having his messages streamed to other locations, put it bluntly when he said, “No one else in my church can preach the word as powerfully as I can.” It was, to say the least, an unmeasured statement, given other more seasoned preachers in the room, but my primary concern is with how we use terms like “giftedness” and “powerful preaching.” Are we certain that today’s preachers and their congregations have a biblical understanding of these things? Is a preacher’s “effectiveness” or “power” defined by established and measurable principles, or is it merely determined by audience size and response?

The assumption seems to be that when larger audiences quickly flock to hear a particular preacher, it signals that God is using a super-gifted Bible expositor to satisfy an audience’s voracious appetite for truth. In other words, these men automatically assume that where crowds of thousands suddenly descend upon a fairly empty church building to hear them preach by video, it is their unique giftedness, powerful expositions, and the congregation’s appetite for truth that has caused it. 

Lest I be charged with making sweeping generalizations, one of the men on the panel—a well-known advocate of his sermons being live-streamed to other churches—explained that he was approached by a local pastor with a church of 35, asking if his church could “stream” the mega-pastor’s sermons. In less than two years, “1500 people” filled the building where once only 35 attended. Again, the popular preacher concluded that the combination of his gifting and the people’s doctrinal appetite made it all happen. Moreover, he lamented the fact that anyone would have a problem with such results because, and I’m paraphrasing, “Why would anyone have an issue with more people coming into the church to hear God’s Word preached?”

This is precisely the kind of snap-conclusion that weakens our ability to discern. Nothing should be assumed simply because large crowds want to hear a particular preacher! False teachers speaking lies can get the same results. Joel Osteen boasts the largest congregation in the country, and his audience believes his giftedness to be unrivaled. Clearly, however, he tickles their ears and they elevate him for it! Osteen’s big crowd, his popular communication style, and his moralistic sermons laced with Bible-generalities are no proof of either his true spiritual giftedness or his congregation’s appetite for truth. It is dangerous to assume that accelerated numerical growth and fashionable oratory are sure signs of gifted Bible exposition and congregational maturity. In fact, 2 Timothy 4:3 warns of a time when people in the church will install teachers who “tickle their ears” because they will no longer tolerate unvarnished Bible doctrine. That being the case, how will the church discern such a dangerous trend if we continue stubbornly pointing to mass appeal in defense of shallow teaching?

Any spiritually shallow audience, with no desire for serious Bible teaching, can popularize a preacher whose “style” and content is equally superficial. Where I live, many congregations tout their preacher as “lights-out-gifted,” and the preacher, seeing the crowds, assumes he has unique gifts and that his audience loves truth. But neither can prove their case by such evidence alone. The insipid audience makes the preacher popular by choosing to exalt his ministry precisely because of his shallow spiritual “talks.” And the equally diluted preacher attracts the audience by scratching where they itch. In these cases, it is blindness to assume that crowds are drawn by the preacher’s gifting, when all that really occurred is a bit of old fashioned consumerism. The people looked for what they wanted, found it, and bought it! It is equally blind to assume that the preacher is “super-gifted” or keenly “expositional” when all that really happened is that he found an audience as superficial as he.

I fear that a similar thing is occurring today among true evangelical believers. As with other seasons of church history when preaching was slowly stripped of its precision, clarity, and doctrinal depth, many contemporary congregations have slowly been robbed of the same. The problem is: they don’t know it. The erosion has been too subtle. The banks of the river have been slowly compromised at the foundation while happy campers frolic at the raging water’s edge. And it’s only a matter of time before the soil gives way. People today gladly sit through sermons that, were it not for some reference to a passage or verse, are little more than motivational speeches drawn primarily from life-experience and a mix of truth and earthly opinions. If ever confronted about their lack of doctrinal or theological depth, teachers consistently ballyhoo their swelling numbers as ministry collateral. With confidence, they deduce that behind large numbers is a uniquely gifted, one-of-a-kind expositor “bringing it like no other.” I’m concerned that in many cases, neither the preacher’s gifting, nor his expositional skills, nor the congregation’s love of definitive truth has anything to do with the hype. It’s often the result of the dumbed-down leading the equally dumbed-down with no one truly being “constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine” (1 Tim 4:6).

Is there any way we can know whether a person is truly gifted to teach or not? I think there is. The grace-gifts of the Spirit are specific and very powerful “enablements” uniquely expressed through the obedient service of every believer (1 Pet 4:10-11). What makes these gifts unique is that the Spirit employs our own personality, our mental aptitude, our growing spiritual depth, and our increasing skill in the Word, infusing them with supernatural power to strengthen the faith of others. The teaching gifts are those enablements given for clearly and compellingly articulating God’s truth. Some men and women can apprehend truth quite well, but are unable to systematically and persuasively re-teach what they know. Inexplicably, the truth they so clearly grasp in their mind and heart gets scrambled when it comes out of their mouth in a ministry setting. There are others who seem able to clearly present what the Bible teaches, but have no capacity to draw out transcendent implications and insights for the building up of others. In such cases there is absolutely no shame in blooming somewhere else in God’s garden. He has, however, uniquely “wired” the minds and dispositions of some to think about truth and to teach it in ways that the rest of us readily grasp and are effectively compelled by.

It is true that a teacher’s skill and maturity are factors for which they bear responsibility while raw aptitude and personality are a matter of how God chooses to “wire” them. Preachers, therefore, can hone their skills and godly character, but ultimately it is the Spirit’s gifting that enables the preacher to reach various levels of influence. When we begin defining or evaluating giftedness by superficial criteria such as mass appeal or communication style we lose our objectivity and adopt false notions of “powerful preaching.” So what are the most basic signs of the “teaching gift”? Well, they have nothing to do with the number of listeners, or with rapidly filling a once empty church building, or with how many sermon-downloads, book sales, and multisite locations a preacher boasts. They are quite simple:

  • Is the teacher able to clearly articulate biblical truth to others so that the listener understands exactly what God intends and grasps how to apply the truth for their spiritual benefit?
  • Is the teacher able to clearly and definitively refute subtle and blatant doctrinal error so that the sheep are protected from confusion or deception?
  • Is the teacher able to clearly bring profound and edifying spiritual insight from God’s Word to the specific needs of believers so that spiritual discernment increases and they are compelled to obey Christ?

Apart from these, there really are no other objective marks of a “gifted preacher.” Oratory “styles” come and go. Audience appetites differ greatly from church to church. One preacher’s personality may be everyone’s “cup of tea” today and no one’s tomorrow. In fact, filling up buildings is relatively easy, as the pragmatic give-them-what-they-like approach has proven over the past four decades.

The harder work of actually feeding and leading the Lord’s sheep demands much more than hasty giddiness over flash-popularity.

Dr. Jerry Wragg is President of The Expositors Seminary. He serves as the Pastor-Teacher of Grace Immanuel Bible Church in Jupiter, FL, one of eleven church-campus locations of TES.