By Colton Corter. Posted at 9Marks Ministries
What’s the preaching like in America’s biggest churches? That’s the question I set out to answer.
I listened to four sermons each from the country’s nine biggest evangelical churches: Church of the Highlands (Birmingham, AL), North Point Ministries (Alpharetta, GA), Gateway Church (Southlake, TX), Crossroads Church (Cincinnati, OH), Christ’s Church of the Valley (Peoria, AZ), Saddleback Church (Lake Forest, CA), Christ Fellowship Church (Palm Beach Gardens, FL), Elevation Church (Mathews, NC), and Southeast Christian Church (Louisville, KY). With an average sermon length of about 30 minutes, these reflections are based on approximately 18 total hours of material. As I listened, I found several common threads (click here for the complete notes from every sermon). Those threads will make up most this article—a state of American preaching, if you will.
1. The gospel at best assumed; most of the time, it’s entirely absent.
Let me begin with the most important observation: in 36 sermons, the good news of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was unclear 36 times. Often, some or all of these facets of the Christian gospel were left out. “No gospel” became a common note. (Here’s an answer to the question you’re probably asking: What content is necessary in order to communicate the gospel?)
I don’t mean to say various elements of the gospel weren’t occasionally mentioned; they were. Todd Mullins (Christ Fellowship Church) mentions in his sermon series, “What Do You See Next?”, that faith is believing in what Jesus did for you—carrying the cross, rising from the dead, etc. But none of those elements are articulated or explained. It’s unclear exactly why we need Jesus to do anything for us. Furthermore, it’s unclear exactly what he did by doing the things Mullins mentions. Isolated phrases here and there without much reference to how the Bible puts them together was the norm.
In his sermon, “The Robe of Righteousness,” Robert Morris (Gateway Church) provides a happy exception. He mentions the doctrine of imputation, stating that we aren’t worthy of God and are in need of a “balancing (of our) . . . account.” Morris goes on to say that in the gospel we get Jesus’ assets while Jesus receives our debts. That’s as close to the gospel that any of these sermons gets—and even in this instance, the true things Morris mentions are isolated from the rest of the truths that make up the gospel message. (Neither God’s holy judgment, sin, nor repentance is mentioned.)
But here’s what’s even more disheartening: in his next sermon, Morris says the Jesus who accomplished all this for us “lays down all his divinity” (“The Ring of Authority”). Conspicuously missing from Morris’ explanation of what he calls “substitutionary, propitiatory, blood-bought salvation” is the response one must have to this message in order to be saved, which leads us to our next observation.
2. Repentance rarely comes across as something urgent and necessary; instead, it’s either optional or not worth mentioning at all.
Repentance was mentioned only a handful of times in the sermons I listened to. Kyle Idleman (Southeast Christian Church) mentions repentance as a way to grow in Christian maturity. Morris says his daughter repented once and she was healed from migraines because the open door the enemy had in her life had been closed by doing so. Steven Furtick (Elevation Church), when speaking of the prodigal son, quips that the prodigal wasn’t repentant, just hungry. In explaining how brokenness precedes breakthroughs, Chris Hodges (Church of the Highlands) mentions repentance but doesn’t explain what it means or what it looks like to actually repent. In fact, Hodges hints that nominal Christianity—what he calls “fire insurance” Christianity—while not optimal, is all you need (“Mirror, Mirror”).
Furthermore, the pastors of these churches rarely spoke like they were conscious that there were people in the building who were actively on their way to hell until they turned from their sins and trusted in Christ for salvation. Humans are never described as being in willful rebellion against God, and so sinfulness is described almost as a neutral happenstance, something that ought to be corrected by this or that but need not be overly dawdled over.
Because of this, every blessed promise and every moral command was applied to everyone without exception. It would take someone with acute self- and Bible-awareness to realize that the sliver of sinfulness mentioned throughout the sermon is enough to sink their ship.
3. While the prosperity gospel is absent, its shadow lurks in the background.
At least two of the churches, North Point and Crossroads, had a sermon or sermons on the subject of “winning.” Brian Tome (Crossroads) defines winning this way: “to find God’s will for your life and accomplish it” (“Tenacity”, week 2). What’s Tome’s win for this year? 100,000 social media followers so that his “spiritual influence” can spread. Tome goes on to say in his sermon, “Target,” that “winning” is a biblical commandment.
Nearly all the sermons I listened to had a decidedly cheery tone. I also heard a lot about miracles—not necessarily as an implication of a decided theological framework, but rather as a rhetorical device to justify the sermon’s positive outlook on the future.
Let me be clear: I don’t remember a single sermon that espoused an explicit prosperity gospel. No sowing seeds. No reaping financial harvests. But if you listened in as a visitor, it would be hard not to come away thinking that God wants you to live a happy life full of relational, mental, and emotional “wins.” Whether the preacher referred to “winning” or not, listening to these sermons could make one think that Christianity is most interested in curbing our bad habits so that we can all be better versions of ourselves. In fact, taken at face value, Ashley Wooldridge deserves an honorable mention in the clearest gospel category. He explained that Jesus lived a perfect life, died for all, and rose from the dead. But he said these things to prove Jesus is “the x-factor of habit change.” (“Stopping a Bad Habit”).
Put simply, the themes of self-improvement and self-actualization crowded out a prior necessity: heart change and sanctification. Our greatest problem becomes that undesirable habit, not our underlying sin before God. And the result of knowing the Lord is reduced to being a better you and living a full life. The word “sin,” whether in believers or unbelievers, is rarely mentioned. All of this, of course, is divorced from any discussion of God’s judgment. In these sermons, God is affable. He’s not level with us, but he’s willing to level with us. He’s serious, but not too serious.
What about suffering? Well, there seemed to me to be an unstated assumption that positivity and progress comprise the general tenor of the Christian life. When suffering is talked about, it was usually mentioned as something to escape by talking to an elder or changing certain habits or mindsets. I couldn’t help but wonder: would these churches be a hard place for those whose lives, year after year after year, just kind of subsist?
Thankfully, Hodges (Church of the Highlands) devotes an entire message to suffering (“No Pain, No Gain”). He affirms that God leads us through dark days. But just as he points the audience to eternity with God in heaven, he makes a quip to lighten the mood. Still, this dose of realism served as a welcomed departure from what were otherwise generally light and positive sermons.
4. The use of the Bible generally fell into two categories: misuse or abuse.
Every preacher utilized the Bible in one way or the other—some more than others, others worse than some! Morris stood out as one who consistently read the entire passage he wanted to preach. Hodges read most of Genesis 32 in his sermon entitled “WrestleMania.” Rick Warren said Saddleback self-consciously tries to base everything they do on the Word of God. Most of the sermons had a main text of sorts but the degree to which the text was used varied. Narratives and parables were by far the preferred genre, and the move from text to application was usually hasty and direct.
Take, for example, Idleman’s sermon, “One Day at a Time.” Luke 2 is his main text. He uses the passage to make the following point: since it took Jesus one day at a time to become who he was, we should expect the same. Tome said Rahab’s story is a lesson that no matter what happened in 2019, you can be a winner in 2020 (“Tenacity,” Week 2). Hodges compares the Old Testament law to things we in the present can’t break through in “Mirror, Mirror”; in “Wrestlemania”, he uses Jacob wrestling with God as an opportunity to ask his listeners about the areas they were currently wrestling through.
In still another sermon, “Hide and Seek,” Hodges makes a hermeneutic move that is paradigmatic for the rest of the sermons I heard. He directly applies promises given to Jehoshaphat and David assuring them of military victory (1 Samuel 30) to modern hearers. The application skips past the Bible’s storyline and fulfillment in Christ and moves directly to psychologized, anecdotal advice.
Simply put, in these sermons, men mostly mishandle the Bible. It’s referenced, not revered; alluded to, not explained; sat across from, not under. When biblical stories are there, they’re commonly being co-opted into the vocabulary of whatever else the preacher is trying to say about winning or breaking through or whatever. The words on the page rarely speak for themselves.
The point of this project isn’t to poke fun at these churches or to indict their motivations. God alone knows the heart, and we are left simply to evaluate based on what’s observable. The point of this project is to provide a snapshot of what a large percentage of American church-goers might hear when they darken the doors of a church building on Sunday morning. We assume that because such preaching is popular in large churches, it’s often aspirational in smaller churches.
My main take away, I believe, is to soberly reflect on the sermons we give and the sermons we listen to week in and week out. May God grant us and our churches mercy to clearly proclaim the gospel, edify the saints, and invite unbelievers into the greatest joy imaginable—life with God in Christ.
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Click here for complete notes from every sermon.
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North Point Community Church – Andy Stanley
- “Winning” (December 29, 2019)
- “Talking Points – One is the Win” (January 12, 2020)
- “Talking Points – Choosing Sides” (January 19, 2020)
- “Talking Points – Kingdom First” (January 26, 2020)
Saddleback Church – Rick Warren
- “The Only Family That Will Last Forever” (January 5, 2020)
- “What On Earth Am I Here For?” (January 12, 2020)
- “The Values That Matter Most to Us” (January 19, 2020)
- “How God Grows Our Faith” (January 26, 2020)
Southeast Christian Church – Kyle Idleman
- “One Day at a Time” (January 5, 2020)
- “One Decision at a Time” (January 12, 2020)
- “One Dollar at a Time” (January 19, 2020)
- “One Need at a Time” (February 9, 2020)
Crossroads Church – Brian Tome
- “Tenacity (January 11, 2020)
- “Target” (January 4, 2020)
- “People Over Politics” (February 8, 2020)
- “Love” (December 21, 2019)
Gateway Church – Robert Morris
- “King of Kings” (December 7, 2019)
- “The Robe of Righteousness” (January 11, 2020)
- “The Ring of Authority” (January 18, 2020)
- “The Shoes of Sonship” (January 25, 2020)
Christ’s Church of the Valley – Ashley Wooldridge
- “Starting a New Habit” (January 18, 2020)
- “Start With Who Over Do” (January 11, 2020)
- “Stopping a Bad Habit” (January 25, 2020)
- “Owner Vs. General Manager (February 8, 2020)
Elevation Church – Steven Furtick
- “The Father Saw” (January 19, 2020)
- “Ghosted” (January 26, 2020)
- “Flip the Bag” (February 2, 2020)
- “Your Season to Succeed” (February 9, 2020)
Christ Fellowship Church – Todd Mullins
- “The God of More Than Enough” (November 11, 2019)
- “What Do You See Next? – Part 1 (January 6, 2020)
- “What Do You See Next? – Part 2 (January 13, 2020)
- “What Do You See Next? – Part 3 (January 21, 2020)
Church of the Highlands – Chris Hodges
- “WrestleMania” (January 5, 2020)
- “Mirror, Mirror” (January 12, 2020)
- “No Pain, No Gain (January 19, 2020)
- “Hide and Seek” (January 26, 2020)
We know that yours and mine Christian belief systems are total and complete opposites. However, that being said, you and I have something in common here.
I find my conclusions about preachers on MY SIDE of the aisle just as irresponsible, as you do yours. In my quest, I’ve found that the BASICS are not there as much as they should be in the INTRODUCTIONS to Christianity.
I’m reminded, however, of Hebrews 6, that once we get the basics, we need to be more educated beyond the introductions of Christianity, but my argument is that the Introduction is so incomplete that it confuses people as to WHY Jesus is to be worshiped in the first place.
People “accept” Jesus, but they really have no clue as to why.
Ask a typical HIGH SCHOOL kid new to the faith, as to what he knows about Jesus that he was taught. Does he know anything about sin…his OWN sins? Does he know the Ten Commandments? Ask him to NAME THEM ALL in order. Then ask a 50 year old man if he can also do the same. My take, both are just as ignorant of the BASICS.
Even in my ranks, as in your ranks.
I’m reminded in the Book of Galatians that the LAW (Torah, not the law of Moses) is the schoolmaster that brings us to Christ. People are not being introduced to the law first…they are introduced to Jesus, not fully understanding what sin is, so HOW CAN THEY repent? Repent from what? Sin…what is this sin thing you speak of? Well, duh…it’s in THE LAW that you are to INTRODUCE THEM TO before introducing them to Jesus. It’s always good to begin at “In the Beginning God created, instead of “In the beginning was the Word”.
Bring back the basics, as it once was, THEN we will see “repentance”. Otherwise, no one knows what to repent from.
I know, I know, you will read this, then delete it. Good day!
My brother Ed, I hope a lot of people read your comment!
Ed, you had a lot to say in you comment that was really noteworthy. It is, and always has been important to stick to basics. One really good ministry I know of has a “Basics” conference every year. Especially important is the connection between sin and salvation; and the use of the law (not sure why you say the Law of Moses isn’t the Torah) in leading us to Christ. The REAL bad news must follow the good news. I hope you and yours are well this Saturday morning!
You hit the nail on the head when you discuss the bad news first.
Regarding Torah, Torah begins in Genesis 1:1. The old testament (The law of Moses) begins in Exodus 20.
Most identify the old testament beginning in Genesis 1:1 by an old bad habit.
The law of Moses is in the Torah, but the law of moses (Old Testament) is not found in Genesis 1:1 to Exodus 19.
Major reason to distinguish the two… Romans 5:13 and Romans 7:7-9 and Romans 3:20 and the King James Version of 1 John 3:4.
Sin is the transgression of the law. Well, the law didn’t come about until exodus 20.
Sure, Adam and eve got the law supernaturally, but obviously, it wasn’t passed down from generation to generation, so God had to sit moses down for moses to take dictation to write it down. But, the only people God gave the law to was the Jews. No one else.
So how does one get introduced to Jesus? God created first, before the do’s and don’ts.
Otherwise, the law of moses is based on who’s rules?
Anyway, that’s why.
God bless us Dan!!
If Jewish theology teaches that one meaning of the Law of Moses includes Genesis (and it does), it’s fine with me. Not going to argue about it. I do however understand the idea that the “Mosaic Law” begins with the handing down of the commandments at Sanai.
According to Jewish people that I’ve spoken to, all Torah means is… The First Five Books, hence the Latin Pentetuke (misspelled). But, it is known as the law. Furthermore, Tenakh, or TNK, The T stands for Torah, the N stands for “The Prophets”, and the K stands for “The Writings”, aka, Psalms, etc. So, in the New Test, we see, The Law and the prophets and the psalms, meaning, Genesis 1 thru Malachi.
The law, meaning Genesis thru Deu. The prophets, beginning with Joshua, and the writings, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Psalms.
Just further insight. Paul discusses The Law and the prophets all the time, and so did Jesus after he rose from the dead, and so does Matthew 5:17-18.
My conclusion of Matthew 5:17-18 is that it is not discussing the ten commandments at all. It’s discussing prophecy of jesus that begins in genesis. All because of the use of the word PROPHETS that keeps getting deleted from the conversation of the teaching of Matthew 5:17-18.
Have a great day, Dan!!
Gee, I didn’t find ‘the prophets’ missing in any of the several translations I checked. And after consulting several commentaries it seems that Jesus WAS speaking of the Ten Commandments and more.
The commentarires that you read are doing the same thing…deleting the word prophets. Put the word Prophets back into the context, and we have Genesis thru Malachi, not Exodus 20 thru Deuteromy.
I consulted @ a dozen good commentaries and they all spoke of the law AND the prophets. Who told you that?
If you’ve ever sat thru a seventh day Adventist teaching, or a herbert w Armstrong teaching, or any returning to our Jewish roots teaching. They believe that jesus did not do away with the law. Period. The returning to our Jewish roots people think that the new covenant is nothing more than a renewed of the old, telling people that you must obey the law.
Now, i will concede that they quote the word in the verse, but their explanation does not equate.
When jesus rose from the dead, he told his disciples that everything told about him in the law, and the prophets would come true.
So, the context in Matthew 5 :17-18 is about prophecy of jesus in genesis thru malachi, not about jesus fulfilling the ten commandments.
7th Day Adventists, Herbert Armstrong’s church and the Jewish roots movement all teach aberrant doctrine.
Exactly! I used to watch them on TV years ago. Not to be one, but just to find out how crazy they were. The guy for the 7th Day Adventist was a confused guy. His mom is Jewish, meaning that he is to, but his dad was a Pentecostal, I think. parents divorced. Lived with mom as a Jew, visited dad as a Christian. So, combine the two, poof, 7th Day Adventist, go to church on Saturday, and obey the law. What a compromise, huh?
Actually, Saturday Sabbath observance is minor compared to Ellen G White issues.
I consulted a dozen commentaries and they ALL spoke of the law AND the prophets