Associate Editorial
Why Is Preaching Ineffective?

"These things He said in the synagogue in Capernaum. Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, 'This is a hard saying; who can understand it?' When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples murmured about this, He said to them, 'Does this offend you...' ...From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more" (John 6:61-66).

Jesus has been rightly said to be the "Master Teacher." Not only was Jesus' personal character in harmony with the teaching that he did, he always said the right thing at the right time, in the right place, and in the right attitude. No other person can claim such perfection in his preaching.

Yet, Jesus did not convert all that heard him. In the text above, "many of his disciples" turned away from Jesus. Why is that? Did he preach too long? Did he have a poor attitude? Did he preach too caustically? Was Jesus out of touch with the "needs" of his audience, irrelevant to their value systems? Did he not "feel their pain?" Of course, none of this is true. Yet Jesus received severe criticism and the truth he taught was rejected. He was accused of representing Beelzebub!

The fact of the matter is that some people will reject truth when it is presented perfectly.

We are often moved to accept or reject a thing because of its "packaging." Modern salespersons know that how a product is packaged often determines its popularity. Millions of dollars are spent by Madison Avenue on putting the right design on a product to enhance its customer acceptability. We should not be surprised when religious groups use the same psychology - "packaging the product" - to sell denominational error. Televangelists have used this technique to their advantage, luring tens of thousands into their influence simply because of the "look" of what they present, not the content of it.

It is sad to say that Christians are not immune to this approach. Institutional churches have, for years, tailored their sermons to the demands of the populace: shorter, livelier, filled with emotional stories, witty, cleverly presented in the best Toastmaster tradition. Some religious journals write for popularity, requesting articles that have a minimum of scriptures while suggesting a witty approach. We understand the pressure on preachers: too much competition with television, busy schedules, lack of Bible study, short attention spans, etc. We should know, of course, that the value of a sermon lies in its content more than its packaging.

Having said all this, however, good preaching, scripture filled, presenting the "truth in love" preaching, is still ineffective at times. (Of course, it will always serve God's purposes - Isaiah 55:11- even when some will not receive it). There are several reasons why preaching can be faithful to God's word and yet be ineffective:

Some People Love the Darkness

"And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the ligh, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have done in God" (Jn. 3:19-21).

Throughout the word of God, light is equated with truth, righteousness and God while darkness is equated with error, evil and Satan. When men love darkness, they hate the light. This is so true that they will hate the preaching of truth. Preaching is ineffective to this class of people. Not that they are born that way! It is the love of darkness, the love of evil, the "practicing of evil" that turns them against everything good and holy. Thus, you will see movie directors in Hollywood scorn and excoriate the Bible, even while "pushing the envelope" of decency backwards. Violence and sexual perversion are forms of darkness and those who make films hate and despise those of us who preach against this immorality.

Purveyors of false doctrine hate for their error to be exposed to the light. Jesus often had confrontations with the Pharisees who violated the truth of God by their traditions (Mt. 15). They hated Jesus for exposing them and though he had a perfect love for them and for all the lost, they despised Jesus and used every effort to undermine his influence. Please note that it was not the unfortunate choice of words that Jesus used, the poor illustrations, the self-righteous attitude of a watchdog, etc., that they hated. Jesus' perfect preaching left no foot-hold for criticisms of that sort. They hated the truth that Jesus taught!

It is to be expected that gospel preachers today will be hated. But let us determine it will not be truthfully said that we are rejected because of our poor attitude, our hateful spirit, our self-righteousness and sectarianism. Let us be found "preaching the truth in love." Let our moral conduct be above reproach. Let us be sure that when we are hated, it will be for the right reason, even as they hated Jesus - for preaching the truth, for "walking in the light" (1 John 1:), that we might "become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a croaked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world" (Phil. 2:15).

Some Have Wicked Life-Styles and Won't Change

The life of a Christian is one of self-denial, knowing that life is short and eternity is forever. Even as Moses decided to "suffer persecution" with the people of God rather than "enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season," there are those with an opposite life-style. Those who are given to pleasure are "dead" while living (1 Tim. 5:6); the Christian is "dead to the world" (Col. 3:3). Nothing is more symptomatic of the wicked life-style of today than the "party animal" (often college age) who is given to a life of riotous degradation. Binge-drinking, sexual orgies and animalistic behavior characterizes many of our generation. Denominations have accommodated their doctrines to include the homosexuals, adulterers, unbelievers, drunkards and a smorgasbord of evil actions antithetical to Godliness. Gospel preaching is powerful enough to change a sinner to a saint - witness what happened at Corinth (Acts 18; 1 Cor. 6:19ff). However, those who are satisfied with profligate living will despise preaching against the "lusts of the flesh" (Gal. 5:19ff). Preaching will be ineffective to them because they are unwilling to repent (Lk. 13:3) and they will hate those who expose their sinful living.

Some Have Hardened Hearts

There is a condition of heart so remote from God that the gospel cannot penetrate. Every Christian should be extremely careful not to trespass into that realm of hopelessness. It is a condition described in the Bible as "hard hearted" and is one of the few situations said to be beyond the call of the gospel.

The Hebrew writer warned "lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin" (3:13). Even as the sun hardens clay, the human heart can be hardened by the deceitfulness and practice of sin until the very word of God is ineffective against its shell of indifference. The same writer spoke of some who "were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come" being "impossible to renew to repentance" (6:4-6). What a condition - beyond the reach of God's grace! Why? Because the gospel is ineffective? No! But because the human heart has the capacity to shut God out totally and irretrievably.

Some are Carnal Minded

Being carnal-minded is not necessarily wicked and evil in the moral sense. A carnal person is the person who only understands and comprehends worldly affairs. It has nothing to do with a lack of intelligence. One who is carnal may know what is happening on Wall Street, in the sports arena, on the golf course, in outer space or deep in the atom but unable to work up an interest in Bible reading, Bible class or saving the lost. A sheep is a carnal animal in that its only interest is the next clump of grass - it cannot have spiritual thoughts. Could this be the reason why Jesus often referred to us as sheep, needing a Shepherd (Psalms 23)?

Paul groaned over some of the Corinthians because of this same defect: "And I brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able for you are still carnal..." (3:1-3a)

In many assemblies of the saints, people sit through countless gospel sermons without obeying the gospel. Not because the gospel is unclear or the preacher is at fault. Too many are carnal as they wonder if the sermon will ever end, if the cafeteria line will be long, if the prayer leader will ever quit, if too many songs are being selected. Is there any wonder why there is a dearth of men to serve as elders and deacons? Why is it so hard to find enough Bible class teachers? Why do we lose so many from the younger generation? Folks, one does not have to take the name of God in vain to render the gospel ineffective. One can just love golf so much, watch too much television or keep one's eyes on earthly pursuits until spiritual matters mean little or nothing. To that person, all preaching is dull and boring; Bible reading is a waste of time.

Some Are Ignorant

Again, the Hebrew writer lamented over his inability to teach the desired things about the priesthood of Melchizedek because of his hearer's "dullness of hearing" (Heb. 5:11).

Many years ago, a noted brother was invited to a local congregation to confront the error of premillennialism. While expounding on the fact that Jesus was king over the kingdom and sitting on David's throne (Acts 2), one ignorant brother interrupted his lesson to make the inane inquiry, "Who is this man David you keep talking about?" How can one be effective in telling the story of the Bible is one doesn't know whether Jesus Christ was crucified or fell down San Juan's hill?

G. K. Wallace once observed, "Never underestimate the ignorance of your audience." I thought he was cynical at the time, but have since come to appreciate what he was saying.

We have underestimated the influence of television, sports and worldly pursuits upon Christians today. Not many are daily Bible readers and even less can discuss vital issues before the body of Christ with any discernment. Not very many brethren subscribe and read brotherhood papers anymore and teachers constantly complain about the lack of preparation for Bible classes. We who used to be the "people of the book" are people of the "boob tube." Ignorance of God's word abounds and it is having its effect. Do we wonder why few obey the gospel any more? Can it be that people really do not understand the story of the cross and why we need it? The best of preaching is ineffective if people are satisfied with spiritual ignorance.

What Is A Preacher To Do?

Winston Churchill is said to have made one of the most effective speeches (while being one of the shortest on record) during the dark days of WWII, when bombs were destroying London. He said, "Never, Never, Never quit."

Gospel preaching is God's choice to save the world: "It pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe" (1 Cor. 1:21). Please note that the saving power is in the gospel (Rom. 1:16), not the messenger. We must also realize that not every age is as accepting of the truth as other ages. We could not have a restoration movement in 1999 because there are not enough people "hungering and thirsting after righteousness" (Mt. 5:6). Paul recognized (through the Spirit) that the gospel will not always be effective to all people since he taught Timothy that he was to preach "in season and out of season" (2 Tim. 4:2).

But preach we must! "Never, Never, Never quit!" Out there in the highways and bi-ways of our busy world are lost people looking for the light. They are not hard-hearted. They are ignorant because no one has ever taught them the truth. Among Christians who are carnal minded are those who love scripture and who apply it diligently to their lives. We must not lose heart because of reverses, disappointments, personal loss or sacrifice. The gospel is still the "dynamite" of God that can save the world (Rom. 1:16). Let us "take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand" (Eph. 6:13).

"Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching" (2 Tim. 4:2).

Email Tom Roberts

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