4 Reflections after Listening to 18 Hours of Sermons in America’s Biggest Churches
Editor’s note: Upon hearing from several readers, we updated the beginning of this article with positives from the following sermons.
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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). These threads will make up most this article—a state of American preaching, if you will. Most of it will be negative. But first: what positive feedback would I give these sermons?
Several pastors mentioned the importance of diversity in the church. Chris Hodges made sure to let his congregation know that God values unity amid diversity in his sermon, “No Pain, No Gain.” He highlighted the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and called for their church to cultivate unity in diversity across racial/ethnic lines. During his first sermon in the series “People Over Politics,” Brian Tome of Crossroads Church pleaded with his hearers not to put their hope in any party, presumably to have them set their eyes on God instead (“Don’t Panic”). Here, their emphasis on the goodness of unity amidst diversity should challenge us. As some in my theological circles warn against speaking a word about race and ethnicity, I was proud of Hodges and those who like him mentioned God’s good design for a diverse people.
Rick Warren talked a lot about their philosophy of ministry, and while I certainly would not agree with everything Saddleback does as a church I found a few things he said to be very helpful. In one sermon, “The One Family that Will Last,” Warren said church membership is a biblical imperative and that we enter the local church through baptism. In language reminiscent of Bobby Jamieson’s, Warren calls baptism the wedding ring of the church; it’s how the Christian pledges themselves to the visible body of Christ. Warren eschews our twin-cultures of individualism and consumerism when he states simply that we can’t be the church on our own—we need other Christians.
Were I sitting across the table from these pastors, these are the kinds of encouragements I would offer. I would also offer the following pieces of constructive criticism.
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)