Message drift is not new. Israel faced it. When Moses predicted that the Lord God would raise up a prophet like him (a reference to the Messiah), he also warned against prophets who would presume to speak in God’s name but actually speak in the names of other gods (Deuteronomy 18:15, 20). Jeremiah ran into a similar situation with a false prophet named Pashhur (Jeremiah 20:1-6; cf. 14:14; 23:32).
Message drift was not foreign to the New Testament either. In the Olivet discourse Jesus predicted that false prophets would arise (before the destruction of Jerusalem) and lead many astray, and some of them might even perform miracles (Matthew 24:11, 24). When men from Judea went north to Antioch and started teaching the people that they needed Jesus plus circumcision, the first church council meeting had to be called to solve the problem (Acts 15). Paul told the Ephesian elders that fierce wolves from among themselves would arise and speak “twisted things” and “not [spare] the flock” (Acts 20:29-30, English Standard Version).
Almost all the 21 New Testament Epistles were written to address some different nuance of message drift. In Romans, Ephesians, and Philippians the message was drifting toward disunity. In Corinthians the message was drifting toward making the cross and resurrection look dim. In Galatians the message was drifting toward legalism. In Colossians it was drifting toward syncretism. In Thessalonians it was drifting toward a skewed eschatology. In the Pastoral Epistles the message was drifting toward a wrongheaded view of the church. And Hebrews says simply, “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1, ESV, emphasis mine). The word used in Hebrews to describe something drifting away depicted an object floating down a river but moving so slowly as to hardly be noticed.
Message drift also gives birth to other drifts. Message drift can lead to identity drift (who we are), mission drift (what we do), core value drifts (what we cherish and fight for), and leadership drifts (who oversees and directs our paths). Ministers, elders, deacons, and congregations should be concerned about it. This is always important but no more so than when a church sets about to call a new lead or preaching minister.
Here are three ways church leaders can avoid message drift.
Discern the Message
How will church leaders know if a preacher or teacher is committing the sin of message drift? They obviously need to know what the real message is. They need to be able to articulate the gospel. They need to be able to succinctly summarize the story of the Bible. For some years I had students in preaching classes at Ozark Christian College form small groups and strive to summarize the story of the Bible in one sentence. They had to display and defend their work on a marker board. It seemed like an arduous task at first pass, but the students usually rallied and were excited by the end. After they shared their work, I would display what various Bible scholars thought. (See “The Bible in One Sentence” by Gene Veith at www.patheos.com, January 14, 2011.).
Here are a select few:
“God was so covenantally committed to the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (Daniel Block).
“God is in the process of recreating the universe which has been corrupted by sin and has made it possible for all those, and only those, who follow Jesus to be part of the magnificent, eternal community that will result” (Craig Blomberg).
“Apprenticing with Jesus to become human again” (Zack Eswine).
“John 3:16” (Andreas Kostenberger).
“The story of the Bible is about a God who is out to get back what rightfully belongs to him” (Gardner C. Taylor).
It seemed only fair to share my own one-sentence effort. I usually said it this way, “The triune God rescues fallen creation and moves it to new creation.”
Message drift occurs when we do not focus on God, who is the hero of all the narratives of Scripture. Message drift occurs when we neglect to put the spotlight on the salvific event of how the cross and empty tomb rescue creation. Message drift occurs when we fail to bring hope only realized in the new heaven and new earth.
The Bible contains a plethora of narratives. But message drift is occurring if the arch of creation, fall, and redemption is not part and parcel of a preacher’s preaching. Unifying all things under the headship of Christ is not only good Pauline theology (Ephesian 1:9-10), it also is a mark of preaching in our Restoration heritage.
Ask Questions About the Messenger
To help guard against message drift, a congregation would be wise to ask themselves the following seven questions for each candidate they are considering. (Asking these questions will not completely prevent message drift, but it will cut down on the possibility.)
- Is Jesus marginalized? It is amazing how little Jesus shows up in some preaching. And it sometimes is done in Jesus’ name. By this I do not mean a preacher should repeat Jesus’ name in the sermon in an almost meaningless manner. Neither do I mean attaching a Jesus sticker to parts of the message to make it sound Christocentric. Instead, congregations should be looking for what witness the sermon bears to the person and work of Christ. The late Wayne Shaw of Lincoln Christian Seminary taught, “If Christ isn’t in it, then it isn’t a Christian sermon.” Our Restoration heritage has stressed “No creed but Christ.”
- Is the cross diminished? These first two questions are inextricably linked. The Messiah dying on a cross is an offense to human pride. For many, the cross is an example of an abusing father or is unbearably horrifying and repulsive. But for us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). If the preacher is embarrassed about the blood of Jesus, avoid that preacher. Allow “the things of earth,” not the cross, “to grow strangely dim.”
- Is hope realized? Pastor, professor, and theologian Haddon Robinson taught, “Hope is the music of the future, and faith is the courage to dance to it now.” There is no need to hire Eeyore’s cousin for a preacher. The church has had enough Debbie Downers and wet blankets. The empty tomb is at the heart of the gospel message (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said” (Matthew 28:6). Does the preacher inspire resurrected hope?
- Is the kingdom announced? The government of God was the main theme of John the Baptist and Jesus’ preaching. The gospel is more indicative than imperative. Be leery of the preacher whose every sermon is filled with “ought,” “must,” and “should.” There are well over 1,000 imperatives in the New Testament, and preachers should want to hit them all. But what God has already done in Christ is what gives rise for us obeying God in the first place. Does the preacher regularly announce that the loving reign of God is being expanded through grace?
- Is the authority of the Bible undergirding every message? This means more than just giving a nod to the Bible in the sermon. This means the message will be the strong development of what the text says and how the text says it. The goal is not to just use parts of the Bible in the sermon. But the preacher seeks to become—as Robert Smith Jr. wrote in Doctrine that Dances—an “exegetical escort” of the text. The text wins over every nuance of the sermon. Is the preacher developing a biblically informed community through their preaching? Our Restoration heritage has stressed “No book but the Bible.”
- Is salvation clarified? To some extent, the preacher never puts the evangelistic hat in the closet. The preacher is always beckoning people to come to Christ. This does not mean to commit the sin of the idolatry of salvation (i.e., as if just getting another gospel notch on our belts is our goal). But does the preacher see salvation in its broadest terms (lost/found; guilty/forgiven; sick/made well; outsider/insider; injustices are corrected; and creation is healed)? Make sure the preacher has no puny view of salvation.
- Is the vocabulary clear and the call compelling? This is more than just honed homiletics. Jesus’ preaching vocabulary was understandable (Mark 12:37), and the people were compelled by it (Luke 19:48; John 7:46). The Pentecost folk were cut to the heart (Acts 2:37). The Philippian jailer asked what to do to be saved (Acts 16:30). Clear and compelling preaching garners those responses. Haddon Robinson said it rightly in his book Biblical Preaching, “Don’t overestimate the people’s vocabulary or underestimate their intelligence.”
Escape the Trap of Method Over Message
When I was interviewed for a preaching professorship at Ozark Christian College in 1983, I was surprised by the question, “As a teacher of preachers, will you emphasize content or method more?” I said in so many words, “I don’t think I have to choose. But if you made me choose, I would always choose content.” The message leads us to Christ who saves—not the method we use to communicate it. Congregations will be wise to think this through.
Fred B. Craddock told the story of a fresh-out-of-seminary preacher who took his first church and began using different (less predictable) styles of preaching—narrative, first-person biographical, inductive, etc. After a few weeks the leaders took the young seminary graduate aside and told him they liked the style of their former preacher because he preached more “biblical” messages. What the congregation failed to understand was that a change of style to the ear sounds like a change of content in the mind. The young preacher might have had more Bible in his messages than his predecessor, but it did not seem so to the church.
Today, most preachers’ sermons are available online. Pulpit committees and search teams no longer need to go through the traditional trial sermon(s). They can listen to several of the candidates’ messages to make sure they are not adrift.
Do we want our preachers to communicate well? Absolutely! Do we want them to captivate our interest? Indeed! Do we want them to inspire us to go out and slay spiritual dragons? For sure! Just not at the expense of the content of the gospel message.
Dr. Mark Scott serves as minister with Park Plaza Christian Church in Joplin, Mo. He retired last May after more than 30 years as professor of New Testament with Ozark Christian College in Joplin. He also writes the weekly “Study” material for The Lookout.