Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Time to Go Deep


Some thoughts thousands of miles away—from Africa. Has it escaped you how utterly superficial—lightweight–our age has become? Our thinness seems to stand out more to me when I am looking from the outside in.

We have lost a certain gravitas as a culture. Merriam-Webster defines the word as “high seriousness.” We seem to also be losing our dignity. Who takes the leadership of our nation with seriousness today? I can’t help but wonder what my Ugandan students must think of my culture when they read about a former US President indicted for using money to cover up a sleazy affair—or law students at a leading law school shouting down reputable speakers who they disagree with, hoping their daughters will be raped. Where are the adults in the room?

My greater concern is with the growing number of churches that seem caught up with their own unseriousness. How else can we explain the tragic lack of maturity in so many spiritual lives? And yes—it is not just an American problem. Here in Uganda, where the name of Jesus is everywhere, there is a thinness that characterizes many of these lives. Out of the airport, we were pulled over by police for a made-up infraction that required payment for release. The corrupt official we had a lengthy discussion with told me his name means “Trusting in God.” Most troubling was the lack of connection between faith and walk, honest earning and bribery.

Much of our present malady, I believe, goes back to superficial preaching. Catholic writer John Richard Neuhaus once wrote: “In all great Christian preaching there is an Emmaus-like experience in which the Scriptures are opened and you recognize Christ, and in him, with a fresh sense of discovery, you see the truth about yourself and the world.” It’s hard to find this today. Not so many hearts are burning as they leave the church. Few lives are turned upside down.

What I find are pulpits characterized by frivolity and carelessness. Rambling stories, tips for living, or entertainment monologues have replaced sound and careful study. A “contemplative exegesis” that takes seriously the weight and authority of Scripture is absent. It’s even in our casual dress. The person and office of the church seem to no longer be united in the pulpit. Even those sermons that start with Scripture often wander off, as if the Word cannot carry the weight of what it claims. It appears we must give it our help. As a result, too much preaching has become synonymous with boredom and irrelevancy—“doing time in the pew.”

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her penetrating read, When God is Silent, refers to the language in the pulpit as “filler words,” nouns and verbs that have been chewed up so many times there are no nutrients left in them. Few are leaving with a sense they have encountered divine revelation. Sermons have become reductionistic—reducing the complex to the simple—perhaps because we no longer want (or can) go deep. We have short attention spans for things requiring careful thought. Or maybe it is because we want to avoid a divine encounter with the One who—when he speaks–disrupts and dismantles and puts back together our lives. In so many cases, the pulpit, as Taylor puts it, is preferred to be a safe place, used for reviews of academic literature or true confessions or political advertisements rather than a word from God.

It’s little wonder we are engaging with an emerging generation that has lost respect for spiritual authority, choosing to replace it with their own. It has become pick and choose. Any passage, as one younger American pastor put it to me today, that doesn’t appeal to one’s own worldview is dismissed, perceived as something, imposed by the church but is no longer valid. As he put it, the church’s work has become “comingled with the Doctrine of Discovery, slavery, Jim Crown, redlining, Christian nationalism, etc.” This is a tragedy, and while there is some truth here, there is also a terrible tendency to paint with a broad brush. This comingling (becoming the same as) does not characterize most churches I know. Such a charge, I fear, becomes an excuse to reject the responsibility we who are in Christ have to love and serve the church and honor those God has placed as shepherds over our souls.

Still, what has become pervasive in so many churches is the lack of rigorous spiritual disciplines required to preach weighty sermons. And in the process, pastors and congregants are creating their own realities, their own fantasies, rather than submitting to God’s reality. Hence, there is a growing preference for lightweight sermons that allow us to live in a world of illusion and keep us from growing up.

It’s time we demand a certain gravitas from the pulpit. Preaching that reveals the weight of God and the weight of Scripture is so needed. This can only begin with pastors committed to the habit of holiness, to the intensity of study, to the dignity of the pulpit, and to dependence upon the Spirit. Sermons that reveal that God has placed a fire in one’s bones (like Jeremiah); that demonstrate that one has stood on the ramparts for a Word from God (like Habakkuk)—this is what we search for.  It will require congregants who no longer wish to be warmed–but burned; they prefer to be scared rather than bored. They desire to be people of substance—rather than lightweights.

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