Q&A with Bryan Chapell on Christ-centered preaching

Communications Staff — June 3, 2010

Bryan Chapell serves as the president of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Mo., as well as professor of practical theology there. He is the author of several books, including “Christ-Centered Preaching” and most recently “Christ-Centered Worship.”

Chapell delivered the E.Y.Mullins Lectures on expository preaching at Southern Seminary March 30-April 1 and while he was here Towers had a chance to interview him.

How profound an impact did transitioning to a Christ-centered approach to preaching have on your life and ministry?

Bryan Chapell: I think the primary thing that changed for me was identifying the motivation and enabling thing for love for Christ rather than simply preaching imperatives for people. My early task was getting people to do the things that they don’t want to do and ultimately, believing that preaching is getting people to love Christ so much that they have a new heart, new affections and desire to do what He calls them to do; their calling actually becomes their passion rather than what they are resisting. By encouraging people with God’s love for them, they are actually strengthened for service to people.

How did this change you?

Chapell: I think there was a time when I believed that it was the job of the preacher to beat the people about the head and shoulders with the Bible to get them to straighten up. But that was not my personality; I think my personality is more gentle and caring, but I somehow had it in my mind that beating people over the head was what preachers were supposed to do and to be a faithful preacher, I really just kind of needed to get after people and that was my job and God called me to be faithful to do that.

In a sense, I felt like discovering grace in all of Scripture as the motivating power of the Gospel actually brought me back around to my true self. I didn’t have to be somebody I wasn’t to try and get somebody to straighten up. In fact, I could be my truer self of seeking to love people, seeking to be gracious toward them and encourage them, and even when I had to challenge them to do it in a way that says, “But it’s because of a love for you,” and it’s not because I feel like you are not going to be honoring me or not respecting me or not listening to me (if you don’t change). So, my motive came more from my care for them, rather than my own ego building.

In preaching the Old Testament, how can we avoid tacking on the Gospel in an artificial way?

Chapell:  I think there are two basic ways, and these have multiple subdivisions, but two basic ways, I think. One is to identify where an Old Testament text fits in God’s redemptive plan, so as we are looking at God’s unfolding of the revelation of His plan of redemption, the primary purpose, (for example) of the story of Sampson, is not “If you have long hair, you will be strong.” There is something in that story about people abandoning God, but God not abandoning them. As that message is maintained, we begin to understand that God is showing His revelation of redemption. For everyone to do what is right in his own eyes is not a way out of the human condition. Human kings are not a way out of the human condition. Obedience to the law is not a way out of the human condition. Ultimately, the path out of fallen humanity has to be a divine path and so you begin to see all the texts of Scripture as unfolding God’s path toward redemptive provision in Christ.

One way of not just doing tag-on sermons is showing where the text fits in God’s redemptive plan. That is the macro approach. I think the micro approach is to identify, “Where is grace evident in the passage? How is God revealing His provision for humanity of a rescue that they cannot provide for themselves?” Somewhere that is going to be in the text. God is saying, “I am providing what these people cannot provide for themselves.” It may just be food for the hungry or strength for the weak or rescue for the hopeless, but in some way, God is saying, “I am providing for you what you cannot provide for yourself.” And in that sense, a grace principle is being shown that we can say has its fullest revelation in what Christ has done.

Sometimes people fear that this is doing eisegesis,that this is imposing the New Testament on the Old, and I simply reply, “I live on this side of the cross. I know where the story goes.” So, for me to say, “Here God is showing the seed of His grace in order for me to understand what the full bloom will be,” is okay to do. I can present the revelation of what grace is here, showing that it has its fullest representation in Christ because I know Christ has come.

How important is it for us to preach what your classic book “Christ-Centered Preaching” calls “the fallen condition focus” in all our sermons?

Chapell: The Holy Spirit did not inspire a text just for our information. There was a purpose behind each text and He is saying that there is something behind our fallen condition that requires the provision of God to correct the human dilemma. If you begin by looking at a text and saying, “What’s wrong here? Why did the Holy Spirit write this?” you are forced to say that He is not just giving God-inspired words so you will be a better person and you will fix the problem yourself.

By identifying the fallenness, you are forced to come up with a divine solution and that divine solution is going to force you to think redemptively about the text and that ultimately is saying Christ must provide something that humanity cannot provide for itself. So, identifying the fallen condition focus, if you will, is identifying the hole that the divine grace of God must fill. Thus, the Gospel comes into play no matter where you are (in Scripture).

You published a book last year titled “Christ-Centered Worship.” Do you think evangelicals have been asking the wrong question in the so-called worship debates? We have spent a lot of time debating contemporary vs. traditional, but wouldn’t it be better to ask “Whom are we worshiping in our churches?”

Chapell: We get very divided over style, which is basically, “Does my preference win over your preference?” versus the question of what is the purpose of worship.

If you look at church worship through the ages, across traditions, there is a very consistent pattern. There is a beginning of adoring God, recognizing His greatness and goodness. And whenever you recognize the greatness of God, the automatic human response is, “If He is that great, I begin to recognize that I am not.” Adoration of God leads to confession which leads to the need for understanding, “Isn’t God going to help me in this?” The answer is yes, He provides His grace. When we understand His grace, we give thanks for that, we want more instruction: “Lord, now tell me how I can live for you.” And then we desire to live for Him and that Gospel pattern is the way the church has worshiped through the ages.

As we begin to think about what a church’s ministry is, it is not simply to tell that Gospel story to its own people, but to think missionally as well.  Given those whom God has called us to minister to, how do we make sure they know the Gospel in our worship? That’s not just satisfying personal preference, because then you’re not honoring the greatness of God. Nor is it failing to be aware that, just as I might relate the Gospel different to a high schooler than I might to an attorney, there might be some variations in the way the Gospel might be presented for a missional purpose. The basic Gospel pattern won’t change, but the way in which I might frame it or phrase it could well change, depending on those to whom I am speaking.

In “Christ-Centered Worship,” I am very much calling for the leaders of churches to identify “Who is here and who needs to be here?” In answering that question, I ask, “How do we best frame our worship according to Gospel patterns to minister to those people?” We can’t forget either group: if we only minister to those who are here, we have no outreach; if we only minister to those who are not here, then we actually lose those whom God has called us to build up in the faith.

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