Here are three ways we choose style over substance along with some thoughts on avoiding these problems.
1. We spend more time on the illustrations than we do wrestling with the text.
In my tradition the danger usually lies in the opposite extreme: There are few or no illustrations to break up large texts of exegesis, exposition, and argumentation. So the sermons are boring and rarely connect to everyday life.
In the fundamentalism of my childhood, it was often the opposite: the sermon was comprised mainly of stories punctuated with pithy statements of application that may or may not be connected to the text (and if they were the connection was often merely tangential).
Avoid both extremes.
Sometimes an illustration will get out of hand but it’s hard to predict when that will happen. I once used an illustration about Kung Fu. That’s all anyone talked about after sermon. In those days we broadcast my sermons on the radio and we had people calling the church to ask about the “Kung Fu sermon.” To this day if I mentioned the “Kung Fu sermon,” everyone who was here then will know what I’m talking about.
Without intending it, the illustration just stood out so much that it took over the sermon itself. There’s really no way to plan for this but if you think about the illustrations and how you present them you might be able to prevent something similar happening.
Illustrations are important to connect the text with the hearer’s world, but without the substance of biblical truth, all you have are moral stories. And moral stories don’t save or transform lives, but God’s Word does save and it does transform lives so speak God’s Word.
2. We couch our language to make it palatable to people (the “ethic of civility”).
I once sat under a pastor who would say that he was going to address a problem during his sermon and assured me that he would “address it very obliquely.” The problem was that his reference was so oblique that no one knew what he was talking about, even me, and I knew he was going to talk about it.
We can be and must be gracious, but we also must proclaim the text in front of us whether we like it or not and whether they like it or not. Millard Erickson talks about “the ethic of civility” (Old Wine in New Wineskins, 41) which he defines as “the tendency not to want to tell anyone they are wrong.” Jesus most certainly did not do this and you speak in his name so you must preach both with boldness and with graciousness.
It is true that no matter how gracious you are, the one who is confronted with their sin will accuse you of being mean and judgmental and ungracious. But Paul said, “If we seek to please men we are not servants of Christ” (Gal. 1:10) so you must choose whom you will serve, where your allegiance lies, and then minister and proclaim accordingly and let the Shepherd deal with the rest.
As a preacher, you have been commissioned to proclaim God’s Word and it turns people away as well as turning people toward the Lord. But you must proclaim it just the same. Who is to say that the one who rejects the Word today will not receive it tomorrow? As Paul noted, some plant, some water, but it is God who gives the increase. Unless you have planted the seed of the Word of God, there is no seed to water, grow, or harvest.
3. We spend our time trying to get people to like us rather than pointing them to Christ.
This is a natural tendency. We all want to be liked. But as I noted above, Paul said, “If we seek to please men we are not servants of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). You should strive to be likable only to the point that if someone is offended, they are offended at the Gospel (which is itself offensive) and not offended at you.
Some of the fundamentalist preachers I heard growing up and in Bible college appeared not only as if they ere trying to be offensive but as if they actually took pride in it. This is not the way of a God who reveals himself as Love (1 John 4:8) and who revealed himself by saying “The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (Exodus 34:6-7) This same God goes on to talk about his intention to punish sin but when he talks about who he is, it is in terms that reveal grace and compassion. You don’t represent this God by being rude and hateful.
But the real danger for many of us is that in trying to portray God as loving and kind we are afraid to address sin when necessary.
Sometimes the problem is not in our attempt to portray God properly, it lies in our desire simply to be liked. But your choice should be to seek the approval of God rather than the approval of man while being careful not to bring unnecessary offense to the Gospel.