The Problem of Fortune-Telling Preaching

“You won’t soar like an eagle if you’re negative in your thinking. Get your thoughts going in the right direction.”

“Settling for what is comfortable is one of the biggest enemies to our enlargement.”

“Your freedom will be determined by whether you allow what I think and say about you to matter more than what anyone else thinks or says.”

You’ve heard preachers use lines like these before, yeah? They have a ring of truth about them, and they often elicit a big response from the congregation. I mean, they’re meant to be motivational, after all. But they kind of sound like a message from a fortune cookie.

Here’s another, from a well-known American preacher: “Nothing that’s happened to you has stopped God’s plan. It may be taking a long time, but God knows how to get you to your destiny.”

Phew. That’s a relief!

Motivational presentations work because they speak directly into the insecurities or fears of its audience and promise a preferred future for them. There are lots of theories about the psychology behind human motivation, ranging from instinctual drive to the arousal reflex. I don’t pretend to understand it all, but I think the bottom line is that a good motivational talk releases dopamine, the “feel good hormone” that is responsible for feelings of euphoria, bliss, motivation, and concentration.

Megan Lupton from The Speakers Agency writes, “In the case of motivation, the hormone actually anticipates and acts based on the opportunity for reward, meaning that its real job is to encourage us to act and achieve said reward, and avoid negativity.”

But is it the preacher’s role to get us to pursue rewards and avoid negativity? Aren’t preachers meant to teach the Word of God? Aren’t they meant to help us understand the Scriptures and the unfolding story of God’s deliverance for all? Aren’t they meant to do what Ed Stetzer says, and “make much of Jesus”?

A friend of mine, Chris Maynard refers to this style of preaching as fortune telling preaching and it stopped me in my tracks. I mean, it does sound a lot more like fortune telling than biblical preaching.

Fortune telling preaching commonly makes a series of promises:

  • Your breakthrough is now — you’ve been stuck in unproductive patterns, or in unproductive relationships, or in illness, or wrong thinking, and God is going to unstick you.
  • God has big plans for you — there is a destiny with your name on it; God has more in store for you than you’re currently experiencing.
  • This is your week for a miracle — you’ve been patient; you’ve kept the faith under difficult circumstances; but the wait is over. God wants to bless you now!

Can you see the common theme? It’s all about YOU.

When a preacher pronounces, “Each day is God’s gift to you; what you do with it is your gift to him,” it sounds like biblical truth until you think about it and realize the point being made is about you and what you need to do for God. But biblical preaching is more concerned with what God has done for us in Christ.

Chris Maynard says, “[This preaching] might get the applause and get people excited, but if it’s not from the Word of God, if it’s not wrapped in wisdom, if it’s all ME ME ME and what God will do for ME ME ME, it’s not a church meeting; it’s merely a club.” 

This isn’t to say that preaching shouldn’t be encouraging and positive. Nor is it to say biblical preaching can’t motivate us to live differently. Some sermons will be motivational in that they apply the teaching to real changes or real actions we need to undertake. But if the pulpit is a place where the full counsel of God is expounded, it is not possible to make every talk a positive one about the great victory that’s right around the corner.

None of this is to say that preachers shouldn’t preach with emotion or urgency. Preachers are attempting to persuade their congregation of some great truth or other. But persuasion is slightly different to motivation.

Aristotle said that rhetoric (the art of persuasion) affects people in three ways – you can persuade people through ethos, pathos, or logos.

Ethos refers to the character of the speaker as perceived by the audience. It includes everything about him or her as a person, how they look, how they behave, how they carry themselves.

Pathos refers to emotion, passion, feeling.

Logos is logic, reason, that means by which a speaker demonstrates a truth.

According to Aristotle, the better a speaker uses logic and/or ethos, the more she or he can use emotion. And that’s where I think a lot of fortune telling preaching gets it wrong. It is trying wring emotion out of an audience without offering the truth upon which the emotional response is based. Chris Maynard says, “The truth is the best motivator of all!” 

And the truth is, while the Bible makes guarantees about our eternal destiny, it offers no promises of perpetual success or that everything just gets better and better. In his book Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams says,

“[In the Bible] there are moments of conflict with God, anger with God, doubt about God’s purposes, anguish and lostness when people have no real sense of God’s presence. The Psalms are full of this, as is the Book of Job. Don’t imagine that the Bible is full of comfortable and reassuring things about the life of belief and trust; it isn’t. It is often about the appalling cost of letting God come near you and of trying to trust him when all the evidence seems to have gone.”

This doesn’t mean God isn’t at work in our lives. Preaching should attest to God’s faithfulness despite that lack of evidence. In an article titled “Seven Working Assumptions for Preaching in a Missional Church,” Edwin Searcy offers a powerful sketch of what preaching should do:

“The pulpit is a witness box, the congregation a jury and the preacher a daring witness to the confounding truth that Yahweh is engaged in a redemptive mission of cosmic proportions in Christ. The preacher’s voice is now filled with the unmistakable urgency, risk and passion of one giving dangerous testimony to the activity of God that otherwise goes unspoken. The church gathers to hear the truth and nothing but the truth about its living witness as a sign of the kingdom of God.”

Preach “the confounding truth that Yahweh is engaged in a redemptive mission of cosmic proportions in Christ” and let that message motivate who it will. And leave the fortune telling to the cookies.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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10 thoughts on “The Problem of Fortune-Telling Preaching

  1. Yes, we can also see this in today’s popular worship styles and songs too. Ethos first.

  2. You are not the only one beginning to beat this drum. Anyone who has preached knows that it comes with a price. Courage comes from not walking around head and shoulders above others like Saul, but walking with a broken and contrite heart like David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and those who were called to preach the Word of the Lord against kingdoms.

  3. Motivational speakers are often after fame and fortune, but true preachers are after God’s glory in Christ for his inheritance in the faithful saints.

  4. Hi Mike, I wrote a sermon for my Bible college in Melbourne and was told by the assessor that it lacked sufficient emphasis on ‘application’, or ‘what does it mean for my life?’ Is ‘application’ in sermon writing a form of ‘me centred’ messaging?

    1. No Paul, as I said in the post, some passages have a direct actionable application. But not every passage does and we shouldn’t feel the pressure to give a to-do list at the end if every sermon.

    2. Not at all. Application is about growth ie becoming more like Christ.

  5. I like expositional preaching because it’s a better faith builder style that
    doesn’t pick and choose topics.

  6. Hey Mike, You have stated for today what Timothy wrote would happen, ie. 2Ti 4:3  For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  2Ti 4:4  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.  This, as are so many other warnings , is coming true before our very eyes. Some of the things I have heard come out of some preachers mouths have made me shudder. And when I try to talk to them about it, it’s as if I’m talking to a brick wall. Makes me ask, why have they gone down these paths?

  7. Amen!

  8. This was good!
    2 points:
    1st, a reminder to consider who you think worthy to quote or who you *know* to quote –
    I think Mike quoted all men here, except 1 lady, who wasn’t a preacher or pastor.
    Of course, we don’t have a robust, quotable, household name women preachers, do we?
    Except maybe Sonjour Truth?
    Maybe women theologians who’ve written books?
    *Or do we think women have nothing to contribute in thinking or speaking about God?*
    I’m not trying to say Mike is wrong or bad not to quote any women. It’s a natural response. Women as public speakers in any organization have a long history of being silenced, ignored, villianfied (see Mary Beard on this subject.)
    2nd, the fortune telling preaching appears to go along with what church is commonly becoming known as – a club. A place to meet people you hang out with & get a pep talk & relax before the week ahead.
    That isn’t church.
    But for many people, that’s what church has become.

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