Why Sermons Often Bore

Garvin Ortlund

When Tim Keller talks about preaching, I listen. And so did roughly 1,900 others during his breakout workshop, “Preaching to the Heart,” at the recent TGC National Conference in Orlando, Florida. You canwatch or listen to the entire talk. Also, Keller’s new book, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, will be released in June, and is available for pre-order now.

How often have we heard (or preached!) sermons that feel more like a lecture than a sermon—sermons that inform, but fail to transform. Keller helped us think about how to preach to the heart, and through the heart to the whole person.

Reach the Heart to Reach the Whole Person

Keller began his workshop by referencing Alec Motyer’s observation that a preacher has two responsibilities: first, to the truth he proclaims, and second, to the people to whom he proclaims it. Books on preaching tend to focus on the first, neglecting the equally vital work of contextualization and application. This imbalance partly explains why much expository preaching fails to speak to the heart.

The biblical understanding of the heart is unique in human thought. Throughout history, humans have tended to pit the mind and the heart against one another: ancient cultures by elevating reason and virtue to squelch the emotions, and modern cultures by elevating self-expression as the highest goal. In the Bible, however, the heart is the seat of not just our emotions, but also our deepest trust. Preaching to the heart touches not just the emotions, but the entire person, including our thought and will.

Knowing with the Heart

Keller brought this point home with an illustration from early in his ministry. During a meeting with a depressed teenage girl, she responded to the spiritual blessings in her life by saying, “I know that Jesus loves me, but what good is that when not a single boy at school will even look at you?” Keller referenced Jonathan Edwards’s distinction between opinion and knowledge, and suggested that we only truly know abstract truths when they become real to the heart. This transformative “heart knowledge” is the goal of our preaching. 

Therefore preaching is not just about imparting truth to the minds of listeners; more deeply, it is about facilitating the experience of truth in the hearts of listeners. The goal of preaching, in other words, is not merely to proclaim the love of God, but to bring the love of God home to the hearts of listeners so vividly that it changes them right there “in the seats.”

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