Let me begin this post by saying that i have nothing against practical preaching in its proper sense. My problem is with practical preaching falsely so-called. There is a style of preaching today that masquerades under the name of 'practical preaching' that consists in giving 'rules for living' and 'Biblical principles' to the exclusion of the good news of Christ crucified for sinners. This style of preaching produces series' on financial management and marriage guidance. Again, such topics have their place from the pulpit if the minister, practicing Lectio Continua (Latin for preaching through books of the Bible, a theological phrase that can be quite useful against the Lectio Divina crowd) comes across a passage that addresses them. He can thus set the passage in context, and the teaching on marriage (for example) in its Biblical context. But that is not what is happening. Instead extended topical sermon series' are being preached where little reference is made to the Bible's overarching themes, and the passages, often no more than a verse or two, are not set in their proper context. Why is this? I would argue it is because ministers have lost confidence in the Word of God, and the power of the Spirit in the Word, so instead they are preaching these 'practical' sermons because there is a suspicion that the simple Word is not enough.
My father bought me a copy of the Lutheran C.F.W. Walther 's The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel (St. Loius, Concordia, 1986, reprint of 1897 edition by W.H.T. Dau) for Christmas, and this classic work on the heart of Christian preaching (still in print) has some pungent words to say about this 'practical preaching' in days gone by.
"About one hundred twenty years ago Rationalism had become dominant in the so-called Protestant Church of Germany. It was at the time of the deepest ignominy and humiliation that the nation had ever passed through when defection from the Gospel had become complete. The shallowest minds, the most brainless men, without any considerable learning, were regarded as great lights and far ahead of their age. For theologians to achieve some renown, all that was necessary was sufficient boldness, or rather audacity, to declare the mysterious doctrines of Christianity errors of former dark ages, which had been without enlightenment, and to treat the doctrine of God, virtue, and immortality as the real kernel of the Christian religion. During this awful time matters finally came to such a pass that rationalistic preachers, to counteract the idea that they were superfluous in this world and to prove their usefulness, would treat from their pulpits subjects like these: Intelligent Agriculture; Profitableness of Potato-raising; Treeplanting a Necessity; Importance of Genuine Sanitation; etc. Rationalistic books of sermons in which subjects of this description are treated with grand pathos will show you that I am not slandering the rationalists of that age.
Some rationalists were ashamed of these typical products of the school of Rationalism. In 1772 a book was published which bore the title Of the Usefulness of the Ministry, Written for the Consolation of My Colleagues. The author was Joachim Spalding, a writer of some renown in his day. In his book he states that subjects like those that I mentioned are indeed not proper subjects for pulpit efforts. He submits his own opinion, to this effect: If sermons are to be useful, the preacher must never speak of the doctrines of faith first because they only serve to confuse people’s minds, but he must present exclusively practical ethical lessons. It is not surprising, then, that in those days many souls whose hearts were agitated by the question, What must I do to be saved? quit our devastated Church and either sought refuge with the sect of the Moravians or even turned to the spurious Church of Rome." Pp. 258-9
Is this not a picture of so much of the Evangelical pulpit today? If I had the means, I would make every minister read Walther. I am a Baptist, and a Calvinist, so I find some of what he has to say about Calvinism irritating because based on a false representation of it, but this book is worth its weight in gold. An electronic version may be found here.
Illustration: C.F.W. Walther