Entertaining Pulpits and the Legacy of “Tethered Preaching”

Initially, it may be tough to tell the difference. A gifted Bible-expositor and an entertainment-oriented preacher, with a penchant for garnishing his ideas with some Bible, may not demonstrate much disparity at first.

But give it some time. And check the congregation over the long haul. It will make a world of difference.

Tethered to the Bible

John Piper coins a term in his short article “In Honor of Tethered Preaching: John Calvin and the Entertaining Pastor.” “Tethered preaching,” he says, is cut from a different cloth altogether. It is Bible-oriented, rather than entertainment-oriented, even as it often proves captivating to the born-again palate.

The Bible tethers us to reality. We are not free to think and speak whatever might enter our minds or what might be pleasing to any given audience—except God.

A Relentless Reformer

While many fine preachers, no doubt, could be celebrated in the legacy of “tethered preaching,” Piper holds up the great Reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) as one example.

For Calvin, preaching was tethered to the Bible. That is why he preached through books of the Bible so relentlessly. In honor of tethered preaching, I would like to suggest the difference I hear between preaching tethered to the word of God and preaching that ranges free and leans toward entertainment.

Piper goes on to characterize the entertainment-oriented preacher as one who

  • doesn’t seem to be shaped and constrained by an authority outside himself
  • gives the impression that what he says has significance for reasons other than that it manifestly expresses the meaning and significance of the Bible
  • is at ease talking about many things that are not drawn out of the Bible
  • seems to enjoy more talking about other things than what the Bible teaches
  • “His words seem to have a self-standing worth as interesting or fun. They are entertaining. But they don’t give the impression that this man stands as the representative of God before God’s people to deliver God’s message.”

However, the Bible-oriented preacher

  • sees himself this way: “I am God’s representative sent to God’s people to deliver a message from God”
  • knows that the only way a man can dare to assume such a position is with a trembling sense of unworthy servanthood under the authority of the Bible
  • knows that the only way he can deliver God’s message to God’s people is by rooting it in and saturating it with God’s own revelation in the Bible
  • wants the congregation to know that his words, if they have any abiding worth, are in accord with God’s words, and so constantly tries to show the people that his ideas are coming from the Bible
  • is hesitant to go too far toward points that are not demonstrable from the Bible
  • “His stories and illustrations are constrained and reined in by his hesitancy to lead the consciousness of his hearers away from the sense that this message is based on and expressive of what the Bible says.”

And so, in sum, “People leave the preaching of the Bible-oriented preacher with a sense that the Bible is supremely authoritative and important and wonderfully good news. They feel less entertained than struck at the greatness of God and the weighty power of his word.”

*Piper expanded this article into a new chapter for the recently revised edition of Brothers, We Are Not Professionals.