Preaching is indispensable to Christianity because Christianity is based on the truth that God chose to use words to reveal himself to humanity. First, he spoke through his prophets, interpreting his actions in the history of Israel and instructing them to convey his message to his people in speech and writing. Then he spoke in his Son when “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) and through his Son’s words, spoken either directly or through his apostles. Thirdly, he speaks by his Spirit through his servants who preach in his name (Luke 24:47-49). The word of God is thus scriptural, incarnate and contemporary. This point is fundamental to Christianity.
God’s speech makes our speech necessary. We are called to pass on the message we have heard to others. We must speak what he has spoken or, in other words, we must preach.
This emphasis of preaching is unique to Christianity. While every religion has its teachers, many of whom teach with authority and charisma, they are all essentially expounding ancient traditions and ethics. Only Christian preachers claim to be heralds proclaiming good news from God and dare to think of themselves as ambassadors or representatives speaking “the very words of God” (1 Pet. 4:11).
The importance of preaching has been recognized throughout church history (see Appendix 1). Yet we are told by some that the day of preaching is over and that preaching is a dying art and an outmoded form of communication. These lies have silenced and demoralized preachers. So it is worth our while to look at three contemporary trends that challenge our belief in preaching. They are a general hostility to all authority, the electronic revolution, and a loss of confidence in the gospel.
Hostility to Authority
Ever since the Fall, people have been “hostile to God” and unwilling (even unable!) to “submit to God’s law” (Rom. 8:7). This basic fact about the human condition has shown itself in a thousand ugly ways. Today, however, this attitude is particularly pronounced and all accepted authorities (family, school, university, state, church, pope, Bible, God) are being challenged worldwide. Some of this rebellion is justified, for it is a responsible and mature protest against authoritarianism and dehumanization in politics, business, education, religion and other areas of society. But Christians must be careful to distinguish between true and false authority; between the tyranny which crushes humanity and the rational, benevolent authority under which we find our authentic human freedom.
As people have won greater freedom from institutions, the target for hostility has shifted to ideas. No idea is unchallenged. It is assumed that everyone has a right to their own opinions, which may not be challenged by anyone, let alone a preacher. Some have even gone so far as to describe sermons as acts of violence against listeners. They question the right of preachers to stand before others, claiming to speak for God.
These attitudes have led some to argue that instead of regarding the congregation as a flock to be fed, a preacher should see them as customers and use the sermon to help them solve their spiritual problems.1
This type of consumer-oriented preaching dominates North American pulpits and has been exported around the world. The pew now sets the agenda for the pulpit. The sermon’s starting point is usually a problem for which the Bible (or some other source) provides a solution. Audience analysis (knowing our listeners) — though vital — now often displaces the careful study of the Bible.
The practice of letting listeners set the agenda for preaching has been reinforced by the widely-held view that there is no objective truth; everything is subjective. Something only becomes true if it resonates with me. This means that the final say about what a passage means rests on individuals whose personal stories resonate with it. If what is said does not fit with the experience of an individual or a community, it is rejected. This attitude undermines the authority of the biblical text. Final authority no longer rests with Scripture but with those reading or hearing it. No wonder so many listeners resist submitting to biblical sermons! They have come to believe that they are the reason sermons are preached and that their experiences — personal and communal — take primacy over the Bible and its claims.
Unfortunately, preachers often reinforce these assumptions by designing sermons and worship services that exalt the listener at the expense of Scripture. Although he was writing in 1950, Cranfield’s words still ring true today:
It is a pathetic feature of contemporary church life that there are still plenty in the pews who clamour for shorter and lighter sermons and bright and easy services and not a few in the pulpits prepared to pander to popular taste. There’s a vicious circle: superficial congregations make superficial pastors, and superficial pastors make superficial congregations.2
Should we allow ourselves to be stampeded into abandoning preaching? Or should we merely become more dogmatic, repeating our beliefs and statements in an ever-louder voice? Neither of those approaches is effective. So how should we react to this trend?
First, we need to remember the Christian understanding of human nature. We were created by God to be morally responsible and free. We cannot therefore accept either licence (which denies responsibility) or slavery (which denies freedom). The mind is free only under the authority of truth, and the will under the authority of righteousness.
Secondly, we need to remember the doctrine of revelation. Our beliefs are not something we invented. They were revealed by God. We can thus proclaim the gospel with quiet confidence as good news from God.
Thirdly, we need to remember that our authority to preach does not come from our appointment as preachers, nor from the church that ordained us, but from the word of God. If we make this clear, people should be willing to hear, particularly if we show that we ourselves desire to live under biblical authority. One way of doing this is to avoid the introductory formula, “Thus says the Lord”, for we do not have the authority of the inspired Old Testament prophets. Nor should we use our Lord’s formula “I tell you” (Matt. 5:22, 28, 32, etc.), as though we have the authority of Jesus Christ or his apostles. Rather, we should use the words “we” and “us” to indicate that we preach nothing to others that we do not preach to ourselves. Authority and humility are not mutually exclusive.
Fourthly, we need to remember the relevance of the gospel. When we present the gospel in a way that shows that it is reasonable and relevant, it carries its own authority and authenticates itself.
Fifthly, we need to remember that a true sermon is not a monologue. True preaching is always a dialogue. This does not mean that it involves a debate between two preachers or heckling from the listeners (even though that might enliven the proceedings!). Rather, it involves a silent dialogue between the preacher and the hearers. The preacher should provoke questions in their minds, and then proceed to answer them. The answer should raise further questions, which should also be addressed.
One of the greatest gifts a preacher needs is a sensitive understanding of people and their problems so as to be able to anticipate their reactions. We should not preach on the providence of God who “in all things . . . works for the good of those who love him” (Rom. 8:28) without showing an awareness of evil and pain. We should not preach on marriage and forget the single people in the congregation, or on Christian joy and forget the sorrows and tragedies some will be experiencing. We cannot expound Christ’s promise to answer prayer without remembering that some prayers remain unanswered, or his command not to be anxious without acknowledging that people have good reasons for anxiety. To anticipate people’s objections is to cover our flanks against counter-attack.
This type of dialogue between speaker and listeners is often evident in Scripture (e.g. Mal. 1:12; 2:17; 3:8). Jesus used it (Luke 10:36; John 13:12), and so did the Apostle Paul (Rom. 3:1-6). We also find it in the preaching of men like Martin Luther and Billy Graham. What we need is the ability to
out-do the Communist technique of “double-think” and do a Christian “quadruple-think”. “Quadruple-thinking” is thinking out what I have to say, then thinking out how the other man will understand what I say, and then re-thinking what I have to say, so that, when I say it, he will think what I am thinking! . . . “Quadruple-thinking” involves mental pain and great spiritual sensitivity.3
Painful as it is, this approach lessens the offence that authoritative preaching would otherwise give.
The Electronic Age
The past fifty years have seen radical changes in methods of communication, and these have had a profound effect on the church. The effects are felt worldwide, even in locations where electronic media have not yet penetrated deeply.
One set of changes affect those to whom we preach. In the electronic age, people have become physically lazy and question why they need to go out to church when they can worship at home by watching a service on the television or on the Web. They have become intellectually uncritical, wanting to be entertained, rather than made to think. People have also become emotionally insensitive. We witness the horrors of war, famine and poverty, but have become skilled in emotional self-defence, distancing ourselves from others’ pain. And we have become psychologically confused. We find it difficult to switch from the unreal, crafted world of cyberspace to the real world where we can hear and worship God. Finally, people have become morally disordered. We have been conned into thinking that the type of behaviour we see on the screen is acceptable, and that “everybody does it”.
The electronic age also affects us as preachers. Satellite technology has allowed preachers to broadcast globally, and such broadcasts are too easily taken as representing the ideal for which all preachers should strive. We may find ourselves attempting to copy famous preachers without regard to how their techniques and style suit our own personalities, situations and gifts. Or we may decide to preach a sermon we downloaded from the Web, or ask the congregation to watch a sermon by a famous preacher projected on a screen. All of these things can break the communication that should exist between the preacher and the congregation. A sermon preached elsewhere is not addressed to this particular group of listeners, for the preacher cannot see them and observe and react to their responses.
Our faith in the importance of preaching may also be shaken by the visual input of television. Public speaking in the West no longer ...