Here’s the unedited version of an article I wrote for the latest Illinois Baptist on the topic of preaching.
In his little book, The Priority of Preaching, Christopher Ash writes what every pastor has thought at some point – “Is it really helping when we spend so much of our week laboring at the word of God, preparing to preach it to the churches we serve? …Is it worth slogging away preparing Sunday’s sermon with such a world of need outside?” Maybe you are a pastor and you have doubted whether your preaching is really doing anything. Maybe you are a church member who sometimes falls asleep during sermons and you wonder if there is a better way of connecting with today’s postmodern culture. Is preaching a thing of the past?
We are far from the Puritan days when one minister apologized to his congregation for preaching a two hour sermon and they all replied, “For God’s sake sir go on, go on!” During the era of the Baby Boomers preaching in many churches became a casual talk on how biblical principles can address felt needs, bolstered by the use of multimedia technology. Many Gen Xers and Millennials are now looking for new expressions of church, and the very idea of preaching is being re-imagined. Wouldn’t it be more authentic to have a dialogue about the Bible where everyone could share his or her own experiences and insights?
I define preaching as one-directional, verbal proclamation of God’s word culminating in the gospel. And I still maintain that this is an absolutely essential practice for the church. Why? We see it happening all over the Bible (i.e. Acts 10:33-44). That’s descriptive, not necessarily prescriptive. Well, it is also expressly commanded elsewhere (i.e. 2Tim. 4:2). But couldn’t the intent behind ‘preach the word’ be fulfilled in other ways than one person talking at other people for an extended time? I certainly believe there are several different legitimate styles of preaching. But the method of preaching is critical.
We need times when we bite our tongues as we are confronted by the authority of God’s word. In an age of relativism and rebellion against authority, it makes sense why we don’t want to sit under preaching. We don’t want doctors; we’d rather self-diagnose. The idea of a wiki-sermon that we all have a hand in constructing is much more appealing. But our great need is to hear, “Thus saith the Lord,” and let his external word rebuke us, call us to repent, make us ready to receive the message of the gospel, and then respond in faith and obedience.
Plus, the medium is the message. Hearing a declaration of something that has happened, something to which you can’t contribute a thing but must respond to with either belief or disbelief, best comports with the gospel. If that slot in the weekly life of the church is conceived of as a time for merely teaching doctrinal truths, then a pure lecture format is probably not best. We should experiment with different methods, be more Socratic, have opportunities for interaction, and be mindful of different learning styles. If the goal is simply effecting a lifestyle change – how to be a better parent, how to manage finances, how to share your faith – then we should consider role playing exercises, skits, worksheets, and modeling. But since there is a constant need to have the double-edged sword of God’s word pierce our souls to expose our sinful hearts and then graciously present Christ to us in all his resplendent glory so that we can trust in him as our righteousness and healer, then preaching will always be indispensable.
Preaching is not the only thing for the life and health of a church. There is a place for small group discussions and seminars and life-on-life mentoring, but preaching is an essential element. The practice of preaching can be abused (when it becomes a chance to express one’s own ideas instead of expound a text), but that shouldn’t cause us to avoid its proper use. Some preachers are more gifted than others, but the mark of a mature believer is to be easily edified as long as the word of God is being preached.
Charles Spurgeon said that God “has power to give us back again a golden age of preachers…. This shall be the instrument in the hand of the Spirit for bringing about a great and thorough revival of religion in the land. I do not look for any other means of converting men beyond the simple preaching of the gospel and the opening of men’s ears to hear it. The moment the Church of God shall despise the pulpit, God will despise her. It has been through the ministry that the Lord has always been pleased to revive and bless His Churches.” May he do it again today!