Whilst in New Zealand, mostly on holiday and visiting our son on his gap year, I was invited to give a public lecture on the subject of ‘Has preaching had its day?’ This is the introduction and the outline of what I said, which includes exploring the main objections to preaching in contemporary life and offering some responses.
One of our favourite family films is the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen. One of the key turning points of the film is Darcy’s unexpected proposal to Lizzie, in the film depicted taking place at the rotunda in Stowe Gardens—and it is certainly the most emotionally charged scene in the whole film. [In the book it occurs in the Collins’ house.] But it springs from the preceding scene in the Church, where Lizzie learns from his friend Colonel Fitzwilliam that is was Darcy who separated her sister from Mr Bingley, and ruined her hopes of marriage. The backcloth here is a sermon by the lugubrious Mr Collins, where the only break in the tedious monotony of his preaching comes where he stumbles over the word ‘intercourse’—the congregation are startled from their near slumber, and a boy drops a spinning top he has been playing with creating a clatter of momentary interest in the echoing building.
I’m not certain of Jane Austen’s view of preaching, but the film scene offers an iconic view of preaching in the modern world. Preaching forms the dull, grey background to the more colourful emotions of life—the reds, yellows, blues and greens of anger, passion, jealousy and disappointment are set off nicely by this dull ground which can never compare with animated energy of real life. Simply mention preaching to anyone beyond the committed core of church-goers—and that within only certain traditions—and if you get past the look of incomprehension you find just find a look of boredom or frustration. Before offering any kind of ideological or theological response to this, it is worth rehearsing the serious objections to preaching as a pastoral discipline.
1. The practical objection: much preaching is just dull! I am unusual as an ordained minister in listening to more sermons than I preach—and particularly because I taught preaching for the best part of a decade, it is often quite a painful and challenging experience. Now, I have to be careful in what I say here, since people I have listened to preaching might end up listening to this talk…so let me stick with a different example. Radio 4 broadcasts on Sunday morning—nine times out of ten the sermons are just dull! The register is so often monotone; ’Worthy’ is the word that comes to mind. If I think that as someone with a high motivation to listening, what will others think?
2. The pedagogical objection: it is a really poor way to disciple people and does not build up congregations. If you don’t believe me, I need to ask you an awkward question: why are our congregations not better discipled and more mature? I often create opportunities in my own congregation and in congregations I visit to allow people to ask questions that have always nagged at them. It is always a profitable exercise—but it also leaves me with a question: why haven’t these things been addressed effectively in preaching?
Whenever I have been to the States, I have admired the widespread American practice of adult sunday school. It is great to be committed to providing learning opportunities for adults as well as children—but puts a question mark against preaching as the primary means of nurturing faith and building disciples.
3. The learning styles objection: it only suits certain people, and others learn in much better ways. The advent of the recognition of learning styles some decades ago led to the appreciation that people process things in a very different ways. I am conscious that my own church denomination always struggled to engage with working class culture, and I think a large part of that is related to the expectations of confidence and literacy in the context of preaching.
There appears to be a passivity demanded of listeners in many traditions of preaching, and it is a passivity which is particularly disliked by men, many of whom are absent from our churches. I have often found that those who respond best to inter-active learning in the context of all-age services are men, because they love to be involved.
4. The philosophical objection: it represents the kind of authority hierarchy with unique access to truth that we no longer accept.
There is an important relationship between physical space and philosophical assumptions. In the past, the physical requirement was for pulpits to be high, to give good site lines and projection of sound. Their position functioned as the PA system of the time. But then (unwittingly?) such height and importance actually communicates mediation, and creates the priesthood of the preacher as the one who mediates the intention of God. There is here an ironic undoing of Reformation legacy, not least in traditions which value preaching because of their commitment to Scripture, but then find that the importance of the preacher displaced the importance of congregational engagement with Scripture for themselves.
5. The cultural objection: many people, especially the young, are turned off by this. It is worth reflecting: when we do what we do in church, where else in our culture do we see people doing similar things? If the answer is ‘nowhere’, then we might well have a problem of cultural distance.
Some might argue that this is good—we should be distinctive from the world around. But this distinctive stuff does not come from nowhere, but from somewhere—and mostly it comes from the past. There is no special ‘preaching’ kind of discourse; it is always parasitical on kinds of discourse we find elsewhere. The contemporary ‘traditional’ style of preaching I think actually derives from the nineteenth-century learned lecture.
6. The theological objection: the preacher is not the only one with insight, and we need to list to the whole congregation and what the Spirit is saying through them.
There are two main theological issues here. The first is the exposition of the gifts of the Spirit by Paul in 1 Cor 12 and 14, where the Spirit gives to each for the building up of the church. The second comes from observing the language about ‘preaching’ throughout the NT, which takes place in buildings and in the open air, is initiated by the speaker as well as by the listeners; it takes place on the move and in moments of conflict—in other words, in a whole range of social contexts many of which are very different from our own contexts of ‘preaching.’
7. The competence objection: preaching a good sermon is very hard, and many leaders are just not up to it.
When I was teaching preaching to ministers in training, I used to ask (in quite a careful and structured way): what makes a good and bad sermon? What was most fascinating is that no-one had any difficulty offering an answer, and despite the range of theological traditions and experience, there was a fairly clear consensus. So, if we know what good preaching looks like, why aren’t we better at doing it? The challenge to ‘see ourselves as others see us’ and the only way to do that is to go through the pain of receiving feedback—which most of us avoid most of the time.
These are some pretty hefty objections! To respond to them, we need to think carefully about what preaching is. Darrell Johnson makes this claim: When God speaks, something happens. When the preacher speaks God’s words, God speaks. When the preacher speaks God’s words, something happens. This comes quite close to Barth’s understanding of preaching as event, and particularly his claim that ‘The preaching of the word of God is the word of God.’ God is present and communicating in the preaching and exposition of God’s word written, and this (as it always has done) invites a response.
The turning point then comes in understanding what preaching is—participation in the transformative communication of the Trinity to the creation which has fallen, needs redemption, and looks to the eschaton. For me, it leads me to ask this central question about the task of preaching: What is God saying to these people at this time through this text?
All this challenges many traditional assumptions about preaching, but also provides answers to the above objections (which I will rehearse in reverse order). This includes:
7. Investing in this ministry at a personal and institutional level
Yes, preaching is demanding—perhaps the most demanding aspect of ministry since it involves holding together the textual, the technical, with the personal and the pastoral. Phillips Brooks said that preaching is truth expressed through personality. Are we ready to invest in this? Some traditions are more committed to this than others.
6. Valuing this ministry alongside others
The challenge of both theological objections I mentioned is to see preaching as one part of a whole range of spoken word ministries that take place in small groups, one to one, in personal conversation, and in sharing our testimony, along with other things. How might we link and integrate these different spoken word ministries together?
5. Ensuring that preaching connects with culture and everyday life
The death-knell for preaching is to place it in a self-contained world of the spiritual or the ‘Christian’ detached from everyday life. It is a theological imperative to make it engage with and draw from the day to day world of its listeners and speakers. This is why humour matters, and why I almost always begin my sermons with a practical question. (Doesn’t all preaching, all theology, actually start from a presenting question? Jesus is the answer…). This raises questions about our worship (does it connect with life?) but also about the preacher’s own life. Does it connect with the experiences of the congregation from day to day?
4. Preaching ‘as one without authority’, inviting testing and questioning
Bill Hybels argues that we need to build in an experiential apologetic to our use of Scripture, showing that it offers insights that make a difference in everyday life, and the same is true of our preaching. We need to be willing to invite questioning, and have a robust but flexible sense of the authority of what God is saying…too much of our authority is brittle.
3. Allow appropriate participation and engagement
I have often learnt profound insights into texts by hearing what other people see, and we need to find ways to incorporate that into our preaching—perhaps through the use of social media technology
2. Placing preaching alongside other learning and discipleship opportunities
What is our strategy for enabling members of our congregations to growth in understanding, trust and faith? How does preaching fit into this? How can we link Sunday preaching with structured learning and growth in other contexts, such as in home groups?
1. Learning from effective communicators how to engage well with our listeners.
People in the UK will pay good money to listen to someone giving a 1.5 hour monologue. We call it stand up comedy! So it must be possible to speak in an engaging way for periods of time—it cannot be true that the format of preaching is at an end. This is also show in the growth of radio listening; Point of View on Sunday morning offers a 15 minute serious historical and philosophical discourse—which is often a good deal more interesting than the sermon in the Sunday service it has just followed!
So preaching has not had its day, provided that we understand preaching in the context of worship within a broader context of the way God speaks transformatively to his people.
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