What is the most important thing in preaching?

pondererWhat would you say is the single most important thing in preaching—either as the person preaching or as someone who listens? I guess many people would suggest clarity of delivery, or humour, or connecting with the congregation, or being based in Scripture. All of these are of great importance, though of course all are open to a range of interpretations.

As I continue to preach myself, and sit and listen to the sermons of others, I keep coming back to something I first learned more than 20 years ago, and feel I keep on needing to learn:

Focus more on what God has done, 
and less on what we ‘ought’ to do.

Why is this important? I think for several reasons.

First, it is what I need to hear. I think I live in a world where there are lots of people telling me what I ‘ought’ to be doing, either implicitly or explicitly. It happens explicitly in a lot of Christian teaching—I ought to be praying more, reading my Bible more, telling others about Jesus more, and so on. But it also happens on the news and from science, health and lifestyles gurus—I ought to be eating an apple a day, taking more exercise, fasting to lose weight. I also happen to be someone who takes seriously the lives of others, so when I see a programme about how someone lives, I feel the force of their lifestyle choices, and find myself asking ‘Should I be doing the things they do?’ All this can lead to anxiety about all the things we ‘ought’ to be doing—or, as a good friend of mine used to say, a ‘hardening of the oughteries’!

In all this talk of oughts and duties, I need to hear the word of grace—this is what God has done, and what he can do again. And if I need to hear that from preachers I listen to, then I need to preach this for the sake of those listening to me.

Second, it is primarily what Scripture does. If the Bible is anything, then it is the story of God’s actions for and on behalf of its people. Of course, it includes lots of other stories, of individuals and groups and their successes and failures in responding and being faithful to God’s call on their lives. But their action are always in response to the action of God, which is always prior to human action chronologically and theologically. God calls the world into being; God calls Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; God calls Moses to lead his people from slavery to freedom; God gives the gift of his law; the word of God ‘comes to’ the prophets—and so on. Whoever the human actors are in the drama, the principal actor is God—even when (as with Esther and other parts of the OT narrative) this is not made explicit.

So if we are preaching from Scripture, we must always be asking, not ‘What did the human actors do here?’ but ‘What is God doing here? What did he do then, and so what does he do now?’ God is the subject of the story of the Bible, so if we are not focussing in our preaching on what God has done, we are misreading the text.

Third, we find this very difficult. I have lost count of the number of times I had heard a sermon—often a good sermon, inspiring, engaging and well delivered—but focussing not on what God has done but what we ‘ought’ to do. Even in churches (some would say especially in churches) where the focus is supposed to be on the grace of God and the centrality of Scripture, we seem to find it very difficult to focus on God’s grace.

Fourth, this then is a litmus test of whether I am comfortable preaching the good news of God’s grace. As Tom Wright has argued in various places, a gospel is only a ‘gospel’ if it tells the story of what God has done for us. Collections of sayings of Jesus are not ‘gospels’ because they give us more things to do. It is no accident that the four canonical gospels do include Jesus’ teaching—but as a prelude the most important thing of all, what God has done for us in the ministry, death and supremely the resurrection of Jesus. God has done something, and we need to tell others—not so that they ‘ought’ to do more things, but so that they can see God’s gracious initiative in the past, and might receive this gracious initiative in the present, in their lives today.

41kUn9aZqQLStanley Greidanus explores this in his 1978 book The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text in chapter 5. He distinguishes the two approaches to Scripture and preaching as ‘anthropocentric’ (centred on the human actors) and ‘theocentric’ (centred on God as the principal actor).

When one asks about the purpose of the canon, the thrust of the Bible as a whole, the answer seems quite obvious: the canon intends to tell us about God—not God in the abstract, but God in relationship to his creation and his people, God’s actions in the world, God’s coming kingdom. The individual authors’…primary interest is God’s action in human events, not the events themselves.

These two approaches have a radically different affect on our preaching:

focusses on human examplesfocusses on God’s plan of salvation
tends to despairtends to hope
tends to human efforttends to trust in God
could be based on any human beingtends to base everything on the biblical text
speaks to the will & evokes effortspeaks to the heart & evokes worship
screws up divine/human relationship(re)launches divine/human relationship
expects hearers to actexpects God to act
prescribes outcomesleaves outcomes open—God is too big!

Last Epiphany I preached from Matt 2.1–12. It would have been very easy to focus on the characters in the story, and draw morals from them. We should be strong and courageous like Joseph; we shouldn’t be defensive, aggressive and insecure like Herod; we should be adventurous and risk-taking like the Magi. (Should we also be silent and compliant, as Matthew appears to depict Mary?) But this misses the central actor in the story—God. Within the narrative, every critical turn depends on God’s intervention. And the point of the story seems to much more focus on who God is and what God does. God is one who reveals himself to those on the outside and draws them in. God is the one who speaks and guides, in ways that listeners can understand and relate to. God is faithful to his purposes, fulfilling his promises from of old. And God turns the patterns and power structures of the world upside down.

It is the story of what God has done and what he will do again that we really need to hear as a new year begins. (First posted in Jan 2014).

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3 thoughts on “What is the most important thing in preaching?”

  1. Hi Ian. I like what you say here, it sounds very like some of the stuff Mike Thompson used to teach us …”where’s the good news?” But i find myself in tension and wonder if you have drawn too sharp a divide between revelation and application. Have you seen/read Andy Stanleys “Preaching for change”. A few of my friends have raved about it and he talks about always going for application, because as believers we’re called not just to hear but to do. A lot of Jesus’ teaching was very ethical and applicable and very much for people to do stuff, in light of what God has done of course. But He did say about not just being hearers but doers.

    Keller’s recent book on Preaching, labours heavily on bringing a sermon back to Christ, so you leave people with Him and not what we have to do. Which has transformed my preaching this year (I think).

    So do you think is it a case of balance (as with most things 🙂 keeping the emphasis on what God has done in Christ, whilst ensuring there is application still in there?

  2. Thank you for this, Ian. I think both Martin and Andy are missing the point here. Focusing on what God has done *is* about application: the application is that we gratefully accept what God has done, and respond to it by lives of justice, peace and holiness. I am reminded of a little card that Mennonites Alan and Eleanor Kreider use in their preaching; on one side it says ‘What are you doing?’ and on the other, ‘How can I help?’. They apply it both to God asking these questions of us, and us asking those questions of God, but the latter is the more important, because it directs us to discern where the ‘missio Dei’ is happening, and ask how we can join in.


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