Why preach?

Billy-Graham-preaching_p1713Earlier this week, my friend Richard Moy posted a bit of a rant about his experience of visiting cathedrals. Why is it, he asked, that when there is a marvellous opportunity to explain something of the gospel to people who might not otherwise here it, was nothing done about it?

In all the services I have attended (bar a nearly deserted Durham) there have been  scores of onlookers and often scores of would be participants. Yet only in the Catholic cathedral did anyone make even the slightest attempt at a homily – let alone a succinct, compelling presentation of the Christian faith.

This leads him to inviting the Church to do some soul-searching:

It leaves me asking a basic question. Do we have any interest in the conversion of England – or even the survival of faith within the CoE?

There were some understandable responses to this observation. Not all cathedrals take the same approach, and some will prioritise the teaching of the faith. This fascinating response came from Nicholas Henshall, Dean at Chelmsford Cathedral:

Our intention/claim is that in everything we do we are seeking to be a thriving, outward facing community seeking to serve the city, the diocese and the bishop’s ministry above all in evangelism and teaching, as a powerful resource to the churches and networks of the region.

As a counterpoint to this, Anna Norman-Walker, who is Canon Chancellor at Exeter, asked a more fundamental question about preaching:

I … find it amusing that an evangelical would describe any scripture reading as ‘so objectionable without context or explanation that a casual inquirer/chance visitor/faith seeker would most likely be provoked to run away (screaming)’….. 2 Timothy 3:16 ? Luther would make you go and stand in the corner…

Anna is here asking why explicit preaching is necessary, and in the Facebook discussion there were similar observations from David Runcorn (first) and Simon Butler (second), amongst others.

The assumption of some here seems to be that the gospel is not being made known unless it is being verbally preached. If there is not a sermon nothing is being proclaimed in a Cathedral? Really? There is a case for saying that whole Cathedral building is a sermon in it’s way. Walking round it is to make pilgrimage. That is how the architecture works. My frustration is when the guide material and notices around the building are shy of making clearer connections – without becoming tracts. But this verbal focus feels like a very narrow theology of proclamation, worship and creation – and preaching actually.

I think the issue here is the assumption that unless the word is preached it is not proclaimed. I think that says more about the lack of trust in God or in the (healthy) element of Tradition than it does about what cathedrals do. Imagine joining a conversation at a party and someone explaining the whole conversation all over again just to bring you up to speed, rather than just taking the time to stop, listen and work out who is saying what, why they’re saying it, and what they’re saying. The gospel of free grace is not dependent on the work of a sermon, it’s dependent on free grace!

Although these comments were made in the specific context of cathedral worship and its visitors, the question here apply to most aspects of life in the local church. Why preach?

In case the importance of preaching looks too obvious, it is worth reflecting for a moment. There are plenty of religious traditions which don’t have much of a place for preaching. I don’t know much about Hinduism, but whenever I have visited a Sikh gurdwara, I haven’t seen any obvious emphasis on preaching or explanation. In Orthodox Judaism, the reading of Torah has centre stage. And within Quakerism, the centralising authority of the preached word has been rejected in favour of an openness to the insights of all—or none, in the silence. Even within the evangelical tradition, there is a question to be asked about the need for preaching. In John Stott’s classic I Believe in Preaching, Stott’s own rationale is slightly less convincing than it at first reads. He contends that God has spoken, that when God speaks things happen, and that God continues to speak today through what he has spoken in Scripture. A first response to this might indeed be to ask ‘Then why preach? Why not just read the Scriptures and leave it at that? Do we need to help God out, lest his words are not as potent as we had hoped?’

There is a real question here about whether preaching arises from our lack of trust in God, or our need to control, or a post-Enlightenment desire to reduce everything to the rational and the verbal—and there are several theological traditions which suffer from just such pre-occultation. But it is worth reflecting on the dynamic and development of preaching, or explicit proclamation or understanding, within the unfolding of Scripture itself.

The earlier parts of the the Hebrew Bible do not make any mention of preaching in the way we might now understand it—primarily because the texts of Scripture largely consist of a record of preaching or proclamation themselves. One of my favourite passages, Deut 32, records the prophetic preaching/oracle of Moses over the tribes. And of course the majority of prophetic texts record, in some form or another, the preaching of the prophet after which they are named. Even our ‘history’ books, known in the Hebrew Bible as the ‘former prophets’, offer a narrative sermon on the ups and downs of God’s people.

But preaching as commentary on the pre-existing scriptures does intrude at a particularly critical point. In Nehemiah 8, following the return of (some of) the people from exile in Babylon, Ezra the ‘teacher of the law’ has the people gather before him as he stands on a platform to read from the ‘law of Moses’. And around him he has a preaching team:

The Levites—Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read. (Nehemiah 8.7–8)

In other words, a gap of understanding had now opened up between the text and the people, and ‘preaching’ (or exposition, or explanation) was need to fill that gap if the people were going to truly understand what was being read—and, by implication, avoid making the mistakes of their ancestors and be taken off once more into exile.

This understanding of preaching—as bridging the gap between the word (of the text) and the world (of the hearers)—has profound implications at every level of preaching. It will determine who we approach preaching: what kind of gap do we think we are filling? If it is a gap of ignorance, we will fill it with information; if it is a gap of interest, we will fill it with motivation; if it is a gap of connection, we will fill it with spiritual insight—and so on. The different preaching traditions can be accounted for by noting the different understanding of the ‘gap’ in each tradition. And of course this is the foundation for understanding the role of hermeneutics (interpretation) in preaching—famously characterised by Anthony Thiselton as the need to bridge the ‘two horizons’ of the text and the reader.

This dynamic—of filling a gap—is clearly at work in NT accounts of preaching and proclamation. Jesus’ actions in the gospels are consistently accompanied by teaching and preaching. In Acts, miracles and demonstrations of the Spirit’s power lead to explanations of what they mean and what response they demand. In the archetypal example of Philip in Acts 8:26-40, the Ethiopian eunuch asks him ‘How can I understand, unless someone guides me?’ There will come a time for ‘silence in heaven’ (Revelation 8.1), but that time is when the end has come, the opportunity for repentance is past, and judgement is at hand. In the meantime, the task is to bear faithful witness, and offer the invitation of grace. As Paul asks pointedly:

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10.13–14)

For many of us, although God continues to speak through art and architecture, through silence and music, through the visual as well as the verbal, we would never have come to faith in the first place unless someone had taken the time to offer us a word of explanation. To suggest this is not necessary for others seems to me to be like entering the castle, and pulling up the drawbridge behind us.

Returning to Richard Moy’s original question: is there a gap of understanding between what is happening in our cathedrals and churches, and the people who find themselves wandering in? If so, then preaching is needed.

Additional note

There are two interesting responses to Richard’s original post, both from Cathedral deans.

Pete Wilcox, of Liverpool Cathedral, offers a fabulous response here, outlining all that goes on in Liverpool to engage visitors and explain faith. He concludes:

This, I think, is the particular ministry of Cathedrals, and I’m confident all my colleagues know it, value it and want to make the most of it.  How we are doing so will differ according to several variables: theological standpoint is only one; architecture and location are significant too.  But take heart: there is much effective evangelism taking place.  Maybe we could all be making more of precisely the interface you cite, when Choral Evensong meets Tourism Central; but don’t assume that’s the whole deal.  And also, give us a break: the Church of England is on a journey, and Cathedrals are on board.  You can be sure that the language of mission is more and more mainstream even in Cathedrals and that when the Deans meet to talk, we even talk, at least some of the time, about making Jesus known.  We remember that that is what we were ordained to do, I promise.

The second is from a very different tradition, that of Kelvin Holdsworth, Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow.

So, I agree with some of the things Richard Moy is saying. Lots of churches could engage people better. However, I find myself disagreeing with Richard Moy too, particularly in his presumption that the only way in which the gospel can be conveyed is through a homily.

Holdworth goes on to point out that sermons themselves can be part of the problem:

Boredom is one of the devil’s chief tools in church. And the truth is, I’ve found myself experiencing boredom in all kinds of churches. Cathedrals certainly don’t have the monopoly on this. Ranting sermons. Repetitive sermons. Sermons which seem to be concerned only with one view of the atonement. We’ve all heard them. Preaching itself is not the answer.

What is fascinating is that both these responses, in their different ways, support the central point that Richard is making: that the good news of Jesus needs explaining in some form, and cannot just be left to the flying buttresses. pete Wilcox talks of all the ways that explanation is happening in Liverpool; Kelvin Holdsworth points out that preaching can do this badly. But, as has been said before, the answer to bad use is not no use, but good use.

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25 thoughts on “Why preach?”

  1. Thanks for this Ian. Its a vast subject with so many different yet valid positions. Here’s my take: 1. Jesus used parable effectively and allowed His hearers (outside his closest followers) to go and think about what He meant; I’d like more preaching like that (pedagogy of the question rather than the answer + 2 Timothy 2: 7?); 2. Some preachers are so boring and out-of-touch that frankly its better not to have a sermon; 3. Scripture reading (read well) and followed by silence to reflect, is much underused and under-rated; 4. God speaks to/touches/awakens individuals in so many different ways within church (the liturgy/words of hymns/songs/intercessions/silence/a blessing/Holy Communion etc. 5. I’d like to see more Cathedrals with Canon Evangelists and Canon Prophets as part of their ‘College’ and for these individuals to be used more frequently in the services….bla…bla…bla…

    • Thanks Tim. On point 5, yes that does seem to be an obvious answer. Given the context, I guess I would only ever want to see (skilled, sensitive) evangelists appointed to cathedral posts!

      But do look at Pete Wilcox’s response—a great articulation of what is going on in one cathedral.

      Kelvin Holdsworth also makes the point about bad preaching…but I am not sure Richard is advocating preaching regardless of how good it is!

  2. In your very first quote in the article Nicholas Henshall, Dean at Chelmsford Cathedral said:

    “Our intention/claim is that in everything we do we are seeking to be a thriving, outward facing community seeking to serve the city, the diocese and the bishop’s ministry above all in evangelism and teaching, as a powerful resource to the churches and networks of the region.”

    The worrying thing is he manages NOT to mention Jesus Christ at all when describing the purpose of the Cathedral.

    Jesus DID speak, Jesus DID preach.

  3. I don’t think the spoken word is dead in modern culture. Last week, I went to a “sermon” that lasted for two and a half hours including the interval. Sometimes I felt I was in church as the preacher mentioned Jesus Christ at least 30 times. The congregation laughed and some cried. Some were shocked and some were embarrassed. There was a sense of unity and a sense of challenge. Afterwards, I realised I could remember all the main themes and even a week later can still remember lots of it.

    It wasn’t a church and it wasn’t a vicar – it was stand up comedy with Dara O’Briain, of “Have I got news for you” and “Mock the Week fame. With 1500 people filling the venue at £24 a ticket, the take from one night would have been £36,000. He is performing the show 80 times this year. That would bring in over £2.5m in sales!

    Some sermons can be dull, but sermons are not stand-up. Yet there are people who will listen to the spoken word. We shouldn’t try to ape the comedians but recognise that good preaching uses words well and can be captivating and inspiring. Now back to my sermon preparation.

  4. If I may ask a slightly provocative question… Given some of the sermons I’ve heard in the church – from Bishops, as well as others – is it surprising that the church doesn’t have much of a focus on preaching? One of the most important things for me in learning to preach was hearing good preaching week in week out. But I think many people have simply never heard a decent sermon before, and the idea that a sermon should be a 5-10 minute meditation on whatever crossed your mind in the past week is the default CofE position. Instead of being an explanation of the word of God, expository, bringing out what the text says, it is rather a few random thoughts of John Doe.

    I’m not going to name names, but I’ve heard some absolutely terrible sermons from Bishops, archdeacons, and the like – it’s just the average sermon in the CofE. if that’s all people think preaching is, it’s no surprise that most people think it’s not that important.

    On preaching, I think the book of Hebrews is significant – Thinking about passages like Heb 12:25 “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?” Who is the one speaking? I think there is a continuity between God speaking and the word being preached to the people. (Jonathan Griffiths wrote about this in ‘The Perfect Saviour’).

  5. Isn’t the liturgy used in Cathedrals all about the gospel – confession, forgiveness, praise, thanksgiving. Liturgy devised in a preliterate society, used week in week out meant that the central truths of the gospel became part of everyone – thus the thrust to move from Latin to the common language of the people.

    • But in my experience, much liturgy in Common Worship is so far away from the cultural register of ordinary people that it is inaccessible–not least because people are not attending ‘week in, week out’. One of the main critiques of CW is that it is pompous and inaccessible, and I think that has hasten the decline of its use.

  6. How good to be in agreement! And this should not be exclusively about Cathedrals (where the Gospel connections are not obvious to the coach parties,and casual visitors, who seek the extraordinary and don’t recognise it is all around them) but about offering the Good News in ways that refresh the understanding of those who are ‘familiar’ while bringing it into the light for those who had no previous knowledge.
    On my sole visit to Canterbury Cathedral – at Pentecost – the then Archbishop ‘preached’ a recital of his diary for the coming month.

  7. Russian Orthodoxy survived for decades and ultimately triumphed with minimal preaching and mostly by the Liturgy.

    Tell it slant….Stevie Smith.

  8. Thank you for this. You have inspired me to get on and write an article I have been asked to do on preaching for a forthcoming edition of Baptistic Theologies. Some response:

    1. The word ‘preaching’ like the word ‘vehicle’ is so general that it hides what is in Scripture, History, traditions, and contemporary practice is a very varied practice.

    2. I believe that one of the tasks of the priests in OT cultic practice was to remind the people (teach, tell) the purposes and meaning of their practices.

    3. I do not think that it is a sign of a lack of faith in God to say that verbal communication is a good and a helpful thing in faith communication – anymore than it is a lack of faith in God to say that we need Cathedrals and indeed if we want to debate that one I suspect that ‘preaching’ may come out better in the important stakes.

    4. I think that there is something hugely human (although of course not exclusively) about a person using the fragility and power of words (signs and symbols of sound and action) to try and communicate what is of great importance to them.

    5. ‘Preaching’ can be appalling just as Cathedrals can be boring.

  9. A couple of quick thoughts.

    1. It seems that preaching in the New Testament was largely done for unbelievers. “Preaching” was not an every meeting occurrence amongst believers. Rather, all came with a word, song, etc. to share Christ.

    2. We are to preach Christ. Read every sermon given in Acts. They preach Christ and nothing else. But, most pastors today preach the latest pop culture psycho-babble or preach as Old Testament Christians. To the disciples and the two on the road to Emma’s, Christ opened their minds so they could see where He was in the entire Old Testament. There are very few that preach like that today. Preaching is meant to reveal Christ. This is what Paul did repeatedly. Note how he cannot stop writing about Christ in his letters. The man was consumed with Christ. But, it pleased God to reveal Christ in Him. How many pastors and preachers have really had a revelation of who Christ? Very few based on what I’ve heard at church.

    • Steve, thanks for commenting. I think I would disagree with you that ‘preaching was largely done for unbelievers.’ What we are presented with in the NT is a highly edited and structured text which does not have a straightforward connection with what happened in the form that it happened.

      For example, some ‘sermons’ (like Matt 5) were clearly not blocks of monologue–this form has been created by the gospel writer. It is not clear that there was a formal distinction between what happened for insiders or outsiders.

      A bit of me wants to share your scepticism about pastors…but another bit of me wants to be more hopeful!

  10. From a liberal perspective, I agree: a sermon should unpack scripture and liturgy, and cathedrals should be living, breathing beacons of faith, not just tourist attractions. (Tourists pay many of the bills, so should be welcomed.)

    Where I suspect we’d depart is the type of faith we’d like unpacked. I’m not advocating wall-to-wall Tillich, but acknowledgment that different traditions apply different frameworks to texts, and reach different conclusions accordingly.

    Cathedrals are there for all, so diversity should be the order of the day.

  11. This is a interesting discussion – and the discussion both here and on Richard Moy’s own blog is perhaps more interesting that his original post. One person chacterised it as ‘agressive’ but I would be more inclined to call it self-satisfied and limited. He generalises on the basis of having visited three cathedrals. I worship in Blackburn Cathedral which must be in one of the poorest cathedral towns in Britain and is essenitally a grossed up Victorian parish church, albeit handsomely done – very different from an archetypal cathedral such as Salisbury. It has the kind of community involvement that Dean Wilcox speaks of, particularly in working with the large Muslim commuity in the town. Its musical tradition is strong and one which works very hard to draw in people both through its music and to incorporate diverse people into its choirs. In terms of preaching, I think the clergy do an excellent job and I certainly don’t recognise ‘the latest pop-psycho-babble’ referred to by Steve above. We consistently have a sermon which is built round the Gospel of the day, setting it in both its original context as well as a context which is relevant to its hearers. I would agree whole-heartedly with James Byron’s post above.

    Richard’s original post is limited in that it privileges preaching and ‘the Word’ above all else, that it takes two or three cathedrals as exemplars of cathedral worship as a whole and that it sees his tradition as the one that cathedrals should follow, offering, somewhat arrogantly, to send one of his interns to show them how it should be done. Your post, Ian is far more nuanced. In answer to your question ‘is there a gap of understanding?’, I don’t think it can be filled by preaching alone. King’s College Cambridge, one of the pinnacles of high Anglican musical worship, provides members of the congregation with an excllent explanation of the shape of the service which is an excellent idea. If music and liturgy were to be downplayed to the benefit of preaching, I would be looking for another church. I think Blackburn in its modest way has got it right.

    Daniel Lamont

    • Daniel, thanks for your comment, and great to hear that good things are happening at Blackburn, as they clearly are also in Liverpool.

      But I don’t think you should mistake either Richard or me as saying ‘preaching alone’ will do the job. Richard’s initial ‘rant’ (his own word) was in response to the opposite: the idea that art and architecture alone will do the job, and that preaching is not needed. That was very much the view put in many of the comments on Facebook discussion of his posting.

  12. If you lob a grenade into a cathedral close you might reasonably expect a reaction, if only the attendance of the local fire brigade. Richard Moy (in his Dear Deans open blog of June 3) is known to me from my former time on General Synod. His ministry is infectious. We need more priests, male and female, who have his passion for the gospel and the re-evangelisation of England. I think he is starting a period of study leave (per his Facebook posts) so may have been feeling demob happy when he decided inter alia to trail round the country visiting cathedrals. By the same token I am a cathedral lover and know a number of deans, whose ministry I also hugely respect, St Albans, Ely, Salisbury and St Paul’s among them.

    However, not only did the fire brigade not turn up but only two deans put their heads above the perpendicular architecture and their chapter meetings to respond, namely Durham and Liverpool. Both have made convincing defences of their cathedral ministries. The rest are either not fazed by the upstart or, more likely, are not sufficiently social media savvy. Having re-read Richard’s blog the point he is making is that preaching has huge impact, even to visitors who may think they are only on a heritage trip. Are cathedral chapters really focused on preaching to visitors in their congregations, rather than to their faithful regular congregations? My own experience of visiting cathedrals (and let’s face it Durham must be most people’s favourite, quite apart from its World Heritage Site status, and the sheer size of Liverpool takes your breath away) is that they do awesome well. Who cannot be overwhelmed by the Lindisfarne Gospels or the odd edition of Magna Carta? And that’s without the worship. Who has not been transported to heaven and back by the choirs of a Christ Church or Winchester?

    But have our cathedrals, and indeed other beacon parish churches, really embraced intentional evangelism? Are they really taking full advantage of their privileged status? Have their tourism marketing consultants been instructed to ensure that a crucial part of the way they curate their cathedrals is to mount attractive displays explaining the Christian faith and the ways in which all can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? And of course, might a short homily be added to Evening Prayer (despite the BCP ending abruptly after the Collects) to leave visitors with a word, phrase or take-home message? Who knows what effect that could have on their lives? That is what I think Richard Moy was getting at.

    • Thanks, Anthony. I think you have hit Richard’s nail bang on the head. I was struck by the contrast between the two helpful response from Deans (effectively saying, yes, we know explanation is important) compared with most of the comments on the Facebook discussion—which went along the lines of ‘Oh, the buildings preach; we don’t need to…’!


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