Does Preaching have a Future?

Posted by on May 17, 2016 in Blog | 2 comments

What do you feel when the preacher steps up to preach… a surge of enthusiasm? a sense of expectancy? a bit of a sigh and an inner comment ‘hope this doesn’t last too long’? In a twitter age, do 30 minute monologues have a future? I wrote this article in 2013, and it has been published both in Ministry Today and in the book that marked the 50th anniversary of Vose Seminary Vose Seminary at 50: From ‘Preach the Word to ‘Come, Grow’. I’d be interested in your thoughts, and depending on response, I might develop some of the ideas in some other blog posts. Here is what I wrote…

The June 1, 1897 edition of the New York Herald reported Mark Twain to be “grievously ill and possibly dying” leading to Twain’s famous but often misquoted reply, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”[1]

Many have announced the death of preaching. The first notification I received of its imminent demise was in 1972, when the General Secretary of the denomination I was then part of, informed our congregation that the prospects for preaching in the church of the future were bleak, suggesting we experiment with more promising alternatives. When asked what those alternatives were, he was vague, my only real recollection being my sense of disappointment that a ministry I felt I could offer the church was unlikely to be required. I was a fifteen year old, and had recently enthusiastically delivered my first sermon to a congregation of twenty two – eleven of them personal friends specially invited for the occasion. I still have a full draft of that sermon, and though the content was theologically thin (to be generous!), I remember the passion with which it was delivered and my stunned realization that God had used my words to bless and encourage others. I have now been preaching for over 40 years, and it is something that continues to amaze me.

My opening gambit then is to contest the thesis that there is no future for preaching. That proposal has been around too long to remain credible. Like John Stott, I Believe in Preaching to quote the title of one of his enduring works.[2] That is not to suggest that I don’t believe that many changes lie ahead. There are already several that I can detect. Indeed as I think over four decades of listening to and delivering sermons (or the message, as it is now more commonly called), the image of something that is simultaneously continuous and discontinuous comes to mind. So much is essentially the same, so much has changed. So where do I spot the differences?

Tone and Ethos

While sermons remain, there is little doubt that their tone and ethos has changed.

Though my family attended church infrequently, one preaching image remained through my childhood. We were enduring a seriously dull sermon. Like Eutychus in Acts 20 most of the congregation had drifted into a deep slumber. Clearly annoyed at the parishioners’ disinterest, our usually mild and timid pastor made a desperate bid to recapture attention, thumping the pulpit loudly and yelling with extraordinary volume, “As Paul said…” Sadly I can’t remember what it was that Paul said, but I do remember my mother, together with several other dozing congregants, starting awake and looking around with confused bewilderment. I thought it was wonderful theatre and longed that I could thump a pulpit and yell at people like that. It seemed positively cathartic. Enthralled though I was at this outburst, I suspect that the preachers wagging finger and accusing oratory belong to an unlamented past.

In a previous era, the preacher was often the best educated member of the congregation. In an age of professionals, this is now rarely the case. A message suggesting three easy steps to overcome depression is likely to see the social workers, counsellors and health professionals in the congregation raise a communal doubting eyebrow. Indeed, contemporary preachers are wise to stick to their area of expertise which is hopefully the content and message of the Bible. The day of sermons filled with pop psychology and pseudo science is possibly over. Perhaps we can return to core business – the proclamation of the biblical message. Paradoxically, as preachers focus more on the message they are called to proclaim it could lead to a refreshing humility accompanied by a quiet confidence. There is indeed much that that the preacher does not know, but as we persistently unpack timeless treasures, we deal with that which transforms and changes the human heart.

If yelling preachers no longer impress, it is because preaching is not primarily mouth to ear, but heart to heart. We judge authenticity very differently today. The early pulpits I climbed into often had a little note inside, hidden from the congregation but a perpetual reminder to the preacher, “we would see Jesus.” The implication was clear – stick to the story of Jesus and avoid cute stories about yourself and your family. After all, you don’t count, Jesus does! Now each preacher must find his or her preaching voice but that voice should never be less than an authentic voice, and in the twenty first century it cannot be an entirely impersonal voice.

In his excellent book Preaching to a Postmodern World, Graham Johnston notes that, ‘What preachers perceive to be an issue of belief may well end up being an issue of trust. Before people ask, “What have you to say?” they may ask, “Why should I even listen to you?”’[3] A large part of the answer is likely to be intuitive.  I have chatted with enough people about why they did or did not respond to a sermon to realise that for large numbers of people the answer has little to do with the sermon’s content and a great deal to do with whether they did or did not relate to the preacher.

The relational windows are often small. It can be the way the preacher speaks about her family (or the absence of any mention of family); depending on cultural context, a story told in a self-promoting way in one setting may need to be told in a self-effacing manner in another.[4] Sermons that take no relational risks and that lack self-disclosure are perceived to disclose a preacher unwilling to be vulnerable or known. At the same time, too much confession and the pendulum swings in the opposite direction. I remember the less than charitable comments made of a preacher after he spoke of his almost but not quite adultery. For that congregation, the self-revelation had been a bridge too far. With another congregation, the response might have been quite different.[5]

What then should be the tone of contemporary preaching? Many descriptors come to mind, but I imagine that authentic, convincing (though not arrogant), informed, hopeful, open and generous should be on the list.

If the content should flow primarily from scripture, what hermeneutical lens should we select to interpret its narratives? Here we need to use some existential imagination. The Bible is a deep well and its stories are profound and moving. It is, however, all too easy to sabotage its life serving message. Not every reading of the biblical text is valid. In my analysis of the theological method of Stanley Grenz I have argued that all theological construction should take seriously Nicholas Wolterstorff’s concept of control beliefs, which guide us to which theories we are willing to entertain, and which we will reject out of hand.[6] I suggest that theological construction (and by implication, biblical exposition) should begin with the basic belief that the gospel liberates.[7] If only preachers of the past had adopted this self evident truth, we would have been spared sermons in favour of slavery, racism and the exploitation of the environment. The twenty first century faces its own challenges and temptations to our humanity. There are still those who argue for interpretations of the Bible that are self evidently oppressive. Preachers need to see through the smoke screen and to point to Jesus the Christ who came to bring life and life in all its fullness.

Form

While many sermons in the future will continue to be built around three points, the form of the message is likely to be increasingly fluid. Not that the sermon can take any shape or form. The content needs to be in accord with the teaching of scripture and the tradition of the church. At the same time it needs to be sensitive to the cultural context of its recipients. There are also those occasions when the biblical text requires us to go in a direction we would rather avoid. The tension can be resolved in a variety of ways.

Some simply avoid large portions of scripture. Topical preaching enables us to be in charge of what we will preach on and what biblical passages will be allowed a voice. However, topical preaching often lapses into idiosyncratic preaching. One senses the glazed stupor that settles over a congregation as the preacher announces that yet again her favourite topic will be the focus for the week. Topical preaching and poor exegesis are also often synonymous. One has to find a way to fit the text into ones theme. The result is often that one does justice to neither the topic nor the biblical passages selected

In favour of topical preaching is the ability of each message to be self explanatory and to stand in its own right. As church attendance patterns change and it becomes increasingly common for the average church attendee to be present for less than 50% of Sundays, sermon series that carefully build on the insights of the previous week’s exposition become more and more difficult to sustain. It is therefore natural that we have seen a drift towards topical preaching, and it is a drift that is likely to continue. It does raise troubling questions. If the congregations diet is a series of unrelated messages it will be hard for them to capture the broad contours of a Christian worldview. Little will hold together, and we should not be surprised if we birth a generation of perpetual spiritual babies, who while pious are unable to articulate a meaningful understanding of the Christian faith.

If we wish to birth biblically literate believers, we should take seriously the discipline of expository preaching. As a particular Bible book is worked away at over a number of weeks, the text rather than the preacher sets the agenda for the sermon. This has much to commend it, and has served the church well for many generations. It does require preachers who love the scriptures and whose passion for its teaching is infectious. There is nothing more annoying than listening to a sermon which makes the Bible sound dull. Again, so much depends on how the preacher interprets scripture. Those who read it with a simultaneous love affair with both the Bible world and the contemporary world are likely to avoid the potential pitfalls.

Some suggest that narrative preaching will provide a doorway to the future.[8] Spotting the homiletical plot in the narratives of scripture is an art form that all serious preachers must start to master. It often requires listening to the heartbeat rather than the letter of a biblical passage.[9] Imagination is required. Such imagination presupposes a willingness to enter into and explore the ever-perplexing question, “So what does it mean to be human?”

There are many other possible forms for the sermon. At times a panel could explore a topic or passage of the Bible, on other occasions an interview might impact the congregation with its insight and relevance, from time to time it is appropriate that the message is primarily a personal testimony – the range of options is limited only if we place  an artificial lid on human creativity. Perhaps we should ask what is it that we want congregants to take away from the sermon. A deeper understanding of scripture, a stronger commitment to Christ, and some resources for living out faith in the world seem to me to be timeless and worthy goals – regardless of the form the message takes.

Presentation

As technological advances continue to make possible the previously inconceivable, there is naturally doubt as to the viability of the monologue as an enduring communication form. Increasingly sermons are supplemented by visual images, DVD clips, PowerPoint and the like. Generation Y may be tweeting their response to the message while it is being delivered. Some sermons are simulcast and most are available for download a short time after delivery – a distinct advantage in an age where church attendance is erratic, often not due to the disinterest of the non-attendees, but a consequence of a 24/7 working week. The virtual congregation is now also a reality, and a move to Mexico no longer makes meaningful involvement in a Perth church impossible. How does this changing pitch impact the way we deliver the message?

While technological advances can enhance the delivery of the sermon, my fear is that we will rely on the props a little too heavily. The novelty of PowerPoint is long past, and most of us have suffered through poorly presented messages where the preacher flicked through endless slides, hoping that they, rather than the presenter, would capture the audience’s attention. There is no short cut to mastering presentation skills. Teachers of homiletics will do well if they continue to stress that students remember the 3 P’s of pace, pause and pitch, while continuing to think through the image of preaching as enlarged conversation, and exploring its significance for small, medium and large congregations.

Mega and Micro Churches

A word about the size of churches is in order. While the medium sized local church is under threat, the regional mega church is a reality likely to remain. The latter’s congregation of ten thousand may be addressed by a single preacher through a weekend, while it may take a hundred sermons to reach ten thousand people in smaller churches. Clearly if you are a mega church preacher, you have to take the preaching task extremely seriously. For those who are mathematically inclined, a message of thirty minutes delivered to ten thousand people consumes five thousand people hours, or one hundred and twenty five working weeks! Sermons delivered at mega churches also tend to have a global audience, and that audience often assesses their local preacher on the basis of what they hear from mega church pastors, the comparison usually being unfavourable! As a result, many smaller niche or boutique style churches are springing up. People don’t attend them because of the preaching, but as a result of a fairly specific need which is met. Such churches are sometimes happy to have their preaching downloaded from the sites of popular preachers. The result could be that in the future we have fewer preachers, but that each carries a significantly larger responsibility. However, I am not entirely convinced this is the way things will go. The Christian faith was birthed by incarnation. We are simultaneously global and parochial beings. The novelty of the global might be persuasive at present, but I suspect that the attraction of belonging locally is unlikely to disappear for long. Time will tell…

Wither preaching…

Where does this leave us? The Christian faith has always been simultaneously incarnational and proclamational.  We have a story to live and a story to tell. The preacher’s role in helping to tell the story is likely to remain. In his letter to the Romans Paul asks “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?”[10] These were pertinent questions in the first century and they remain pertinent questions in the twenty first..

[1] Reported in the June 2, 1897 edition of the New York Journal.

[2] John Stott, I Believe in Preaching: (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1982).

[3] Graham Johnston, Preaching to a Postmodern World: A Guide to Reaching Twenty-First Century Listeners (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 78.,

[4] Woe to the confident, self-assertive preacher in the Australasian context. See Brian Harris, “Of Tall Poppies, Mateship and Pragmatism: Spirituality in the Australasian Context,” Stimulus 16, no. 3 (2008).

[5] The preceding two paragraphs are a lightly edited section of my essay Brian Harris, “Preaching in Weakness: Reflections on the Self in Preaching,” in On Eagles’ Wings: An Exploration of Strength in the Midst of Weakness, ed. Michael Parsons and David Cohen(Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2008), 192.

[6] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Reason within the Bounds of Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976).

[7] Brian Harris, The Theological Method of Stanley J.Grenz: Constructing Evangelical Theology from Scripture, Tradition and Culture (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2011), 277-309.

[8] A helpful introduction to the topic is found in Roger Standing, Finding the Plot: Preaching in Narrative Style (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004).

[9] For a refreshing and holistic model of what he calls “the preaching swim,” see Michael J. Quicke, 360 Degree Preaching: Hearing, Speaking and Living the Word (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2003).

[10] Romans 10:14, TNIV

2 Comments

  1. Hi Brian, thank you for posting such a deeply thoughtful blog and pointing out the issues of contemporary preaching. How interesting also as I just bought Graham Johnston’s Preaching to the Post Modern World in Vose Secondhand book sales as the title was really eye-catching. I actually like to respond to your comments in a few areas but I guess I just pick one to reduce the length.

    Regarding expository preaching, I found it sad to see preachers who did not drill into the Scripture and bring out the deeper meaning of the text. I am referring to within a single sermon in particular but not quite the systematic expository preaching you were discussing that spread across weeks. Certainly, they are presumably connected. I feel that some preachers believe expository elaboration of the Scripture is important but also boring to the audiences. Therefore, they tend to rely on polishing the presentation to make their sermon or message more interesting. Some preachers resort to learning from TED talks which I do not have any issues with that as there are certainly things worth learning and borrowing from the TED techniques. Preachers do need to have an open heart and mind to contemporary skills in holding a talk. However, focusing on presentation way too much is kind of focusing on the wrapping of a present but not putting effort in getting the present right. Some preachers do not even explain much how they draw conclusion from the text but simply elaborate on the application of it. Eventually in long term, preachers may be producing audiences who do not critically listen to preaching but mechanically receive what is said to them from the pulpit. It is like reading the conclusion of a research without examining its methodology. It deprives the audiences the opportunity of going deeper into the Scripture. Consequently, I guess as you point out, we may not be birthing a generation of biblically literate believers. This is rather sad.

    • Thanks so much for this thoughtful response Kenny. Yes, I think that the journey away from a meaningful exploration of the biblical text will yield a disappointing harvest. At the same time, I think that the best sermons are deeply immersed in both the Bible world and our own – sensing the connecting bridge between them in a way that compels listeners to continue to engage.

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