Preaching In The 21st Century

Ben Thorp

Greater Glasgow March 10, 2017

In December 2006 I began a conversation with a friend, prompted in part by my own lacklustre spirituality and impending fatherhood, about what it meant to be a man of God. It was as part of this conversation that I discovered the work of David Murrow, including his book Why Men Hate Going to Church. [1] Part of the book addressed the area of preaching within the church, and covers some very helpful points on communicating to men, and suggests that if we “really want to attract unchurched men, paint this on your sign: ‘Home of the 10 minute sermon.’” [2]

As someone who had, for more than 10 years, been advised by others that teaching was my primary gift, I took this very much to heart. And certainly a well-crafted 10 minute sermon beats out a 30 minute ramble any day of the week! But as my own spiritual life began to be rekindled, I became aware of other preachers - Mark Driscoll [3], Matt Chandler, Tim Keller, John Piper [4] - who seemed to be attracting men in their droves, and yet still preached for 30+ minutes. What did this mean? Was Morrow wrong? More importantly, what is preaching, what is it for, and why (should) we do it?

Highly Misunderstood

If you ask someone in a church today, whether they’re sitting in the pews or standing in the pulpit, why there is preaching as part of their gathering, you’re likely to get a variety of different (and often confusing) answers. You may even encounter a simple “I don’t really know.”

For many it is simply something that we’ve always done and continue to tolerate. For others, though, preaching is a relic of a type of church gathering that we’re trying to move away from - to “grow out” of. Doug Pagitt, in his book “Preaching Re-Imagined: The Role of the Sermon in Communities of Faith”, suggests that ‘preaching, as we know it, is a tragically broken endeavour [that] doesn’t work - at least not in the ways we hope’ [5]. Thus he renames a traditional view of preaching as “speaching”, going as far as to name Martyn Lloyd-Jones as a prime example, and instead looks for a much more discursive and community based approach.

Even those who perhaps wouldn’t go as far as Pagitt are seeking to discover new ways to preach, rejecting authoritative proclamation as a modernist invention, and preferring narrative, poetry and mystery. Or by embracing new media with extensive visual aids and illustrations.

We have also seen, in recent decades, an increasingly clear understanding of the way that people learn. In recognition of the rise of dyslexia and attention deficit disorders, coupled with the realisation (which Morrow echoes) that men in particular lean much more towards “kinetic” learning, have seen people seek ways to make preaching more engaging [6].

Thus we come to the reason for me writing. I am by no means an expert in my field, but I have spent a considerable amount of time in the last 10 years thinking and studying preaching in an attempt to understand it. It is my impression that the church has, by and large, seriously misunderstood the what and the why of preaching, and in doing so has precipitated a shift away from it. [7] This article is my attempt at bringing some clarity.

Towards a charismatic theology of preaching

A few years into my investigation, I took on a leadership role around teaching in my local church. I put together a strategy document which began with my working definition of what preaching was. It looked something like this:

“Preaching is a spiritual gift, prophetic in nature, which connects the Word of God to the people by the power of the Holy Spirit”

Let me break that down into its constituent parts:

  1. Preaching is a spiritual gift. As a charismatic, the idea of spiritual gifts is obviously very important. In particular, we view spiritual gifts as gifts from God that continue to this day. That is, we view them as timeless - not something that drops away. This is important in a day and age when many are suggesting that preaching should be minimised if not removed entirely from church life. Within more conservative circles, this is often based on secular theories about learning and communication. Whilst I agree that such theories are extremely helpful, I found that the best illustration of their relationship to preaching to be that of the relationship between medicine and healing. We encourage the use of doctors and medicine, but still pray for healing. We recognise the vast medical knowledge that is now available, but also recognise that we have an omnipotent and miraculous God. Likewise with preaching - we recognise that we can learn much from teachers, but also that preaching is a spiritual gift that is, in its own way, miraculous.
  2. Preaching is prophetic in nature - to preach is to bring the words of God to his people. This should be obvious, but often it isn’t. Too often in the past people have either brought merely the words of man, or merely taught about the words of God. To quote Alistair Begg: “True exposition must have some prophetic dimension that leaves the listener in no doubt that what he has heard is a living word from God and creates in him at least the sneaking suspicion that the Author knows him.” [8]
  3. Preaching connects the Word of God directly to people. Ideally as a preacher, I should step out of the way, and let God speak. Equally, I should ensure that I use the written Word of God in ample measure, as I can guarantee they are from Him, whilst also bringing the “rhema” word that comes through personal study and preparation. “A good sermon is not like a club that beats upon the will, but like a sword that cuts to heart….[c]ultural engagement in preaching…must be for the purpose of laying bare the listener’s life foundations” [9]
  4. Preaching should be through the Power of the Holy Spirit - I need Him in me for it to work. A preacher should fulfil the qualifications of a leader set out in Scripture, and a life devoted to God, seeking always to be full of the Spirit, should allow for His power to be made perfect in the weakness of my preaching, rather than my strong preaching to highlight the words of my mind and the shallowness of my heart relationship with God.

Preaching, not Teaching

Throughout the first half of this article, I have consistently talked about “preaching” rather than “teaching”, although I would suspect that most people who have heard me preach would talk of me as a “teacher”. This is, in part, because I think that people have created some very odd definitions of these terms: for some preaching is evangelistic, and teaching is aimed at believers; for others preaching is somehow more “prophetic”, whereas teaching is about the Bible.

For me, however, I have started to prefer the term preaching because the term teaching comes loaded with baggage that implies an academic motivation. This, too, is where I feel that David Murrow came to his idea of the 10-minute sermon. Partly driven by the modern era, which encouraged sermons to be rational apologetics, we have come to believe that the Sunday morning sermon has a primarily educational purpose. Therefore in the evangelical church, our training for preachers focuses on memorable application: “What will they remember on Monday morning?” [10]

But the more I investigated preaching, and the more I became convinced of its importance within the present-day church, the more I came to question this understanding. Finally, I came upon this amazing quote from Jonathan Edwards:

“The main benefit obtained by preaching is by an impression made upon the mind at the time, and not by an effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered. And though an after-remembrance of what was heard in a sermon is oftentimes very profitable; yet, for the most part, that remembrance is from an impression the words made on the heart at the time; and the memory profits, as it renews and increases that impression.” [11]

Or, to put it another way, the primary purpose of preaching is to allow God to speak directly to people at the time of hearing: a heart-to-heart transaction, rather than an educational mouth-to-brain transaction. [12]

This, then, is the key. Preaching as a timeless, prophetic proclamation of God’s Word which both engages and critiques the culture; both identifies the problem and provides the solution in the gospel; both exposes the sin and glorifies Him who offers freedom from it.

Notes

[1] https://www.amazon.co.uk/Why-hate-going-church-revised/dp/078523215X/ The book is not perfect by any means, and many people find some of his examples unhelpfully stereotyped. However, I still consider it an extremely important starting place for a discussion on how the church can more effectively reach men.

[2] Murrow, Why Men Hate Going to Church p177-178

[3] I realise that Driscoll was a controversial character even prior to his fall from grace, but I cite him here in recognition of the positive impact he had on my life (and the lives of many other men and women), and the major role he played in initiating my studies into the nature of preaching.

[4] Yes, all American, male, US preachers. That’s just how it was.

[5] Quoted in Bohannon, John S. Preaching & The Emerging Church, p97-98

[6] I am often amused by people who don’t see the irony of suggesting that we stop have a sermon because the “average person” won’t understand it, when the average person in the pew is more educated and literate than ever.

[7] For instance, Barna’s “Transforming Scotland” research in 2015 indicated that, in ‘baseline’ churches, a majority do not prioritise preaching the Bible. By contrast, almost all of the growing churches do.

[8] Begg, Alistair, Preaching for God’s Glory, location 315 in the Kindle version

[9] Keller, Tim. Preaching p.21

[10] Of course, application is still an important part of preaching, but this kind of approach to application all too often leads to either an educational motivation or, worse, a moralistic one: “Resist ending your sermon with ‘live like this’ rather than with some form of ‘You can’t live like this. Oh, but there’s one who did! And through faith with him you can begin to live like this too’ The change in the room will be palpable as the sermon moves from being primarily being about them to being about Jesus. They will have shifted from learning to worship.” Ibid, p179 - italics mine

[11] Originally from “Thoughts on Revival, Part III” but quoted in https://churchplantingnovice.wordpress.com/2008/07/16/edwards-on-main-benefit-of-preaching/

[12] This is not to deny the importance of education within the Christian life, but that the sermon is neither the place, nor the most educationally effective method, of achieving this. All churches should be seeking to educate and disciple it’s members in other ways.

Join in the discussion on Facebook

Ben Thorp

Ben Thorp

Ben works as a parish assistant at Helensburgh Parish Church and is linked with Whiteinch CofS and Forge Scotland. Ben lives with his wife and 2 children in Glasgow, and is currently enquiring with the CofS