Preaching, the Supreme Means of Grace
Ours is an age in which words like 'sermon' and 'preaching' are dirty words. At a seminar on the art of effective communication students were warned, 'Don't sermonise! Never preach!' People hate being preached to and don't want a sermon. The picture of a preacher haranguing his flock and wagging his finger from the heights of a lofty pulpit is the epitome of how not to communicate.
But, says our reformation tradition, preaching the Word of God is the primary and supreme means of creating, feeding and maintaining Christ's Church. Preaching Christ crucified, in season and out of season, whether eloquently or as a stutterer, is the most important means God uses to pour his saving grace going into the world. Nowadays? Is preaching still the supreme and most effective way of communicating Christ to believers and unbelievers? Aren't contemporary alternatives effective? Has preaching had its day?
Let me be the first to acknowledge that the negative image of preaching is often deserved and understandable. To use a forbidden word, much of it is decidedly boring. I well remember enduring a 'sermon' from a preacher when I had my first Sunday in the Netherlands. 1 Both the content and presentation were awful. It came as no surprise that the listeners looked and acted utterly bored out of their brains. When the offering plate came around my thought was to take something from it as a well-earned payment for having stayed on to endure the last half hour.
You might want to defend preaching by demanding that hearers look beyond the preacher's style (or lack of it) and focus on the content of the Gospel which, by definition, is never boring. Train yourself and others to focus on the content of the parcel and not the way it is wrapped or even presented. That is what seems to be called for by someone like Paul who points out that he himself did not come 'with eloquence or superior wisdom' as he proclaimed the testimony about God. Rather, he came 'in weakness and fear with much trembling ... not with wise and persuasive words.' (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
Maybe, when compared with the Greek philosophers and orators of that age, Paul was pretty 'ordinary'. But boring or without power he was not! He preached 'with a demonstration of the Spirit's power.' (1 Corinthians 2:5) In that same letter, speaking about his preaching, he also points out: 'I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.' (1 Corinthians 9:16b, 17) Paul's compulsion to preach was born out of genuine passion. It had that same authority that characterised the teaching/preaching of the Lord himself. (Matthew 7:29)
Boring, powerless, passionless and non-authoritative preaching is a contradiction of terms.
The Real Problem with Preaching Today
However, even when preaching is powerful, authoritative and passionate it still continues to reap the most meagre of harvests in our age and culture. Why is this so? Effective preaching and hearing is a God empowered and enabled event. Unless and until God takes hold of and uses the preacher he is no more than an orator at best. Preaching is using the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:17), whilst being carried along and empowered by that same Spirit.
That is half of the equation. The Spirit must also be at work in and on the hearers. Again Paul:
The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned.1 Corinthians 2:14
Hearts of stone, blinded eyes and gummed up ears can absorb nothing. For effective preaching to take place the Spirit must work both through the preaching of the Word and in the heart of the hearer. Not either/or but, necessarily, both/and.
That leads on to another problem that has ancient roots but has been greatly enhanced in this day and age. Ours is an era which has turned the individual or 'self' into the ultimate authority. We've turned ourselves into 'gods'. My ideas, my opinions, my input is the final court of appeal. Everyone demands his or her own pulpit or stage. Ours in an age which elevates self-expressionism above all else. Every doggy is as good as his master. This is the modern way.
Therefore, if you believe that own ideas are just as relevant (or irrelevant) as anyone else's, why should you be forced to listen to someone preaching to you?
See? The very idea of preaching or being preached to is diametrically opposed to the spirit of our time. At best we allow for dialogue, a situation in which two or more people speak, share and provide insights with equal authority, where being listened to is on a par with listening. An authoritative message from the Creator to his creature, from the King to his subjects, the Master to his slaves is anathema to the modern mind.
The problem is not so much that preaching is an outmoded form of communication or that audio-visual presentation is more effective. Rather, it is the attitude to preaching as an authoritative Word from God which must be listened to.
Does Preaching Have a Future?
Does the spirit of this age mean that we have to find another way of communicating Christ or feeding his flock? Is there a realistic alternative to preaching as a means of grace?
Many seem to indicate that there is. When children have to have 'yukky' medicine you disguise the taste with banana or strawberry flavouring. Do the same with proclaiming the Gospel. Instead of a preacher proclaiming a message from a pulpit, look for alternatives. Create a seeker-friendly service which uses dialogue. Use encounter groups. Focus on counselling. 'Preach' by incorporating Christian lyrics and challenges into modern songs. Use a dramatic testimony or a video which has a subtle rather than a direct approach. In a word, take the 'spirit of this age' into account and work around it by removing the sermon.2
Whilst these ideas have their virtues and a place, they are open to a gigantic trap or dead-end street. The bottom line is that the Gospel message is just not friendly to or compatible with the spirit of the world. God never approaches or addresses us human beings as colleagues or equals. You have to change the very nature of the gospel (or your assessment of the nature of the sinful human heart) if you want to find an alternative which is on a par with preaching.
Proof? Scripture throughout makes preaching the second-to-none means by which God communicates himself, his promises and his grace to his children and to all of humankind. Further proof? You show me a church which is growing spiritually, and you'll invariably take me to a church focused on powerful preaching. When, some years ago, churches became concerned about the way young people were turning away, many of them turned to alternatives. The results were disastrous.
There is no alternative to preaching. Sure, preaching can be and necessarily must be improved. Boring preaching is an insult to Christ himself. But preaching has no substitute as the supreme means God uses to communicate, be it yesterday, today or forever.
What to do? The great call to today's Church is to focus on preaching as God's primary means of grace. The challenge is not so much to find alternatives or additives but to address and come to grips with the God-given truth about preaching. It is God's way because it is ultimately a reflection of the nature and authority of God himself.
Far too many ministers are turning away from preaching in preference to dialogue, encounter, counselling or advising. The pulpit is sidelined. The authority of God and his word is compromised and ultimately drowned out. But equally, far too many of those who sit in the pew need to change too. Far too many of us have drunk deeply from the wells of modernity. Preaching has lost its appeal because we challenge its authority by either not listening (or making an effort to) or by simply staying away when we feel like it.
Get preaching into its true, Biblically demanded focus and God himself guarantees that his word will never return to him empty. Hasn't God himself said:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed to the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.Isaiah 55:10, 11