by Robert J. Young
Many would agree with the statement, "Preaching is not what it used to be." Preaching is changing just as our world is changing. What is appropriate in the pulpit? What is effective? What is proper?
A Crisis--Method or Message? The crisis in preaching to which I refer is not in methods. This crisis centers on the message, or rather on communicating the message in understandable, applicable terms to our contemporary world. We must ask, "What message must be preached? How can one connect God and Scripture to life in our world?" John Stott's description is accurate: preachers face the challenge of bridging "between two worlds." Humanity can participate in the divine nature because in Christ Jesus Deity has shared our humanity. Proper preaching must ever have that truth about Jesus Christ at its core. In the words of Ignatius, preaching must "consider the times, and then look to the Timeless One."
Four Questions--A Brief History of Preaching Methods. Historically, separating the message from the method has been difficult. In the early days of the Restoration Movement, preaching was usually linear and rational. Preaching sought mental understanding and assent. Frontier people seeking literacy appreciated topical, sequential arrangements of biblical material. Texts from a variety of locations in Scripture were introduced to provide a broad view of a particular topic.
Two questions may be helpful. What is the nature of this crisis? How may we encourage ethical ministry?
By the middle of this century, a shift in homiletics (the study of preaching) was encouraging an expository approach to Scripture. The topical method asked "What can I say?" based on the needs and understandings of the audience, and generally depended on the authority of the preacher. The expository method supposed to ask "What does the text say?" If in the latter the Bible was primary and authority resided in the text, both approaches tended to rummage through the text for their messages, and both approaches often ended with sermons divorced from the life settings of the hearers.
To properly expose the text is no easy matter and many preachers, following the verse by verse approach of our adult Bible classes, did it poorly. Soon an alternative question was posed as the solution to the problem of preaching: "What can I say that is interesting and that somehow connects with the text?" The biblical text became a sort of springboard. Much of my early preaching was of this kind. The authority in this kind of preaching again resides primarily in the preacher.
Along the way, preaching's struggle with understanding the text has led to searches for the author's intention and studies in historical, grammatical, and literary backgrounds.
A better question for sermon preparation is: "What does the text say that I must say?" What are its underlying theological motifs?
Finding an Effective Method for Modern Preaching. When one struggles with these sorts of question, one comes face to face both with what the text says and with how the text says it. Does the modern church need only to understand the Psalms and be able to remember their content, or is there an appropriate way to experience the Psalms? The move from the age of the printed page to the electronic age should influence preaching. Preaching which is insensitive to a visually-oriented, experientially-oriented audience will dwindle in irrelevance.
When one finds Jesus telling a story, can (or should) one tell that story (or a similar one) to elicit a similar impact and response, or does one merely seek to help hearers understand what is occurring historically? How is God's Word preached in our world so the message can be heard, understood, and applied?
The answer to that question will depend upon the preacher, the audience, and the text for the sermon. God's message to his creation is communicated in various ways in Scripture. A place exists for parabolic preaching, for narrative preaching, for topical strategies that meaningfully approach the text, for sermons that allow the hearers to experience afresh the impact of Biblical poetry, instruction, prophecy, or homily, and therein to hear the message anew. Despite the disdain of some, inductive sermon approaches are not automatically "unsound." Not every person in our society learns deductively, and preachers who preach only deductively often (unknowingly) practice selective evangelism and ministry.
Inappropriate Methods. Even when the message is right, some methods are inappropriate, ineffective, and even unethical.
(1) Moralistic preaching proclaims the "what" without the "why." It tells us what to do for God before it tells what God has done for us. It is based more often in judgment than in God's kindness. It gives imperative without the instruction and in so doing ignores the usual approach of Scripture. It is prescriptive without the description. In the words of the Hebrews, it gives the halakkah (instruction) without the haggadah (story). This kind of preaching may convince someone to act, but it has little staying power.
(2) Authority from the preacher. Regardless of the method chosen, authority for the sermon must always issue from the text. Meaningful applications of the text to the lives of today's hearers. The problem with preacher authority is that when another preacher with seemingly greater personal authority (charisma?) comes along, the hearer may be swept away.
(3) Irrelevant preaching. One sitting in auditoriums across our brotherhood for consecutive Sundays could hardly miss the fact that many sermons begin in Scripture, end in Scripture, and never hit life. We too often persist in addressing boring, irrelevant issues from our pulpits while hurting people are dying for a word from God that speaks to life. Preachers would do well in sermon preparation to consider every potential group in their audience, and ask what part of the chosen text will address what issues in the lives of this group. There is no excuse for irrelevant preaching.
(4) Unprepared or unplanned preaching. Effective preaching is not a one-time event any more than receiving physical nourishment can be accomplished annually. Preaching must go somewhere. It must have an aim, a purpose, a goal. Those who would sit at the weekly feast where the "Bread of Life" is broken deserve variety, balance, nourishment and sustenance appropriate to life's demands, seasoning and spice. Those who hear us deserve the best study of the text and its application to the life of the local church that we can provide.
May God assist those of us who preach in being good stewards of our gifts and our opportunities.
©, 2001, Robert J. Young
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