God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.
1 Corinthians 1:21
We should never become desensitized to the fact that, within a dazzling range of divinely imaginative options, God invented and decided to use preaching to impact his world. This plan goes deeply into both Old and New Testaments, where the key attributes of biblical preaching are rooted and nourished. Four of preaching's qualities are particularly significant: It is prophetic, transformational, incarnational, and diverse. Only after considering each of these will I be able to offer a definition of preaching and to highlight preaching's role in church renewal.
When Jesus Christ emerged into public ministry, his first recorded action was the following: "Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God" (Mark 1:14). Thomas Goodwin the Puritan remarked that "God had only one Son and he made him a preacher." George Buttrick simply entitled his preaching classic Jesus Came Preaching. He says:
It is a fair presumption that Jesus could have written books. Instead, "Jesus came preaching." He trusted his most precious sayings to the blemished reputation and the precarious memory of his friends.... Of a truth it is a printed New Testament that remains, but its vital power is drawn from a word and a Person.... The gospel was and is a living impact.
Yngve Brilioth claims that Jesus' synagogue sermon (Luke 4:16-21) not only roots Christian preaching in Jewish proclamation but also provides the key to understanding the history of Christian preaching ever since. His analysis of this event in Luke 4 identifies three primary elements that can be used to study all subsequent Christian sermons: The liturgical element emphasizes the worship context; the exegetical element underlines the significance of interpreting the text; the prophetic element stresses that when Jesus declares, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (v. 21), he "gives to every text its interpretation and its address for every time and place; he is the one who gives to every text its eternal content." This prophetic element is closely connected with the power of the Spirit: Jesus returned "filled with the power of the spirit" (v. 14), and "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me" (v. 18). Brilioth acknowledges that there are other kinds of sermons, such as missionary sermons that occur outside the usual liturgical context, and sermons that focus on ethical admonition or the care of souls. But most preaching can be assessed by these three elements, particularly by the prophetic, when preachers are "grasped by divine reality," when they have an awareness that God's Spirit is empowering their words and actions.
Sometimes the term "prophetic preaching" is used loosely and extravagantly, as when a preacher appears to have particular intensity or deals with justice issues. Someone said to me that its two characteristics seem to be sweat and noise. But prophetic preaching is about the "today-ness" of divine reality when Christian preachers respond to Scripture as Old Testament prophets did when they heard the word of the Lord. When prophets declared, "Listen to the word of the Lord," they had a conviction that God had spoken and was now present, expressing himself through the prophet's words.
Clearly, there are dangers associated with likening preachers to Old Testament prophets, whose messages were derived directly from God. They were in fact mouthpieces of God: "If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth" (Jer. 15:19). John Stott warns about making comparisons because Christian preachers do not have direct access to original, personal revelation; rather, they are responsible for declaring the revelation given in Christ and in Scripture.However, there are some striking parallels.
Sidney Greidanus identifies three characteristics common to both Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles. First, both represented God. Second, both spoke God's Word. Third, both understood God's Word to be God's deed. Both prophets and apostles were "sent-persons" who testified to what they witnessed firsthand. The apostle Paul claimed to speak on behalf of God and could describe his message as "the word of God": "We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers" (1 Thess. 2:13). Greidanus claims that preachers share the last two characteristics with prophets and apostles. Because the authority of preachers is rooted in Scripture and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, preachers can claim both to speak God's Word and to understand God's Word to be God's deed. The refrain "the word of the Lord came to me" expressed both the source of and the energy for a prophet's task (see, for example, the frequent recurrence of this phrase in Ezekiel 6:1; 7:1; 12:1; 13:1; 14:2; and so on). Once a word came from the Lord, it moved unstoppably on its way. "The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?" (Amos 3:8). Jeremiah described a similar compulsion: "If I say, 1 will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,' then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot" (Jer. 20:9). Similarly, preachers are effective because God's Word is heard through them and is sharper than a two-edged sword (Heb. 4:12). The Holy Spirit who first inspired its words when they were spoken and written down goes on inspiring each generation of preachers as it hears and speaks again.
Preachers are also God's sent-persons whose sense of "call" involves a total commitment to preach. God calls, gifts, and employs preachers so that through them his truths might impact and change lives. Paul's apostleship was tested and authenticated through the changed lives of his hearers (2 Cor. 3:1-3).
When Timothy is charged to preach the word (2 Tim. 4:2), he stands in the new order of Christian preaching, in continuity with the apostolic commission. Klaas Runia and others argue that Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 embrace all Christian preachers. "So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us" (v. 20). From this point on there is an immediacy of revelation because of the continuing work of Christ and the Holy Spirit through God-breathed Scripture. The stunning claim rings out that "whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God" (1 Peter 4:11). "For the Spirit who spoke through the prophets is still speaking today through preaching which passes on the messages of God's prophets and apostles."
No other kind of public speaking is therefore in the same league with prophetic preaching. They operate at different levels. Of course, preaching shares certain characteristics with public speaking such as the need to focus on a topic, design a message, and deliver it skillfully with voice and body. But while people can be trained to become more effective public speakers, effectual preaching first requires God's call upon a preacher. No amount of natural skills can ever compensate for a lack of divine reality, a sense that God is empowering a spiritual event.
The Holy Spirit is intimately involved in the process of identifying a preacher's call. We need to rehabilitate the language of "anointing" by the Holy Spirit—which James Forbes describes as a "process by which one comes to a fundamental awareness of God's appointment, empowerment, and guidance for the vocation to which we are called as the body of Christ. " This process can be lengthy and complex and includes several features such as nurture in a family and faith community, vocational readiness, obedience to the Spirit, power from beyond oneself, and courage to bear witness.
Preachers therefore should never select themselves. Indeed, many have gone to great lengths to avoid selection. Reluctance rather than enthusiasm marked the call of Moses, Jeremiah, and Jonah. Overeagerness smacks of immaturity. Preachers should ask whether they could do anything else. Colin Morris admonishes, "Preach—if you must. "Martin Luther wrote, "Preaching is not the work of men.... For to this day I, an old and experienced preacher, am still afraid of preaching. "Preachers need to test their call by sensitively asking and listening: Is there any evidence of anointing? Intertwined with a speaker's talents are there signs of submission of tongue and life to God? Is there resonance of the holy?
A preacher's call belongs within God's wider call to the body of Christ to ministry. Those set apart as preachers are involved in equipping all the saints for their vocations (Eph. 4:12), and these saints need to discern necessary qualities in their preachers. These include:
Different denominational groups have developed ways by which an individual's call can be tested within the wider church's mission.
Jesus Christ seemed to leave no room for neutrality or boredom whenever he preached. From explosive beginnings in Nazareth, he created impact every time. At first there was a positive response as "all [pantes] spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth" (Luke 4:22). Yet at the conclusion, "all [pantes] in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill... so that they might hurl him off the cliff" (Luke 4:28-29). The emphatic restatement of pantes serves to illustrate the power of Jesus' proclamation both to amaze and to antagonize. Amazement and antagonism remain the predominant outcomes throughout the Gospels. People are continually "astounded" (as in Matt. 7:28; 13:54; 22:33; Mark 1:22; 11:18; Luke 4:32).
Amazement and antagonism mark the apostles' preaching too. At the birth of the church, it is by Peter's preaching that the gospel is heard and responses are made (Acts 2:14-41). It is a sermon presenting Christ crucified and risen that brings hearers to crisis, repentance, and faith; they are "cut to the heart," and "about three thousand persons were added" (Acts 2:37, 41). Though it all begins in the unrepeatable "sound like the rush of a violent wind" and "tongues as of fire," it is by repeatable words of frail preachers that God chooses to birth his church. At key breakthroughs in mission, preaching is essential, as in Samaria (Acts 9:20-31) or with Cornelius (Acts 10:34-47). Paul's missionary preaching makes a dramatic impact wherever he goes, with the unfortunate exception of Eutychus, who fell asleep (Acts 20:9). The actual word used in Acts 20:9 is dialegomai, "to discourse and argue." Its occurrence throughout the latter part of Acts is associated with a common pattern of astonishing people with good news as well as antagonizing religious leaders (see Acts 17:2; 19:8; 20:7).
Preaching also has long-term effects in the nurturing of new churches. The reference in 1 Corinthians 14:3 to "those who prophesy" relates strongly to intelligible speech (v. 9) and therefore to preaching. Its three outcomes are listed as "building up" (oikodomē), "encouragement" (paraklēsis), and "consolation" (paramythia). Peter Adam stresses the "building up" aspect of preaching with reference to Ephesians 4:12 and defines preaching as "the explanation and application of the Word to the congregation of Christ in order to produce corporate preparation for serving, unity of faith, maturity, growth, and up building. " The themes of encouragement and comfort emphasize the way in which persuasive preaching can both excite and calm listeners. In 2 Timothy 4:2, further outcomes are mentioned: Preaching should convict (elenchō) and rebuke (epitimao).
Astonishment, antagonism, conviction, conversion, strengthening, encouraging, and consolation result from preaching. In the New Testament, some preaching bears immediate fruit, while other preaching brings long-term results in the formation of congregational life. Always, however, something happens. Preaching changes people. "God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe" (1 Cor. 1:21). Preaching is not telling about good news; it is good news. It is not a pointer to potential divine promise somewhere else; it is God's promise that is effective now. Preaching rooted in Scripture and inspired by the Spirit possesses prophetic reality to transform. Leander Keck describes how "the preacher who has wrestled with the text can... become a prophetic spokesman on behalf of the text. " Karl Barth defined preaching in the following way: "Preaching is the Word of God which he himself has spoken; but God makes use, according to his good pleasure, of the ministry of a man who speaks to his fellow men, in God's name by means of a passage of Scripture. " No wonder early on the priority of preaching needed to be safeguarded as pastoral pressures built in the new church in Jerusalem. The apostles recognized that they could not fail in their key task: "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables" (Acts 6:2). They appointed others, while they devoted themselves "to prayer and to serving the word" (Acts 6:4).
Christian theology places faith within culture. The incarnation of Jesus Christ as the "Word made flesh" (John 1:14) roots the gospel inextricably in culture. Born in Bethlehem, at the time of the Augustinian census (Luke 2:1-2), Jesus was immersed historically in the world, identifying with humankind at a particular time and place. The repercussions of his life, death, and resurrection are eternal, but they happened in time and in culture. Scripture's story similarly tells of God's dealings with his people at particular times and places before, during, and after the incarnation of Christ.
Yet the good news (gospel) of Jesus Christ is Jesus proclaiming himself and living out his own story. He is the story as the Word becomes flesh. As Marshall McLuhan put it in a conversation with Pierre Babin, "That is the only case in which the medium and the message are perfectly identical." Babin continues, "And in explaining the term message, he insisted that it was not the words spoken by Christ but Christ himself and all the ministries that extend from him that produce an effect on us. The message is conversion. " Because the gospel's truth and experience reside in the person of Jesus, his big story or "grand narrative" remains constant even though human cultures continually shift and the story is heard in different ways. Telling God's timeless story in our time remains the critical task for all preachers everywhere. The other main timeless truth is that humankind needs salvation.
As we will see, the fact that Jesus never wrote a book but lived a story and taught through stories is an exhilarating foundation for all subsequent preaching. Humankind needs salvation, and the same story has to be told to each generation. Its source is in Jesus the Word made flesh, yet it has to be told through the words, experiences, and flesh of preachers. Preachers must therefore stand under Scripture and the lordship of Christ and also in the contemporary world to embody God's Word in their words and persons. This has huge implications for understanding the times, as we will see.
For convenience, I have so far referred to New Testament preaching as though it were one phenomenon. However, nearly thirty Greek words may be translated using the single word preaching. Each struggles to represent the new phenomenon of the in-breaking kingdom of God and to describe a unique event that had never happened before.
One of these, kēryssō, means "I herald" and is suggestive of a town crier in a market square. But it "does not mean the delivery of a learned and edifying or hortatory discourse in well chosen words and a pleasant voice. It is the declaration of an event. " Repent! Other expressive terms surprise us with their range. For example, in Acts we find words such as these: euangelizomai (Acts 14:7), meaning "I bring good news, I preach good tidings, I instruct concerning the things that pertain to Christian salvation, " from which we derive the word evangelist; didaskō (Acts 4:2; 5:25), meaning "I teach, hold discourse with others in order to instruct them, deliver didactic discourses"; apophthengomai (Acts 2:4, 14), which means "I pronounce (not belonging to everyday speech but to dignified and elevated discourse)"; and dialegomai (Acts 17:17; 18:4; 19:8; 20:9; 24:25), meaning "I converse, discourse with one, argue, discuss, " from which the word dialogue comes. Some have constructed theories about how some of these words have technical significance. C. H. Dodd contrasted kēryssō (which he saw as proclamation outside the church) with didaskō (teaching inside the church). But this oversimplified the evidence, for if significant differences were meant to be understood this way, they would be much clearer in the text.
This sample of New Testament words underlines the rich variety of preaching practice and sounds out a warning about making simple generalizations. There is little evidence that early preaching resembled what has become the norm for many of us in our worship services. True, Jesus preached in the synagogue (Luke 4:16-21), an event that provides some significant criteria for subsequent Christian preaching. But his incarnation makes his preaching unique and unrepeatable. He is the story.
Preachers can learn much from studying Jesus' and the apostles' teaching ministries, but they will not find examples of sermons that closely resemble their own. For example, the sermon of Acts 2:14-39 seems to summarize only the highlights of a missionary sermon. So we must be cautious about assuming that we know what the word preaching means. No one can be dogmatic about what a sermon should look like or can generalize from his or her own experience how all preaching should be. There are no uniform packages or pigeonholes in the New Testament. What Craig Loscalzo says about evangelistic preaching holds true for other kinds as well: "One problem with evangelistic sermons is that they look and sound like evangelistic sermons." No one can say for certain what a sermon should look like. In the twenty-first century, no one can authoritatively declare that one size fits all or that there is only one biblical pattern. There has never been one ordained pattern, and in our age of turbulent change, we should expect just as much diversity as we find in the New Testament.
Preaching's diversity in the New Testament, and ever since, makes it difficult to construct a single workable definition. Indeed, preaching is such a slippery word that almost anyone can construct a definition based on his or her personal experience and preference that can then be read back into favorite New Testament references.
Phillips Brooks's well-known definition of preaching, "truth mediated through personality," was developed by George Sweazey into "truth through personality, in the midst of personalities." Bernard Manning states, "Preaching is a manifestation of the Incarnate Word from the Written Word by the spoken word." Harry Fosdick regards preaching "as drenching the congregation in one's life's blood." Some are more explicit in detail. Haddon Robinson states, "Expository Preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher applies to the hearers."
Because preaching is prophetic, transformational, and incarnational, I am drawn to a definition that focuses on its dynamic impact. My conviction is that preaching is nothing less than sharing the in-breaking of God's good news to create new people in new community. Christian preaching, at its best, is a biblical speaking/listening/seeing/doing event that God empowers to form Christ-shaped people and communities. "At its best" expresses a realism that much preaching sadly falls short, yet it also dares to raise expectations about what preaching can and should be. "Biblical speaking/listening/seeing/doing" conveys a dynamic eventfulness that has implications for all the senses, all the person, and all the community. The word seeing refers not only to multisensory words and the person of the preacher but also to the possibilities of new technology. But most importantly, this definition contains the theological conviction that God empowers preaching events to form Christ-shaped people and communities. Preaching is about God communicating his will and purpose with power and immediacy to effect change—an emphasis that will resonate throughout this book. Preaching, at its best, is a God happening, empowered by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
To borrow from Walter Brueggemann, it is "the evoking of an alternative community that knows it is about different things in different ways." When Jesus Christ came proclaiming (Mark 1:14), his primary concern was not to impart new information but to announce a new way of living in his kingdom. "Repent and believe in the good news." This is not a tinkering with life as we know it but an invitation to a new way of being never imagined. It is not a dabbling with surface issues of passing significance but a dealing at depth with our reasons for existence in his kingdom—issues of eternal consequence.
When the charge rings out from God's throne room, "Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable" (2 Tim. 4:2), it is not a charge for a domestic activity for religiously inclined people but God's urgent word to create an alternative reality. In a context of "itching ears" that want palatable affirmations, preaching confronts with sound doctrines that convince, rebuke, and encourage for the finishing of the one good fight, the one race that matters, which comes with "the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day" (v. 8). Preaching puts people, communities, nations, and the world on a new course, with new possibilities and new outcomes. Preaching offers another way of living that is not a gloss on the status quo but a change to abundant life.
Peter Berger the sociologist wrote of "signals of transcendence" that discerning people see in the world as evidence of God's presence. Preachers are called to the task of announcing signals of transcendence. Jesus Christ has broken into the busy self-preoccupied world with transforming power for kingdom living today. God is involved in dynamic change. John Ruskin described preaching memorably: "Thirty minutes to raise the dead in." The Helvetic Confession (1566) majestically stated, "The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God." James Stewart challenged preachers, "Every Sunday morning when it comes ought to find you awed and thrilled by the reflection—'God is to be in action today, through me, for these people.'"
These claims about evoking an alternative community thrust preaching into a strategic role in God's purposes. Brueggemann calls for prophetic ministry "to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us." Dominant cultures are characterized as being numb to the possibilities of newness. The prophetic task goes against the numbness of a self-seeking, self-perpetuating, dominant culture. For Brueggemann, all acts of ministry should lead to this evoking and confronting. "Prophetic ministry seeks to penetrate despair so that new futures can be believed in and embraced."
Preaching is unlike any other activity, for its distinctive language creates new community. It has a subversive quality that undermines conventional wisdom with perceptions of deeper verities. William Willimon captures this well in Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, when he pleads with passion for peculiar speech that evokes a new people out of nothing. Preachers need to understand, as he puts it, that they "talk funny." Elsewhere he writes of the "weirdness of the gospel." "While preaching struggles for connections, associations, between my life and the word of the gospel, it also expects disassociation, gaps and tension between my story and the gospel."
Some may find this broad, dynamic definition of preaching unsatisfying. Why does it not mention, for example, a key word for many evangelicals—expository? For many, this word seems to guarantee legitimacy through a particular style of verse-by-verse preaching that is claimed to reflect Scripture most accurately. However, Robinson correctly states that expository preaching "at its core is more a philosophy than a method."As he comments, whether a person is an expositor or not depends on how he or she answers the question, "Do you, as a preacher, endeavor to bend your thought to the Scriptures, or do you use the Scriptures to support your thought?" Exposition is primarily a matter of being "exposed" to the message of Scripture and "exposing" hearers to its power. Rather than being tied to a particular format, it depends on the quality of relationship, of humble interaction, between preacher and Scripture. There are no ready-made, prepackaged preaching styles that guarantee this relationship, as though preachers can be spiritually cloned. Each has a unique responsibility, by God's calling and under the authority of his Word in Christ and in Scripture, to find his or her own voice for his or her own hearers in his or her own times.
Every spiritual surge in the church's story since the first century has owed its life to God's presence and action—"not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit says the Lord of hosts" (Zech. 4:6). Yet one continuous sound has been heard throughout—the words of preachers. It has been estimated that over three billion sermons have been preached since the day of Pentecost. No other formal group activity can come close to this impressive statistic.
Incontrovertibly, the church's story cannot be told without reference to its preaching. Preaching is a part of the DNA of church; it is not just a part of its high profile moments but its daily life. "Renewal comes, not through isolated, heroic thinkers, but rather in the church through the everyday activity of people.... We believe that renewal comes through an appreciation of the continuing empowerment by word and sacrament, which in each age creates a church worthy to hear the Word and to receive the body and blood of Christ. " Believing comes through hearing the Word from preachers who are in the right places at the right times. That is what makes their feet beautiful (Rom. 10:15).
Consistently and stubbornly, preaching echoes through the millennia, sometimes fortissimo, often pianissimo, but always vital for the church's life. At the heart of this book lies the conviction that preaching at its best has always accompanied church life at its best. Whenever God has breathed fresh life into his people, it has led to a vibrant missional church with vibrant missional preaching. Lively preaching and lively church mission share mutual energy and creativity within the empowering of God's Spirit. Leander Keck claims, "Every renewal of Christianity has been accompanied by a renewal of preaching. Each renewal of preaching, in turn, has rediscovered biblical preaching. " Church historian Edwin Dargan comments, "Decline of spiritual life and activity in the churches is commonly accompanied by a lifeless, formal, unfruitful preaching, and this partly as cause, partly as effect. On the other hand, the great revivals of Christian history can most usually be traced to the work of the pulpit, and in their progress they have developed and rendered possible a high order of preaching. " Peter Forsyth adds, "With its preaching Christianity stands or falls. Preaching is the most distinctive institution within Christianity. " Nothing conveys God's saving truth as effectively as preaching does, and nothing may contribute to church renewal more.
Originating in the synagogue traditions of Jewish Christianity, preaching was influenced by such things as the Greek homily and Latin rhetoric. The church's greatest thinkers and leaders did their thinking and their leading through preaching. Often without realizing it, preachers today build on earlier work of preaching giants such as Origen, Augustine, and Luther.
Origen (c. 185-c. 254) was trained in Alexandria, an important intellectual center, and studied the work of the philosopher Philo, who developed a method of bringing together Jewish thought and Greek philosophy.
Origen employed three senses by which to understand Scripture: a literal sense, a moral sense that applied to the listener's situation, and a mystical sense that brought a person into a relationship with Christ and the church. For moral and mystical understandings, he made strong use of the allegory, a tool that is prone to abuse but that, when used with caution, can make positive connections between texts and contemporary meanings—"this text means this." Paul Wilson pleads today for an appropriate use of allegory and the reemployment of "four senses," as they ultimately became known in the early church: the literal sense—the literal historical event; the allegorical sense—a text's theological doctrine; the moral sense—a text's call for changes in hearers' lives; the prophetic sense—a text's implications about the next life.Through Origen, "exegesis and preaching were so firmly united that... long afterwards they remained intertwined."
Preachers who stress the twin tasks of understanding a Scripture passage correctly in order to preach it persuasively probably owe more than they realize to Augustine (354-430), who was trained in rhetoric and taught it as a professor in Milan. Augustine forged a link between a solid understanding of a text (he wrote some of the first commentaries on Scripture) and the need to design persuasive preaching. Toward the end of his life he wrote the first preaching textbook, De Doctrina Christiana, book 4, in which he applied rules of classical rhetoric to preaching. He quoted the definition of a speaker's task given by the Latin rhetorician Cicero: Docere ("to teach"), delectare ("to delight"), flectare ("to influence"). These tasks appeal to intellect, feeling, and will and model three types (genus) of speech: submissum ("restrained"), temperatum ("moderate"), and grande ("grand"). Augustine was concerned that listeners respond to all three intelligenter ("intelligently"), libenter ("willingly"), and obedienter ("obediently").
According to Brilioth, because of Augustine's preaching, which combined a deep commitment to Scripture with passionate, fiery sentences and sermons (many less than ten minutes), there was no worthier representative of prophetic preaching before the Reformation. "Above all else... Augustine conceived of himself as a steward of the mysteries of God." The marriage between preaching and rhetoric remains a critical union for all preaching.
The Reformation is supremely associated with the preaching of the Word, especially with regard to Martin Luther. Brilioth claims, "No person, before or since, has so exalted the word, not only the written word but the living word: 'The New Testament office is not written on dead tablets of stone, instead it is entrusted to the sounds of living speech.'"In each sermon, Luther concentrated on one Scripture passage, with a passion for simplicity. "Christ has spoken in the most simple way and yet he was eloquence personified—therefore the highest eloquence is to speak simply." Luther had a deep consciousness of being entrusted with in-breaking good news, which had to be told as urgently and simply as possible.
Many branches of the church family honor different breakthrough eras when fresh preaching reinvigorated their lives and missions. Protestants treasure the golden era of the Reformation, with the preaching of Luther and Calvin, and the late-eighteenth-century revivals in the Western church, associated with the preaching of George Whitefield and John Wesley, as high points in powerful preaching. Yet "Lutherans, Calvinists and Anglicans were not the only ones to restore the word of God to its place of honor. In the Roman Catholic church, the Council of Trent insisted that all priests should preach on Sundays and teach the faithful."
But not just preachers had a critical influence within the history of preaching. A chief example is Johannes Gutenberg, who, between 1440 and 1456, invented movable type, which spurred extraordinary developments in preaching. Pierre Babin describes what happened as nothing less than "an inspired act on the part of the church to seize on this new medium.... They created a different way of communicating faith, which was based on the potential of the new print medium.... The most important factor in the religious revival of the sixteenth century, both Catholic and Protestant, was the effort to ensure that the ordinary people learned the theological foundations of Christianity," which happened through uniformly precise printed leaflets. The Protestant Reformation, therefore, was spread through the fusion of two mediums—preaching and printing. "Protestantism was born with printing and has been the religion in which printing—the printed Bible, the catechism, newspaper and journal—has played a vital part." Printing changed the ways in which people were able to think and preachers could communicate. Words could be mass produced, and people could learn the catechism. The task of preaching became more about explaining what people had already learned through print.
The story of preaching should not be told without reference to the impact of shifts in communication. Preaching has its own speaking/listening/seeing/doing dynamics, but they operate within cultural contexts that change. Past pulpit giants are giants partly because they grasped opportunities to proclaim timeless truths in changing times. Just as preachers once saw new opportunities in printing, so contemporary preachers are confronted by opportunities in the electronics revolution. Is there evidence of "an inspired act on the part of the church to seize on this new phenomenon"? This important question will command some attention later.
As I reflect on preaching's high role in God's past mission breakthroughs, I plead for contemporary preaching, in God's name and by his power, to take primary responsibility for church renewal today. Nothing is more significant to human existence than announcing the in-breaking of God's good news to create new people in new community. Effective churches resonate with God's alternative reality, called the kingdom of God, live out his grace of forgiveness within their memberships, and have a passion for mission and service that reaches far beyond their boundaries. Authentic preaching has always opened up new ways of living and being in Christ. It never has merely conveyed safe information to shore up the status quo but has helped to form a new people for the sake of a lost world. It offers not cushions but life jackets, not comfortable platitudes but rescue and restoration. It seeks not approval of the already committed but urgent responses of those still seeking.
Transformational, individual-saving, community-forming preaching creates churches at their best. That is why mission and leadership flow from healthy preaching. Common descriptions of preaching, whether positive (energetic, lively) or negative (dull, boring), can entirely miss the point. Preaching's awesome task is about evoking an alternative community that lives for a different agenda—for God, for the wider community, and for the world. Preaching needs to be experienced as prophetic, transformational, incarnational, and diverse. Catalytic, life-changing preaching accomplishes deep outcomes in God's purposes.
If it were possible to run a spiritual seismometer over Christian history to record its major tremors, every quake would correspond to a renewed sense of God's presence in preaching. This claim for preaching in the past, however, seems to ring hollow in the present. Whatever preaching may have done in the past, honesty compels us to admit that the present does not seem to be a time of life and renewal. To this sorry state of affairs we must now turn.