Preachers invest much of their lives in thinking about sermons. If they preach regularly, they are all too aware that their praying, Bible reading, planning, studying, outlining, writing, practicing, and delivery involve a major time expenditure.
The typical evangelical pastor preaches two sermons weekly. He may also be responsible for other presentations, such as a Sunday School lesson or a brief devotional message for a midweek service. Even if he possesses the keenest of minds, the pastor will find that the major part of his work week is spent in study and sermon/lesson preparation. The preacher will most certainly ask himself on occasion, "Is it really worth all the effort?"
Apparently, most preachers believe it is. The extensive Gallup Poll conducted for Christianity Today in 1979 indicated that a large majority of American pastors (56 percent) felt that preaching was one of the most important things they did. (The second closest item was the administration of the sacraments or ordinances, marked by only 15 percent of the respondents.) However, in the same poll, only 10 percent of those surveyed mentioned preaching as being especially successful. Evidently, pastors want to preach well but feel they are not very effective at it.
In his book A Primer for Preachers, Ian Pitt-Watson titles his first chapter "What comes first." He explains that he is using these words as a statement, not as a question. Just as he argues that "what?" must necessarily precede the "how?" issue, so it should be understood that "what?" must also precede the "why?" question. If we correctly understand what preaching is, then we can better understand why it should be done and how.
The biblical concept of preaching is centered in one word from the Old Testament and four from the New Testament. Other words come into play, but these predominate. The Old Testament word is naba, which translated into English means "prophesy" ; it is used over 110 times. In the New Testament we find kerusso ( "to proclaim," about 60 times), euaggelizo ( "to declare good news," 50 times), kataggello ( "to tell thoroughly," 17 times), and didasko ( "to teach," 97 times). In addition, the New Testament word parakaleo ( "to beseech, comfort, exhort," 103 times) is sometimes used in the sense of preaching, although this is not its usual meaning.
Much of the preaching in the Old Testament appears to involve direct revelation from God. During or after the exile, preaching began to take the shape of textual exposition as a part of synagogue worship. In the New Testament, the terms seem to be used somewhat interchangeably, although kerusso and kataggello emphasize the activity of preaching, while euaggelizo and parakaleo emphasize the nature and purpose of the message being preached.
The inclusion of didasko with the more traditional terms raises the issue concerning the difference, if any, between preaching and teaching. The issue needs to be addressed on two levels: biblical and theological, practical and cultural.
In regard to the former, the distinction between preaching and teaching has been advocated most effectively by C. H. Dodd. He argued in favor of a clear difference between the two, saying that preaching (kerusso) had to do with the kerygma (that is, the basic gospel, as found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4), while the concept of teaching (didasko) had to do with didache (that is, the body of doctrine and ethics meant for believers). Thus, in Dodd's view, New Testament preaching was always evangelistic, while teaching involved the doctrinal and ethical matters of Christianity. Preaching was carried on outside the church, while teaching was carried on inside.
Some recent scholarship has disputed Dodd's thesis, pointing out that the two categories Dodd suggested are not, in reality, all that unique. It has also shown that a careful study of New Testament word usage indicates that kerusso and euaggelizo are sometimes used interchangeably with didasko. (Compare Matt. 4:23, "teaching in their synagogues," with Mark 1:39, "preached in their synagogues." The concepts also appear to overlap in texts like Acts 5:42; 28:31; Col. 1:28.)
As far as the practical and/or cultural distinction between preaching and teaching is concerned, several things enter the picture. (1) In some circles, a topical treatment of the text has been called preaching, while an "expository" treatment of a passage is said to be teaching. (2) In some circles, the word preach and its cognates have been thought to communicate too much dogmatism or authority, and the usage of teacher (rather than preacher) has become popular. (The expression "don't preach at me" clearly has a negative connotation.) (3) Some who prefer the term teacher do so because Ephesians 4:11 uses the phrase "pastors and teachers" v to refer to one leadership position in the church. Likewise, 1 Timothy 3:2 says that the bishop must be "able to teach" (NIV). (4) In some cultures (Japan, for example), a teacher is traditionally looked upon with great respect, and this results in the use of that title in those cultural situations.
Still, is there a difference between preaching and teaching, between a sermon and a lesson? Any supposed difference is not very easy to define apart from our own cultural understandings. Is the supposed difference based on the seating arrangement of the room, the bodily posture of the teacher or preacher, the use of voice, the degree and nature of the audience's participation, the way the passage of Scripture is being handled, the sex of the person doing the talking, or the formality or informality of the setting?
Surely, each of these is arbitrary. Preachers in first century synagogues sat down to address their audiences (see Luke 4:20-21). Does this make them teachers instead of preachers? Some pastors speak to their congregations with great fire and enthusiasm, while others use the pulpit to explain and apply the Word of God calmly and rationally. Must we arbitrarily assign the former to the category of "preacher" and the latter to the category of "teacher"? Suppose that a pastor shares his understanding of a passage and its application with one other person in a discipling situation and then shares exactly the same message with the entire congregation. Is it the difference in setting that makes the initial message "teaching" and the second one "preaching"? J. I. Packer shows that euaggelizo is used of Paul when he speaks to a synagogue gathering in Pisidian Antioch and to groups gathered in the marketplace at Athens. It is also used of Philip speaking to the Ethiopian eunuch in a chariot.
Obviously, arriving at a clear distinction between preaching and teaching is difficult, if a distinction does in fact exist. It seems that every attempt to show a difference between the two concepts ends in inconsistency. While using the term teaching to refer to classroom situations may be helpful, particularly where there is verbal interaction among the participants, the use of both preaching and teaching rightly characterizes the pulpit.
It is preferable to think of both preaching and teaching as the communication of the Word of God—the giving of a message based on the Bible and applied to life today. When that is being done before an audience (can we realistically limit the size?) with the speaker having taken the initiative in formulating what he is saying, it can be called preaching.
Traditionally, preaching has been carried out in the mode of speech making. The word sermon comes from the Latin sermo, meaning "a speech or a talk." Most preaching, therefore, will be carried out in a monologue with some measure of formality. Remember that this recognition is more cultural than biblical.
We return to the larger question under consideration: What is preaching? In his Lyman Beecher lectures delivered at Yale more than 100 years ago, Phillips Brooks said: "Preaching is the communication of truth by man to men. It has in it two essential elements: truth and personality." Though Brooks probably never intended for this state-merit to be understood as a formal definition of preaching, it is probably the most oft-quoted definition of preaching. He is often paraphrased as saying that "preaching is truth through personality," and this expression is quoted by many from a wide variety of backgrounds.
A variation of Brooks' definition comes from J. Daniel Baumann: "Preaching is the communication of biblical truth by man to men with the explicit purpose of eliciting behavioral change." This is an improvement on the former definition, for it includes the concepts of "biblical truth" and specific purpose ( "behavioral change" ). Although Baumann's definition is somewhat brief, it includes several important concepts.
Haddon Robinson offers a very thorough statement about expository preaching which can be applied to other kinds of sermons as well:
Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, arrived 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 him to his hearers.
A definition can only say so much about a subject without becoming awkward and too complicated. Other things must be added to mere definition. In regard to preaching, Packer highlights the following truths:
- Its content is God's message to man, presented as such.
- The purpose of preaching is to inform, persuade, and call forth an appropriate response to the God whose message and instruction are being delivered.
- The perspective of preaching is always applicatory....
- Authority is also integral to the notion of what preaching is....
- Preaching mediates not only God's authority, but also His presence and His power....
Even a casual reflection on the preceding definitions and truths should convince us that preaching really is quite unique. As Pitt-Watson said, "It is sui generis—in a class by itself."
Having now discussed the nature of preaching, let us turn our attention to the question: "Why preach?" As Packer correctly points out, there is both an objective and a subjective response to the question. The objective issue is whether God intends for preaching to continue to be a part of the life and work of the church. This issue is usually discussed in the context of the great communication advances made in the 20th century. Is not pulpit monologue at least slightly out-of-date in comparison to television and film? Are not techniques such as small-group dialogues or multimedia presentations more likely to be effective? Even if it is granted that preaching has had a tremendous effect on church history, and subsequently on world history, has it not lived beyond its real usefulness?
The Objective Response
Actually, this is not a question uniquely new to the present generation. James W. Alexander, a pastor and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, expressed concerns about the demise of preaching well over one hundred years ago:
I fear none of us apprehend as we ought to do the value of the preacher's office. Our young men do not gird themselves for it with the spirit of those who are on the eve of a great conflict; nor do they prepare as those who are to lay hands upon the springs of the mightiest passions, and stir up to their depths the ocean of human feelings. Where this estimate of the work prevails, men even of inferior training accomplish much.... The pulpit will remain the grand means of effecting the mass of men. It is God's own method, and he will honour [sic] it.... In every age, great reformers have been great preachers.
In fact, throughout church history, the pulpit has had its detractors. It appears that almost every generation has wrestled with the seeming lack of effectiveness of its preaching, even in the so-called "golden age of preaching" in the 19th century. Yet, preaching persists with only minor changes in methods. As Fant states: "Preaching, then, has a double stubbornness: it is stubbornly the same, and it is stubbornly there."
Still, one may argue that the late 20th century is different from all preceding eras of history. That is certainly true. The advent of technology has changed life radically. Certainly television, film, and other advances should be used to enhance the communication of the gospel. The issue before us, however, is whether the traditional monological sermon is obsolete. The answer is found in the very nature of God as One who has primarily revealed Himself verbally.
The religion of Israel is very much a matter of hearing rather than of seeing. Even God's actions are spoken of by the prophets as his word. No man can see God and live, but he is known by his speaking. By contrast, it is the gods of the nations that are mute, and their visible images are dumb. As we read in Psalm 115:7, 'They do not make a sound in their throat.' Throughout Scripture, revelation is identified above all with speaking and hearing... rather than with the imagery of the visual arts.' ... Of course, like all religions Christianity has its sacred actions and spectacles, sacred places and times, sacred arts and objects, but it is in connection with God's speaking that they are sacred.... Language, then, is more fundamental than graphic representation, except where the latter is itself a transcript in some sense of the word of God.
God has revealed Himself nonverbally, as in nature; but even the greatest nonverbal revelation, the incarnation of Christ, was limited by space and time factors. We know of it only by verbal revelation. Even the incarnate Lord communicated almost all of His message verbally, not just bodily. The most important of His actions, the crucifixion and the resurrection, would be unintelligible apart from verbal revelation.
Apparently, words are important to God. If that is the case, does this not serve as a basis for justifying preaching as a necessary means of communicating the truth of God? Is preaching rendered irrelevant merely because of scientific advancement? (Perhaps all of this has taken God by surprise!) Or is verbal communication—even the monological sermon—still a relevant means of declaring the complete counsel of God? Consider the biblical response to the following rhetorical questions:
1. Does good preaching differ from good public speaking? Yes! The Christian preaching tradition owes much to the tradition of public speaking, rooted in the rhetoric of the ancient Greeks. It goes far beyond that heritage, though, being related to the Old Testament prophet and, perhaps even more closely, to the preaching and teaching of the synagogue. The apostle Paul was assuredly aware of the well-known methods of the itinerant public speakers of his day when he reminded the believers at Corinth that "My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power" (1 Cor. 2:4-5, NIV).
2. Does the preacher have a special status or divine calling? Yes! Without doing harm to the teaching of the priesthood and ministry of all believers, one must admit that the Bible indicates that God has a role in choosing certain persons to minister the Word. Ephesians 4:11 indicates that it was the ascended Christ "who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers" (NIV). The Book of 1 Peter tells us that "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God" (4:10-11, NIV). In Acts 20:28, Paul reminded the Ephesian elders (pastors) that they were appointed to this position by the Holy Spirit.
3. Is there a unique authority in the Word of God? Yes! Public speaking relies on human cleverness and, therefore, has very limited authority. Authentic preaching, however, relies on the truth of the Word of God and has an authority inherent in the Word. The final commission of the Lord included a reminder of His authority and His continuing presence with those who would spread His message (Matt. 28:18-20). Second Timothy 3:16 claims that "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (NIV). It should not be a surprise when, a few verses later, the apostle charges the young pastor to "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Tim. 4:2, NIV).
4. Is the Word of God dead or dormant, or dynamically alive? We do not ordinarily think of words as possessing life, yet Scripture says of itself that "The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Heb. 4:12, NIV). Paul told Timothy that "God's word is not chained" (2 Tim. 2:9, NIV). Both of these texts affirm what God said about His Word long ago through the ancient prophet: "It will not return to me empty,/ but will accomplish what I desire/ and achieve the purpose for which I sent it" (Isa. 55:11, NIV). This is why Paul could write confidently to the church at Thessalonica, "We also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe" (1 Thess. 2:13, NIV).
5. Is true preaching only the product of man, or is it attended by the Holy Spirit? The age of the New Testament church was initiated with the promise and coming of the Spirit. Jesus told His early followers that they would be given power when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and in that power they would be witnesses (Acts 1:8). Thus, years later, Paul could remind his Corinthian readers that his preaching was in "demonstration" of the Spirit's power (1 Cor. 2:4). Likewise, he could tell the Thessalonian believers, "We know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction" (1 Thess. 1:4-5, NIV). In every age, the faithful presence of the Holy Spirit has accompanied true Christian preaching. The Spirit applies the Word of God with conviction to the individual.
All this indicates that God still intends for preaching to be a part of the church's ministry. The theological realities which saw the first-century church stress the preaching/teaching of the Word have not changed. God still reveals Himself and His will for people through verbal propositions. God still sovereignly places persons in positions of church leadership in which the preaching/teaching of the Word is a high priority. God's Word is still authoritative and dynamically alive, and God's Spirit still empowers the authentic spokesman. None of these realities is dependent on modern technologies or rendered obsolete by them. Again, that is not to say that the church should not make proper use of any legitimate tool. It is simply to recognize that objectively, God can and does use the "foolishness of preaching" to accomplish His purposes.
The Subjective Response
What about the subjective response to the question: "Why preach?" Why should a particular individual become a preacher or teacher of the Word? As with the objective question, the subjective question must be addressed theologically.
The matter of "a call to ministry" is seen in both the Old and New Testaments. Whether one considers Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, or Peter, John, and Paul, the sense of call is there. Sometimes these calls were quite dramatic (as in the cases of Isaiah and Paul); in other instances they were relatively simple (as in the cases of Amos and John). The circumstances of the call are not important. The assurance of the call is. It is this assurance that gives a sense of steadfastness and stick-to-itiveness when unjustified criticism comes or failure seems likely.
In the New Testament, the call to ministry leadership seems to be both internal and external. The called ones have a strong sense that this is what they must be doing. At the same time, the church confirms the call. We see this happening throughout the Book of Acts. Those who are called never act in a "lone ranger" manner but are always seen as accountable to the larger body.
The "internal call" cannot be separated from the called one's understanding of some basic theological truths. These would include the truth and power of the gospel, the authority of Scripture, the giving of spiritual gifts, and the Lord's sovereign right to call whomever He chooses. If these are missing, the felt call may be shallow and the product of one's own thinking. The counsel of the church is important in this regard.
The called must have their theological understanding of the concept of call in order and must have an abiding conviction that they must be involved personally in a preaching or teaching ministry. Then the why issue has been resolved. The called will echo the sentiment of Jeremiah, who said:
So the word of the Lord has brought me
insult and reproach all day long.
But if I say, "I will not mention him
or speak any more in his name,"
his word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
indeed, I cannot (Jer. 20:8-9, NIV).