Why is good preaching so uncommon today?
Part of the answer resides in a fundamental misunderstanding in what preaching is. Only as we recapture an understanding of the special nature of preaching can we hope to preach effectively.
Picture two scenarios:
First, a Sunday service; prayer is offered, hymns of praise are sung, the word is read – and, as the visiting preacher moves to leave his seat and go forward, the presiding pastor declares, "OK, let’s break for a short time to charge up our coffee mugs. We’ll reconvene in 5 minutes for the sermon."
Second, a worship service during a conference. The worship leader stands up on the stage and introduces the preacher as follows: "And now it is time to hear from Rev. X who is going to explain the Bible to us."
Both contexts reflect an understanding of the preacher's task as primarily that of communicating information. The problem is that if preaching is simply a means for such communication, it is singularly poor.
Listen to the words of English eighteenth century wit, Dr. Samuel Johnson, on the matter of lectures:
"People nowadays got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now I cannot see that lectures can do so much as reading from books from which the lectures are taken."
Johnson’s point? If information is what is sought, there are better means than sitting and listening to somebody else.
But preaching is more than just transmission of information, it is the confronting of people with God.
This was one of the great insights of the Reformation. One example:
How is the Word made effectual in salvation? The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation. (WLC 155)
In other words, preaching is confrontational and transformative; its end cannot be achieved as well by, say, reading.
The reasons for this are numerous. We need to understand them in order to understand what we are doing when we stand up and preach.
1. God is a God who is present through His Word.
Gn. 1: God’s creative activity is described in terms of his speaking.
Gn. 12.1: God’s presence with Abraham is articulated by his presence in terms of speech.
Trace this on throughout Scripture; and the contrary. Amos 7:11-12: the absence of God is described as a famine of the word of God. God’s silence is His absence.
In the New Testament, consider Jesus Christ's baptism in Mark 1. Read against background of an intertestamental Jewish tradition that God would not speak to His people again until the heavens are torn open. That’s what the Greek says in Mark 1:10, immediately followed by God speaking.
2. God’s Word has been inscripturated.
Dr. Clowney, the first President of Westminster and Professor of Practical Theology, on the Mosaic covenant (PBT, 39):
"The inscripturation of the Word of God occurs at Sinai with the establishment of God’s covenant with his people. While God’s calling of the fathers had a covenant form, the redemption of the assembly of God’s people, the congregation of Israel, calls for a formal covenant ratification with a precise and objective covenant instrument in writing."
Words are thus crucial to the covenant.
This emphasis on writing continues in the prophets, for example Jer. 30:1-2, Isa. 30:8, Hab. 2:2-3 and Dan. 9:1-2.
The written nature of the Old Testament is evident as a given throughout the New Testament: For example, "It is written…." and more.
3. God’s Word is preached.
Moses is the paradigmatic prophet in the Old Testament. Here are some noteworthy aspects of his ministry:
At the very start, he confesses his inability to speak for God and God assures him that it will be him, God, who speaks through him: Exod. 4:10-16.
The people, when terrified at Sinai, ask Moses to speak to them on behalf of God. He is an intermediary figure: Exod. 20: 18-19.
Deuteronomy is his great sermon, which includes (a) exposition (of the law given on Sinai), application to the people and exhortation to obedience. It is informative but also existentially confrontational.
Prophetic preaching continues throughout the Old Testament and finds its way into the New Testament. For instance, there is John the Baptist, Jesus, and the disciples/apostles.
The Book of the Acts of the Apostles also shows us that preachers start to proliferate.
The sermons in Acts and the New Testament epistles indicate that the prophetic model of Moses (exposition, application and exhortation rooted in God’s revelation) is the standard. Connect this to a theology of God as speaking means the preacher cannot see his task simply as communication.
So how does one preach prophetically?
First, there are the basic assumptions. Understanding what one is supposed to be doing is crucial to doing the task properly.
Of course, this also means that a preacher has to believe that (a) God is a speaking God; (b) he has spoken in his inscripturated word; and (c) he continues to speak as that word is expounded today.
Crisis in preaching is as much a crisis in the doctrine of God and of Scripture as it is in confidence in the means of communication; indeed, the crisis in the latter is surely a function of a decline in the former two points.
A sound doctrine of God and a solid doctrine of Scripture are critical. Also, a careful study of the movement of preaching from Moses to the close of the apostolic era is surely a very useful exercise.
Second, and in conclusion, if the basis for preaching is prophetic, then the content must also be prophetic.
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