“THIS is a football.” Vince Lombardi said these words to remind his players that they needed to get back to the basics; so far back that the very fundamental notion of football should be considered. In a sense, this is precisely what needs to happen in preaching today.
From “communicating through narrative art” to “progressive implication” we are bombarded with all sorts of nuanced notions regarding preaching. And what is presented as complex strategies to preachers is fundamentally an effort to please the delicate ears of the listeners. “People like stories; people are bored with exposition; people don’t like being yelled at; the lost will find your church more inviting; folks want more involvement; the individual needs to leave feeling good; speech-making is not the best form of communication.” All of these are ideas I have read in books on preaching.
The basis of all these arguments go like this:
1. Culture is changing, which, in turn, changes language and communication. What is appealing to one generation is not appealing to the next generation.
2. Therefore, people don’t respond like they did earlier to traditional preaching. (That was appealing to the last generation).
3. Therefore, preachers ought to change the communication medium as long as they communicate the same data.
The problem with that line of reasoning is that it defies Scripture itself. Biblically, preaching has never been commended because of its appeal. Though it is a good way to communicate, it has never been “the-best-most-appealing-way” to communicate. Paul stated that the popular, enticing and dramatic Greek monologs, though more appealing, were not to be the pattern for preachers:
1 Cor. 1:17
“For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
1 Cor. 2:1
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.”
1 Cor. 2:4-5
“My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”
“Eloquent wisdom,” “Lofty speech and wisdom,” and “plausible words of wisdom,” are references to one of the most inviting kinds of entertainment in that time: the Greek monolog. One would think that since Paul was ‘all things to all people’ he would quickly pick up on the use of the Greek monolog and adapt his preaching to be more culturally relevant in order to entice people to the NT church. But he did just the opposite. He avoided sounding like the popular speakers of the day. He simply taught Christ. The outside world (and the false believers in the church) considered that simple gospel preaching as “foolishness.”
I am not saying that we should avoid personality, fervor or persuasion in our preaching. I am just saying that the argument that we ought to mimic the relevant types of communication in our sermon delivery is not scripturally sound. Scripturally, preaching is commended not because it is relevant, but because it is simple, and leaves little room to explain away the sovereign work of God on the hearts of men. By the way, preachers, if we make strides in mimicking today’s most relevant communication, how do we know we are not falsely persuading? How do we know that God is moving men’s hearts and we are not just moving men’s emotions? Historians have long criticized the more “relevant” preachers through the centuries for using hyper-suggestion and group hypnosis. Thus, when God uses simple preaching, it is in some way just as good for the preacher’s confidence in the Gospel, as it is beneficial for the hearts of those in the congregation.
There is also a logical problem with the aforementioned argument. The logical fallacy is that the means of communication has nothing to do with the data. We are like computers, this fallacy says, and whether we receive the data through a high-speed fiber optic line or an old-fashioned telephone line, the end result is the same: the data is transferred. Why not pick the medium that most people would plug into?
But rhetorical theorists such as Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman insist that the medium has an integral role in determining the meaning of the data. Steven Smith highlights the importance of the (simple) preaching act as the medium through which God’s truth is conveyed:
“The fact that you are standing before people with the Word of God in front of you screams several things before you even open your mouth. First, you are communicating that you are the authority for the moment. Second, the medium communicates that God has spoken to you directly as to what you are to say. Third, the medium of preaching communicates that by virtue of calling, appointment or sheer nerve, for all your listeners know, you have postured yourselves to speak to the deepest needs of the heart.” (Dying to Preach, p47)
So as soon as preachers step away from the pulpit, turn on a video, or do anything “innovative” or “relevant” apart from preaching, the data doesn’t just change in its medium of transference, it changes in its very meaning. All that to say this: God chose the simple act of preaching for a divine purpose.
“THIS is Preaching”
So what is preaching? If you are looking for a church, one of the primary things you will observe is the preaching. And if true preaching is not always the most moving and relevant form of communication, how can you know if a preacher is truly, “preaching the word?” Well it’s certainly not determining if he is relevant, current, enticing or moving. Those things may or may not apply. The question is, does he preach like the Bible tells him to preach? Today, preachers are taught to present the audience with a service and message that are first and foremost emotionally moving. And with all the smoke and mirrors (sometimes literally) it is often difficult to determine what is proper preaching.
I have used throughout this essay the word “simple” several times in relation to true preaching. Biblical preaching is fundamentally simple. I do not mean that it is easy to execute, nor that it only covers only shallow subject matters (another false contextual myth of preaching). What I mean is that the idea of preaching presented throughout the 66 books of the Bible is a simple idea. That idea is repeated as a three-step pattern throughout Scripture. Let’s look at a few examples.
First, Ezra demonstrated simple preaching when the people of God had reunited in Jerusalem and began building the walls. After a series of struggles, the people asked the priest Ezra to present them with the Word. Ezra enlisted the help of other priests and it is recorded that “they read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” You could say that they 1) read the Word, 2) explained the Word (“gave the sense”) and, 3) applied the Word (“so the people understood”).
Second, when we get to the New Testament, we see the same pattern demonstrated by none other than Jesus Himself. Though every word Jesus spoke (or parable told) should not be thought of as preaching, we do see a hint towards what would take place later in the church. Look at Luke 4:16-30. After taking the seat of the teaching synagogue rabbi, Jesus, 1) “opened the book,” 2) explained, “today the Scripture has been fulfilled,” and 3) applied, “you no doubt will quote the following proverb…”
Finally, early in the founding of churches, Paul often mimicked his Lord, by seating himself in the position of synagogue teacher. And in places, such as Berea, where the Jewish leadership accepted the message of the Gospel, we can assume that the new messianic believers continued meeting in the synagogue and learning from the elders in similar fashion. We can also assume that when the apostles went from house to house, they were going to teach the Word, just as they saw their Savior demonstrate.
We know that this three-step process of teaching was normative for the church when we get to 1 Timothy 4:13, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” For whatever reason the ESV has elided the definite articles in that passage—literally it says, “THE reading…THE exhortation…THE teaching.” Thanks to Justin Martyr, a preacher in the Second Century, we know that these three elements were the central part of the early church gathering.
To bring this post on preaching to a close, let me summarize what we have learned so far about spotting healthy preaching. Remember it is not ultimately about feeling, moving or sensation. Though you want to moved when your pastor preaches, the fundamental concern is not his ability to contextualize, be relevant or be emotionally compelling. The fundamental concern is that he embodies the simple preaching as it is presented in Scripture.
This leads you to three questions:
1. Is the Word read?
2. Is that passage subsequently explained? (Do I walk away knowing Scripture better?)
3. Is that passage applied to real life?
Jon Eliff is editor of www.towardequipping.com.