Where have we reached with Preaching?

Again, I’ve had great feedback on the questions raised about preaching. Church pastors and ministers appear to be both aware of the potential for varied approaches to Bible teaching and reluctant to lose traditional preaching in church. Many church leaders recognise the value of an integrated programme of learning and biblical reflection that includes personal study, small group work and church sermons.

For me, questions remain over the aim and function of church preaching and these relate to larger questions of the aim and function of church services. Our approach to preaching will often be consistent with our view of church services and the aims of both.

My current thought is that church is primarily a gathering of Christians yet open to all. I’m not sure that the once fashionable ‘seeker service’ is appropriate in a post-Christian and post-Christendom society, where few people feel the need to simply arrive at services. And yet, often church services remain aimed at the unbelieving visitor whether or not they attend. However, I have heard Tim Keller say the opposite, that if you speak as though unbelievers are there eventually they will be. Presumably because their Christian friends will bring them, or visitors will be interested enough to return. But I wonder whether Scottish culture differs from American on this. Also, few preachers have Keller’s ability and speaking gifts.

By focussing primarily on the not yet Christian, the shop-window view of church may encourage many preachers to take a superficial approach which depends upon attendance at further meetings for depth (clearly this is not the case with Redeemer services). It also absolves most of the congregation from the need to engage in evangelism and outreach which in turn limits their growth and development.

However, where possible services ought to be in an accessible language and style appropriate to their context. The reason being, if Christians don’t learn to worship and reflect in contemporary language they will struggle to share their faith in the culture they inhabit outside of church. In a greek class, years ago, it was pointed out that there is theological precedent for this view, namely that the New Testament is written, primarily, in Greek which was the ‘global’ language of the day. And as helpfully pointed out it’s written in Koine Greek which was the language of the hoi polloi.

Questions also remain over the biblical foundations of church preaching. Is a monologue presentation, as opposed to dialogical teaching of the Scriptures, something that the bible anticipates? Announcing and heralding the Gospel are clearly biblical but are they meant primarily for church service or part of engaging with the world at large.

It’s hard to evaluate the efficacy and appropriateness of preaching. In addition to questions of the biblical foundations of church activities, there is also the question of outcome. How do we evaluate the outcome of different teaching methods or views of ‘preaching’?

Most pastors or ministers would find it very difficult to receive the kind of evaluation and scrutiny that others do in their work. I regularly wonder whether I have the stomach and strength to ask my congregation what they think of church. And this is not due to a lack of potential feedback, I’m sure there’s an old joke about the congregation going home to roast the minister for Sunday lunch!

There is also the issue of expectation. Both pastor-teachers and the congregation may not not waste time considering the practical impact or efficacy of church preaching because they view preaching sermons as a necessary, sacred act. Therefore even canvassing the congregation may simply tell what they want rather than what might serve them best.

Finally, perhaps the best available evaluation of church teaching is the wider situation of the church. Is our teaching or preaching engaging the congregation? Is it leading to growth in terms of faith? Is it leading to growth in numbers involved in the Christian community? Do our congregations feel built up in their faith, and empowered to handle Scripture? Are they increasingly inspired and equipped to share their faith outside of the Christian community? And are our churches increasingly displaying the fruit of the Spirit and obedience to Christ?

Preaching as Event

My earlier posts considered church teaching as a means of learning how to read the Bible. I believe this is a valid form of preaching because the Gospel is the primary key (or hermeneutic) to understanding the Bible. You can’t teach the Bible well without preaching the Gospel.

I’ve received some further great responses to the earlier posts. A common point has been to question the concept of preaching as primarily having an educational function. What if preaching in church is not primarily about teaching the Bible? Instead, preaching can also be seen as a means of encountering God or of engaging the heart and soul.

This takes us back to an interesting point in the discussion and draws out some important questions.

  • What is the aim of preaching? What function does it perform within the Christian community?
  • What is the biblical foundation of this view of preaching to the Christian community? Is the closest idiom that of the OT prophet?
  • How does such preaching then relate to the meetings of the NT church which focused on the Apostles teaching although prophesy appears to have had a role.
  • A high view of preaching is shared by many pastors and scholars. But is it suggesting that when we preach God speaks or God’s presence descends? If so, it may have a bearing on answering the next question.
  • What Ephesian’s category of preacher might we place this perspective within. Is this the utterance of the apostle, prophet, evangelist or pastor-teacher? And what might that say about the best context for such speech?
  • Does this privilege the preacher’s words, or the act of preaching, over the Scripture? Does God speak more clearly in the sermon than in the Bible? Does God inhabit the sermon more than he inhabits the Scriptures. Or are sermons conduits to the Almighty in the same way as Scripture?
  • What is more beneficial to the congregation, the preaching event or learning to hear God for themselves in the a Bible?
  • If the anticipated outcome is a divine encounter or heart warming experience, should such preaching be privileged over singing and prayer?

For want of a better concept, I tend to think of this perspective as ‘preaching as sacrament or sacramental event’. Here, behind the content and act of the preaching is a movement of the Spirit which establishes a transformative encounter with God.

I wonder whether the roots of viewing church preaching as sacrament go back to the Reformation. It might be argued that the reformers simply replaced the mass with the sermon. The sermon then became a means of grace and encounter with God which was mediated by a specially set-apart celebrant.

The view of preaching as a sacrament or sacramental event may be an entirely legitimate perspective but it’s always good to examine the assumptions behind our practice.

Monologues, Communication and Church Teaching.

I’ve had some very helpful responses to my last post and to a subsequent request to my teaching friends to suggest how they might teach the text.

The value of monologue for preaching

Firstly in response to the original post which questioned teaching methods in church and the effectiveness of public announcement of the Gospel, two respondents raised similar questions. Both focused on the role of the church preacher as the person set aside for leadership and teaching. One asked what the impact might be upon Spirit given insight to the preacher if sermons were replaced by dialogue. The second person made a similar point, this time related to training. Preachers have generally followed lengthy training in order to preach, how does that relate to a situation where everyone gets to give their opinion?

These are important questions and emphasise the biblical and historical function of church leaders being set apart and given authority. This should not be lost even if new approaches to teaching in church are adopted. In a Reformed environment there is a fine balance between recognising the priesthood of all believers, the presence of the spirit in all and the need for all to have a voice, with the biblical mandate that some are set apart for particular ministries. A change in approaches to teaching should not be allowed to increase biblical illiteracy or theological error.

This is especially significant for the Church of Scotland which is drastically reducing the number of Parish Ministers. How will teaching be delivered to local churches? Will it become more like a quaker or brethren meeting where many people can stand and speak? Or will teaching become the domain of the non-stipendiary minister or bi-vocational minister, maintaining the ‘theologically educated preacher’ but with significantly reduced costs?

Online Monologue Resurgence?

A second important cultural point was raised. With the rise of podcasts, blogging, vlogging, influencers and youtubers; the online monologue appears to be in the ascendance. This is a significant point and the church must engage effectively in this area. Covid-19 forced online many previously reluctant pastor to great effect.

Online communications of various forms can be excellent means of preaching the Gospel. They are very effective at reaching a wide variety of people over great distances. Also they can be paused and replayed which probably aids comprehension. This would allow such communications to fall into the public proclamation category and also teaching category. Through blogging and vlogging etc., monologues can be used effectively in both preaching to those outside the church and teaching Christians. As an aside, many vloggers and podcaster often engage in dialogue through interviews and co-presenters, and this approach can also be used well in churches.

However, the effectiveness of online monologues does not solve the church service conundrum. The monologue may be an effective means of communication in an online setting. But is it as effective for congregational learning in a church service? For example, many online monologues are used as ways of delivering opinion but are they good for the learning and education of the listeners?

Our ultimate answer to this question may depend on what we expect church teaching to achieve. As mentioned earlier, where the aim of the speaker is to convey prophetic insight from God or insight from theological education, monologue may be required. But if at least part of the teaching in church is to help Christians to learn to handle the Bible, the opportunity to ask questions and reflect in community may be beneficial. Perhaps church services require a range of teaching methods depending on the topic and context.

How would a teacher deal with a Biblical Text?

In terms of suggestions from teachers and an educational psychologist of how they might approach the text, the answers were creative and certainly challenging to someone who is used to simply pronouncing from the platform!

I had asked how teachers would approach a biblical text.

General comments included:

  • Education is increasingly about helping children & young people to be self directed, to set their own learning goals and self-evaluate.
  • Ask the children to be curious about the passage and come up with questions.
  • Encouraging curiosity rather than getting the answer ‘right’.
  • Try to get the children to bounce ideas around the classroom.
  • Reduce the dynamic that sees the teacher as the expert.
  • Resist the urge to simply provide that answers.
  • Use coloured pencils to annotate different features of the text. Indicate links and highlight questions.
  • Cut up the text and put it back together in the right order.
  • “Any Blooms Taxonomy activity that gets people to use the information from the text helps people. internalise it and understand it better.”

One teacher kindly gave me an entire lesson plan. I had asked how teachers might approach John 8.1-11.

I’ll summarise some of the ideas here:

  • Consider key vocabulary and think of examples of using these terms.
  • Read the passage perhaps adapting it to related to issues relevant to the children.
  • Use drama to explore the feelings of different people in the story. The children could work in groups to create their own drama. Use freeze frames, as they perform, to ask questions about the characters feelings.
  • Consider the key message in the text.
  • Work in pairs to consider when we might have judged other people. Consider the feelings of those involved. Consider whether the issue was resolved.
  • Draw a picture or write about their experience to be shared with group.

I’m really grateful to those who replied and gave ideas and practical approaches to teaching. It’s amazing to see how children would be encouraged to approach a text in a classroom environment. They appear to be trusted with far more responsibility for and autonomy in their own learning than most adult congregants!

I suspect many ministers would struggle with this way of teaching, perhaps, especially the diminishment of their role as the ‘expert’. But arguably that diminishing would be biblically defensible and in keeping with reformed theology.

Many congregations would also have problems with being asked to work so hard in a church service. It would be a serious culture shift, but might the end result not be worth it? Would it be better, in the long run, for congregations to be better encouraged and enabled to handle the bible themselves?

Clearly there are times when a church leader may need to monologue. But often it might be better for the learning of the congregation to encourage more dialogue, discussion and personal reflection on the text. Ultimately, our approach to these questions will depend upon our expectations of the Church teacher or ‘preacher’ and what the church service aims to achieve.

It matters what we think about preaching

I realise it’s a niche topic, but it matters what we think about preaching. Christian’s believe that we have been entrusted with a message that will save the world; a literally life and death communication. If that’s the case, it’s critical that we pass it on effectively.

There are many long held assumptions about preaching which shape how and where it is delivered and by whom. But how set in stone are these expectations of preaching and preachers? And might a dogmatic adherence to historical assumptions be damaging the announcement of the Gospel?

Where preaching is delivered

I’m currently reading Preaching in the New Testament by Jonathan Griffiths. Griffiths identifies different words for preaching and helpfully lists where these words are used in the New Testament. Significantly, most NT occurrences of preaching occur in a context outside of the church in what we would today consider outreach or evangelistic settings.

Today, most would consider the normal context of preaching to be within the church. There are of course many different explanations for this change, not least historical context. But it is interesting to consider the shift in emphasis. While preaching today is widely consider to be teaching Christians, at some points in history preaching generally denoted the sharing the Gospel with unbelievers.

Who delivers the preaching?

Griffiths notes that in most NT occurrences, preaching is delivered by authorised individuals. But interestingly, greek equivalents to the english noun ‘preacher’ are relatively rare in the NT. Preaching usually relates to the message preached rather than the person speaking. Ephesians chapter 4 famously mentions four ministry roles given by Christ to the Church for the equipping of the saints; apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Notably, preachers are not specifically mentioned in this list. Could this omission indicate that all four are preaching ministries?

Again this contrasts with contemporary preaching which is generally delivered by pastor-teachers speaking to a predominantly Christian audience. It has been suggested before that today’s residual Christendom emphasis on pastor-teachers may be limiting the preaching of the Gospel by restricting the announcement of the crucified King Jesus to believers in Church.

How is preaching delivered?

Preaching methods are also important. As mentioned earlier the vast majority of preaching is done through monologue. Delivery can be dramatic and emotionally charged, a sober lecture, a dry homily or passionate and pulpit thumping. But generally and regardless of fervour or frigidity, it will be a monologue from the front of a church.

But in our continued use of the monologue, have we mistakenly enshrined only one historical means of preaching – that of the public herald. We may believe that this method of preaching is a biblical mandate. But such public announcement predates the church and was not restricted to Jewish synagogues or even religious settings. We might argue instead that this form of preaching is simply a particular, historical, communications technology, to which we are no more bound than to reading Scripture in ancient codices.

It’s also strange that despite utilising a preaching method akin to the public herald, most preaching today is part of teaching Christians. Such an announcement or lecture style monologue is not necessarily the best form of teaching. Lectures and monologues have their place but most educational establishments have moved to a more mixed approach. Seminar discussions, personal reflection and research, Q&A etc join lectures in contemporary education. House groups and Bible studies may allow for more varied teaching. But given that many in a congregation will only engage with Sunday services, might it not be more effective to encourage the use of varied teaching methods in church?

Of course, it could be argued that church services are likely to include those who are not yet followers of Jesus. In that case a preaching method that was largely based on the public announcement of news might be appropriate. But the cultural context has changed and church services are surely not the most effective means of reaching unbelievers. It is time to get the message out of the church.

But in doing so we must remember, the rest of the world has moved on from town criers. News is now transmitted in a wide variety of ways. Even when communicating outside of the church we may undermine our message if we unnecessarily privilege an ancient form of public announcement over newer communication styles and technologies.

Communicating the Gospel effectively today

Drawing these strands together, it is possible that we are seriously undermining our attempts to share the Gospel effectively in different contexts.

  • We have focussed primarily on the preacher as pastor-teacher to the neglect of other preaching ministries which reach the unbelieving world more effectively.
  • We privilege an ancient style of public address which we now use both in the wrong place and for the wrong purpose. Public address is surely better suited outside of the church and it is certainly not the best way to effectively teach Scripture and Doctrine to the church.
  • The historic town-crier approach of the public herald is not even appropriate in its equivalent contemporary setting; few if any stand in the street and shout out the news.

Might it not be more effective for the church to recognise that the promotion and announcement of the Gospel can be delivered through different ministries in different contexts and by different means.

For pastor-teachers struggling to teach the Gospel in Scripture and Doctrine, surely there are better educational approaches instead of monotone lectures and public announcement?

And is it time for the church to once more commission and release people into preaching ministries which are public facing and engage the world through contemporary communication methods.

This is not to say that lectures or public speech are dead, far from it. But they must be used in the right place and time by those equipped for such delivery. Perhaps it’s time that we took our audience, context and message more seriously than our often tired and now inappropriate delivery methods.

Is the Kirk losing its soul?

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

Matthew 16.24-26 – biblegateway.com

Jesus’ words appear to be addressed to individuals, encouraging them to apply the cross to their lives in self denial. But might we extend these words to the church? Is it possible for a church to lose its ‘soul’ through an attitude of self-preservation?

The Church of Scotland faces big challenges and difficult questions in relation to life expectancy. We are currently going through a substantial process of restructuring and rationalisation. Significant reductions in the central services have been reported and these will be followed by the amalgamation of Presbyteries and around a third of paid ministry posts disappearing.

Some see this as a necessary contraction before a new missional expansion; pruning for growth. The more Eeyorish perceive the beginning of the end. Theology and personality also shape practical approaches to the crisis. Some simply focus more feverishly on the local church, perhaps counting on financial autonomy as a lifeboat. Some are deep in national and regional strategising and others are flailing around in the rapid and disorientating sea change.

The question is what to hold on to in this shipwreck!

It appears that the institutional life-raft is restructuring. Admittedly over the years there has also been an increasing, and possibly cynical, utilisation of the language of mission. More recently the mysterious five marks of mission descended to the floor of the General Assembly. But what our mission comprises remains unclear. Is it the establishment of the Kingdom of God, or the re-establishment of the National Church?

In my worst moments, I look to the instructed change with wearied resignation. In my better moments, and in an effort to contend with pessimism, I have commitment myself to the cause. But the reality is I’m not convinced that the looming pain of restructuring will be worth the effort.

Having said that there are two thoughts which I believe would be central to any future resurrection, as opposed to defibrillation, of the Kirk.

The first is that our future is dynamically bound to our willingness to apply the Cross to our denomination. Saving the CofS is not part of our Gospel remit or theological dna. In fact if we continue on this course it will almost certainly end in denominational death. We must stop trying to save the Kirk!

Secondly, we need to rediscover our love for the Saviour.

The only Kirk worth saving; the only Kirk of any value to its members and the people of Scotland, is a Kirk passionate and single-mindedly devoted to Jesus of Nazareth. He is the source, sustainer, redeemer and goal of the church and if he can command worship from rocks, he can breathe new life into his bride.

Belt tightening, ‘clergy’ culling, Mega-Presbyteries and well placed right-spaces will be painful and meaningless efforts unless the Kirk rediscovers a love for King Jesus! May he breathe his powerful Spirit of repentance and renewed power through our dry bones today.