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.