O Creator of the universe, who has set the stars in the heavens and causes the sun to rise and set, shed the light of your wisdom into the darkness of my mind. Fill my thoughts with the loving knowledge of you, that I may bring your light to others. Just as you can make even babies speak your truth, instruct my tongue and guide my pen to convey the wonderful glory of the gospel. Make my intellect sharp, my memory clear, and my words eloquent, so that I may faithfully interpret the mysteries which you have revealed.
Thomas Aquinas 1225-1274
The Nature and Importance of Preaching
It is hard to believe that there ever would be questions about the importance of the preached and taught Word in the ministry of the church, but there are. There are objections to preaching from those who fear authoritarianism, or irrelevancy, or traditionalism. Some are even saying that modern people have such short attention spans that they cannot possibly be expected to listen to a string of words that exceeds eight or nine minutes—and church leaders sometimes uncritically accept it all as dogma.
Following decades of preaching all over the world, and witnessing the effects of preaching, John R. W. Stott makes the following comments:
If it is true, as Jesus said, endorsing Deuteronomy, that human beings do ‘not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Mt 4:4; Dt 8:3), it is equally true of churches. Churches live, grow and flourish by the Word of God; they wilt and wither without it. The pew cannot easily rise higher than the pulpit; the pew is usually a reflection of the pulpit…
What, then, does it mean to worship God? It is to “glory in his holy name” (Ps. 105:3), that is , to revel adoringly in who he is in his revealed character. But before we can glory in God’s name, we must know it. Hence the propriety of the reading and preaching of the Word of God in public worship, and of biblical meditation in private devotion. These things are not an intrusion into worship; they form the necessary foundation of it. God must speak to us before we have any liberty to speak to him. He must disclose to us who he is before we can offer him what we are in acceptable worship. The worship of God is always a response to the Word of God. Scripture wonderfully directs and enriches our worship.
Most people are not indifferent about preaching. They may love it, loath it, aspire to it, follow it, reject it, trivialize it, criticize it, respect it, avoid it, or seek it—but if they hear sermons, they will have a reaction. Here are some other voices making their own comments about preaching:
Martin Luther: “A preacher must be both soldier and shepherd. He must nourish, defend, and teach; he must have teeth in his mouth, and be able to bite and fight.”
Abraham Lincoln: “I don’t like to hear cut-and-dried sermons. When I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees.”
Phillips Brooks: “Preaching is truth through personality.”
D. Martin Lloyd-Jones: “To me the work of preaching is the highest and the greatest and the most glorious calling to which anyone can be called. If you want something in addition to that I would say without any hesitation that the most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching.”
Edgar DeWitt Jones: “The preacher for this day must have the heart of a lion, the skin of a hippopotamus, the agility of a greyhound, the patience of a donkey, the wisdom of an elephant, the industry of an ant, and as many lives as a cat.”
St. Francis de Sales: “The test of a preacher is that his congregation goes away saying, not what a lovely sermon, but, I will do something!”
Dietrich Bonheoffer: “For the sake of the proclaimed word the world exists with all of its words. In the sermon the foundation for a new world is laid. Here the original word becomes audible. There is no evading or getting away from the spoken word of the sermon, nothing releases us from the necessity of the witness, not even cult or liturgy… The preacher should be assured that Christ enters the congregation through those words which he proclaims from the Scripture.”
Martin Luther: “A preacher should have the skill to teach the unlearned simply, roundly, and plainly; for teaching is of more importance than exhorting.”
Richard Cecil: “To love to preach is one thing—to love those to whom we preach, quite another.”
John Newton: “My grand point in preaching is to break the hard heart, and to heal the broken one.”
Austin Phelps: “Genius is not essential to good preaching, but a live man is.”
Preaching is standard equipment for spiritual formation. Justin Martyr, writing in the mid-second century trying to explain the unusual practices of the Christians to a pagan audience, explained:
An on the day call called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.
Similarly, the North African writer Tertullian explained:
We assemble to read our sacred writings… With the sacred words we nourish our faith, we animate our hope, we make our confidence more steadfast, and no less by inculcations of God’s precepts we confirm good habits. In the same place also exhortations are made, rebukes and sacred censures are administered…
So where does skepticism about the ministry of preaching come from?
Should we blame the purveyors of post-modernism who have pronounced that the teaching of principles is archaic, who say that the interpretation of ancient texts can only be and should only be the subjective experience of the reader? Surely post-modernism has played mischief with the foundations of preaching. All is in doubt: the original text, the process of interpretation and application, the possibility of universal meaning. On the one hand we can be glad that the post-modernists have rejected the modernist approach to the Bible which is often like a biologist’s approach to dissecting a frog. On the other hand, we must be disturbed when truth is viewed as entirely relative.
We may not have parishioners quoting the authors and artists who promote post-modernist ideals, but there is always a trickle-down effect that sooner or later shows up in the congregation. When people say, “just give us some good stories,” they may (in a proper sense) be asking us to incarnate the biblical word for them so they can comprehend it, or they may (in an improper way) be saying that the only receptacle for meaning is story.
But, in truth, modern philosophies are not entirely to blame for the lessening of the voice of the pulpit in our times. Sometimes the church itself locks preaching in a back closet of the church because it is threatened by it as surely as the people of God in the Old Testament avoided the interventionist words of the prophets. Or the church has gone to sleep on preaching because its preachers have become domesticated bores. Churches want to tame their preachers, but once tamed, the preachers become merely quaint and the very next generation will wonder what is the relevance of such oddities. Or we preachers ourselves have let infections of pride and privilege turn preaching into weekly power pays. Self-conscious intonation, dress, Greek-quoting, letters-behind-names, and celebrity status become a game that holds the fascination of some star-struck parishioners, and is facilely rejected as mildly entertaining or outright embarrassing by others. When one handles a tool of immense power and potential—as preaching holds—the possibility for good is incredible, but the potential for long-term damage is real. All it takes is for the evil one to de-form my motives for a sermon to become words that do more harm than good.
The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit (Prov. 19:21).
(to be continued…)
Excerpt from The Dynamics of Spiritual Formation by Mel Lawrenz (Baker).