by David Allis
Here is the 3rd ‘Act’ in the discussion (debate) about preaching which has been appearing in the NZ Baptist magazine.
Act 1 was a shortened version of my article ‘The Problem With Preaching’ which was published in the July magazine.
Act 2 was 3 responses from Baptist lecturers, plus a few critical letters in the August magazine.
Act 3 is my response to their responses, published in the September magazine hot off the press…. here is the full response – the last 2 paragraphs don’t appear in the NZ Baptist version.
I’m impressed by the way NZ Baptists welcome healthy discussion and debate, in order to become more effective in today’s world. My article ‘The Problem with Preaching’ prompted strong response and much discussion. Raising challenging questions about preaching is rather like waving a red rag to a sacred cow. The responses in last month’s Baptist from Ian Kemp, David Richmond & Paul Windsor were gracious and thoughtful, yet somewhat unconvincing.
In response, I need to clarify some aspects of my original article. In critiquing preaching, I focussed on the specific form of preaching commonly used in modern western churches – monologue preaching to a church congregation. Some people seem to raise this form of preaching onto a ‘pedestal’ above other forms of communication, seeing it as Biblical, essential and prescriptive for us today and presumably for all churches of all times. This perspective effectively raises this form of preaching to a level near baptism and prayer. It is regarded as a spiritual mystery beyond question.
This view seems evident in last month’s responses through phrases like “the sermon … is the voice of God to be obeyed”, “the high calling of the preacher”, “the divine encounter in the preaching” and “preaching is a spiritual gift and a God-given vocation”.
I find no convincing evidence of this form of monologue preaching to a church congregation visible in the NT – hence my statement that this form of preaching is extra-biblical (I didn’t say or imply that it is un-biblical or necessarily wrong). Even if examples of this form of preaching are perceived in the NT (eg 2 Tim 4), these examples don’t make preaching prescriptive or essential for all churches at all times.
In my original article, I attempted to differentiate the form of preaching we practice in churches today from what is seen in the NT. The key point is that there is no essential identifiable difference between the wide variety of communication forms seen in the NT, including preaching and teaching. As Paul Windsor points out with his reference to 34 different words and overlapping circles, the concepts overlap.
Unfortunately many people see the ‘preach’ words, which appear about 140 times in an English NT, and assume that this ‘preaching’ they read of is the same form as the preaching they hear in church today, and hence that the form of preaching that occurs in their church has a strong (essential) biblical basis and we have to keep doing it. They see preaching as a specific God-given form of communication, and its effectiveness shouldn’t be questioned.
As Christians, including those exercising leadership, we need to communicate the messages of Jesus and His kingdom to all people, including those outside or on the edge of the kingdom, and those within. A wide variety of forms of communication are available. Some of these forms are clearly visible in the NT, others might be implied, and others are definitely not seen in the Bible (eg emails, Denominational newspapers). These communication forms are not distinct, but rather they overlap. They include teaching (to large groups, small groups and individuals), dialogue, discussion, debate, evangelistic preaching, preaching to church congregations, and questions and answers. None of these forms is inherently on a pedestal above the others. None of these forms is ‘biblical & normative & inherently spiritual’ – ie ‘it is in the Bible and we have to do it and it is a communication form that is inherently more spiritual than other forms’. All of these communication forms can be either effective or ineffective, depending partly on how they are implemented and whether the form & content are relevant for the recipients. Sometimes these forms of communication impart some sort of spiritual life, renewal, revelation, insight, inspiration or encounter – but this is not automatically inherent in any of the forms. This spiritual impartation is more likely to occur when other factors are involved, including prayer, study, good presentation, accurate Biblical interpretation, and people having expectations. On occasions, the form chosen is inappropriate or the communication is poor, yet God chooses to ‘move’ anyway.
Communication is essential. I am not calling for preaching to be abandoned. Nor am I saying that any other form of communication is always better than a sermon. A monologue sermon to the congregation on Sundays is one form of communication. It should be more accurately described as ‘teaching’, ‘inspiration’, ‘thought-for-the-day’, ‘reflection’, or ‘motivational talk’, depending on its intention and characteristics. Monologue preaching might even be the best communication form in a particular situation – preaching has historically been very effective in many situations. However, we have a wide range of equally valid forms of communication available. If we understand their strengths and weaknesses, become proficient in their use, and evaluate their effectiveness, we will become better communicators.
Throughout much of church history, monologue sermons have been a predominant form of communication. There are many historical and sociological reasons for this reliance on sermons. There are also many spiritual, pragmatic and educational reasons for questioning the effectiveness of monologue preaching in our society. These include that it is often ineffective, expensive, can limit learning, discussion and debate, foster biblical illiteracy, and disempower people. Monologues silence the voice of the people. Educational studies repeatedly demonstrate that people learn more through interactive teaching and self-learning. Rather than just trying to pass on information, we should be creating life-long spiritual learners.
David Richmond suggests that if people can’t feed themselves, we need to keep feeding them. In contrast, I’m convinced that for normal healthy people, we should stop spoon feeding them, let them get hungry and then they will become motivated to learn to feed themselves. They might even learn to how to cook, plan their own menu, and begin teaching others to feed themselves.
Its no surprise to hear ministers defending preaching. Professional ministers usually love preaching and are paid to do it. Preaching is typically part of the ‘package’ of this form of church leadership. A minister questioning preaching and other aspects of professional ministry is like the proverbial person who saws off the branch they are sitting on. It is as rare as beef farmers promoting vegetarianism.
I told my children that I’ve invented a new school – it has only one class with hundreds of students aged from 5 to 18. They meet for one half-hour class each week, where a quality teacher gives an amazing non-interactive lecture to the class. Students never graduate from the class. The 18 year-olds, who have been hearing these lectures for 13 years, stay in this class with more new entrants for the rest of their lives. The only way to graduate is to become the lecturer or die. My children say this school is stupid and will never work. I agree … but it’s what we do in churches … let’s look for good alternatives.