By David Allis [email protected]rg.nz
Preaching is a big problem. After many years of preaching, listening to sermons, studying the scriptures, participating in ‘church’ leadership & studying the western church (in New Zealand), I’m becoming convinced that preaching often does more harm than good. Preaching, as it is practiced in modern churches, is extra-biblical, a poor form of communication, and creates dependency.
Preaching is considered one of the essential ingredients of christianity throughout the last 2000 years, and arguably through OT times also. It is one of the bastions of church tradition. In most churches, two central & indispensable elements are preaching and worship (commonly referred to as singing/music) during Sunday church meetings. (However, it is worth noting that alternatives to monologue-preaching have been practised historically & currently by alternative groups such as the Anabaptists.[i])
Reformation tradition says that “preaching the Word of God is the primary and supreme means of creating, feeding and maintaining Christ’s Church. Preaching Christ crucified, in season and out of season, whether eloquently or as a stutterer, is the most important means God uses to pour his saving grace going into the world…. An authoritative message from the Creator to his creature, from the King to his subjects, the Master to his slaves is anathema to the modern mind“, and that “Preaching is a task that God has ordained for the proclamation of his word”.
To question the value and validity of preaching may be perceived as chronological snobbery[ii] which borders on foolishness & even heresy. Many godly ministers have built their vocation and lives around preaching and other forms of ‘ministry’, so any questions about the necessity and value of preaching can be perceived by them as threatening and offensive.
Hence, I am very cautious about questioning something that has been a large part of Christian history – yet I have numerous questions about preaching that I believe must be considered. These questions have arisen after spending years within a variety of organised churches as an observer, member, lay-leader, ordained minister & church health consultant. I have heard and preached sermons, and observed their effects in individual’s lives. Recently, I studied the biblical passages about preaching, and was surprised at what I found – that the preaching that is referred to in the New Testament (NT) bears little resemblance to the practice of preaching in churches. I also looked through the shelves of a good Bible College library – there were about 1,000 books on how to preach a good sermon, yet I could find nothing that attempted to clearly justify why sermons should be preached. There is a plethora of books on preaching, but the vast majority of them assume & perpetuate the sermon concept, and there is rarely any investigation or justification of its legitimacy.
“The hallmark of an authentic evangelicalism is not the uncritical repetition of old traditions, but the willingness to submit every tradition, however ancient, to fresh Biblical scrutiny and, if necessary, reform”(John Stott, “Basic Stott,” Christianity Today, Jan.8, 1996)
So what are the problems with preaching?
1. Preaching is Extra-Biblical
‘Preaching’ as it is practiced in churches today (& in the past) has little biblical basis – the ‘preaching’ that occurs is extra-biblical (outside the bible). In the New Testament, preaching was always linked to preaching of the gospel or kingdom to those that are outside or on the edge of the kingdom – the Greek verbs used in the NT to portray preaching are found overwhelmingly in situations which are outside church meetings and evangelistic in nature. In contrast, in our churches today we ‘preach to the choir’ – most people sitting in churches listening to sermons are Christians, and most have been there listening to sermons for many years – our preaching is actually teaching about Christianity to a predominantly Christian audience, week after week for the rest of their lives.
There is arguably no biblical basis for preaching in churches to people who have been Christians for many years: 1) the NT apostles were formulating new doctrine (which we aren’t allowed to do), and 2) we have the NT available to study ourselves, complete with many wonderful study aids.
CH Dodd defined preaching as ‘the public proclamation of Christianity to the non-Christian world’[iii]. This is what we see in the NT record, but not what is practiced in our churches. Hence, if anything, we are practicing a form of teaching in churches today, not preaching (To consider some of the implications of this, see the extra comments at the end of the article). “According to the New Testament, there is a distinction between “preaching” and “teaching.” Teaching is primarily directed toward believers for their edification and spiritual development in the Christian walk, whereas preaching is primarily directed toward unbelievers for the purpose of encouraging a saving response to the Gospel message. Teaching generally covers the entire gamut of theological and ethical issues which relate to the Christian life, whereas preaching generally covers only the essentials of the salvation message. Thus, these two terms, as used in the New Testament, indicate a distinction in both content and audience.”[iv]
The sermon as traditionally practiced, in which a clergy person preaches a message to a congregation, originated from Greek, not Biblical, sources. Around the period of 200-300 AD, the sermon emerged as central in Christian gatherings. The model for this practice wasn’t taken from the Bible, but from Greek culture. As one author noted, “The sermon was the result of syncretism–the fusion of the Biblical necessity of teaching with the unbiblical Greek notion of Rhetoric.”[v] Greek Rhetoric influenced the early churches, helping create the Christian sermon.[vi] “With the rise of the Constantinian mass church (4th century A.D.), all sorts of paganistic and Greek ideas entered into Christian thought and practice. One of those practices brought into the church was that of Greek rhetoric. With the conversion of such men as Chrysostom, Ambrose, Tertullian, Cyprian, Arnobius, Lactantius, and Augustine – all of whom were trained in rhetoric and were quite popular as orators within the Greco-Roman culture of their day prior to their conversion – a new style or form of communication began to occur within Christian assemblies.”[vii]
2. Preaching is an Ineffective Form of Communication
‘Preaching’ is a form of monologue, which is proven to be an ineffective form of communication. Passive listening is a very ineffective way of learning. Scientific studies of education show that passive listening leads only to a small percentage of retention. Few people can remember a sermon the next day, week or month (often the preacher can’t remember it either). Although modern communication methods are improving, through the use of things like visual aids, the monologue remains one of the least effective forms of communication.
3. Preaching Limits Learning, Discussion & Debate
Preaching usually allows no opportunity for questions or discussion. It is rare for a church to allow interaction during a sermon, or questions & discussion time afterwards. Sermons are designed to be listened to, not interacted with. Sermons & church meeting structure doesn’t allow members of the audience to add their contributions regarding the subject matter, raise issues for discussion , clarification or debate. While there might be opportunity to discuss the sermon with the preacher later (except in larger churches where the minister is inaccessible), because the preacher has invested much of themselves into the sermon, they can easily become defensive if they perceive that their sermon (or the preacher) is being challenged.
4. Preaching Doesn’t Usually Change Lives
Although effective, impassioned preaching is occasionally able to stir some hearts & bring some response, this is quite rare. Preaching rarely brings long term change in individual’s lives. The average church attender hears a sermon every week, amounting to about 2500 sermons over a 50 year ‘church life’ – yet they typically can’t remember many of those sermons[viii], and would number on one hand those sermons which had a significant impact on their lives. This indicates that there is typically a very low ‘success rate’ for sermons.[ix]
Some proponents of preaching suggest that being able to remember sermons is unnecessary, and that listening to sermons leads to a ‘base level fitness’. It could be argued however that this repetitive listening actually immunises people making them resistant to change. Also, self-discovered-truth is much more memorable and life changing than spoon-fed information. From my limited experience, the most effective long-term way to bring change to lives is not through listening to sermons, but through participative bible study in a mutually encouraging and challenging group.
From my study of ekklesia (the gathering of believers) in the NT, it is clear that the primary purpose of believers gathering together regularly is mutual edification[x]. The typical church form of corporate sung worship, which in larger churches seems like karaoke worship or lip-syncing for those who can’t sing loud enough to hear their own voices over the amplified sound system, and sermons is not designed for mutual edification. In fact, it could be argued that typical church Sunday meetings have been designed to hinder mutual edification. Corporate sung worship led from the ‘front’, and sermons by professional preachers, which are the central focus of most church services, are conspicuously absent from the New Testament passages relating to the purposes of believers gathering together. I think Paul would be horrified at the way we have reduced worship from his ‘whole of life’ concept to merely corporate singing once a week.
5. Preaching Can Foster Biblical Illiteracy
Much contemporary preaching is based around themes, usually with little biblical basis. While these sermons might teach some truth, and are often done in creative ways, they don’t teach how to personally learn from the Bible. It is common for believers to come to church regularly and listen to well-crafted sermons about how to live, yet rarely read the Bible personally. It is not that people can never learn from a sermon, but that they don’t learn as effectively as they do with other methods.
6. Preaching Disempowers People
People who have been in church for many years, and have often heard 50-100 sermons each year, still think they need to be ‘fed’ by a sermon each week. They remain dependent for their spiritual nurture on getting a ‘spiritual fix’ each week through corporate worship and a sermon from a professional preacher. This seems to be the milk of Heb 5:12-14, rather than the meat that adults should be feeding themselves. In 20 years time, these same people will often be in the same situation, needing to be ‘fed’ each week. This might satisfy a need for preachers to be needed, but it is not effective in empowering believers for personal ministry and mission. If we want to see God’s kingdom grow quickly, or revival come (which many people pray for), we will need to be much better at quickly empowering and releasing people to ‘ministry’ (not paid professional ministry), rather than fostering a dependence on the professional ministers.
7. Preachers are a Problem
In each local church, most preaching is usually performed by one main trained professional minister. This preacher is usually a Bible College graduate (except in some Pentecostal streams) who has trained for 3 years so they can correctly interpret the bible and preach inspiring sermons.
Hence, sermons are usually built around the ‘person of God’, who has had the in-depth theological training, and has heard from God and is now disseminating the word of God to the people in eloquent discourse.[xi] Some of the unfortunate implications of centring preaching around one trained professional religious person are à
- It implies that one person hears from God & mediates to everyone else.
- It creates a dependence on being ‘fed’ by the necessary combination of professional ordained ministers[xii] plus theological training plus eloquent preaching.
- Week after week, the Christian message is filtered through one person, the preacher. It is filtered through one set of experiences, one personality, one mind, and one limited life experience.
- Not only is the message filtered through one person, but that person is quite different from the church members. The preacher typically lives a different life, in a different world to his/her audience. Many don’t have ‘normal’ jobs, and are treated differently in society because they are ministers.
- It devalues the experiences, insight and revelation of other members of the church, as they are relegated to only being listeners and often never being preachers. It implies that their knowledge of God & life wisdom are of no value to the wider church. Although we might give lip-service to the ‘priesthood of all believers’, we definitely don’t practice it.
- By centering our gatherings on one person and their sermon, we are, in practice, reversing the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:14 and suggesting that the body is not many members, but one (often the same person, usually a man, who preaches most weeks). Moreover, by centering our church meetings on one persons ability to speak, we subtly begin to form a personality-cult around their talents. In many churches, this person becomes the final authority on spiritual and theological matters, effectively producing our own brand of ‘Protestant Popes’.[xiii]
8. Preaching Has Misleading Implications
The current church practice of members attending a weekly church meeting centered around corporate-led-sung-worship and a sermon has some misleading implications à
- It implies that God is effectively saying the same thing to everyone – which is contained in the sermon. (Although preachers accept that listeners sometimes get inspired about totally unrelated things during their sermon, this is not the preachers purpose).
- It implies that church members will always need to hear more sermons. A person who has been a Christian and listened to a sermon very week for the past 20 years, still needs to hear another sermon every week for the rest of their lives. If sermons are intended to train people for ‘mission’, the implication is that they will never be fully trained & will always need more. In this sense, sermons are more like motivational seminars to ‘hype people up again’, rather than being teaching sessions.
- It implies that the purpose for Christians to gather together is corporate worship & listening to sermons, rather than for the primary purpose of mutual edification (1 Cor 14:26).
9. Preaching is Expensive
Sermons are expensive. A professional paid minister typically spends 1-2 days/week studying & preparing for their weekly sermon. Taking New Zealand as an example – there are about 3500 churches – if each had a minister being paid 1.5 days/week to preach at say $200/day – this costs $1m per week, or $50m per year. In other countries like the USA, the amount would be much larger. This might seem a small amount compared with what is spent on other aspects of organised church life, or compared with the billions tied up in church properties, but in a world where people are starving to death & Jesus spoke about personal judgement relating to how we treat the poor, it seems that we have misplaced values.
10. We are Preaching to Different People
The ‘Christian Situation’ has changed. At the time of the NT events, the NT wasn’t available to people. Also, the apostles were teaching new doctrine (in contrast, the Bible plus great study tools are now readily available to all western Christians).
Through to the 1800s, the majority of church attendees were illiterate, just as the majority of people in most societies were illiterate. Hence, there was a need for educated people to be able to read the Bible & teach others. Sermons were one effective way for this to occur. Also, Bibles were less available and tools to help study the Bible were typically only available in libraries & seminaries.
Today, most church attendees are literate. In the English speaking western world, Bibles are cheap and most church attendees own one or many versions of the Bible. Bible study tools are cheap and easily available, both in written form and via computers and the internet. The typical ‘layperson’ in modern western society has access to far more information to help them understand the Bible than a seminary-trained minister of 200 years ago. Hence, they don’t have the same need for a more educated person to teach them what is in the Bible – they can read & understand it themselves.
11. We are Preaching in a Different Context
Society has changed. At previous times in history, churches have been the social centre for a community & hence drew in a wide variety of people in various stages of belief or disbelief. In these situations, sermons were potentially an evangelistic tool, as they were during the time of Acts.
“Where did our practice of preaching a monologue Gospel sermon to assembled believers on a weekly basis come from? Much of it came from the Protestant Reformers who saw the “church” as consisting of all those within a given territory – saved and unsaved. Because so many unbelievers were present within the Reformation churches (and even compelled to attend), it was necessary to continually preach the Gospel to them.”[xiv]
However, in current western society, the majority of people in churches are ‘believers’ – hence preaching in these churches has virtually no evangelistic value.
There have also been other major cultural shifts which affect preaching – Stuart Murray Williams identifies three à
“The first is a cultural shift away from passive instruction to participatory learning, from paternalism to partnership, from monologue to dialogue, from instruction to interaction. Those who teach, especially those who teach adults, no longer assume they are the experts who know everything and that their task is to convey information to others who simply receive this information. The new paradigm is of partnership, where teachers and learners work together, conscious that all bring contributions to the learning process. For preachers, this would imply that the congregation is active in discerning God’s word rather than relying wholly upon the preacher to declare it.
The second is a societal shift away from an integrated world to a world where networks overlap, a shift away from simplicity to complexity. We live in a world which is not only complex and diverse but a world in which rapid changes are taking place. There are very few generalists; most of us are specialists in one area or another. The education system is geared towards this, despite occasional attempts to broaden the curriculum. For preachers, this raises the issue of how to address such a complex world: the biblical text may not change but if we are concerned with application as well as interpretation, how are we to make the connections? Many preachers seem unable to relate the Bible and theology to the world of work or to issues in public life – these are areas of profound weakness in most churches. Perhaps we need the help of those in the congregation who have expertise and experience in areas where we do not.
The third is a media shift away from linear to non-linear methods of conveying information, from logical argument to pic ‘n’ mix learning. Whether we like it or not, the television age has deeply affected the way in which communication takes place and how people learn. A careful argument that takes thirty minutes to develop does not make for good viewing in the age of sound bites. Watching someone lecturing for thirty minutes, however many camera angles are used, is not an effective use of the visual media. Communication now frequently involves the use of images as well as words, short contributions from diverse points of view, and open-ended presentation that allows freedom to choose your own conclusion. For preachers, this implies not only the use of visual communication as well as verbal communication but hard challenges about the style and purpose of preaching.
These shifts can all be understood as manifestations of a larger shift in worldview that many argue is taking place throughout the western world. The term postmodernity means different things to different people and is in danger of losing its impact through over-use, but it does at least imply that the ordered, rational, structured worldview that has been dominant since the Enlightenment is under threat and that new ways of thinking are emerging. These new ways are not fully established or even fully formed yet, and there may be significant changes ahead or even a return to older ways. We live in an uncomfortable and unsettling era of transition, when we must both be open to change and hesitant before jumping on bandwagons. But there is no doubt that many in a postmodern culture do not appreciate monologue presentations. Sermons may be very poorly suited to this environment.” [xv]
Preachers might try to respond to cultural shifts and lack of congregational interest by improving their preaching, and using more stories and visual aids. While this might help somewhat, it doesn’t address the deeper issues.
Why Don’t Other People Question Preaching?
If the problems described above are accurate, you might ask why there aren’t lots of other people questioning the value of preaching. My best guesses are à
- We’ve been conditioned to believe that preaching is an essential part of ‘church’. (The same has also happened with ‘worship’ ie corporate sung worship every Sunday. This type of worship also has minimal biblical basis which doesn’t reflect the large emphasis placed on it in churches – but this will need to be the topic of another article in the future)
- Preaching is part of the ‘dependency structure’ created within churches. Church members have been conditioned to be ‘fed’ a sermon each week. They have been taught that this is an essential aspect of being a Christian, and that they will be weak or ineffective if they aren’t ‘fed’ in this way. Even if sermons are boring and unproductive, they are still safe and undemanding.
- Preaching has been part of Christian tradition throughout the ages – so why would anyone question it?
- Preaching is perceived to have a biblical mandate and is seen as sacred. The biblical, historical and cultural aspects of sermons are not clearly considered.
- Ministers need to preach – it’s part of their ‘job’, ‘ministry’ and purpose in life. They have been trained to preach, love preaching & usually do it well. It is difficult for a minister to question an ‘essential’ part of the job they are employed to do. A minister questioning preaching (& other aspects of ‘organised church’) is like someone cutting off the tree branch they are standing on – it’s dangerous & potentially self destructive – hence it is difficult for ministers to question these things. (Note – I am sure that the vast majority of ministers are hard working people with high integrity who are committed to God, their church & their people. However, in this situation, it is difficult for them to question the church ‘system’. There are many ex-ministers in society now – some of these might be better placed to raise questions about the organised church systems & the challenge of being a professional minister).
- Ministers like to preach sermons – they feel safe, fulfilled and ‘anointed’. Ministers feel responsible for their congregations, and believe that good quality sermons are an effective way to disciple their congregation.
What is the Alternative?
I believe that a better & more scriptural alternative is personal and corporate Bible study, listening to God, discussion, and working together in mutually-accountable community to help each other apply biblical truths in our lives, community and world.
But there is some potential danger in removing preaching (I think it is worth the risk). The two main dangers I see are à
1. Dependent people might not learn to feed themselves. If we take away the church structures that nurture dependency, what will happen? My guess is that many churches & church attendees would ‘collapse’, including many that have been in ‘church’ for many years. This is a good example of how current organised church methods have created dependency. However, unless a change like this is made, we will continue to create dependency.
2. People might only read/study what they like, and avoid some of the harder or more important issues – at least preaching may/can address some of the harder issues we might want to avoid. However, mutual accountability groups can also address this issue, and ensure that the full breadth of important scripture and doctrine is covered.
Teaching vs Preaching
Initial drafts of this article brought the occasional response of “OK, if what we do in churches isn’t ‘preaching’ in the NT sense, it must be teaching & hence it is OK”. Redefining sermons as ‘teaching’ might appear to be a solution, but much more change is required. This change in definition only really helps with the first of the 11 problems listed above. To completely change away from ‘preaching’ to teaching would require major change including
1. Changing our language by getting rid of the ‘preaching’, ‘preacher’ & ‘sermon’ words, & replacing them with words relating to teaching
2. Changing our methods. A monologue-sermon (or teaching) from primarily one person is an ineffective way to each. A change to teaching would typically include changing –
monologue à dialogue
one preacher à multiple teachers, discussion groups, peer-to-peer learning
fixed time-frame à variable timeframes
large groups listening to one sermon à smaller groups at different levels studying different topics
no-questioning à many-questions
a silent audience à a verbally involved class
3. Changing our content. An important question is whether the content people need to learn is infinite, & hence people need sermons/teaching for the rest of their lives, or finite, which implies they don’t need never-ending teaching. It strikes me that modern western Christians already know far more about their ‘faith’ than the majority of Christians for the past 2000 years. If anything, the modern problem is lack of obedience rather than lack of knowledge. Basically what needs to be taught (or learnt) is how to understand and obediently apply the Biblical truths in modern christian lives. This can be done through a mix of specific teaching and discussion in mutually accountable groups. Some of the necessary changes to content include –
one-sermon-for-all à different teaching for different levels of discipleship
one-topic-for-all à different topics for different groups
inspired topics à planned teaching
people need a sermon each week for the rest of their lives à people can ‘graduate’, having learnt the essential things (they might still have occasional in-service training)
EXTRA INFORMATION – Preaching in the Bible & Later Times[xvi]
1. There are 2 main Greek words translated ‘preach’ in the NT – euaggelizō & kērussō.
a. εὐαγγελίζω (euaggelizō) (Strong’s G2097 & 2098) meaning ‘to announce good news (“evangelize”) especially the gospel: – declare, bring (declare, show) glad (good) tidings, preach (the gospel)’. This word (in 2 forms) is used 132 times in the NT[xvii] – it is clear that this word translated ‘preach’ means to communicate the good news (gospel) in an evangelistic context – this is not what happens in typical church preaching, where the majority of listeners are Christians. The word evangelist (G2099 εὐαγγελιστής – euaggelistēs) comes from this root – as used in 2 Tim 4:5 where Timothy is encouraged to ‘do the work of an evangelist’.
b. Κηρύσσω (kērussō) (Strongs G2784) meaning ‘to herald (as a public crier), especially divine truth (the gospel): – preach (-er), proclaim, publish’. This is used in 60 verses in the NT[xviii]. The 32 times kerusso is used in the gospels, it is obviously in the context of ‘evangelism’, as Jesus sought to establish foundations for his kingdom. In the other places in the NT where kerusso is used, it mainly refers to evangelism (20 times), other people’s preaching (3 times), or is unclear (4 times).[xix]
2. The New Testament writers draw a clear distinction between preaching and teaching. The distinction is preserved alike in the Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypse, and must be considered characteristic of early Christian usage in general. Teaching (didaskein) is in the large majority of cases ethical instruction . . . Preaching on the other hand is the public proclamation of Christianity to the non-Christian world . . . The verb “to preach” frequently has for its object “the Gospel.” Indeed, the connection of ideas is so close that keryssein by itself can be used as a virtual equivalent for evangelizesthai, “to preach the Gospel.” It would not be too much to say that wherever “preaching” is spoken of, it always carries with it the implication of “good tidings” proclaimed. For the early church, then, to preach the Gospel was by no means the same thing as to deliver moral instruction or exhortation. While the church was concerned to hand on the teaching of the Lord, it was not by this that it made converts. It was by the kerygma, says Paul, not by the didache, that it pleased God to save men (1 Corinthians 1:21) (C.H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments, pp.7ff).[xx]
3. In the OT, active participation and interruptions by the audience were common[xxi].
4. The Lord Jesus did not preach a regular sermon to the same audience, but the messages He brought forth were informal and spontaneous.[xxii]
5. The ‘Sermon on the Mount’ was given that name by Augustine in the post-apostolic period. It is quite different from typical church sermons in 1) It is short (maybe 10 minutes of talking), 2) Delivered to people without any commitment to the ‘church’ or Jesus, 3) Not delivered to a congregation who gather weekly to hear similar messages, 4) Delivered by Jesus, so it is ‘gospel’ not just an exposition of the gospel, & 5) The content is very condensed – there is a lot of content conveyed in very few words.
6. Apostolic preaching recorded in Acts was sporadic.[xxiii]
7. Apostolic preaching recorded in Acts was extemporaneous and without strict rhetorical structure.
Acts 2:14-35; Acts 7:1-52; Acts 17:22-34
8. Apostolic preaching recorded in Acts was most often dialogical (meaning it included feedback and interruptions from the audience) rather than monological (a one-way discourse).[xxiv] Acts 17:2,17; Acts 18:4,19; Acts 19:8,9; Acts 20:7,9; Acts 24:25. Even when Paul & others preached to unbelievers, there was always opportunity for feedback or discussion.
9. Some people point to Acts 20:7-12 as an example of the centrality of preaching. Here, Paul spoke for a long time – but it must be noted that v.7 states that the purpose of their coming together on the first day of the week was to break bread, not to hear a sermon. Also, there were special circumstances surrounding this particular meeting as it was the last time Paul would ever see them. Also, the verb used here, dialegomai, from which we derive our English word dialogue, implies give-and-take with the listeners. What Paul said probably provided the substance of the gathering, but he did not talk non-stop for hours – there would have been discussion and audience participation.[xxv]
10. The NT letters show that the ministry of God’s Word came from the entire church in their regular gatherings. 1 Cor 14:26, 31; Rom 12:4ff.; Eph: 4:11ff.; Heb 10:25.
11. This “every-member” functioning was also “conversational”. 1 Cor 14:29
12. .. and marked by interruptions. 1 Cor 14:30
13. Equally so, the exhortations of the local elders were nominally impromptu.[xxvi]
14. One of the few places where “proclaim” (Greek, kataggello) is used in an ekklesia setting is in 1 Cor.11:26, and this action is accomplished by the gathered body, not by one person’s sermon. The Greek words used for what goes on in an assembly meeting carry with them a mutuality: pray together, instruct one another, sing with one another, exhort and comfort one another, care for one another, eat with one another, etc.[xxvii]
15. The main verse used by many ministers to affirm their preaching gift/practice is 2 Tim 4:2 where Paul charges Timothy to “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine”. However, this verse is in the context of v5 “…endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry”. Timothy is being urged to ‘preach’ in the context of his ministry/work as an itinerant evangelist, not a resident elder or minister.[xxviii]. Hence, this verse is not sufficiently clear to justify professional ‘preaching’ every Sunday to congregations consisting predominantly of believers.
16. A more extensive critique of the sermon is offered by David Norrington, whose book To Preach or Not to Preach examines evidence from the New Testament and the early centuries of church history. He argues on the basis of careful and thorough investigation that monologue preaching was present in this period but was used only occasionally rather than regularly. “The sermons in the New Testament were usually directed to people outside the Christian community, on an irregular basis as need arose, rather than at regular intervals. Even when outsiders came to Christian meetings, there is nothing to suggest that they heard or were converted through sermons (1 Cor. 14:23-25)… The use of dialegomai (Acts 19:8f) suggests discussion and debate. A lecture may have been involved but there is suggestion here of audience participation”[xxix] Much more common were discussion, dialogue, interaction and multi-voiced participation. Drawing on both the New Testament and patristic texts, Norrington concludes that the normality and central role of monologue preaching in many churches today has no biblical precedent or support from the post-Apostolic period. Despite this, the ’sermon’ became a standard practice among believers by the fourth century.[xxx]
17. In the writings of the apostolic fathers (Polycarp, Ignatius, Clement, Eusebius, etc), there is a conspicuous absence of the ‘sermon’ amongst ecclesiastical matters “Although many things are mentioned, including submission to the elders, there is no exhortation to pay close attention to the sermons or other ‘preaching’ within the context of the assembled group. This is an argument from silence to be sure, but it is worth noting nevertheless that there is no mention of preaching pastors and listening congregations. In summary of the evidence of the apostolic fathers it can be said that such concepts as ‘preacher’ and ‘preaching’ are only in contexts of Gospel proclamation to unbelievers. When it comes to the activity within the church, however, fellowship, teaching, admonition and social care are emphasized. Nowhere do we find a discussion of the pastor preaching to the congregation on a regular basis. From this we should not conclude that it never happened (for on special occasions it was required, as noted above) but that it was simply not the customary practice. Rather than one man preaching to an audience the church of the apostolic fathers experienced active involvement of the membership. This is a proper reflection of the picture we have in the New Testament itself . . . The common practice today of the clergyman preaching a sermon to a passive audience seems to have its origin in tradition (and/or expedience) rather than in a Scriptural pattern”[xxxi]
18. Norrington[xxxii] argues that this emphasis on monologue preaching was the result of churches gradually adopting from the surrounding pagan culture assumptions about communication, particularly a rhetorical model that was more concerned about demonstrating the skill and knowledge of the speaker than about the impact on the listeners. He argues that the monologue sermon achieved a central place in the church, not because this place was biblical or even traditional within the early churches, but because the church was adopting somewhat uncritically the norms and values of contemporary cultural practices. He also argues that the trend towards monologue preaching rather than interaction and multiple participation was linked to a number of other developments in the 4th and 5th centuries à
19. Firstly, during this era the church was becoming respectable and increasingly conventional following the adoption of Christianity as the imperial religion. Huge numbers of half-converted pagans were flooding into the churches. Congregations were swelling in numbers and massive church buildings were being erected. Monologue preaching seemed the only realistic option in large basilicas with thousands in the congregation who had little understanding of even the basics of the faith. It is certainly arguable that the size of congregations and the architecture of church buildings have had through the centuries at least as much influence on the way churches operate as biblical and theological principles.
20. Secondly, the use of charismatic gifts and ministries within the church declined. These had required opportunities for participation by those who were gifted in diverse ways. But church life became steadily more formal and institutional and gifts such as prophecy became inconvenient and unsettling. Sermons were much safer. The dominance of the preacher grew as these gifts were marginalised.
21. Thirdly, the clerical caste gradually developed, along with an increasing dominance of the clergy over the laity. In a so-called Christian empire, the old distinction between ‘church’ and ‘world’ was disappearing, to be replaced by a new division between ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’. The clergy began demanding the same kind of authority as secular leaders and professionals – in this hierarchical environment, the clergy preached and the laity listened.
22. Is Norrington correct? Some have challenged his conclusions and it may be that he has over-stated his case in some places, but his research is careful and he has amassed a significant amount of evidence to support his claims. Other early church historians are broadly in agreement with him. They argue that the biblical and post-biblical evidence suggests that ‘sermons’ were frequently contributions to a dialogue rather than stand-alone monologues, that interaction and multi-voiced participation was normal.