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7 Reasons Why Preaching Isn't Dead

God speaks, so should we!
7 Reasons Why Preaching Isn't Dead

Editor's Note: Krish Kandiah, president of London School of Theology, recently did a point-counterpoint two-part blog series on why preaching is dead and why preaching lives. First, Kandiah give us seven reasons why some people in our culture or even in the church use to argue that preaching is dead. Hold on because Kandiah doesn't really believe that preaching is dead. But be forewarned: we can kill preaching by practicing it wrongly. Then Kandiah argues persuasively as he gives seven solid reasons why preaching is—or can be—still very much alive.

7 Reasons Why Preaching is Dead

Preaching is a dead form of communication. In a post-Google setting people want the right to reply. Preaching leads to a poor retention of information. Even the best monologue practitioners are performers seeking to entertain—e.g. Stand-up Comedy—and their aim is to provoke shock, laughter, and to sell a lot of products, which are (hopefully) very different motivations than for preachers. So if we take hope from this format as revitalizing oratory we may be clutching at straws. So preaching as it is practiced in a lot of our churches is a dead form of communication that doesn't fit our contemporary western cultures.

Preaching is an inefficient form of education/transformation. It doesn't play to the different learning styles in the room. With greater levels of education in our churches, the level of challenge and engagement in our preaching has failed to take this into consideration. So preaching hasn't engaged with changes in the educational environment and so is a dead form of education.

Preaching doesn't create strong churches. We have so elevated the place of preaching that church involvement is often measured by attendance at a "preaching service." We often view this as the litmus test of inclusion in the church. This can encourage passivity in church attenders where "sitting and listening" are seen as the pinnacle of my Christian practice.

Preaching lives because the systematic exposition of God's Word sets the agenda, which takes the preacher and the church into fresh and exciting engagement with God's powerful Word.

We advertise church attendance based around what people will hear. We publish teaching programs or advertise speakers which encourage a consumer approach to church between Christians. We measure our church experience through the quality of the preaching—"I am not getting fed here," "I am not growing in my understanding," "I haven't learned anything new."

So preaching is dead because we have placed too heavy a burden on it and it has collapsed under the expectation overload.

Preaching is not turning out disciples of Christ. The benchmarking of quantitative life difference that the church is making to people seems minimal. To pick one example: Divorce rates in churches are not massively different to wider culture. Christians are not seen to be making very different consumer life choices. Some argue that we need more preaching or better preaching, but is there any evidence that in the churches/constituencies that are arguing for better preaching significant character change is taking place.

Preaching is unmemorable. The average Christian has heard hundreds of sermons and can remember very little of their content. Sometimes we argue that we eat regular meals but can't remember the food, so we can get fed spiritually but not remember the sermon. But even if this train of thought is acknowledged; most preaching is aiming at a one off transformative experience rather than a steady diet of worldview/maturity development.

Preaching is often not biblically-based. How much of our preaching really is Bible based? Looking back at my early sermons there was a lot of:

Nagging: Taking a text and telling people they should do more. Hobbyhorses: Twisting a text to say what it didn't but what I wanted it to say. Personal experiences: Shaping the sermon based by my personal experience rather than hearing the text clearly.

So preaching has died because we drowned out God's voice with our own.

Preaching isn't based on Christ's model. The mode of preaching we have developed is very different to the examples we see in the New Testament. Jesus is often interacting with the audience; responding to a question or engaging in dialogue. We often just have monologues. Or most of our preaching looks and feels like the letters of Paul rather than the preaching of Jesus. When we preach a sermon and replay them in venues there is little room for the spontaneous infusion of wisdom, knowledge, and insight that could come by being live in the room with the preacher.

7 Reasons Why Preaching Lives

The command of God. Scripture commands preaching. A clear example of this is in the Pastoral Epistles, such as 2 Timothy where Paul is pretty emphatic about the continual need for preaching in the church as he looks into the future:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, and discharge all the duties of your ministry.

This seems clear that preaching is not a passing fad or a negotiable aspect of the church's life. Paul is handing on the baton to Timothy a young church leader who is in need of encouragement because he faces discouragement as his father in the faith is going to be executed and he feels to young to be leading a church. Paul musters all of his apostolic authority to solemnly re-commission Timothy from death row to a life giving preaching ministry. So preaching is a non-negotiable element of the church's life.

So preaching lives because Scripture commands it to live as an essential element of the church's life.

The speaking God. We believe in a God who delights to speak. When God speaks things change because God's Word is authoritative. God only needs to speak and the universe comes into being. God speaks through creation, conscience, prophecy, Scripture, but most supremely through his son Jesus who is the Word of God. In his public ministry Jesus "went about doing good" (Acts 10:38) but he clearly "preached the kingdom of God" (Mark 1:14-15). If anyone could have "preached the gospel" without using words it would have been Jesus, but the Son of God himself was not ashamed of preaching as a communication route. In fact as we shall see it is the Spirit of God that makes preaching effective; so preaching has Trinitarian support. It is commanded by God the Father, modeled and centered on Christ, and empowered by the Spirit.

So preaching lives because God's Word is alive and sharp like a two-edged sword.

The uniqueness of preaching. But we should pause for a minute—Jesus did not only preach. He was more than a preacher. Preaching was not the extent of Jesus' ministry. As the Prophet par excellence Jesus both delivered the message of God and embodied it—something that was hinted at by the OT prophets who were often called on to enact the message they delivered (cf. Hosea, Ezekiel, et al.). So we must be careful not to isolate preaching from the wider ministries of the church that Christ commissioned into being.

Similarly, a lot of our argument for preaching could be equally transferable to Scripture. God commands the reading of Scripture. God authored Scripture, Jesus models the reading and knowledge of Scripture, the Scriptures point to Jesus, and the Spirit both empowered the authors and the readers. So we need a theology of preaching that does not undercut or underestimate a theology of Bible reading.

Equally we see modeled in the Bible intentional disciple making relationships as a model of spiritual formation. We see it in Jesus and in Paul. These were Scripture centered relationships that lead to transformation.

So where does preaching fit within the matrix of transformation—personal Bible reading responsibility, intentional discipleship relationships, group study. What is the unique place of preaching that means that something is still deficient if the church does not engage in it? Here are my suggestions:

Preaching and leadership: A key point of preaching in a church context is "to equip the saints for works of service." From Eph. 4it seems that some aspects of equipping are best served through the public proclamation of the Word of God. Preaching and forming the church: We gather to be formed and shaped communally around God's Word. Scripture needs to set the agenda for the common life of a church in its community. When Paul instructs Timothy to preach he says preaching will involve, "correct, rebuke, and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction" again in a communal setting this is vital in the maturing of a people. Preaching and locality: The application of God's Word to the church called to live for God in its community. The Pastoral Epistles seem to underline the idea that preaching is addressing the specific challenges of a specific community.

Lots of other aspects of spiritual formation can occur through God's Word in other ways—one-on-one study, Sunday school class, personal Bible reading, Bible lectures, house groups, personal spiritual/devotional reading, families studying Scripture together, etc. In fact good preaching will work in concert with these other aspects of the church's relationship with God's Word.

So preaching lives because it is a vital part of the overall discipling ministry of the whole church that needs to understand its place in the wider matrix of engagement with Scripture.

The Spirit of God. Teachers are spiritual gifts to the church. They are specifically named in Ephesians 4 alongside apostles, prophets, and evangelists, as one of the five-fold Word based ministries listed. Again we recognize that preaching is not the pre-eminent gift to the church—it is mentioned alongside the others. But it is a vital gift none the less.

Preaching lives because preachers and therefore preaching are spiritual gifts given by God for the maturing and equipping of his people.

The freedom of form. Preaching is alive because it does not need to stagnate into one particular form. Interestingly Robert Mounce in the IVP's respected New Bible Dictionary argues:

In the NT, preaching is "the public proclamation of Christianity to the non-Christian world" (C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and its Development, 1944, p. 7). It is not religious discourse to a closed group of initiates, but open and public proclamation of God's redemptive activity in and through Jesus Christ. The current popular understanding of preaching as biblical exposition and exhortation has tended to obscure its basic meaning.

It is not unusual to distinguish between preaching and teaching—between krygma (public proclamation) and didach (ethical instruction). An appeal is made to such verses as Matthew's summary of Jesus' Galilean ministry, "He went about all Galilee, teaching … preaching … and healing" (Mt. 4:23), and Paul's words in Rom. 12:6-8 and 1 Cor. 12:28 on the gifts of the Spirit. While the two activities ideally conceived are distinct, both are based upon the same foundation. The krygma proclaims what God has done; the didach teaches the implications of this for Christian conduct.

In common parlance it is usual to conflate preaching and teaching to mean the communication of God's Word whether to Christians, non-Christians, or mixed audiences. Scripture does not command the form that preaching takes—there is no optimum time given, no argument about whether visuals have to be used or not, and no argument for whether it should be extemporaneous or pre-prepared. In my estimation this leaves room for contextualization and variety.

Preaching lives because it is a contextual; Spirit-empowered discipline in the church's life that is adaptive and varied.

The diversity of genre. The challenges raised by culture, communication theory, and education theory mostly seek to repudiate the validity of preaching based on a stereotypical model of the sermon as a prepared read or recited monologue delivered to a passive audience that are seated in a church building. Although this form of monologue is a valid form of communication in New Testament preaching there are plenty of examples that deviate from this. Perhaps closer attention to both the content and genre of Scripture will help to enliven preaching for our contemporary church. By being more faithful to Scripture and less to inherited traditions of preaching we will model the faithfulness to the text that all good preaching seeks to deliver.

Every sermon should allow its source material and its audience to shape the communicative experience. So a sermon on Proverbs to a group of middle-class people should sound very different to a sermon on the book of Revelation to the homeless. Using visual aids (following in the footsteps of Jesus and the prophets), interaction (following Jesus and the apostles), and cultural references (following the OT prophets and the NT apostles) are all possibilities in a sermon recognizing the heartbeat of the text you are seeking to communicate and the particular audience you are communicating with. Not to mention the role that the Spirit has in preaching preparation, delivery, and reception; that means that God is at liberty to mix things up in the mode of preaching in any given moment.

Preaching lives because it is a fresh engagement between: the Holy Spirit, preacher, biblical text, and a particular audience.

Exposition not imposition. One of the critiques of preaching is the power relationship between preacher and audience. The pulpit is too often abused to allow axes to be ground and hobbyhorses championed. I know of no better way to help guard against this than the systematic, sequential exposition of Scripture. Rather than preaching from favorite proof texts or purely thematic sermons.

Working our way through books of the Bible is a great way to stay on track. For example an eight week sequential series through Judges or 1 Corinthians could be very profitable for a church to explore issues that a preacher might not choose to address otherwise. Of course the structure can be abused—I have seen preachers tackle whole books of the Bible and miss their central themes in order to co-opt these books into the preacher's preferred favorite subjects. Again looking back at my early preaching I am sure I read the NT through a sub-biblical reductionist view of the gospel, which meant I twisted texts for evangelistic ends.

Preaching lives because the systematic exposition of God's Word sets the agenda, which takes the preacher and the church into fresh and exciting engagement with God's powerful Word.

Dr. Krish Kandiah is the founder of Home for Good a fostering and adoption charity. He is in demand as a speaker, writer, and theologian. His latest book is God is Stranger: Finding God in Unexpected Places, IVP ( 2017).

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