The following are some slightly edited comments that I made on another blog earlier today:
From time to time I hear people lamenting the current state of evangelicalism and particularly of the loss of an appreciation for preaching. I couldn’t agree more that there is a lot of bad preaching around. Fortunately, I don’t have to sit under such preaching too often, but the fruits of it are not hard to see.
However, although I see a big problem, I am not at all convinced that traditional evangelical preaching is the answer (perhaps people would appreciate preaching more if we only had it once a month, like the Lord’s Supper…). I believe that there are deep problems with many of the traditional paradigms for preaching in evangelicalism and elsewhere. Preaching has become the event of the weekly gathered worship of the Church, which seems to me to be a serious departure from the biblical pattern. Even when Paul speaks until midnight at Troas, the Eucharist is spoken of as the reason for gathering (Acts 20:7). In the context of the weekly gathered worship of the Church, preaching should essentially be ‘tabletalk’.
While the Scriptures certainly teach about the importance of preaching, they also say a lot about aspects of the service that evangelicals tend to downplay as a result of their emphasis on preaching. The Scripture says a lot more about the institution of the Eucharist than it does about Christ’s institution of the Sermon as an essential element of gathered worship.
Such a focus on preaching has created new concepts of the Church. The Church becomes defined primarily around ideas and ever more sharply defined theological positions, rather than around community, which is something that the Eucharist retains the centrality of. The Church has also become organized more and more around one man’s activity (and, as James Jordan comments, that man is not Jesus Christ). Evangelical congregations are often more passive in gathered worship than medieval ones were and this is a serious problem. The service becomes something that the preacher does, rather than the shared activity of the body of Christ.
Worship becomes a mere preface and epilogue to preaching. Scripture-rich liturgies are abandoned and in some churches the congregation only open their mouths for the singing. Pastors do not prepare the liturgy. The liturgy is an after-thought, hastily thrown together, while most of their effort is put into crafting the rhetorical masterpiece which is the Sermon.
The pastor becomes increasingly defined by his role as the ‘preacher’. Rather than letting the father-like leadership that the pastor exercises over the congregation condition our understanding of the role and practice of preaching, other dimensions of the pastor’s role have been forgotten as his preaching becomes all-important. In actual fact I am not at all sure that preaching is the most important task committed to the pastor. One does not have to look far in evangelicalism to find good examples of the way in which preaching can eclipse all else, reducing churches to preaching centres. Far from building up the Church, such preaching undermines it.
Scripture reading in the service is often reduced to the reading for the sermon. Contrast this with the Eastern Orthodox liturgy. For instance, Robert Letham lists the readings in the EO liturgy for Good Friday — John 13:31-18:1; John 18:1-28; Matthew 26:57-75; John 18:28-19:16; Matthew 27:3-32; Mark 15:16-32; Matthew 27:33-54; Luke 23:32-49; John 19:25-37; Mark 15:43-47; John 19:38-42; Matthew 27:62-66 and, quite literally, these are just starters. There are probably a couple of dozen more Scripture readings in addition to those already mentioned.
This brings to light one of the deepest problems with preaching as understood and practiced within conservative evangelicalism. This problem is the priority that it tends to give to our own words in worship, over God’s words. Our words gradually squeeze out God’s words. Rather than letting preaching be the handmaid of God’s Word, we will reduce the Scripture readings far sooner than we will cut down the length of the sermon.
The responsive and receptive character of Christian worship becomes downplayed and our words become less and less controlled by God’s Word. The Scripture content of the liturgy and prayers plummets, to be replaced by evangelical clichés. The texts for sermons become ever shorter. Some evangelical preachers pride themselves on preaching huge sermons on a couple of words in a text. This often has the effect of leaving preaching largely uncontrolled by the Scriptures. For many sermons the ‘text’ is merely a pretext or springboard to explore a dimension of systematic theology or the like.
Evangelical worship is full of the noise of our own voices. We continually speak at God but don’t take the necessary time to attend to and to digest what He might be saying to us. Having more times of silent response to readings of the Word of God, for instance, would be a huge step in the right direction, as would having more lengthy readings that are not preached on (throwing out the technology that eclipses the simplicity of worship would also be helpful). Sometimes we need to resist the urge to continually rush to say what the Scriptures mean and just allow them to work on us, practicing the art of listening to Scripture together (which means that we do NOT read along in our own Bibles). Contemporary evangelical worship, with all of its technological bells and whistles, provides us with dozens of distractions from the simplicity of the Word of God and from the terrifying silence that might actually lead to personal or theological epiphanies.
Preaching has come to be understood as a great rhetorical event. I believe that significant changes in popular evangelical preaching styles would have to take place in order to bring them more in line with Scripture. Calm Scriptural exposition should replace many of the impassioned rhetorical displays that one hears from evangelical pulpits (rhetorical displays that often disguise a depressing lack of content). The pastor should teach the congregation as a father teaches his children. This means that the ideal position is sitting, not standing, and that shouting and the raising of voice for rhetorical effect is generally unnecessary.
The pastor should also remember that he is like a father teaching children, something that many evangelical preachers forget. If unbelievers attend worship they are eavesdroppers; the gathered worship of the Church is not for their benefit, but is about the relationship between God and His people. The fact that preaching in the Church is for children means that preaching is for the converted. Sin and unbelief are still addressed, but they are addressed as issues in the lives of the children of God — the baptized.
The oratory model of preaching tends to place orator and audience at different poles. The model presumes an initial distance between orator and audience that needs to be overcome by rhetoric. Standing behind the lectern, the orator tries to win over his audience with clever rhetoric and artificially exaggerated emotion. Preaching becomes drama; preaching becomes an ‘act’ in which the preacher adopts an affected style of speech.
The pastor should address the congregation as one who already has a relationship with them. The father or the pastor should not have to ‘win over’ their hearers in the way that the orator does. They ‘win over’ their hearers differently, by powerful truths plainly and lovingly spoken and by teaching with a gracious authority. The pastor should teach the congregation entrusted to him much as Jesus taught His disciples. He speaks naturally to his hearers and does not employ an affected style. The passion and emotion that arise are natural and not exaggerated or affected.
Many of the problems of emotionalism and rationalism in evangelical circles arise from distorted models of preaching. If pastors were more concerned with plainly addressing the truths of the gospel to the consciences of the saints in the context of the gathered ‘family meal’ of the Eucharist I suspect that we would not have the same problem with the rationalism and intellectualism that arises from the rather silly idea that the intellect is primary, for instance.