Evangelical pastors will commonly state that biblical preaching is the hallmark of their calling. Nevertheless, a careful observer might come to a very different conclusion. The priority of preaching is simply not evident in far too many churches.
We must affirm with Martin Luther that the preaching of the Word is the first mark of the church. It is the first essential mark of the church. Luther believed so much in the centrality of preaching that he stated, "Now, wherever you hear or see this word preached, believed, professed, and lived, do not doubt that the true ecclesia sancta catholica, 'a Christian holy people' must be there .... And even if there were no other sign than this alone, it would still suffice to prove that a Christian, holy people must exist there, for God's word cannot be without God's people and conversely, God's people cannot be without God's word."1
The preacher is called to be a Servant of the Word. That is an expression of a very proud and glorious lineage in Christian history. But, as a title, it was particularly made well-known among preachers in 1941 when H.H. Farmer delivered his addresses on preaching and then published them under the title The Servant of the Word.2
In 1941, H.H. Farmer represented the neo-orthodox recovery of preaching. After a period of theological and homiletical sterility, figures such as Farmer in England, Barth in Switzerland, and others in the English speaking world and in greater Europe, sought to reassert the case for preaching. In The Servant of the Word, Farmer actually had very little to say about the Word. He had a great deal to say about preaching, however. He argued for the assertion of the Christian message and the retention of preaching in the church. It is interesting, almost six decades later, to go back to 1941 and see that a case was made for the retention of preaching. The neo-orthodox recovery of preaching was a house built on theological sand -- it did not last.
Now, in counterpoint, you can understand that what necessitated such an argument was the assertion, which must have been quite widespread at the time, that preaching was simply an outmoded form of Christian communication. It was something the church could do without. Farmer maintained, however, that the practice of preaching was indispensable to Christianity. In so doing, Farmer wrote a great deal about the "I-Thou" relationship with a view to making preaching relevant. Looking back six decades later, however, we see that there was never much to Farmer's recovery.
Yet Farmer did get some things right. First, he argued for the unique power and preeminence of preaching in Christianity. The history of religions approach was very influential at that time. These figures held that preaching was part of virtually every religious system in one way or another. Farmer maintained, however, that such a claim simply was not honest. Preaching has a priority among Christians that it does not have among others, and this is because of the very nature of the gospel.