There once was a man who fussed and dreamed for a solemn and quiet place of rest beneath a tree. Alone with his sadness, the man fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke, the man slowly discovered he had slept for years. Life had gone on without him.
He got up from his sleeping place and began to walk around. What was once familiar now seemed strange to him. Bewildered, the man returned to his home village. But once there, he did not recognize any of its people. This loss of recognition surprised him, “For he had thought himself acquainted with everyone in the country round.”
The villagers were equally puzzled. The man’s appearance was odd to them, his presence awkward. His clothes and mannerisms belonged to an earlier time, they thought.
So there they were, the man and the villagers, standing foreign to one another. One villager finally found the courage to speak. He asked the man who he was. The man responded that he was at his “wit’s end.” He looked around at the villagers somewhat embarrassed.
“God knows,” he said, “I’m not myself … I was myself last night, but I fell asleep on the mountain … and everything’s changed.”1
“Everything’s changed” describes what many preachers feel. We are like people “who fell asleep and woke up in a foreign country,” says one preacher. “The preaching that connected in that old world … won’t connect to this one.”2
In contrast, “nothing’s changed” describes what many villagers feel. To them, the clothes and mannerisms of preachers belong to an earlier time. Their appearance is odd and their presence awkward. “The entire project of religion seems perfectly backward,” says one villager. “It cannot survive the changes that have come over us – culturally, technologically, and even ethically.”3
Nostalgia and Invention
When the road bends like this, sermon givers and listeners often join together in order to form movements that offer answers. Movements can be helpful but also confusing. They tend to divide us preachers into two basic perspectives and vie for our allegiance. These perspectives we might loosely identify as the nostalgic and the inventive.
Nostalgic preachers tend to believe that the best homiletic practices have already happened. Preaching will flourish only if it returns to what it once was.
In contrast, inventive preachers feel that past models are outdated and ill-equipped to handle fresh cultural challenges. For them, preaching, if it is needed at all, will thrive only if it reinvents itself. These movements urge us to create something new.
Invention comes generally with two perspectives. On the one hand, some will always feel that preaching doesn’t seem to work at all. This stream of inventive preachers declares that preaching is broken and must be abandoned. On the other hand, some inventive preachers will not go that far. They appreciate a bit more of what has gone before. They don’t want to do away with old forms. Rather, they want to update old forms. The key is to find the form best suitable for translating truth for our cultural moment.
On their worst days, the inventive will tend to characterize the nostalgic as storyless, unimaginative, passionless, narrow, dry, dull, out-of-touch, and unbiblical. The nostalgic, on their worst days, return the favor. They describe all inventive preachers as romantic, frenzied, broad, entertainment driven, shallow, out-of-bounds, and unbiblical.
Even at its best, preaching is always blessed and cursed by people. It is difficult to imagine, for example, how one can say that the preaching of the prophets and apostles was successful. Many of them were persecuted or killed because of their sermons. Yet God’s name was exalted and many were reconciled to God.
Is Elijah alone? Is his preaching useless? Or is Elijah’s preaching exalting the name of God, preserving a testimony in a wicked moment, and fortifying seven thousand faithful? Is the cup of preaching therefore half empty or half full? Is preaching broken or working? Every generation wrestles with this question.
Consequently, preachers rarely help their cause when they insist on generalizing and comparing each other. Both nostalgic and inventive preachers must recognize their potential weaknesses. Nostalgic preachers must remember the admonition of the wise: “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Eccl. 7:10).
Likewise, inventive preachers must resist overstating past irrelevance for contemporary practice. “Do not move the ancient landmark which your fathers have set” (Prov. 22:28).4 Steadiness for both kinds of preachers is found when they remember that no generation faces anything essentially new (Eccl. 1:10). A preacher’s challenges are not without God’s provision. “No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the Lord” (Prov. 21:30).
Find Your Voice
Amid homiletical questions, cultural challenges, and the formation of movements, it can take a while for preachers to find their voices. Authenticity is not always easy. Preachers and generations are often like toddlers learning how to walk: two steps there, off-balance here, stumbling, falling, making progress. The result is a diverse and sometimes competing perspective regarding what it is that will make preaching relevant and powerful for a generation. The reasons for these ongoing homiletic struggles and choices are many.
To begin, respected preachers make their impact upon a generation. Younger preachers try for a while to imitate the voice and style of these heroes. Such imitation is wise. Imitation describes the means by which one generation mentors another. Timothy must imitate Paul’s way of life if he is to learn. But there comes a time when the chicks must leave the nest and fly. Preachers, both older and younger, ask this question: “If the young diverge from the ways of the old, will relevant and powerful preaching be lost?”
Zeal to recover a lost truth also distorts and confuses our preaching voice. The scenario goes like this: Sin isn’t talked about much in one generation or geography, so a preacher in the next generation is tempted to talk about nothing else but sin. The preacher intends this for good, but his overemphasis on sin actually hinders the next generation because those who follow will say, “Grace isn’t talked about much,” and they will be tempted to the same overcompensation. False dichotomies are born; movements and countermovements of preaching emerge and challenge one another. The pendulum swings from one extreme to the other. Preachers ask, “What doctrines do I think we’ve lost and must recover?” Perhaps they should be asking, “What doctrinal imbalance am I in danger of creating?”
Likewise, many preachers come from families where divorce, abuse, or various relational patterns of brokenness have shaped how a loud or weak voice or how anger or conviction is perceived. A loud voice reminds some of abuse in the home, so they avoid loud emotion in the pulpit or the pew. Conversely, in some families passive voices allowed sin to harm others, so aggressiveness is therefore displayed in the pulpit or pew. Preachers and listeners ask themselves, “What emotions do I not want in the pulpit?”
Moreover, cultural assumptions and personal temperaments offer what is perhaps the greatest challenge for determining what effective preaching looks like in a generation. A famous definition says that preaching is “truth coming through personality.”5 But what if one’s personality is disliked by some? Does this mean that the truth is equally disparaged? What if preachers don’t like their personalities? What if they try to avoid and evade who they are and put on the face of another? Does this mean that truth is somehow lost or hindered?
Preachers receive notes, anonymous letters, e-mails, and phone calls describing how biblical and wonderful the preacher is as well as how poor and unbiblical the preaching is. Often what is “biblical” reflects the individual’s personality or assumed culture.
The preacher feels tossed. He is too emotional, yet he needs more emotion. He uses no illustration, yet he uses too many. He needs an outline because outlines create clarity, yet he must get rid of outlines because they stifle the Spirit. He needs to be more informal and conversational, yet he needs to be more awe inspiring and presentational. He must light it up and yet settle it down. What should one wear? Do we use a pulpit or not? Which is right? Temperaments and cultures prefer opposite answers. The more one preaches, the clearer this problem of defining what is relevant and powerful becomes. Preachers and listeners ask themselves, “What kind of preaching does my personal temperament and cultural assumptions value and resist?”
Add to these the philosophical, economic, political, technological, and religious thoughts of the day, and what a generation expects relevant preaching to look like both multiplies and diverges. Premodern, modern, postmodern, or post-postmodern concerns hail us like taxis to stop, pick them up, and drop off the others. Preachers and listeners ask themselves, “How must preaching change if it is to remain relevant and powerful for the daunting needs of pivotal times?”
The barrage of opinions can unsteady a preacher. The voices of our heroes, the lingering impact of our family brokenness, our experience or inexperience with praise and criticism, our personal temperaments, our cultural assumptions, and the way we personally grapple with current thoughts vie for attention as we determine the posture of effective preaching. All of this makes it no surprise that preachers feel a struggle in their generation.
We Are Neither the First Nor the Last to Preach
Amid the challenges, the movements, and our personal struggles, we sometimes feel that preachers have never faced these things before. At the moment, for example, many Western preachers are calling for a dialogical move in homiletics. The nature of the times demands this new approach, as evidenced by one preacher’s remarks: “The traditional 20-minute sermon” is out. “A straight talk or lecture” is also unadvisable. “So, we adopted the dialogue method.”6
Another preacher answers why traditional models of preaching are non-effective. “The explosion of technology,” he says, “has produced so many changes in our society that none of us is able fully to keep up with them. The pulpit and the pew must cooperate more.” This means that “entirely new concepts of the role of the preacher and the role of the congregation will also have to be formed.”7
These suggested changes are sweeping homiletic discussions. Preachers feel like they are facing so many new things. Time magazine has reported on the results of this contemporary homiletic development:
Today, more and more U.S. clergymen are letting the people in the pew talk back by experimenting with “dialogue sermons” as an alternate to the pulpit monologue. One reason for this communal approach to the exposition of God’s word is that today’s educated congregations are unwilling to put up with authoritarian preaching that lacks the stamp of credibility.8
Many suggest that “dialogue-preaching” may possess the relevance and power that preachers need for a postmodern generation; a generation that is suspicious of authority and craves credibility.
But what is both stunning and important to recognize is that the quote from Time magazine noted above is from 1968. The other two quotes are from 1970 and 1967, respectively. In other words, the postmodern direction for preaching in the West today sounds very much the same as what Reuel L. Howe,9 William D. Thompson, and Gordon C. Bennet set down over 40 years ago as they tried to navigate the “hippy movement” of the ’60s.10
Similarly, take the example of using
visual images and aids when preaching. Some reasons for our focus on visual aids are:
• Because by it the attention … may be called at any time to one subject.
• It may be so used as to preoccupy the mind … with the central thought of the lesson for the day.
• The eye being employed as well as the ear, the transmission and impression of the truth are made doubly sure.
• It aids the memory.
• It renders the instructions of the teacher more lasting. It makes his influence felt beyond the … session.
In this list, a concern for keeping attention, aiding memory, and making a lasting impression on the listener describe the strengths that visual aids bring to learning biblical truth. What is important to realize is that the bullet points I have just listed above were written in 1870! They reference the brewing 19th-century controversy regarding the appropriate use of chalk on blackboards while teaching the Bible.11
God Is the King of Preachers
When preachers encounter challenges and feel they face what no other preacher has faced, we sometimes think of God as if He is an old man out of touch with “these young people today.” This feeling is understandable. Preachers encounter cultural realities previously unknown to them. Bioethics, postmodernism, AIDS, child prostitution, or digital technology seem beyond God’s experience.
But God is not Moses; God is not a medieval theologian or a 19th-century preacher. The fact that Moses, the theologian, or the preacher lived prior to television, the Internet, AIDS, or the space station means neither that God is ignorant of such things nor that God is confounded by them.
It is true that God calls preachers as instruments by which He speaks to neighborhoods and nations. Preachers are local; their perspectives are limited. But this instrumental responsibility in no way implies that God is ignorant of the cultural climates these neighborhoods and nations represent.
It was God who taught Daniel the literature and language of Babylon (Dan. 1:4). Likewise, it was God who taught Jonah about Nineveh and not the other way around. God is omnilingual and omnipresent. God is an expert in the writings of Plato and Confucius. He is thoroughly acquainted with postmodern thought and Eastern mysticism. He understands the political theory and economic indicators of each nation. God has seen The Matrix; He knows how to use an iPod. God can discuss pluralism and lecture on agriculture. God knows the names of every national leader and the ways and locations of every rebel force.
Consider, then, what it means to read this recent e-mail from a dear pastor in India:
I just came back after seeing the church stained with blood and with several bullets on church walls, the dead and the injured. It hurts us as Christians and we feel absolutely helpless and unsafe in the hands of Indian security forces and the Rebels. This happened hardly two miles from our church. We have 10 churches in the Town area and we felt so vulnerable. We have become easy targets of the Indian Army and the Rebels as well. The same incident can happen to any of us or any of our churches at any time. We do not feel safe at all. Please pray for us!
We believe in prayers. Please pray for us. Only God can save us. He is our refuge and strength and a very present help in trouble (Ps. 46:1).12
The pastor leans upon God as an ever-present help and quotes from Psalm 46:1. But how can God be an ever-present help to this pastor unless He speaks this pastor’s language, possesses understanding of the political and religious turmoil of the area, and can make a tangible and wise provision for the help of the innocent? Preachers all over the globe quote Psalm 46:1 for their strength in their places and with their languages too. Preachers in ancient times and places also leaned on this same Scripture promise. God is able to offer refuge and present help for the trouble of any locality, anywhere, any time.
Everything changes when, standing at the bend in the road, a preacher realizes that the Bible he holds in his hands is the collected sermons of God. That fact that God speaks sets him apart from all other deities.13 He proclaims a Triune speech to the world: God the Father speaks (Gen. 1:3); God the Son speaks (John 1:18); God the Spirit speaks (Acts 4:25). As Ramesh Richard has said, “The Bible is what God has made; sermons are what we make with what God has made.”14 In other words, “The Bible is God preaching.”15 This means that a preacher’s sermon is always “the second sermon, the first and last are those of the Holy Spirit, who first gave His Word and quickens it in the hearts of hearers.”16
When preachers awake on the mountain and find themselves bewildered by the changing landscape, we must look again to God. God is the preacher’s hero. God is every generation’s preeminent professor of homiletics.
The Bible Is Our Homiletics Textbook
Consequently, we must revere the Bible as our primary homiletics text book. “To preach biblically means much more than to preach the truth of the Bible accurately. It also means to present that truth the way the biblical writers and speakers presented it.”17 Faithful preaching accounts for both the truth and the style of the biblical text. What results is homiletic attention to both the matter and the manner of biblical communication. “Teachers of Scripture,” Charles Spurgeon said, “cannot do better than instruct their fellows after the manner of the Scriptures.”18
Preachers learn to determine what the text says (the content), but they also need to learn to identify the form in which the text says it (the instrument). Noticing the instrument that God has used to communicate Himself in a given biblical text does not enslave the preacher to a particular sermon form, but it does model how God preaches.
For example, consider Isaiah 55:1-2:
Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
With concern for the content or matter of this text, the preacher parses the Hebrew, discovers word meanings, notices grammatical connections, handles cultural issues such as buying wine, and ultimately says what this text means.
But what if preachers learn to say what the text says with the resources the text provides? Then the preacher will notice the manner of the message as well. The manner of Isaiah 55:1-2 surfaces a style of direct and personal address. It offers a compelling invitation and utilizes searching questions, given in exclamation, and offered with the use of metaphorical language. A preacher learns from this text that God is not averse to sometimes preaching with a style that is direct, very personal, searching, exclamatory, invitational, and poetic.
Because God preaches this way at times, preachers need not wonder if such patterns of eloquence are appropriate for their generation. Preaching that imitates this posture may therefore be entirely appropriate, even if our personal temperament or background feels that it isn’t.
From Preaching to a Post-Everything World: Crafting Biblical Sermons That Connect with Our Culture, by Zack Eswine. Copyright © 2008, Zack Eswine. Published by Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission.
1. Washington Irving, Rip Van Winkle (Philadelphia: H. Altemus Company, 1908).
2. Chris Altrock, Preaching to Pluralists: How to Proclaim Christ in a Postmodern Age (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 7.
3. Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), 21-22.
4. Literally, the “ancient landmark” identified the boundaries of a person’s property. One was not to remove these landmarks and so trespass or steal another’s land (see Deut. 19:14; 27:17; Job 24:2; Prov. 23:10). Figuratively, the prophet identifies removing the ancient landmark as a picture of unfaithfulness to what God has commanded and done for His people in the past (see Hosea 5:10).
5. Phillips Brooks, Yale Lectures, 1877, quoted by Ozora S. David, “A Quarter-Century of American Preaching,” The Journal of Religion 6, no. 2 (March 1926): 135-53.
6. J.M. Orr, “Dialogue Preaching and the Discussion Service,” The Expository Times 82, no. 1 (October 1970): 10.
7. Reuel L. Howe, Partners in Preaching: Clergy and Laity in Dialogue (New York: Seabury, 1967), 11-19.
8. Time, May 17, 1968, 80, quoted in William D. Thompson and Gordon C. Bennett, Dialogue Preaching: The Shared Sermon (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1969), 7.
9. Howe, Partners in Preaching.
10. Interestingly, The Emerging Church is the title of a book written in 1970. See Bruce Larson and Ralph Osborne, The Emerging Church (Waco: Word, 1970).
11. David Morgan, Protestants and Pictures: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Age of American Mass Production (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 246.
12. This pastor’s name is withheld for his protection, personal e-mail, 2007.
13. See, for example, Ps. 115:4-5, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths but do not speak.” (See also Isa. 46:7; Hab. 2:18).
14. Ramesh Richard, Preparing Expository Sermons: A Seven-Step Method for Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 15.
15. Quoted in John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 103.
16. Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, 33.
17. Warren W. Wiersbe, Preaching and Teaching with Imagination: The Quest for Biblical Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 36.
18. Charles Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (1875; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 363.