As things change, they stay the same. When one reflects back twenty years have
things changed that much? Consider some of the names of preachers that were
prominent in 1985: Billy Graham, Robert Schuller, Charles Stanley. While their
names are still prominent in 2005, their sons have assumed the mantel of leadership
(Franklin Graham, Robert Schuller II, Andy Stanley).
As much as the church has changed over the years, isn’t preaching still the
same? Granted, the tools are different. In 1985 the power of the Internet lay
latent, the use of video and media technology was barely visible, the thought
of a team of preachers sharing a pulpit was unheard of, the prevalence of multi-site
churches with the sermon being broadcast live to other preaching points simultaneously
was nonexistent. But preaching is still the same. Isn’t it?
The Bedrock of Preaching
“Preaching,” according to Brian Larsen, “must be grounded in the authority of
Scripture, true to the gospel of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, clear
in its relevance to the hearers, and proclaimed by people of character.”
That definition would be true yesterday, today, and tomorrow. The purpose of
preaching remains a constant from one generation to another. “The purpose of
preaching is to help the congregation interpret the world from the perspective
of the Gospel,” states Ronald Allen of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.
“The preacher is called to help the congregation interpret life theologically
and to help the congregation respond appropriately.”
Allen, who pastors as well as teaches homiletics, is adamant about the preacher
understanding the primacy of preaching. “This purpose must remain the same from
age to age because the church and the preacher are the only institutions in
the human world whose reason for being is to carry out that purpose.
The church is called to this particular task in a way that no other community
is called, and God promises to continue to work through the Spirit to enliven
the preacher and church to this task.”
So whether one is preaching to large crowds or small, using the high tech of
video imaging in the sanctuary or sending it be satellite to a multitude of
locations, whether the text is read from one of a hundred different versions
or translations of the Bible the preaching function has changed little. And
it must not change.
The preacher can’t forget the significance of preaching in any age to any people
– ancient, contemporary, or postmodern. If the preacher does the church and
society are doomed. “The church survives because of the centrality of preaching,”
acknowledged H. Beecher Hicks, pastor for 28 years at Metropolitan Baptist Church
in Washington, DC. “Preaching thrives in hard times. Preaching thrives best
when tinged by blood – life and death crises. When life brings people to the
altar and onto their knees preaching will be a necessity to their lives.”
Hicks told of viewing a picture of a contemporary sanctuary. What he saw were
the rows of chairs for the choir, a majestic grand piano, an electric keyboard
and other musical instruments dotting the platform, and, then, off center was
a small and frail piece of furniture used for preaching. Drawing a comparison
to many church’s worship services today, he explained, “Emphasis in worship
has shifted toward music, drama, dance, and other avenues of expression. What
is required is a level of balance so we are not all for one and nothing for
the other. All have their place. We are on a slippery slope when we diminish
preaching. The place in which the preacher stands can have significant bearing
on how one views oneself and how others views the preacher.”
He paused, and then added, “If I’m standing in a place (the pulpit) that is
minimized, then others will minimize it. If one sees the pulpit (and the preaching
task) as a place that stands between the living and the dead, then that place
must be prominent in the sanctuary of our worship.”
The Winds of Change
While the prominence of preaching in churches and in society has not changed
and must not change, several significant changes in the past twenty years have
come to light.
One is an increasing refinement in the understanding of what it means to preach
biblically. The term “expository preaching” is increasingly used by pastors
and teachers of homiletics, though there are many definitions of what it means
to be an “expository” preacher.
Haddon Robinson is the dean of this movement. Robinson – who now teaches at
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary – has left an undeniable mark on the field
of preaching with his book, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery
of Expository Messages. Robinson’s emphasis on returning to the text has
exerted a powerful influence on the evangelical church over the past twenty
years, not only through his own students and those who have used his book (and
approach) who are now pastors, but also through a new generation of homiletics
teachers in seminaries that he has taught and mentored.
Today, most students in evangelical seminaries are taught using some type of
expository preaching model. And in recent years, major books on expository preaching
have been released on an annual basis by Christian publishers, including Christ-centered
Preaching by Bryan Chapell, Rediscovering Expository Preaching by
John MacArthur and the Masters Seminary faculty, The Modern Preacher and
the Ancient Text by Sidney Greidanus, and others.
In addition, the return to exposition has been coupled with an emphasis on Christ-centered/redemptive
sermons. Bryan Chapell, President of Covenant Theological Seminary, has been
an ardent champion of this movement. Writing in the second edition of his influential
book Christ-centered Preaching, he states: “The more I have become aware
that God’s revelation of his redemptive character occurs at the micro- as well
as the macro-level of Scripture, the more I have delighted to preach his redeeming
character from virtually every page of the Bible.” A number of scholars – including
Sidney Greidanus, Edmund Clowney, and Paul Scott Wilson – have led in the redemptive
sermon movement’s development and growing influence.
renewed emphasis on exposition is not the only influence on preaching in recent
years. As John A. Huffman, Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church
in Newport Beach, observes, “I see two developments in preaching during the
past twenty years. On the one hand, I see a major return to expository preaching,
while, at the same time, I see a major move toward narrative preaching. The
two are not necessarily exclusive of each other, but it takes a most unique
person to bring these two together.”
The narrative preaching model was sparked in the 1970s and 1980s through the
work of Fred Craddock, Professor of Preaching at Emory University’s Candler
School of Theology (now retired). Other notables in this tradition (who have
also retired from the classroom) include David Buttrick, Professor of Homiletics
and Liturgics at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and Eugene Lowry, Professor Emeritus
of Preaching of St. Paul School of Theology.
Initially, the emphasis on narrative and “inductive preaching” was primarily
championed in the mainline schools and pulpits. Over the past two decades, however,
the influence of narrative preaching has moved into evangelical seminaries and
pulpits as well. While some have been critical of such an approach, others –
like Tom Long, who now fills the instructional shoes of Craddock at Candler
– see a continuing role for narrative preaching. Long says, “One major trend
I see, namely the challenges to narrative preaching now arising from the right,
the middle, and the left. I am chastened by all of these challenges, but finally
persuaded by none of them. I think narrative arts will still be important in
the preaching of the next generation.”
In a recently published essay, “What Happened to Narrative Preaching?” in the
Journal for Preachers, Long adds, “But,
at its best, the narrative impulse in preaching grows out of a deep sense of
the character, shape, and epistemology of the gospel. If preaching is a sacramental
meeting place between the church and the word, the hearers and the gospel, then
the substance of preaching is shaped by scripture and by human experience under
the sign of grace, and both of these aspects call for narration. If we are to
be faithful to the biblical testimony, we will not always speak in a narrative
voice – humanity does not live by narrative alone but by every word that comes
from the mouth of God – but finally we are compelled to tell the Story and the
stories of the God who has acted mightily in many and divers ways and most profoundly
in the raising of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.”
these two models – exposition and narrative – are often described as standing
in sharp contrast to one another, in recent years there has been an increasing
blend of the two approaches. As Ron Allen notes, “Recognizing that human
understanding and communication is quite diverse, now there is much more emphasis
on preachers finding their own voices and doing so in ways that honor the various
ways that people hear and speak, and the different contexts in which preaching
takes place.” The use of various models by a single preacher seems to be more
pervasive and prevalent today.
Another change in preaching has been in the area of preparation. Bryan Chapell
observes, “The impact of technology and mass communication has also made preachers
question traditional approaches to preparing sermons.” Preachers have always
used materials from others in their research and preparation, but the abundance
of resources available in recent years has become both a blessing and a curse
“Recently,” says Craig Webb, who edits on-line pastoral materials for LifeWay
Christian Resources, “there has been a development where preachers have become
sermon editors rather than sermon writers. Preachers feel inadequate with so
many good resources available. In fact, the abundance and the use of those resources
becomes like an addiction replacing good preparation.”
Access to great preaching from across America – through radio, television, and
now the Internet – has raised the expectation of the person in the pew, who
increasingly expects his own local pastor to hit a homiletical home run each
week. The people in the pew are more demanding today than ever before. Ray Pritchard
who preaches weekly at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, IL attributes this
expectation to the “influence of the larger culture.” He says, “Technology brings
accessibility to tons of preachers so we all get compared to the best of the
best every week.”
At one time a faithful church member attended his or her home church fifty Sundays
a year and perhaps would hear an occasional visiting preacher or another preacher
while on vacation. Today the average church member attends that home church
about 35-40 Sundays a year. When not in their own church they can hear many
well-known preachers via television or on-line. Now, the local preacher is compared
with the slickest and the best.
Does Technology Play a Role?
Can the preacher “hit a home run” week in and week out? Sunday comes every seven
days whether the preacher is prepared or not. Can the preacher be at peak performance
each Sunday (or weekend)?
Don Sunukjian of Talbot Theological Seminary thinks so. He says, “Preaching
will always be effective if it does four things: One, it must have a biblical
substance. Two, people must track with the preacher. Three, it must be interesting.
Four, it must be relevant. Do all four and you will have good preaching. None
of the four depend on ‘whiz-bang stuff.'”
The “whiz-bang stuff” that Sunukjian is referring to is the use of technology.
If anything has changed dramatically in preaching in the last twenty years it
has been the onslaught of PowerPoint, video clips from movies punctuating sermons,
preprinted note-taking outlines – anything to hold the listener’s attention.
Pastors lament about the increasingly short attention spans of listeners who
have been shaped by a sound-bite media culture.
Sunukjian, however, is not persuaded that people have short attention spans.
“People will watch a movie for two hours and not get bored,” he asserts. He
points out that many good preachers will hold the listener’s attention for forty-five
minutes. Sunukjian advises preachers to observe the preachers on television
who are preaching to large audiences in their churches and even larger audiences
through the television media and few are using such visual technology in their
preaching. However, they are using the best of technology to broadcast their
Ron Allen focuses the debate over the use of technology to an even more fundamental
level. He asserts, “We do need to figure out the degree to which preachers can
and should use electronic media in preaching. I have a hunch – though I cannot
yet prove it – that there is something so fundamental in the human being-to-human
being interchange of the preacher talking directly to the congregation that
the dynamic of that interaction changes when PowerPoint and other forms of media
are introduced into the pulpit. We need to assess.”
Technology makes for a powerful servant and a horrible master. Many preachers
point to the countless hours they (or others in their church) spend finding
the right movie clip, or video vignette, to illustrate a point in their sermon.
Time is unredeemable. Are the minutes spent on a hunt and find mission for a
video is taken from quality exegesis and study? To quote Ron Allen again, both
corporately and personally, “We need to assess.”
Young, Jr. – pastor of Fellowship Church in Grapevine, TX – has become known
for remarkably creative worship experiences that draw more than 18,000 people
each weekend to Fellowship’s services. Despite a contemporary approach to ministry,
Young does not believe that technology is key – rather, the key is creativity
in your own setting.
an interview that appeared in the January-February 2005 issue of Preaching,
Young said, “Creativity is not bouncing off the walls. It’s not gimmicky. It
has to be biblically-driven. We’re not above the Bible or on the same level
as the Bible. We’re under the Bible – we’re under scripture. So it has to be
Biblically-driven. And I believe when its biblically-driven you’re going to
find that sweet spot of communication.
“I think that small tweaks take us to giant peaks in communication. It doesn’t
have to be these big honkin’ things and flying down from the ceiling or painting
the walls orange and throwing sand in the foyer. It’s within your context and
sometimes it can be as small as changing the time when you speak, or it can
be maybe one time giving a message outline or message map and then one time
you don’t do it. Maybe it’s having the choir or your praise team singing in
one area in the church one weekend and another area another weekend. Maybe it’s
using video clips for two straight weeks and maybe it’s not using it for six
weeks. Maybe it’s being very loud and having all the lights for three or four
weeks, and maybe it’s totally dialed down, totally simplistic for four straight
Although the last two decades have been characterized by a dramatic increase
in the use of technology in the church, more and more preachers are learning
to keep it in perspective and use it as an appropriate tool. Ray Pritchard –
who uses technology to send his weekly sermon out free of charge to subscribers
all over the world – reminds us, “Preachers today must remain current with technology
and the culture around them. They must show they are plugged into the world
while remaining true to the biblical text.” He adds, “Technology is driving
everything. We can now preach via the Internet to the whole world.”
characteristic of the past twenty years – and, no doubt, the decades ahead –
is that change is an ever-present reality for anyone in ministry.
Ron Allen, from his perspective of teaching and preaching in a church related
to a mainline denomination – the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – points
to a variety of changes which impact the church: “Increasing numbers of women
are coming into the pulpit and into the teaching of preaching. There’s an appreciation
and understanding of various ethnic and racial cultures that have influenced
preaching; a dramatic increase in detailed attention to the context of preaching;
an understanding of the congregation as a ‘culture’ and preaching needing to
fit into (as well as be transformative of) that culture; and a new respect for
logic, propositions, clarity of ideas, and even deduction and for ways that
such things can work together with imagination.”
changing environment is not limited to the mainline denominations; evangelical
churches are also experiencing the impact of cultural change.
As churches have sought to respond to a changing culture, one of the major influences
has been the emerging influence and modeling of “seeker-sensitive” churches
and worship models. The last twenty years has seen an explosion of churches
which have been planted and built based on large, successful congregations like
Willow Creek and Saddleback, led by gifted communicators like Bill Hybels and
Rick Warren. Indeed, in the aftermath of his books The Purpose-Driven Church
and The Purpose-Driven Life, it’s hard to identify any individual who
has more influence on the church today than Warren, whose weekly newsletter
alone goes to more than 140,000 pastors and church leaders.
The influence of how-to, seeker-driven sermons has been mightily felt in the
pulpits of evangelical churches. In those churches that have adopted this model
for ministry a whole new wave of people are now entering their sanctuaries.
Depending on the success of implanting the model in their church, the preacher
is not only preaching to the already convinced; the preacher may be addressing
a larger number of non-believers who share a greater level of biblically illiteracy
than the traditional person in the pew.
While much of the preaching that takes place in these new congregations is solidly
biblical, others have been accused of adopting a more “therapeutic” model of
preaching which falls short of biblical truth.
O.S. Hawkins, who served as Pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas prior to
assuming his denominational role with Southern Baptists, argues that, “The transition
in preaching over the last two decades has brought with it both good news and
potentially bad news. On the positive side it is much more akin to connecting
with its hearers and knowing its audience. On the negative side, I sometimes
fear it is losing its apostolic model and authority in some ways and some places.
Like many of the new ‘networks, it seems to be built around methodology instead
of theology which issues from the Word of God.”
Back to the Future
Where is preaching headed?
Bryan Chapell states, “I remain convinced that an expository approach is the
most fruitful as the mainstay of a pulpit ministry, and I rejoice in the recent
spate of books re-endorsing this biblically committed approach. But always we
can learn from other communication fields how people hear and how better to
minister God’s Word to them.” Others note the resurgence of the expository model.
Ron Allen affirms, “I am convinced that expository preaching continues to be
the most reliable way for sermons to accomplish their fundamental aim. However,
I also know that doctrinal messages, topical sermons, and various modes of experimental
homilies can accomplish the purpose of preaching.”
While there is not one “right” style of preaching – any more than there is only
one translation of Scripture – the emphasis on Scriptural authority will remain
James Earl Massey, Dean Emeritus of Anderson School of Theology, comments that,
“in the next five years preaching must have a greater focus on the essentials
of the Christian faith. At a time of pluralism in the United States where it
is difficult to distinguish between the church and the world, the need for preaching
will be to distinctively focus on the fundamentals of Christianity.” He continues,
“The battle in the church, and in many respects in preaching, will be over sexual
The primacy of preaching must continue to be central in our churches and the
purpose of preaching must remain biblical in the truest sense of the word, if
it is to continue to make a difference in the world on this side of the apocalypse.
The sermon must come from the heart of the preacher, delivered to the heart
of hearer. Preaching is still a face-to-face and a heart-to-heart encounter.
The preacher, therefore, must be committed to integrity, authenticity, and transparency.
A preacher who stands on a foundation of biblical authority, speaking to people
on real life issues from a broken and contrite heart, will never lack for an
audience whether the date is 1985, 2005, or 2025.
Ezell is a pastor and author in Naperville, IL.