Our ministries must be seen as ministries of the Church. This is urgently true also of our preaching. The great preacher P. T. Forsyth put it well at the turn of the century:
The one great preacher in history, I would contend, is the Church. And the first business of the individual preacher is to enable the Church to preach…. He is to preach to the Church from the Gospel so that with the Church he may preach the Gospel to the world. He is so to preach to the Church that he shall also preach through the Church. That is to say, he must be a sacrament to the Church, that with the Church he may become a missionary to the world.1
The situations in which the Word is preached are as maddeningly various as is the Church itself. It is necessary to have our thinking jarred by this diversity so that we can then with greater modesty and greater confidence understand our particular place within the whole. The whole includes Greek monks on Mount Athos; Benedictine monks in England; Mexicans on their knees before our Lady of Guadalupe; Polish Blessed Bread; Australian aborigines singing Mass; Pentecostal healers handling snakes; Eskimos scratching the Ave Maria on whalebones;
Chinese gongs sounding the Angelus; Wall Street brokers praying for free enterprise; guerilla fighters invoking Christ the Liberator; German Advent wreaths; African tomtoms tolling a Requiem; Dutch Girl Guides catechizing Amsterdam prostitutes; urban derelicts exposing themselves to the risks of getting saved for the sake of a free bed; the burghers of Hamburg joining in “Nun danket alle Gott”; the whiterobed choir of black-conscious Bethany Baptist imploring Precious Lord to take our hands; cardinals signing checks in Rome for the gnomes in Zurich; California nuns cleaning lepers in Seoul; cowboy evangelists hustling truckdrivers on Route 66; Methodist elders urging people to come out for the parent effectiveness session this Thursday night; and on and on and on.
All this and more, Jesus sees in His Church, and we must see it too. This is the Church of which we are preachers; our ministries are located within this whole and exercised for some small but necessary part of it.2
In whatever part of this great Church one is preaching, it is imperative to keep the greater Church in mind. To put it differently, the whole is present in each of its parts. In the mystery of a communion that transcends all human institutions, the Body of Christ is not divided, despite our efforts. Just as the Kingdom is present in the midst of you because the King is there, so also Christ is accompanied by His Body, the Church. Thus, preaching is not an individualistic enterprise. It is not like a star actor on a stage relating to an audience “out there,” although there are necessary elements of the actor’s art involved in preaching.
Preaching is communal, its tone tempered by the relationship between pastor and people. The totality of the relationship is not established by that moment of preaching, but that moment is interpreted, for better and for worse, by impressions and shared experiences of all sorts.
There is a complicated sociological interaction, then, in the moment of preaching. But, beyond that, there is what is more properly described as a mystical communion.
It is a communion with, and accountability to, the greater Church on whose behalf one speaks. And there is the recognition of that Church in the faces of the people one addresses on Sunday morning. One looks out to that congregation, no matter how small or nondescript, and sees more than meets the eye. The preacher possessed of such a vision knows how pitifully truncated by comparison is all the sociologese and psychologese about group dynamics. More is in play here because Christ is on the play.
One must approach these people with great respect, indeed with reverence. The preacher dare never arrogantly suppose that he is bringing the truth to the unenlightened, or that he is the instrument relating the sacred to the profane. These are people related to God through Christ. They are by the grace of God a holy people, whether they act like it or not. Some of them, the preacher must not forget, are far more advanced in the spiritual life than he is. In ways that he may know nothing about, they have wrestled with angels and walked the way of the cross. They have been to mountaintops we have not scaled or ever seen from afar.
To say, then, that our preaching is a ministry of the Church means that it is our ministry, our service, to address and to articulate the faith of the community. To be sure, we preach to convert, and every day in the Christian life is a day of decision; but we preach also to confirm and to celebrate the work of Christ among His people. Our purpose in preaching is not to create the Church; our Lord has already attended to that. Our purpose is to help the Church recognize and actualize what God has already declared it to be.
For some years now, it has been the conventional wisdom that the era of “the great pulpit” is past. To the extent that this is true, it may be because we have declared it so. In fact, however, one keeps on encountering great preaching, and in some places great preaching consistent enough to make a great pulpit. Of course how we define great preaching may change with the context. The great preaching of Riverside Church, New York City, will be quite different from the great preaching of the Assemblies of God Tabernacle on the outskirts of Modesto, California. It may seem like a cop-out to say that great preaching cannot be defined, you just know it when it happens, but so it is.
In all great Christian preaching, however, at least this is true: It is an Emmaus-like experience in which the Scriptures are opened and you recognize Christ, and in Him, with a fresh sense of discovery, you see the truth about yourself and your world. “Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32) Underscoring the unity of the verbal and sacramental Word, this experience prepared the disciples to recognize their Lord in the breaking of bread. Wherever this happens, there is great preaching.
Many who have written about preaching have remarked on the inspired mistranslation of the King James Version when it speaks of “the foolishness of preaching.” Of course, Paul was referring to the gospel itself as foolishness and scandal, but, had he the hindsight of two millennia, he might have included our presentation of the gospel as part of the foolishness. In his Brief History of Preaching, the Swedish Lutheran bishop Yngve Brilioth concludes on a note about “the absurd responsibility of preaching Sunday after Sunday.”3 As foolish and absurd as it may be, it has been done and no doubt will be done until the Kingdom comes. Those who have the responsibility of doing it should strive to do it with greatness.
I have heard professors of homiletics, who presumably have something to do with shaping the Church’s preachers, declare that preaching is passe’. What we do not wish or are not able to do, we say cannot be done. Or if it can be done, it is not relevant to our time, which is (don’t you know?) revolutionary, unprecedented, and singularly incompatible with whatever has gone before. In preaching, as in so many other areas, we move from dubious social analysis to self-serving moral judgment. The family is disintegrating, therefore a little affair on the side is to be tolerated. Patriotism is almost nonexistent, therefore critical concern for the commonweal is outdated. Charity is resented as patronizing, therefore there is no need to give sacrifically to feed the hungry of the world. The merit system is a hoax, therefore it is necessary, perhaps even unjust, to strive for excellence.
By such reasoning we smooth the way for the shoddy; we come to accept, even to champion, the second-rate. After all, the mediocre that boasts of making no effort to being anything other than mediocre has the merit of being “authentic” and “sincere” — and those are two very big gold stars in the jaded kindergarten of contemporary culture.
It is no secret that preaching has a bad name in some circles. A news correspondent dismisses Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s prophetic warnings at a Harvard commencement: “After all is said and done, he is merely preaching.” Mere preaching, so much for that! And a supine Church internalizes the contempt it picks up at the courts of culture from the ambassadors of other gods. Thus we are robbed of large parts of a Christian and humane vocabulary. When one loses words, the loss is not slight. They are not “mere words.”
We of all people should understand the connection between words and the Word. Yet one reads, this time in a popular Methodist magazine, about a local church that is reportedly undergoing spiritual renewal. The article declares: “Here there is no piety, no dignity, no form. Only freedom and joy.” So readily do we internalize worldly contempt for values at the center of Christian existence. Without piety, or dignity, or the grace and restraint of form, what freedom and joy can there be? One quickly adds that it is not only Christian existence itself that is at stake but also the Christian contribution to a more humane world. Without devotion that rises above self-serving, without respect for the dignity of others, without the forms of deference and discipline, there is little hope for taming the beastliness of what people do to one another.
We must not let them take our words away, and certainly we should not lend them a helping hand in destroying the language of Christian identity. Of course some Christians are offended by any talk about “we” and “them” — as though there were no minions of the principalities and powers of the present time opposing the rule of the Christ; as though the difference between being a Christian and not being a Christian is not really that important. But the “we” is not against the “them” — it is ultimately for “them” so that we may all be “we” under Christ. Revitalizing Christian identity is not aimed at sealing us off from “the world”; our clear, coherent, courageous Christian identity is precisely our greatest contribution to the world. “If the salt has lost its savor ….”
The Prow of the Ship
We continue to preach and we continue to call it preaching. Preaching derives from praedicare: to proclaim publicly, to praise, to elevate. To elevate the lordship of Jesus Christ, and with it the world that He claims as His own, surely this is our great contribution.
In Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s Father Mapple, in the little whaling town of New Bedford, climbs the ladder to preach from the high perch that is like the prow of a ship. “The pulpit,” writes Melville, “is ever this earth’s foremost part…. The world’s a ship on its passage out … and the pulpit is its prow.” To suggest that the pulpit is the prow as America and the world move out to the twenty-first century sounds, let us admit it, plain silly. Most observers, including most Christians, including perhaps ourselves, would snicker at the pretentiousness of the idea.
That the idea seems ludicrous, even to ourselves, is largely the fault of those of us who are preachers. Too often we do not believe in the sovereignty on whose behalf we are called to contend. We do not believe that Christ is “the new man for all men,” the future of humankind. We are pathetically grateful for being permitted aboard the proud ship of the modern world. Out of deference to the Church’s former dignity, we are given comfortable cabins, and those in charge even let us wear officer’s uniforms, thus maintaining the appearance that we belong to the class of politicians, bureaucrats, artistic entrepreneurs, social scientists, generals, and television commentators who have set the world’s course on its passage to disaster.
Our role is a shameful charade. Shameful not because it is demeaning to us but because we are party to the demeaning of the sovereign whose ambassadors we are. We cannot storm the bridge by physical force, and we should not try to. But we can dissent, protest, persuade, plead. We can preach.
Preaching will only be elevated and elevating by virtue of better preaching. Better preaching in this case means, among other things, more confident preaching; confidence not in ourselves but in the Lord whom we preach.
It is objected that such an emphasis upon preaching is self-serving. Whether in the national arena or in the local community, how do we elevate preaching without elevating the preacher? Does not the status of the ambassador rise with the status of the one whom he represents? We should not let ourselves be terrified by the narrow-eyed suspiciousness of a modern mindset that refuses to believe in anything beyond the self, that refuses to believe that the self can be taken captive to a higher call.
We are all Freudians now, more or less, of some form or another, and we should not be shocked by the ambiguity of our own motives. Even without benefit of Freud, Paul was keenly aware of his vulnerability to the criticism that his ministry was self-serving. His answer, which must also be our answer, is not that the criticism can be disproved but that the calling cannot be disobeyed. “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission” (1 Cor. 9:16-17).
If some secular critics are disdainful of the pulpit’s pretensions to be the prow of the modern world, it is my impression that many more are puzzled by the pusillanimity of the Church. At various levels of political, academic, and journalistic life, I have encountered thoughtful people who ask why it is that the Church seems to have so little to say. “Why is it,” they ask, “that we, the secular solons, are shown such deference by church people? Why are church leaders so eager to accept our opinions, to try to be like us? Is it possible that the Christian capital of the West is so completely exhausted that there can be no new ideas, no new challenges, no new directions bearing a distinctively Christian mark?”
Some years ago, a Protestant church body thought to observe the American bicentennial by spending thousands of dollars to bring together celebrities from academe and the communications media to discuss religion in the modern world. The brochure expained that it is necessary for the Church “to solicit the best minds of the time in order to find new ways to make Christianity relevant to our world.” Solicitation is a more apt word than the sponsors of this event probably knew. It is not simply the oldest profession, it is the oldest form of religious decadence.
In any case, one of the speakers, a noted humanist, observed that of course religion is on the wane as modern man becomes ever more rational, but there may nonetheless be a continuing role for the churches if they line up behind his favored causes for the improvement of the world. A few weeks later, the sponsoring body’s publication carried a story on the meeting: “Church Has Role in Modern World.” The gushing article left no doubt that we should be grateful for being permitted on board.
Preaching that applies for a license from unbelievers is no preaching at all. It elevates nothing. It reduces the gospel of Christ to simply another viewpoint that may or may not be “interesting” or “helpful.” The preacher who cannot say with Paul, “I am entrusted with a commission,” is, at best, in a perilous situation. We are entrusted with a commission from Christ and from the community that has accepted the commission of Christ.
Sometimes, when the commissioning voice of Christ seems faint, we must dare to preach because the community calls us to preach. But finally, while they cannot be equated, the voice of Christ and the voice of His Church cannot be separated. Such is the promise that our Lord has made to those who follow Him. Somewhere within the Body of Christ the will of Christ is articulated. There are different voices and we must choose; we can never be sure that we have chosen rightly, but ultimately our obedience is rendered to Him who surely will judge all things rightly. That is the source of our freedom and of our joy in the ministry of preaching.
The Christian confidence proposed here is not to be understood simplistically in terms of what Richard Niebuhr described as the model of “Christ against Culture.” If such a succinct phrase is necessary, the most appropriate one might be Christ ahead of culture. A simple preacher in rural Tennessee is the cultural and cosmic avant-garde when he stands in his pulpit and declares, “Jesus Christ is Lord!”
It is not enough, of course, simply to repeat such statements of Christian allegiance. The statements must be brought into relation — yes, even be made “relevant” — to other statements of meaning, to the claims of other gods. If relevance means transforming ourselves and the world, rather than conforming the gospel to things as they are, then relevance is not only permissible, it is mandatory.
Unfortunately, talk about relevance has been so prostituted by conformation that another word should be sought. Rather than a static noun like “relevance,” it might be better to speak more dynamically of “engagement.” Preaching must engage the world, and it must engage the world that is within ourselves and our people. Our engagement should be marked by intelligence, sensitivity, and courage. Our preaching should engage the culture appreciatively where possible, polemically where necessary, but always lovingly. Lovingly, because finally the gospel is for the world. It is only against the world where the future is against itself, denying its own promised future in the Kingdom of God.
If the gospel of Jesus turns out to be right, then Melville too is right: “The world’s a ship on its passage out … and the pulpit is its prow.”
1. Quoted in Preaching in the Witnessing Community, ed. Herman G. Stuempfle, Jr. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), p. viii.
2. This listing of Christian diversity draws on a similar listing in Malachi Martin, The final Conclave (Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Stein and Day, 1978), p. 13.
3. Yngve Brilioth, A Brief History of Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965).
From Freedom for Ministry by Richard John Neuhaus. (c) 1992 by Wm. B. Eerdmans, Publishing Co. Used by permission.

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