N.T. Wright is the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and one of the preeminent New Testament scholars writing today. Prior to his 2003 appointment as Bishop, he served as Dean of Lichfield Cathedral, and was canon theologian at Westminster Abbey. He is the author of more than 40 books, and is one of the most influential voices in the 21st century Christian church. Wright was one of the featured speakers at the recent International Congress on Preaching in Cambridge, where he was interviewed by Preaching editor Michael Duduit.

Preaching: As Bishop of Durham and in your writing for the church, you are regularly in contact with church leaders. What do you see as the greatest challenge preachers face as they try to communicate the gospel in today’s culture?

Wright: It varies enormously between churches to churches. And even within the churches there are wide differences. I think in Britain it is significantly different from the United States. There is massive ignorance about what Christianity is, about what the Bible says, about who Jesus was, and so on. That goes right through our culture — even people with PhD’s in other subjects remain remarkably ignorant about what the Christian faith really is. So often the preacher has to be quite careful to spell things out, to explain what’s going on. Even the faithful few in our pews probably don’t know very much and need to be reminded.

Now in America there is in many churches a much more widespread sense of the importance of adult Christian education and adult Sunday school’s and so on. This is much more rare in the UK – almost entirely non-existent, sadly. So when I go to lecture in America I am aware that it is a different context entirely. I think that is probably the biggest thing, the sheer ignorance.

The second thing would be that behind that ignorance there is still this basic assumption that God is upstairs and we are downstairs, and that religion and spirituality are all about escaping from downstairs and going on to upstairs. Whereas the whole point of Jesus’ confirmation of the kingdom is on earth as it is in heaven is the coming together of the two. So I think we are constantly having to remind people that the old language about going to heaven when you die is important at one level, but that the really important thing is God’s new creation, resulting in resurrection. That is what the cross is all about because that is dealing with the sin and the death that would have left us disembodied. So we have a huge misunderstanding that we have got to get out from under. It is quite different in America, a quite different level.

We have problem that people a hundred years ago didn’t have at all. People now are very used to very slick, high tech, quick-fire mass media. A hundred years ago people didn’t have radio, didn’t have TV’s. They were used to reading long sermons, used to sitting through long sermons, although they may have suffered through some of them. There was a sense that intelligent people – and even not so intelligent people — were prepared to try to listen because that was all the entertainment there was. Now people have their appetites so geared to the half-minute sound bites, and preaching just ain’t like that! I think we shouldn’t collude with that, but at the same time we have to preach in a way that holds people’s attention. Otherwise we’re just wasting time.

Preaching: You mentioned that in previous generations people were used to reading and listening to long sermons. It seems that the sermon itself has lost its place in the culture. There was a time, less than a century ago, that the New York Times in Monday editions would print excerpts of the sermons from the city’s major churches.

Wright: That would happen in the early years in the twentieth century in England when the Herbert Hensley Henson, the Canon of Westminster, would have his sermons printed in the London Times on Monday mornings. Then he was Dean of Durham through the First World War and they didn’t print his sermons; I think he was a bit miffed about that.

I think there was a transition for us in the UK around that time, and certainly today if you want to publish a book of sermons, unless your name happens to be Rowan Williams [Archbishop of Canterbury] then you probably better not admit that they were sermons. Turn them into chapters of a book and that’s different.

Preaching: You are so widely known within the church because of your writing, and as a bishop you have an administrative responsibility as well. Recognizing the diverse roles in which you serve, what do you see as the place of preaching within your ministry?

Wright: It is hard to say — to me that is rather like saying, “Can you describe the place of the circulation of the blood in your overall life?” It is something that is happening, it has been happening for 35 years. Even when I have been on sabbatical I still preach from time to time. If I have been away from the pulpit for a long holiday, for a month or so, there is almost a sigh of relief when I get back to writing and preaching a sermon again. There is that sense of: this is what I am supposed to do. Now I am nearly sixty, and I can honestly say that preaching has been part of my vocation, I was made to do it. I think I have been prepared to do this all my life.

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