I started preaching thirty years ago. Back then, I attacked Biblical passages with hammer and chisel, working to break them open into identifiable segments, which could then be arranged in a rational and psychologically appropriate order. I dressed up the outline with illustrations along with additional supporting materials. I even analyzed psalms and stories, dividing them into three or four “points.” The expository outline was the big thing! I was a teaching preacher! My models were Paul Rees, Stephen Olford, and James Stewart.
My naturally linear, rational bent was intensified by five years as pastor of a college church in the east, where cerebrally oriented academics wanted meat, not fluff. Amazingly, even a music professor urged me to quit telling all those stories and just give them the Word! People took good notes from those days! I churned out neat outlines with points and subpoints. I was often tediously exegetical, uniformly propositional/deductive, and only superficially Biblical, at times. Instead of letting the text speak for itself, I imposed my analysis upon it, often failing to deal with the wider context of the passage, the book, and the Scripture as a whole.
Even then, I discovered that what most gripped people and fostered post-sermon, pastoral interaction was concrete, earthing of Biblical truth in everyday life. Christian people were beginning to value the right brain, along with the left, the intuitive along with the analytic. The importance of narrative in the fabric of Scripture was beginning to filter into evangelical Christian circles. Fred Craddock’s As One Without Authority (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971) had started to make inductive preaching the “in thing.” I also observed that even in the academic community, where I served, life wasn’t all lived in the mind. There was a whole person to be engaged with the gospel.
As I began to hear and read about narrative preaching and inductive preaching, I started to recognize the breadth of literary genre in the Scriptures, demanding varied approaches to shaping the sermon. I also came to recognize that, whether I liked it or not, “reasons why” didn’t seem to matter as much as an “experience of” and “feeling good about.”
These days, the homiletical pendulum has swung a long way from the linear/rational/deductive model. Many preaching theorists discount, even deride the analytical, propositional approach I used to work with most. Many propose an approach to structure that is inductive, organic, and which more closely follows the shape of the Biblical passage. The realization that Scripture is largely narrative in form and should be handled accordingly has led preachers to major in story, and not just “illustrations,” dropped into sermon development to “shed light” on abstractions.
I agree — at least to a point!
What I disagree with, however, is that in much of the mainline homiletics I read and see practiced, there seems to be a sharp wedge being driven between didache and kerygma.
Many preachers don’t teach.
Many preachers think they shouldn’t teach.
They try to paint a picture or tell a story, but often, there seems little theological content to it. Preachers may think they are facilitating an encounter with the text and with God through the text, but they do little explaining of meaning and then connecting that meaning with classic Christian faith. If preachers do teach, it’s a subtle, back-ground influence, highly oriented toward the right brain, which seems to be the priority part of our cerebellum these days.
In The Witness of Preaching, Thomas Long summarizes the metaphors used to describe the preacher, clustering, around three “master” metaphors: the herald, the pastor, and the storyteller. Long himself adds the image of witness.1 Nowhere does he identify “the teacher” in the role of preacher.
The omission of teacher from the vision of preaching is in contrast to the Hebrew tradition of rabbi, or teacher. It also does not square with the model of Jesus, who “taught” the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:2), and who commissioned His followers, as they went into all the world to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them …. teaching them …” (Mt. 28:19,20). Omission of the teacher role ignores the Pauline image, particularly in the Pastoral Epistles, of the teacher of sound doctrine (I Tim. 3:2,4:11; II Tim 2:2, 2:24; Tit. 1:7-9).
Preaching faces powerful chal-lenges in the culture. Today we preach in the context of an entertainment-oriented culture, geared to the impact of the sound byte and the visual image, not logically developed ideas. Furthermore, most pastors have their primary, if not only opportunity to influence their congregations in the Sunday morning sermon. Small groups are “in” and adult education on Sunday or weekday reaches some. But, for the widest number of congregants, the Sunday morning sermon bears the weight of significance. If there is to be teaching, for many church members, it will be received on Sunday mornings.
Preachers do their work today in the context of a postmodern mindset, which is at a pervasive influence in the culture. A postmodern perspective is not impressed by logic, reason, and reasons why, but by feeling, experience, and relationships. Teaching preachers recognize and respond to this mindset, but are not limited by it.
An appropriate Christian and Biblical response to today’s mindset is not primarily psychological or therapeutic, but theological. It’s what people believe deeply about God that makes all the difference in everything else. And is it not obvious that theology, especially theology which runs absolutely counter to prevailing popular thought, must be taught? Where else will it be taught for the widest number than in the sermon?
A recent analysis of contemporary thought by Canadian philosopher-theologian, Craig Gay, is entitled The Way of the (Modern) World. Its subtitle communicates volumes: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live as if God Doesn’t Exist2. The book’s thesis is that “practical atheism” is our culture’s primary way of living, often, even among Christians. Modernity and Postmodernity, says Gay, reflect the interrelated themes of control, secularity, and anxiety.
“The unusual secularity of modern society and culture is the result of modern aspirations to technical-rational control over the world that leave very little room for any kind of ‘god’ within modern culture save that of the self-defining self …. The assumption of godlike responsibilities has turned out to be a heavy burden … We have become increasingly anxious beneath the weight of this burden. This anxiety in turn, discloses what is possibly the master theme of modernity, and now of ‘postmodernity,’ that of impatience.” (p.308)
Gay quotes Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby’s indictment. “Religion,” says Bibby “… is mirroring culture. A specialized society is met with specialized religion. Consumerist individuals are provided with a smorgasbord of fragment choices. Culture leads; religion follows.” (p. 211) Might we paraphrase Bibby — Culture leads; preaching follows? If so, should this be? Is not Biblical preaching intrinsically counter-cultural? Richard Lischer warns: “Homiletics finds itself in crisis to the extent that it takes its cues from principles not its own.”3
These assessments of the very nature of Biblical preaching and of the challenging modern context in which it takes place, raise serious questions about the contemporary minimizing of preaching’s teaching function. The pressures of preaching in a postmodern, entertainment-oriented culture should not so shape evangelical preaching that the teaching role of the Word is minimized if not eliminated.
Feedback from the pew also questions the effectiveness of totally adopting the “new” homiletic. I think of an intelligent Christian, with a well-developed right brain, deeply committed to a main-line congregation. His concern about the preaching? “When the preacher is finished, you just can’t get a handle on what he’s said. It’s amorphous, vague, unfocused.” It sounds to me like he’s saying that the preaching lacks teaching. I suspect this man’s pastor is operating out of the most current, homiletical approaches.
When I work with seminary students in homiletics, I find that few are able to develop what used to be called an “expository outline.” But fewer still seem able to structure a sermon along current homiletical models with sufficient unity for the message to hold together. Many are driven to entertain, persuade, “get through to people.” But teach? Not often. When teaching does happen in Preaching Practicum, it sounds like what belongs in a Sunday morning adult class or a small group, not a sermon. My suspicion is that these students have not experienced much modeling of sermons with teaching content and with sufficient concreteness to grip, to hold, and persuade.
Why must homileticians and preachers opt for either didache or kerygma, teaching or proclamation?
Could it be that preachers need to reaffirm our teaching role, not just in adult education or membership preparation or small groups, but in the pulpit? Could it be that we need a fuller orbed perspective on what preaching is, including its vital teaching function? I think, yes, I hope that the homiletical pendulum is beginning to swing back to a greater appreciation of the significance of teaching in preaching. British Methodist Donald English, calls for reason and faith to be combined in preaching. “If we wish people truly to have a reasonable faith, they must have some sense of the content of that faith. A good preacher,” says English, “will have in every sermon that which informs, builds up, and enlightens those Who listen, so that they are theologically more mature when they leave than when they entered …. We dare not fail to teach.”4 English continues: “People have a right to expect sermons to make sense of what is going on from a Christian point of view.” (p. 69)
Speaking God’s Words, a recent volume out of Australian Anglicanism, calls preachers to faithfulness to the “sound teaching” highlighted in Paul’s pastoral letters. Author Peter Adam, using Ephesians 4, defines preaching as “the explanation and application of the Word to the congregation of Christ in order to produce corporate preparation for service, unity of faith, maturity, growth, and upbuilding.”5 Adam continues: “A merely didactic form of the ministry of the Word is inadequate … It is not mere teaching, it is teaching which achieves the purpose of God in changing people’s lives.” (p. 76)
Should preaching teach? Yes … But … We need not and should not return to the merely didactic, exclusively deductive and rational approaches of a generation ago. “Verbal exegesis” will not do today. Nor will the imposition of a linear analytical structure on a Biblical literary genre alien to such analysis.
Thomas Long observes that “as preachers, we tend to create sermon forms that match our own ways of listening and learning, and therefore we must subconsciously move beyond our own preferred patterns.” (p.130) Long continues: “The gospel comes to us in a wide variety of forms, and the preacher who faithfully bears witness to the gospel (I would add: teaches gospel truth) will allow the fulness of the gospel to summon forth a rich diversity of sermon forms as well.” (p. 132)
Add to Long’s appeal for variety in form an exhortation to structure so as to provide pegs on which to hang thoughts in an orderly fashion, particularly for those more linear who need such order. Let such a structure foster theological reflection on the text, comparing and contrasting it with today’s pop theology, and integrating it into a world view that is Biblically informed.
Teaching should always be explanation and application. Teaching must be aimed at mind and heart. In fact, why not return to Augustine’s threefold categorizing of preaching’s motivation: to delight the emotions, to influence the will, and to teach the intellect? In every sermon the emphasis will not always be the same, but in every sermon there will be all three-including teaching. Sermons should be structured in such a way as to facilitate all three. Yes, there’s the impact of encounter with story, but there are also the thought-pegs on which to hang content and connect it with the wider fabric of Christian truth.
Should preaching teach?
Preaching must teach!
Teaching is integral to Biblical preaching. To eliminate or minimize the teaching role of the preaching pastor is ask him or her to do something less than Biblical preaching. Teaching in preaching is also essential given the huge theological task of confronting “practical atheism” in our world.
But, at the same time, let the preacher teach in the context of delight and influence, in the full triad of Augustine’s understanding of the preaching task. Let the preacher structure the sermon with eyes wide open to the variety of literary genre in Scripture and the approaches appropriate for that genre. Let us teach in ways which pique the interest and grip mind and heart of modern and postmodern hearers. Let us be inductive, dramatic, and tell stories. But, by all means, let us teach!
1Thomas Long, The Witness of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), pp. 24-27.
2Craig Gay, The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live as if God Doesn’t Exist, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
3(Quoted in Long, p.105)
4An Evangelical Theology of Preaching, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996, p.68.
5Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Words. (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1996,) p.71.

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