Much traditional expository preaching attempts to march to the same regular beat in the twenty-first century as it did in the twentieth. Its high view of scripture demands that preachers be faithful as they exegete the ancient text in its original setting and then give contemporary exposition to the listeners. Increasingly, however, irregular rhythms are being heard. The electronics revolution has not only made impact on worship styles but has raised subversive questions for preaching.
For example, in The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World, Tex Sample argues that the convergence of image, beat and visualization require new ways of worship. Yet he devotes only two pages to preaching, and in his detailed example of electronic worship “the sermon is ten minutes long … most of the sermon, about six minutes, will be given over to a story” (1998, 117). Len Wilson in The Wired Church contends that as the sermon mutated from story telling to exegesis in the mass-print age, so now it must mutate again for the electronic. “Although ministry in the age of the printed word was largely individual, ministry in the electronic age is like a television studio operating with a number of specialists” (1999, 74). This means “giving up control of the most powerful icon of a pastor’s leadership, the pulpit” (41).
Beneath these disturbing and sometimes strident claims there lies a range of issues about culture and communication which deserve attention.
Culture and Paradigm Shifts
Unsurprisingly, many recent preaching textbooks make reference to culture and the need to understand and relate the gospel to it, as in Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell (1994, 169-170). Most of us are all too well aware of how we live in changing times. We often use “culture” to describe what the New Testament calls “the world,” but there are at least three dangers to which we should be alerted. We may be too narrow in definition, too naive in our hopes and, especially as preachers, too unclear in our understanding about the impact of communication shifts within culture change.
The word “culture” may be used in many contexts, sometimes very local, to characterize attitudes and behavior. H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture argued that “culture” should be regarded as a wide concept, indeed it should be as inclusive as the term “civilization.” “It comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes and values” (1951, 32). He outlined five models to describe how Church may relate to culture. Recently, Jimmy Long in his book Generating Hope has represented these in simplified form as contemporary options in the United States (1997, 19-35, see fig. 3). He commends the last option. “We can take the road of influence, being prophetic in the culture and providing hope for Generation X and the coming postmodern generation” (34).
However, in widening the definition of culture and in making optimistic observations about the church’s relationship within it, there is a further danger of naivety. Too easily it can be presumed that the church itself can escape acculturation. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon in Resident Aliens gave a provocative warning about Niebuhr’s book. “We have come to believe that few books have been a greater hindrance to an accurate assessment of our situation than Christ and Culture … Niebuhr failed to describe the various historical or contemporary options for the church. He merely justified what was already there – a church that had ceased to ask the right questions as it went about congratulating itself for transforming the world, not noticing, that in fact the world had tamed the church” (1989, 40-41). Further strident warnings come from The Gospel and Culture movement, associated with Lesslie Newbigin, who urged that Western culture should be seen for what it is. It is not a secular society, ‘it is a pagan society and its paganism having been born out of the rejection of Christianity, is far more resistant to the gospel than (the) pre-Christian paganism’ (1986, 20). Western culture now needs a missionary movement. The traditional church is in much greater peril than it realizes.
Christ of Culture Assimilating Church in the world/of the world
Christ and Culture in Paradox Protecting Church not of the world/not in the world
Christ Above Culture Unchanging Church not in world/oblivious to world
Christ Against Culture Battling Church in the world and over the world
Christ the Transformer of Culture Influencing Church in the world/not of the world
(Fig. 1)
A third danger for preachers is the lack of clarity about how culture and communication are bound together in massive transition at the beginning of the twenty-first century. It has become fashionable to describe culture changes as “paradigm shifts”. Paradigms are like “lenses” through which we see the world and develop world views. The missiologist David Bosch used paradigms in order to understand how mission was interpreted and carried out in different Christian eras. Building on earlier work by Hans Kung, Bosch developed six paradigms of Christian mission (1966).
A recent tracing of the history of the Western church by Robert Webber has focused on five eras, each with one or more distinctive ideas through which the Christian faith has been interpreted (see fig. 2). He sees the value of paradigm thinking in its ability to understand the past contextually, its appreciation for the variety and diversity of the great models of the past and its usefulness to provide us “with an intelligent way to deal with times of transition” We need to identify the “core elements which do not change in order to carry forward what has been true of the church from its past” (1999, 16-17).
Notice that as the central ideas of each paradigm have changed through these eras of Christian history, the characteristics of the most recent culture shift of post-modernism actually parallel those of the early church. We shall need to return and consider this striking similarity.
Modernity and Postmodernity
Preaching today is caught in a vortex of swirling change as modernity appears to be supplanted by so-called Postmodernity. Modernity was birthed by the Renaissance and within it human reason was to reign supreme, crowned in Enlightenment culture. Over the last two hundred and fifty years western culture with its self-confident rationality was able to question ideologies. Human progress was seen to be the inevitable outcome of asking the right questions and finding the right answers. The patron of modernity, Descartes, formulated its creed: “I think therefore I am”.
This enlightenment thinking had a reassuring, overarching sense of rational coherence. People looked for a set of principles by which to understand the world. With optimism they saw science and technology as instruments of reason and progress. The church had an automatic position in society since it too had a set of principles by which to understand the world.
At some time in the recent past with its first stirrings visible in the 1960’s, (some see the fall of the Berlin Wall as symbolic), a dismantling of modernist culture appears to have begun. “Postmodern is a makeshift word we use until we have decided what to name the baby” (Anderson 1995, 2). The reassuring overarching set of truths seems to be collapsing. Instead of one ‘big story’ the claim is that “anything can be true for anyone – truth is what you make it.”
There is suspicion towards authoritative answers and absolute truths with a new creed: “I feel, therefore I am.” This post modern approach to life is hungry for experience, is always concerned about how people feel and whether something works. In the context of modernity the church had to deal with the notion that “Christianity is not true.” Now in the relativism of post-modernism the attack focuses differently — “Christians are claiming to have the only truth.”
Ancient Medieval Reformation Modern Postmodern
Mystery Institutional Word Reason Mystery
Community Systematic Community
Symbol Analytical Symbol
Verbal Individualistic
(Fig. 2 [Paradigms of Church History, (Webber 1999, 34)])
However dispassionately we may describe these changing eras, there seems to be an ominously fast build-up of pressures. Leonard Sweet has graphically likened them to a massive tidal wave — “a flood tide of a revolution is cutting its swath across our world and is gathering prodigious momentum” (1999, 17). Different generations are caught in its currents — Boomers (born 1927-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-64), Generation X (1965-1981) and Millennials born since 1981. Boomers, identified with modernity, are often in current church leadership with their emphasis on rationality and excellence. Generation X is a ‘hinge generation’ born into modernity yet overwhelmed by post-modernity and it tends to be much more experiential, interactive and pragmatic in outlook. It tends to stress issues of relevance, genuineness and authenticity. For Millennials there has been no other experience except that of post-modernity and this generation presents a new dynamic which Howe and Strauss view optimistically in The Millennials: the next great generation (2000).
Underneath, powering this tsunami, is a radical philosophical shift which is especially focused on how we understand language and meaning. If the ‘Enlightenment project’ summed up Modernism, then ‘deconstructionism’ is centerpiece to Postmodernity. Associated with Jacques Derrida in the 1970’s, this is a destructive theory about language and the phenomenon of understanding itself which claims that words have no objective content. The only ‘reality’ words have is what they create in our minds as we use them. So, deconstructionists can argue that God can have no existence independent of language. Words express opinions each of which has equal validity.
How we understand and use language is critically bound up with culture, and though there are philosophical complexities and humankind itself has a “multimedia character”, Schultz is right to claim that “in every area of life, the human word drives culture” (2000, 41).
Communication Shifts
Inextricably caught up within culture change are paradigm shifts in communication. It is generally agreed that there are three main eras of communication in the history of the world with only two periods of transition caused first by the invention of the alphabet and printing, and second by the advent of electronics. Today we are living through only the second major transition in the entire story of communication which accompanies the paradigm shift from Modernity to Postmodernity. When Marshal McLuhan declared that “the medium is the message” he argued that society has always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which people communicate than by the content of the communication itself (1964). Our senses and ways of thinking are profoundly affected, even reconstructed, by the media.
McLuhan described the three stages of human communication as: first, the pre-literate tribal stage of hearing and speaking; then the invention of the alphabet culminating in the Gutenberg printing revolution of the fifteenth century when reading and seeing moved communication from the tribal context to the individual. Thirdly, has come the electronic stage in which there has been a retribalising as the spoken word has been eclipsed by the visual — the age of the image.
In Orality and Literacy; The Technologizing of the Word Walter Ong called these three eras Primary Orality, Literacy and Secondary Orality (This paper draws its title from this book.). Primary orality, describes those who were totally unfamiliar with writing. Its words had distinctive psychodynamics as “sounds” from within a person’s “interior consciousness.” Sounded words were events. Hence, the Hebrew word dabar means both word and event. For communication to be effective, the process of recall was essential with a need to “think memorable thoughts.” All kinds of techniques were required such as mnemonics, rhythms, repetitions, formulae, and the “stitching together” of stories. Because words were sounds, the ear was primary. Orality meant aurality.
The invention of writing initiated literacy as the second period of communication. Ong claimed that “more than any other single invention writing has transformed human consciousness.” Writing actually restructured consciousness. Whereas oral speech welled up out of the unconsciousness, writing led to artificial context free language. The invention of writing was itself a technology which in turn gave birth to the technologies of printing and electronics.
Writing has become so indispensable it is hard to imagine how profound was its first impact on the ways that human beings think and express themselves. Words became precise ‘things’ which could be recorded in indexes, dictionaries and other lists. Science became possible through exact verbalization. For literacy it was the eye that was primary instead of the ear.
The third period of communication was in its infancy when Ong wrote his book. Less than three pages are given to the electronics revolution which he famously called secondary orality. However, his analysis was acute. “The electronic transformation of verbal expression has both deepened the commitment of the word to space initiated by writing and intensified by print and has brought consciousness to a new age of secondary orality.” Comparing secondary orality with primary orality, Ong stressed that secondary orality is “both remarkably like and remarkably unlike primary orality” (135).
“Like primary orality, secondary orality has generated a strong group sense, for listening to spoken words forms hearers into a group, a true audience, just as reading written or printed texts turns individuals in on themselves. But secondary orality generates a sense for groups immeasurably larger than those of primary oral culture — McLuhan’s ‘global village’ … we are group minded self-consciously and programmatically” (136).
There are many implications for preachers in this seminal work. In particular, I will focus briefly on three authors who have developed Ong’s work with regard to religious communication. Such brevity inevitably runs the risk of over simplifying their distinctions and missing their nuances and each author’s contribution deserves detailed reflection.
Pierre Babin in The New Era in Religious Communication analyzes how faith has been communicated differently through these three eras and offers some general observations. He is particularly interested in the ways in which contemporary young people learn within the context of worship. Babin contends that within an oral culture faith is communicated by a process of “immersion” which involves memorization by symbolic procedures and dramatic presentation of images. This he calls “right brain” communication.
By contrast, faith in the age of print media communicates by the printed catechesis of doctrines with a “left brain” cerebral form of faith. However, in the age of electronic media both “right brain” and “left brain” are stimulated by audiovisual media and data-processing information. This he calls “stereo communication” which involves heart and feelings as well as intellect and reason. Electronic media makes an impact primarily through modulations and vibrations. “Our imaginary and affective framework is determined by audiovisual language.” He therefore contrasts conceptual language of enlightenment communication (Modernity and print), with symbolic language of post-enlightenment communication (Postmodernity and electronics).
Richard Jensen in Telling the Story and Thinking in Story; Preaching in a post literate age relates the ideas of McLuhan, Ong and Babin directly to types of preaching. He claims that the invention of printing led to “Gutenberg homiletics” which “predisposes a didactic form of homiletics. The linear message of print helped to create a linear approach to the task of proclamation” (1993,7). Traditional preaching, which he terms didactic preaching, exactly fitted communication styles for the literacy era. Its linear progressions of thought were structured in space, propositional in content and analytical in style. Such preaching is thinking in ideas. “Preaching becomes the task of translating eye information (that which is in the book) into ear information … passing along the true and essential doctrines and information.”
He finds such preaching is inevitably in trouble in the “post-literate era” which he dates from 1985 when more videocassettes were rented from video stores than books were checked out of libraries. “I am seriously proposing a kind of paradigm shift for preachers shaped by the literate world’s approach to preaching” (10). This shift requires new thought processes of “story thinking” which harnesses key qualities of the earlier primary orality before printing.
For Jensen, preachers today have to “go back to the future” as they relate “thinking in story” to the post-literate electronic context. Sermons need to ‘stitch stories together’ with features such as repetition and “metaphors of participation.” They should be situational rather than propositional. Interestingly this is echoed in the claims of Webber for an “ancient future faith.”
Tex Sample in The Spectacle of Worship in a Wired World focuses on electronic culture and its practices. “Electronic culture” is a better term than “post literate culture” because there is actually more print today than ever before courtesy of the internet. However, it is an “electronic literacy.” Following the claims of McLuhan and Ong about media “reconstructing” lives he distinguishes three practices which converge characteristically in the electronic era. They are “images”, “sound as beat” and “visualization.” “Images” have what he calls a “rich particularity” which have opened up new ways of engaging with the world. “Sound as beat” has “encoded” all generations since 1945, and “visualization” is particularly associated with the screen and relates powerfully to sound. Sample rejects the thesis that this amounts to a return to primary orality. “Electronic culture is not simply some reprise of orality”(1998,49). Rather, by powerful integration of image, beat and visualization there is a new multi-sensory culture. He uses the practices of “spectacle” with its multi-sensory soul music and dance to emphasize how “meaning” is conveyed through experience in the electronic context with its practices of convergence, bonding and commitment (106).
Combining some features from these analyses I have summarized the three communication eras and some of their distinctive features for preachers in diagrammatic form. Here, starkly, the dangers of over simplification are obvious. Transitions are much more complex than any chart can capture. For example, long after the onset of literacy, people continued to read out loud in order to hear the words. Others question how much “secondary orality” is to be regarded as a separate era, since it expands literacy through the far more extensive “electronic literacy.” Yet Fig. 3 does identify major communication shifts which raise very important issues for traditional expository preaching.
Flight, Fight or Befriend?
How is traditional expository preaching going to respond to the challenge of these culture and communication shifts? “From a communications perspective … we live in the period of the greatest change since the formation of the church” (Boomer-shine in his foreword to Jenson 1993, 13). Some preachers believe that they can avoid the issue. For the present they have well-established congregations with biblical literacy and high expectations of traditional preaching. As we shall see shortly, during this time of cultural transition, traditional preaching will continue to thrive in many places, but this must not blind us to the overall reality of a declining church which is failing to communicate with younger generations.
Some have taken a hostile stance, especially against the obvious dangers of accommodating the Word of God to culture. Though Biblical preaching needs to engage relevantly with culture it must always be safeguarded as a unique form of communication. It is sui generis — its words are grounded distinctively in the Word of God and delivered through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Primary Orality Literacy Second Orality
Before writing, but Phonetic alphabet. Invention Existent since 1985.
affecting majority of of print (1450s) Electronic revolution
population before print.
ORAL/AURAL way of LITERATE way of NEW WAYS of thinking
thinking thinking
EAR – thought relates to EYE – thought relates to EAR and EYE- space
sound sight, space and time
MONO-right brain MONO-left brain STEREO – right and left
brain – image, beat and
STORY-memorable, IDEAS – conceptual, STORY and IDEAS –
mnemonics, rhythms, abstract, analytical, symbolic, image, experiential,
repetitions, ‘stitching explanation, linear, one- modulation,
together’ way participation, intuitive,
wholistic, two-way
LANGUAGE – mobile, LANGUAGE – may be LANGUAGE – new self;
warm, personally inhuman, passive, conciously informal
interactive unresponsive style
minded because no private world of print conscious ‘global
alternative village’ – spectacle
(Fig. 3 [Some characteristics of the three eras of communication])
Henderson in Culture Shift underlines the danger of compromising the Word with his model of accommodation where concern for audience eclipses concern for message (1998, 25-30). In its desire to engage culture relevantly, preaching can flirt dangerously with spiritual irrelevancy whenever it does not begin with God and His word. There is also the danger of embracing style without an adequate biblical theology. Allen and Bartholomew raise justifiable questions about how preachers can “become so intent on their own cleverness that style supersedes substance” (2000, viii).
If flight is unrealistic and some fight is necessary, how best can we respond? I suggest some judicious befriending. Preachers always live in the two worlds of scripture and contemporary context, and we cannot preach as though the electronic age has not dawned. Those who are committed to expository preaching need to be realistic and positive within these new opportunities.
1. A realism about the role of culture
We should be wary about how large a role in preaching we cede to culture. Jensen overstates its role with his thesis that “preaching is shaped by the communications culture of its time”(1993, 22). He commends “polymorphic preaching” as preaching of the future which involves simultaneous massaging of both eye and ear (141). It is wise to adopt a less extreme position which makes enough room for culture to have a significant role. Incarnational theology means “God becoming flesh and joining the indigenous practices of the culture of Jesus’ time” (Sample 105). This enfleshing is not God joining in man’s story, but “rather, Incarnation is disclosure that the world is part of God’s story” (106). When the church fails to take human culture seriously it fails to incarnate its message and mission seriously.
Postmodernity should be seen as offering fresh mission opportunities for preaching. The rationality of the Enlightenment gave Christian apologetics a secure place, but it also subdued intuitive and spiritual dimensions of experience. Webber writes of the “dead end street of modernity, which proudly thinks the human is autonomous and the individual mind is the final arbiter of truth” (1999, 34).
In Newbigin’s withering analysis of modernity’s impact on Christianity he cogently argued how it has privatized Christian faith out of the arena of public truth (1986). Haeurwas and Willimon cheer on the freedom that the church has now been given in Postmodernity. They give a graphic metaphor for the change in world views by retelling the episode about one Sunday evening in 1963 in Greenville, South Carolina. Members of the Methodist youth group slipped out of church when the Fox Theater opened. The world “served notice that it would no longer be a prop for the church…. The Fox Theater went head to head with the church over who would provide the world view for the young …. That night (it) won the opening skirmish” (1989, 15-16).
Electronic culture has many critics, but we need to be open to its opportunities. Famously Postman decried the TV age in Amusing Ourselves to Death, but he greatly overstated his argument (see Sample 1998, 23-24). Sample makes a good case that the common criticism leveled at electronic culture that it does not lead to commitment and bonding is “decidedly wrong and arrogant” (74, 75). Rather, new ways of bonding and commitment have emerged through image, beat and visualization. The challenges which come from, for example Babin’s “modulations” and “immersion” in affective worship or from Troeger and the role of imagination in the preaching task (1991) require a considered response. Issues like the place of preaching within the holistic experience of worship press upon us in the electronic context. Those who have already encountered the paradox of Millennials combining loud worship music with intense listening to the preacher, know just how much significant change is taking place.
2. A realism about living in transition.
Though the precise details of Fig. 3 are open to debate, it is undisputable that we are all caught up in the reality of culture and communication transition. Whether we like it or not we live in times of critical change. At any time of transition there are inevitable insecurities and tensions. Old and new coexist uneasily. Defensiveness becomes as easy a response as does the temptation to swallow simple solutions.
We must resist defensiveness. Much of the current conflict between the so-called “old homiletic” — propositional preaching — and the “new homiletic” — re-presentational preaching — is unproductive. In practice these two ways of preaching will continue to operate alongside each other and need to learn from each other during this transition. In a plea for “other voices at the homiletical table” Rose rightly sees traditional theory as a major voice because “many of its central claims remain dominant and normative in other understandings of preaching” (1997, 33).
“The newer approaches to preaching are exciting and imaginative, but they do not yet have a proven record of being able to encourage the biblical literacy and theological depth necessary to sustain Christian identity, community and mission” (Allen and Bartholomew 1999, 11). Even Jenson agrees that didactic preaching “will not die completely in a post-literate world” because of three reasons: much of scripture is didactic in nature requiring the best teaching techniques; certain audiences will always be at home in a literate environment, and all people do have times when they need “teachable moments” (57).
We must also resist simple solutions. There are some stimulating patterns and connections within Fig. 3 and in its relationship to Fig. 2. In particular the similarities between primary orality and secondary orality seem to hold promise, not least because of the oral context of early Christian preaching. Yet, the electronic revolution seems to be bringing entirely new possibilities. When Sample rejected the notion that this is a “reprise of orality” he warned against finding easy solutions. Wilson also criticizes the “AV mentality” which uses electronic media as an addon to illustrate old communication forms. There should be a new way of thinking, “thinking visually”, which leads to “utilizing a combination of biblical exegesis and story telling … it means the use of metaphors” (1999, 39-41).
3. A challenge to do expository preaching for Postmoderns.
One of the unhappy consequences of conflict between the “old homiletic” and the “new homiletic” is that its key words “exposition” and “story” have become adversaries. Fig. 2 reveals the significant role that story takes in both primary and secondary orality. Of all people, expositors committed to “expose” scripture should be aware of the power of narrative in scripture which amounts to two-thirds of its text. There needs to be a renewed confidence in the message and dynamics of Biblical preaching with a wider definition of expository preaching.
For example, Harold T. Bryson in Expository Preaching argues for an eclectic understanding of expository preaching drawn from the wide range of etymological, morphological and substantive definitions. He settles for “the art of preaching a series of sermons, either consecutive or selective, from a Bible book”(1995, 39). He claims that “the message of preaching is far more important than the method of preaching … the issue in a sermon is not how God’s truth is exposed but if God’s truth is exposed. Biblical truth in a sermon can be exposed either explicitly with a deductive approach or implicitly with an inductive approach. The manner does not matter but the message does” (8, his italics). Expositors need to recognize that methods such as “running a Bible story” may indeed be expository preaching.
4. A mission urgency for young people.
We have already noted the concerns of Babin and Sample to communicate with young people. “It is no secret that those most influenced by electronic culture participate in church at far lower levels than those of previous generations” (Sample, 1998, 15). The future life of the church is at stake.
“Any church can determine whether or not it will survive into the 21st century by estimating how many people are involved in it between the ages of fifteen and thirty-two” (Long, 1997, 35). Few preachers in local church ministry can escape this challenge. Wilson’s two reasons why many preachers have a hard time in today’s transition make for uncomfortable reading. Most seminary preaching classes are “exercises in exegesis and analysis that often bypass a narrative focus in electronic storytelling and cultural literacy.”
Also “the sermon is the core element of the worship service.” However, the way in which he outlines the future is highly problematic. “Interpreting the gospel to our culture does not mean an abandonment of the sermon as a viable form. And the formation of this new wineskin will occur through replication and adaptation of methodologies already in place in current visual industries and in the arts” (1998, 40-41).
The challenge of technologizing the word, and we could almost add a new word “electronizing” the Word, presents traditional expository preaching with its greatest contemporary challenge.
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Anderson, Walter Truett. The Fontana Post-modernism Reader. Fontana 1995
Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission: paradigm shifts in theology of mission. New York: Orbis 1992
Bryson, Harold T. Expository Preaching. Nashville: Broadman and Holman 1995
Chapell, Bryan. Christ-Centered Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker 1994
Hauerwas, Stanley and William H. Willimon. Resident Aliens: a provocative Christian assessment of culture and ministry for people who know something is wrong. Nashville; Abingdon 1989
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Howe, Neil and William Strauss. Millennial Rising: the next great generation. 2000.
Long, Jimmy. Generating hope: A strategy for reaching the postmodern generation. Downers Grove: IVP 1997
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Rose, Lucy Atkinson. Sharing the Word: Preaching in the round table church. Louisville: Westminster 1997.
Sample, Tex. The spectacle of worship in a wired world — electronic culture and the gathered people of God. Nashville: Abingdon 1998
Sweet, Leonard. Soul Tsunami: Sink or swim in new millennium culture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1999
Troeger, Thomas H. Imaging a sermon. Nashville: Abingdon 1990
Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking evangelicalism for a postmodern world. Grand Rapids: Baker 1999
Wilson, Len. The wired church: Making media ministry. Nashville; Abingdon 1999

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