Good question. Many people today wonder why the Bible should be given a privileged position. They doubt whether any religion has more or better truth than another. They question why particular persons should have authority to be spokespersons for God. In an increasingly postmodern society, what is the source of the preacher's authority? An adequate and convincing response is crucial for the continuing vitality of the church.
To help sort through this question, the following preaching identities will be examined: the Bible teacher, the counselor, the storyteller, the witness and the prophet. Each identity sees its task and authority in a unique way, and each has useful approaches (as well as drawbacks) for the preacher's postmodern context.
The Bible Teacher: Preachers who embrace this identity see preaching as a way to teach the content of the Bible, explain its original meaning, and suggest modern applications of its message. The Bible teacher wants the congregation to learn the individual books, stories and famous verses in the Bible, where to find them, and how to put the parts together into an understandable whole. Because the Bible is a highly complex document, made up of many books and sources from very different times, cultures and perspectives, the teacher has the difficult task of uncovering and explaining the historical and cultural backgrounds, and doing careful exegesis of individual passages, verses and words so the congregation has a sense of the original intent. The teacher's task is completed by then finding dynamic parallels between the text and the congregation's situation so the Bible has a relevant contemporary application.
This preaching identity makes two assumptions about authority. First, the Bible has unique and superior authority over all other sources regarding God and God's will. The teacher may preach sermons to try to prove this authority, but usually the Bible's authority is simply assumed. Second, the teacher has authority because the teacher is an expert on the Bible. The teacher knows the content of the Bible, the original languages, the historical and cultural contexts, and the critical tools to recover its meaning.
Seminary training often results in a Bible teacher preaching identity because seminary emphasizes these skills. Within the Bible itself, we can see an example of this identity at work in the figure of Ezra. He returned to Jerusalem to find a fragile community that had forgotten the Torah. So he gathered the community at the Water Gate and read the Torah aloud, interpreting it for the people as he read. Ezra is remembered as one who saved the community from religious oblivion.
The Bible teacher identity has several strengths. It is straightforward and confident. That confidence tends to rub off on the congregation. The preacher's assumption that the Bible has unique and superior authority tends to become the congregation's assumption, as well. This is why even in a postmodern culture many conservative churches continue to draw an enthusiastic audience. People still yearn for authority and order in their lives. So, if the preacher can transmit a strong impression of the Bible's authority and show that the modern applications are useful, many will accept it. This preaching identity also has the advantage of strengthening a congregation's biblical literacy, standing firm against an alarming trend in most churches. As a result, the church retains a strong identity grounded in its foundational documents.
However, the Bible teacher identity also has several limitations. Preaching—and in turn, the Christian faith—run the risk of becoming primarily a cognitive activity in which the Bible gets figured out. There is also a tendency for the past to become more important than the present (or at least to receive more attention). Another problem is that, although the assumed authority of the Bible will rub off on some hearers, it will not rub off on others. Many in our culture simply will reject such an unproven assumption. Finally, this represents top-down religion; the Christian faith is controlled by the experts, who know better than the rest of the congregation. The Bible teacher does not sufficiently honor the people's experience and authority.
The Counselor: Harry Emerson Fosdick, founding pastor of Riverside Church in New York City (1926-1946), rejected the Bible teacher preaching identity. He purposely did not focus on textual exegesis or compel the congregation to become deeply informed about the past, which he considered antiquarianism. As he famously said, people don't come to church "desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites." Instead, Fosdick developed an approach to preaching that focused on such things as personal growth, relationships and life decisions. He measured the success of his preaching by how many people were in his office on Monday morning. Although Fosdick also championed theological and social issues in his preaching, it is fair to see him as an example of the counselor preaching identity. It is still a popular approach today. Robert Schuller has been one of its many famous practitioners.
The counselor identity assumes the Bible is the greatest source of psychological wisdom, personal healing and growth. The counselor has authority because of expertise on the connection between personal human needs and the Bible. These preachers are well-versed in psychology and know how to interpret the Bible in psychological terms.
Such an approach is popular even in an authority-questioning, postmodern culture because it scratches where people are itching. Most everyone has an intrinsic interest in learning how to deal with personal problems and relationships. So if the Bible can help, that's attractive. The Bible has proven itself through time to be an extraordinary source of practical wisdom for living.
However, the counselor also tends to misuse Scripture. Most of the Bible is not concerned with self-esteem, emotional growth or solving our personal problems; it is not a psychology guidebook. The counselor too often reads psychological lessons out of texts that have no such purpose, resulting in an artificial interpretive veneer. As a result, the congregation sometimes gets more Maslow than Moses, more Rodgers than religion.
Another problem is that the counselor is still a top-down authority; the Christian faith is defined by the psychology expert. This is mitigated by the dialogue the counselor creates with the listener's life situation, but it runs the risk of devolving into emotional dependency on the preacher, a kind of salvation through guru.
The Storyteller: Many preachers use the Bible as a source of rules and principles by which to live. The preacher asks, "What should we do in this situation?" and then proceeds to find a verse in the Bible to give the answer. Perhaps we should see the Bible, not primarily as a source of rules or principles for ethical conduct, but as foundational narratives for cultivating a Christian community with unique ethical character. Much of the Bible consists of stories, and those stories typically are not moralistic; they do not teach us what we are supposed to do in various circumstances. In fact, many of the Bible's stories are not moral at all. Yet the overall story has the effect of creating a community that trusts in God, cultivating the virtues of humility, compassion and seeking justice.
This insight may lead the preacher to adopt the identity of the storyteller: retelling the biblical stories as the backbone of the sermon. One tells the stories in fresh and engaging ways so the congregation imaginatively enters the story and is formed by the story.
Preaching biblical stories as stories can be done in a variety of ways. One approach simply is to recite a biblical story. For instance, during a Sunday in Lent, the preacher might choose to present a dramatic word-for-word recitation of Mark's passion narrative. The Network of Biblical Storytellers promotes cultivating the skill of Scripture recitation so the Bible can speak with the power of its own voice.
Another approach is to retell the story, paraphrasing it in one's own words. This allows the preacher other options such as modernizing the story, or telling the story from the point of view of different characters in the story, or dramatizing the story with actors.
The storyteller may choose to expand the story, filling in the gaps in the story with imaginative elements or extending the story. For instance, what happened after the father tried to convince his elder son to come inside for the prodigal son's party? What happened when the Good Samaritan returned to the inn where he had dropped off the wounded man and pledged to pay his expenses?
The Storyteller also can tell a new story, a story that conveys a similar experience as the biblical story and which forms the congregation's character in a similar way. These new stories may be true, from popular fiction or created by the preacher. By telling the new story alongside the biblical story, the stories interpret each other.
Jesus is a prime example of a storyteller-preacher. He did not recite or retell stories from Scripture, but He did tell new stories—parables—that envisioned the fulfillment of scriptural themes. According to the gospel tradition, He rarely offered explanations of his stories. The interpretive task was up to His listeners as they imaginatively entered the world of His parables.
The storyteller identity assumes the Bible has authority, but it's a different kind of authority. It has the power to form character and community. The storyteller's authority comes from skill in telling stories, as well as sensitivity to the meanings and power of biblical stories. However, this preaching identity introduces another authority: the listener's. The listener is given the authority to interpret the story through imaginatively entering the story and engaging one's emotions. It is an approach that empowers listeners.
However, the storyteller identity also contains drawbacks. If the preacher simply tells stories with minimal explanation or application, the congregation is likely to become frustrated. The sermons will seem overly vague and incomplete, because congregations need more than just stories for their formation, health and mission. This approach neglects the fact the Bible and the Christian faith are more than narratives.
The Witness: The problem of top-down expert authority, and the problem of presumed biblical authority, is solved by the witness who simply shares his or her own spiritual experience. The witness does not claim to be an expert and does not demand others believe what is said. Rather, this preaching identity humbly shares one's own encounter with God that has been mediated through Scripture, the faith community and other personal experiences.
An example of this identity is seen in John's story of the woman at the well. After engaging Jesus in conversation, the woman wonders whether Jesus might be the Messiah. She tells her neighbors about her encounter, sharing her astonishment at Jesus' insight into her life. This leads the villagers to have their own encounters with Jesus, after which they tell the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know this is truly the Savior of the world" (
Inter-religious dialogue usually takes the approach of the witness. A Christian doesn't tell a Buddhist, "You're wrong." A Jew doesn't tell a Muslim, "You're deluded." Instead, all participants share their own religious convictions based on experiences of healing and truth that have come through faith and a faith community. In turn, each may gain something from listening to the story of the other.
This approach to preaching assumes the authority of the Bible is subjective; one makes one's own evaluation of its authority through personal experience. The preaching authority of the witness is also subjective; one's expertise extends only to one's own personal experience. Authority is also given to the listeners. They discern whether what they are hearing connects with their own experience; listeners determine their own convictions.
The strength of the witness is humility and openness. This approach honors the discernment of the listeners, and their experiences of truth. It thereby potentially opens up the pulpit to the voices of the congregation. We call this form of preaching testimony. Anyone who has had an encounter with God may share.
As attractive as this preaching identity may be in a postmodern world, the witness has some serious shortcomings. Preaching tends to become narcissistic. The individual becomes the measure of God rather than God the measure for the individual. Preaching devolves into my God rather than our God. Also, if nothing has authority except personal experience, this would seem to lead to an unstable faith community with a weak mission.
The Prophet: Biblically speaking, a prophet is someone who speaks for God, announcing what God is saying, wanting or doing today. At first, this may seem to be a highly presumptuous activity in which no modest preacher would engage. Actually, preachers speak prophetically all the time. For instance, to say, "God loves you," is a prophetic statement; the speaker is presuming to speak for God, announcing God's activity in the present with particular persons. The Bible teacher, on the other hand, would say something exegetical such as, "
Consider another example: Many pastors or preachers will say to an individual or congregation in grief, "God suffers with us." On what basis does the preacher presume to make such an audacious statement? There is no verse in the Bible that says this. Yet many preachers have had no compunction making this announcement. Why? Because they are extrapolating from many things said about God in Scripture and combining that with their own spiritual experience and intuition. This is what the prophet does.
Among conservatives, a prophet often is thought of as someone who foretells the future. Among liberals, a prophet often is thought of as a social justice activist. Neither the first nor second is quite correct. Prophets may focus on personal morality, social justice or the future; they may be perceived as liberal, conservative or something else. However, what ties them all together is that they dare to announce what God may be doing or may be wanting now in our world.
Perhaps preachers are reluctant to adopt the prophet identity because they are thinking of Old Testament prophets who experienced extraordinary visions, spoke for God in the first person singular, and whose words became Scripture. Yet the apostle Paul offered a broader understanding of prophecy. He said "those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation" (
Paul did not consider prophecy as infallible. It is imperfect and temporary (
The Bible itself consists largely of prophetic preaching. This is what Jesus did. This is what His disciples did. This is what the Pauline, Petrine and Johannine epistles do. This is what the New Testament calls the community of faith to do.
The prophet identity assumes God's Word is breathed into Scripture so the Bible's themes are foundational for guiding faith. The prophet's authority comes from combining biblical themes with experience, intuition and spiritual imagination. The sermon is not focused on exegesis (though this is still evident). Rather, the focus is on an announcement of God's Word for the congregation today. The prophet's authority, though, is tested by and shared with the congregation.
The strengths of this approach include immediacy, relevance and courageous speech. In addition, when the congregation is an active participant in discernment, it avoids being top-down. The prophet potentially opens the pulpit to all the prophets in the midst of the congregation.
Unfortunately, the prophet easily becomes too presumptuous. The human tendency, when speaking for God, is to think one is never wrong and to take oneself too seriously. The prophet needs a good dose of humility and self-deprecating humor to counteract this tendency. In addition, the best prophet is grounded in the skills and study evident in the Bible teacher.
This survey of five preaching identities reveals that all of them have strengths and are useful for the vitality of the church. Preaching probably should make use of all of these identities for the well-rounded nurture of the congregation and for engaging the many types of listeners. In addressing the sensitivities of a postmodern society, the storyteller and witness are the most dialogical and reliant on persuasion rather than pronouncements.
However, the health of the church depends on more than simply appealing to postmodernism. The prophet identity is likely the best long-term nurturing approach because it conforms more closely to how Scripture itself operates. To maximize its effectiveness, it probably should combine the dialogical and persuasive elements of the storyteller and the witness, and the understanding of Scripture and theology found in the Bible teacher.