Recently, maybe because I’m experiencing a break from such activity, I’ve had the luxury to think a bit more about the nature of preaching in these times. Since I grew up on a Christian home and came to experience Christ in a personal way early in life church life and preaching has been a very important influence for a long time. I know my life has been greatly impacted both by the occasion and content of preaching. As I was growing up it was not uncommon for our family to talk about the impact of Sunday’s message at lunch time. It was really by the power of great preaching that I myself felt called into formal ministry.
Later when I went to our denominational college in Regina, Saskatchewan, I was taught that a good sermon consisted of a clear propositional statement or thesis supported by significant points from a biblical text. The preferred homiletic method, I was told, consisted of five progressive steps — attention, need, satisfaction, visualization, and application. Apart from a good understanding and exposition of a text, a sermon, it was felt, should have a sense of structure that consists of points that answer the question of a particular relevant need in our lives. As a beginner in preaching that kind of outline was most helpful in knowing how to develop the sermon.
But a lot has happened in the forty years or so in which I have been working at preaching. For one thing good preaching has become more challenging because of the significance of technology and the explosion of voices in what we now call the information age. How in the world can a preacher hope to be successful at truly communicating the Word of the Lord in a time when he or she is competing with so many other voices by so many other very attractive means? Additionally, complicating the preaching task, is the reality of the influence of post-modernism whose fundamental feature is the idea that life has no particular order or accountability. In the words of David Larsen, Professor Emeritus of Preaching at TEDS in Chicago, in The Company of the Preachers, “[recent] movements within Christendom have de-emphasized text in favour of experience. In the postmodern period, we now face a massive attack on the very notion of meaning itself and a denial of the fixity of any text. Today the interpreter is elevated over the author. The result has been a recession of the Bible in the church, indeed ‘a famine of hearing the words of the Lord’ (Amos 8:11).”
So, for a variety of reasons it seems to be the case alright that preaching has fallen upon hard times. In an effort to gain a hearing amidst so many voices, I’ve noticed that pastors typically work hard to keep their listeners emotionally engaged through visual images of one kind or another. I myself have been so inclined. Obviously, there is a place for story and illustration but not at the expense of the faithful exposition of the text of Scripture. It is especially counter-productive when pastors resort to the use of images that are morally questionable or vulgar. People may appear to engage because it is consistent with their appetite for that kind of thing but we have to ask whether such an effort fulfills the purpose of biblical preaching which is to see moral change in people’s lives through their exposure to the Gospel of God’s Word.
My own approach in preaching has been to try to present the meaning of a biblical text in such a way that it is consistent with God’s original intent, to provide insight so that people are motivated from within to respond, and to demonstrate how it points to Christ as the means by which we may achieve God’s call in our lives. It is my deep conviction that the postmodern desire for real experience is best fulfilled through a clear understanding of God’s plan as it has been revealed to us in Scripture. I love and appreciate the postmodern interest in experience, but as pastors we have a responsibility to teach and discern how that experience is genuinely rooted in the truth of God’s unchanging Word.