The Challenge of Preaching Today

Posted in body of Christ, book review by Nathan Creitz on November 5, 2008
This is Part One of a book review of the still timely work by John Stott entitled, Between Two Worlds.

After months of discussing the relevancy of preaching I have decided to write a book review of one of my favorite books on preaching. This book was written in 1982 but still has importance for important questions we have about the validity of preaching. People are asking, “Does preaching still connect with people today?” “Have preachers overstated their own importance and role in the life of the church?” “Where in Scripture do we find preaching that is exhortational in the church as opposed to evangelistic preaching in the marketplace?” The book Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today goes a long way in making the case that preaching is a God-ordained vocation that is still essential to the building up of the body of Christ today.

A Historical Sketch of Preaching

John Stott is the Rector Emeritus of All Souls Church in London. He has been an Anglican and an evangelical almost his whole life. He has written over 50 books and has been a major leader in evangelical Christianity. [Source

In the first chapters of this book, Stott describes the glory of preaching. From the prophets of the Old Testament there has always been the man of God singled out to preach God’s Word. This sweeping sketch of the history of preaching invokes both a sense of humility and confidence in any would be preacher. The confidence comes first in that this is an historic calling that God himself calls men to preach and that we may stand with centuries of faithful men and women who have refuted error and stood for truth. This confidence is in the glory of those who have come before us. He quotes Charles Hodge who said, “In every age, great reformers have been great preachers.” Today there is still such a need and God still chooses broken vessels like us. Stott also quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer who said, “The preacher should be assured that Christ enters the congregation through those words which he proclaims from the Scripture.” I’m not sure that there are too many people today that still believe such a controversial statement.

After a deep confidence that is in the majesty and glory of God that is displayed through preaching must come humility. Stott makes sure the preacher understands that “The ‘message’ is God’s own Word. For the people have not gathered to hear a human being, but to meet with God.” A preacher doesn’t preach his own message but preaches the Word of God. He is a herald that proclaims not a lecturer that postulates. Richard Baxter is another one of the preachers Stott highlights. Baxter was successful in converting almost his entire town to become disciples. He was systematic in his catechizing of every family every year and also in his public preaching. Stott writes, “This catechizing would occupy Baxter two whole days a week, and was one essential part of his work. But the other part, ‘and that the most excellent because it tendeth to work on many’, was ‘the public preaching of the Word’.” Baxter valued preaching because it was an opportunity every week to share the message with many hearers. That seems to be a value lost on today’s anti-establishment crowd.

Contemporary Objections to Preaching

The second chapter in Between Two Worlds is about the contemporary objections to preaching. He writes, “The prophets of doom in today’s Church are confidently predicting that the day of preaching is over.” Written over 25 years ago, these words not only ring true, they have become an understatement. He lists three major arguments launched against preaching: “The anti-authority mood, the cybernetics revolution and the loss of confidence in the gospel.” I won’t go into each one of those things but will simply make some comments from the chapter as a whole.

Stott writes that “Christians know from both Scripture and experience that human fulfillment is impossible outside some context of authority.” As I read through this section I thought of the church through the example of “the family of God”. It would be silly if a dad didn’t correct and teach and exhort and discipline his own children. What a silly family it would be if it resembled a complete democracy. Besides, a sermon is not just an authoritarian monologue…if crafted well, the preacher has already thought through the issues that would arise in the hearts and minds of his people. Stott writes, “Preaching is rather like playing chess, in that the expert chess player keeps several moves ahead of his opponent, and is always ready to respond, whatever piece he decides to move next.”

Another topic Stott deals with in this chapter is how people learn. When disciples learn, they do so through listening, discussing, watching and discovering. Most would say that the preacher is limited to teaching the congregation through listening but that should not be the case. The preacher can and should provide opportunities for discussion but Stott goes even further with teaching people through observation. Not only has God ordained baptism and the Lord’s Supper as participatory visual aids, but the preacher himself is a visual aid. Titus was told, “Show yourself in all respects a model of good deeds.” Were it not for this example-setting, our words as preachers would fall on deaf ears. This gets to the heart of the purpose for my blog and the reason for the title ChurchETHOS. The way we live should be a visual aid to our congregation to help communicate Biblical ideas and the congregation itself is to be a visual aid to the world. 

Stott concludes that “There is no other form of communication which resembles [the sermon] and therefore could replace it.” He writes, “For here are God’s people assembled in God’s presence to hear God’s Word from God’s minister.” When we as listeners of a sermon have that sort of anticipation about what we will soon hear, how can we not hear from God. 

Theological Foundations for Preaching

There were several great thoughts from this chapter. The first that I thought was crucial to the success fo the pastor was that “Technique can only make us orators; if we want to be preachers, theology is what we need.” From here, Stott discusses various convictions that a preacher must have if he is to be successful. First, a preacher must have a conviction about God that he is light, that he has acted, and that he has spoken. Secondly, a preacher must have a conviction about Scripture that Scripture is God’s written word, that it still speaks to us today, and that Scripture is powerful. Next, a preacher must have  a conviction about the Church and a conviction about the pastorate.

Finally, a preacher should have a conviction about preaching. Specifically, Stott believes in expositional preaching that transcends subcategories of topical or textual or narrative, etc. He writes, “Exposition has a much broader meaning. It refers to the content of the sermon (biblical truth) rather than its style (a running commentary). To expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view.” He believes that “The Word of God is the scepter by which Christ rules the Church and the food with which he nourishes it.” The preacher contributes to this process by faithfully proclaiming God’s Word to the congregation.

What’s Next?

In the next part of this book review, I will look at the more practical chapters in Stott’s book. If the above issues raise any questions or objections to the role of the preacher in today’s culture, please feel free to discuss. I would highly recommend this book for your reading.


One Response

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  1. Ben said, on November 7, 2008 at 3.48 pm

    This article has been pretty formative in my thinking. I did not write it nor do I endorse it’s tone. I do think it presents some powerful ideas for thought. Sorry it’s so long.

    I really hate sermons. They are ineffective, unbiblical, impersonal, condescending and extremely destructive. For years Protestants (of which I am one) have viciously attacked the Roman Catholic Church for being “married to tradition” and mindlessly “going through the motions” during mass while, all along, our worship services display the most mindless devotion to one of the most fruitless traditions of the modern church – the weekly sermon.

    Allow me to explain my point of view –

    Sermons are Ineffective – There is not an educator in existence who, if you asked for a method to train others, would prescribe a weekly sermon. The lecture format has been shown in countless studies to be the teaching method with the worst record of student retention and has the least chance of effecting the way someone lives. Jesus commanded that we “make disciples” (which assumes a defined process) and “teach them to obey” (which assumes personal accountability) so we’ve replaced this mandate to train and have inserted our own tradition. Which is a terrible shame because Christians are starving to be taught and if this is the only method available they’ll have no choice but to accept it. I have a picture of 300 starving people sitting in pews holding large strainers above their heads mouths wide open and the sermonizer casting rice into the crowd. Most hits the floor, a little gets in the strainer, and occasionally, on a good week, a grain of rice falls through the right hole and lands in someone’s mouth. And please don’t point to some anecdotal story of a guy a couple of years back that really changed because of your sermon because I’ll point to thousands of churches whose loyal members have listened to sermons for decades without an ounce of evidence of a transformed life.

    Sermons are Unbiblical – And I mean unbiblical in the sense that, as a primary method for teaching, they violate our mandate to make disciples because they simply don’t work. Now I can hear the Bible pages rustling as you find verses about how we are to use the “foolishness of preaching” (1 Cor. 1) but this has NOTHING to do with the weekly sermon. Paul had NEWS that had to be proclaimed publicly. He clearly describes the gutsy and dangerous act of standing before a cynical crowd and proclaiming that God came in the form of a Jewish peasant, was miraculously raised from the dead and is calling all men everywhere to follow Him (Acts 17). The last thing he was envisioning was a middle-aged man sitting comfortably in his church office studying to give part 27 of his 49 part series through the book of Luke.

    Sermons are Impersonal – A man gets on a stage, stands behind podium, wears a microphone and proceeds to pontificate about general ideas from Scripture when REAL people, who live in his community, who play with his kids and have honest questions and struggles sit there in abject silence for the duration then stand up and walk out. Am I the only one that finds this ironically absurd in a love-promoting faith? And it doesn’t just happen once in a while (which would be understandable) but week, after week, after week – the same man, the same familiar crowd, no interaction, no questions. If I were to see this in any other place I would assume the speaker wanted nothing to do with those people. That he had no relationship with them at all. Is there some mysterious teaching advantage for treating people this way? Of course we know this kind of in personalization hinders the teaching process. If the teacher at my kids school treated students this way I would raise hell. Maybe that’s what endless sermonizing is doing?

    Sermons are Condescending – The whole set-up of lines of pews facing one man communicates that this guy must have 100x more to say, more wisdom, more insight than the entire congregation combined. Having a discussion communicates that the teacher may have the ultimate responsibility for teaching but it also communicates that others may have also studied this topic, that maybe we can learn something from each other. The weekly sermon communicates the gnostic idea that knowledge is the secret possession of a few who graciously dispense their wisdom in measured weekly doses. I’ve experienced this so many times first hand. I’ll be in a church for a year with few people coming to me for answers but the minute I preach a sermon I’m the panacea. Its unfairly insulting to the trained disciples in the crowd and an unhealthy ego injection for the guy on the stage. Which may be why its so zealously protected.

    Sermons are Destructive – And now my real beef. We have a mission. To train devoted Christ-followers not to berate people into pacification. I don’t want to anger people with these ideas but when we choose a terrible tool for an essential mission don’t we need to call this out? “So what tool should we use?” you might be saying. Almost any other tool but this one! I’ve asked a group of 30 random people recently to describe the methods used in a positive training experience they’ve had (work, school etc.) and in 5 minutes I had a list of training methods that had a far better chance of producing trained disciples than weekly sermonizing (by the way I’ve asked this question to more than one hundred Christians and no one has yet mentioned weekly sermons).

    Didn’t Jesus use sermons like the Sermon on the Mount? First, WE called it a sermon and no, it wasn’t at all like our sermons. If we investigate a couple of elements of the misnamed “Sermon on the Mount” we might find a few clues that will rescue us from this mess –

    1. Jesus first called out teachable disciples to hear his teaching. The beginning of the “Sermon” shows it was to a specific group of called-out disciples.
    2. He addressed the common questions THEY were asking. In the middle they asked for instruction on prayer. Interrupting his sermons with question was common place.
    3. He repeated his core teaching again and again. We find a different version of this same “sermon” in Luke. Instead of preaching through the book of Ezekiel Jesus had a very specific set of trainings, based on Scripture, that he repeated over and over until his disciples got it (which took 3 years of repetition).

    There are many more great examples of training in Scripture but I want to be a part of a discussion about how to train disciples since I’ve been given this mission by Christ and the replacement of training by the weekly sermon seems to be the biggest obstacle to training I routinely encounter.

    And one last note. I download many sermons from the internet and strongly encourage others to do the same. How is this consistent with what I’ve written?

    1. Like listening to a book on tape, sermons are often the only way to get access to some of the best Christian thinkers and teachers.
    2. Anytime I get a chance to hear these teachers NOT give their typical weekly sermon but when they do a training at a conference its usually 10x more helpful.
    3. This kind of teaching can be a useful supplement when paired with personal training.

    In the future I’ll be writing about effective training methods but first I wanted to address the 800 lb guerilla of the weekly sermon as it has been used to replace more effective training methods and its time to take that ground back.”

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