Preaching: a 3-Way Engagement

Preaching is often described (and derided) as ‘monological discourse’. At one level this is true; but scratch beneath the surface and we quickly realise that nothing could be less true. There is something about Christian preaching that is altogether unique.

Although we encounter ‘preaching’ in other settings – from that of Islam and other religions to the ‘preaching’ of political orators – many things place the preaching of the Old Testament prophets, that of their New Testament successors and also that of the entire history of the church in a class of its own.

Whereas there are elements of overlap between the ‘preaching’ we encounter in a wide range of contexts, to authentically preach the Bible involves a unique dynamic.

All preaching requires skill in rhetoric and oratory, but perhaps the best and most influential preacher in biblical times was reputed to lack them. Indeed, by his own admission, Paul tells the Corinthians he did not come with the kind of speaking gifts and philosophical panache that was so admired in their day (1Co 2.1-5). Elsewhere he attributes the effectiveness of his preaching entirely to the Holy Spirit’s work through him and in the lives of his hearers (1Th 1.4-5). The lack of professional rhetoric and oratory in no way hindered God’s working through his word. (Though this should not be turned into an excuse for preachers not bothering to cultivate these abilities as best they can for God.)

What, then, lay at the heart of the apostolic understanding of preaching that set it apart from other forms of discourse and which made it uniquely effective in God’s hands to extend his kingdom and build his church?

The answer lies in what it is the preacher is to preach. At the heart of Paul’s charge to Timothy as a minister of Christ and servant of the gospel, he is to ‘preach the word’ (2Ti 4.2). It is to be the substance of his proclamation. This did not mean Timothy was simply to read the word of God aloud to his congregants in a proclamatory style; but, rather, to allow his own choice of words and manner of delivery to be shaped and controlled by the word of God. In doing so, his preaching would in effect be a 3-way engagement.

In the first instance, as preacher wrestling with the text of Scripture, it was an engagement between the man and God’s message. His calling was to be a servant of the word. As a ‘faithful minister of the new covenant’ (2Co 3.6), he was to serve that New Covenant in its written form. (Interestingly, although in the New Covenant world the New Covenant Scriptures were not yet fully in the church’s possession, this did not hinder the preachers of that age proclaiming New Testament fulfilment from the pages of the Old Testament.) Everything about the sacred revelation was designed to bring its servant to his knees before it in his efforts to faithfully proclaim it.

Secondly, as a preacher, Timothy was ever to remember that the text in his hand had its ultimate origin with God. The apostle had just told him, ‘All Scripture is God-breathed…’ (2Ti 3.16). Something that was true not just in its sufficiency, but also in its living, breathing efficacy (Bavinck). As God promised through Isaiah, his word will not return to him empty but will accomplish all that he desires (Isa 55.11). In that sense the first strand of engagement – preacher with the text – is superseded and subordinate to the second: God as the author of Scripture with the word he has both given and that he indwells. All the power of God in heaven is at work through his word, let loose through the ministry of his servants on earth. Being aware of this second layer in the dynamic of preaching reminds us as preachers that we are wrestling not just with the word of God, but also with the God of the word.

The third element in this threefold engagement emerges in the way the word engages the hearer. As we have noted in previous posts on preaching, those who minister the word function as a living bridge between two worlds – the world of the Bible and the world of their audience (Chrysostom). In that sense the preacher not only faces the challenge of understanding the text of Scripture, but also the context of his hearers – what they are in themselves and the kind of world in which they live. Given the other two dimensions of engagement already mentioned, this third aspect is no mere personal interaction between preacher and people; it is enlivened and informed by his interaction with God and the sacred page.

In one sense this hardly needs restated. It is nothing more than a reiteration of what the Bible teaches about preaching and a reflection of a classic understanding of preaching that has lain at the heart of God’s effective working in the church through the ages. But this understanding of what it entails seems to be dying fast in many churches.

The widespread fashion of speaking about ‘the talk’ instead of the ‘the sermon’ – however well-intentioned – has the effect of downgrading the public proclamation of God’s word to the ecclesiastical equivalent of a TED talk. (But where the speakers don’t necessarily have to be influential individuals). A sermon is more than just a motivational message.

Likewise, the increasing reliance on PowerPoint presentations, supposedly to enhance the ministry the word, in reality has the opposite effect. It becomes a glaring distraction. Auditors mentally register each main point and maybe a few sub-points as they flash up on screen as a visual echo of what the speaker has just said, but then drift off again until the next marker comes through. A skeletal presentation of God’s word can only lead to a skeletal grasp of its depth and relevance. If even secular observers in the realm of communication theory have cast major doubts over the effectiveness of this means of instruction, perhaps preachers should waken up to this before it is too late.

Something utterly otherworldly happens each time God’s word is publicly proclaimed. Through the text of Holy Scripture in the hands of preachers who are divinely equipped and called, an extraordinary 3-way engagement occurs in which God himself is at the heart of what is going on. Would that the church, as much as seminaries and those who themselves are preachers would rediscover this great reality and experience – perhaps for the first time – what God can do when his word is let loose in this way.

Mark Johnston