I’ve been wrestling with this question for quite some time.
My background: I started “preaching” when I was in grade school. I competed in speech as a kid for Leadership Training for Christ. I spoke on Sunday nights occasionally for my dad, who was a preaching minister in the churches I grew up in for 20+ years. Old ladies told me I should grow up to be a preacher. I went to college and got training to be a preacher. During graduate school I was privileged to apprentice in preaching with two extremely gifted preachers.
In short, I was groomed to preach.
Yet I’ve dealt with increasing dissonance about preaching in the three years I’ve been involved in church planting (preaching, at least, as it has been framed up and defined in my lifetime) for at least four reasons:
1) Many of the disconnected adults I’m living among are increasingly skeptical of listening to a single individual who presumes to speak authoritatively to them—which I lump in the category of institutional suspicion that is so prevalent among emerging generations/culture. They are much more keen on communal dialogue and discernment.
2) If I’m honest, preaching in my experience does not equip people to follow Jesus at the deepest levels—in other words, it is not transformative in the way life-on-life discipleship and coaching are. Preaching functions on the level of information/cognition, no matter how funny, emotive or storied the sermon is. Discipleship, however, requires not just information but also imitation—a severe limitation of monological preaching. What bothers me is that in many churches it seems that preaching is relied on as the primary mechanism of disciple-making—yet it is inherently limited.
3) The approach to preaching in the scriptures seems significantly different than the way we practice it now. For instance, preaching in the early church seems much more dialogical than today’s monological preaching. Someone was able to ask a question of Peter in his great Pentecost sermon in Acts 2. Jesus’ best teaching moments were either in response to a question someone else asked, or a question he asked someone else.
4) The contemporary practice of preaching has contributed to an unhealthy consumer orientation and celebrity culture in American Christianity. When people don’t come to a Sunday service because their favorite preacher isn’t speaking that day, there’s a problem. And so the favorite preacher doesn’t take a break very often, which is also a problem on a few levels: a) the celebrity/icon status that preachers receive can erode their souls; b) no other preachers are able to be trained up within the congregation because inevitably few are as good initially as the celebrity preacher; c) all this panders to the idea of church as “vendor of religious goods and services” that subverts the influence of the gospel in North America.
Hugh Halter, in his book AND, makes some challenging comments about preaching that really resonate with me:
This may sound a bit crass, but here’s the real deal: most churches spend the majority of their staff time and financial resources paying for and preparing to deliver a 60-minute program, which prioritizes preaching. All of this, even though within 20minutes, most adults have forgotten 95 percent of what they just heard. If the church were like a business, that would be like putting 90 percent of your investment portfolio into a product that has not produced growth for the last 40 years. It’s like the Houston Rockets giving Yao Ming 90 percent of the team’s salary budget and running 90 percent of the plays through him, making him responsible for shooting 90 percent of the shots and still expecting the team to win. Or it’s like trying to get your car to drive nicely when you only have one of the four wheels with an actual tire on it.
I think you get the point. We need to make intentional investment choices, and yes, you still need a 7 ft. 6 in. Chinese center on your basketball team, and you’ll certainly need that one good tire on your car. These are all important, but you’ll need a lot more than just those things. None of them can carry the load by themselves. The church service with a sermon has and always will be necessary and helpful, but if used as the main way of making missional disciples, it falls far short.
Let me be clear to say that I think preaching is important. Young adults need to hear the scriptures preached and learn to hear the voice of God through it. Preaching does equip people with important information they need to follow Jesus. And even if our approach is a bit different than early church preaching, that’s not to say that God has not used preachers powerfully—because God has.
My question is not whether or not preaching is important, but whether or not we have put too much emphasis on preaching; caused it to bear a weight it was never intended to bear; put all our discipleship eggs in the preaching basket when it was only made to hold a couple of them.
The four reasons above are part of what has caused me to revision my preaching/teaching life in the Storyline Community. For instance:
- We have a large gathering with preaching a lot less often (monthly) than we do smaller, more conversational gatherings (weekly).
- Others in the community besides myself have been equipped to share teaching, facilitating and preaching roles in our gatherings.
- The preaching style has shifted from monological to dialogical. I’m learning how to ask questions and have a (literal, not just figurative) conversation with listeners in the midst of my preaching instead of plowing right through and hoping something sticks.
- I’m learning to spend more of my time as a coach (or disciple maker) in life-on-life relationships and contexts instead of spending way too much time in sermon/teaching preparation.
Dialogue with me about this! How do these thoughts resonate with or rub against you? What reactions do you have?
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