On Preachers and Preaching: Why Don’t We Preach Like Jesus?

We are not the first to preach. In view of this, it seems reasonable that we should take our cues from those who have preceded us. Yet it only takes a cursory reading of the gospels to sense that the preaching we engage in week by week sounds very different from the preaching of Christ. How do we explain this?

This is the focus of William Brosend’s interesting book The Preaching of Jesus: Gospel Proclamation Then and Now (Westminster John Knox). According to Brosend, “this study is not as interested in what Jesus said as it is interested in how Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as having said it.”  

 The rhetoric of Jesus is marked by four characteristics. The first feature Brosend observes is that it is conversational. This is not a feature of its volume or pitch but its responsive nature. According to Brosend:  “almost everything Jesus says comes either in response to and/or in conversation with someone else.” Jesus’ conversation is not only with inquirers and disciples, “it is also explicitly with the tradition, and implicitly with the culture.”

 At the same time, Jesus’ preaching is proclamatory. The intent is declarative and the tone is authoritative. Brosend explains, “Jesus is not asking, even in the middle of dialogue; Jesus makes claims, theological and soteriological.” In view of this, one wonders how Brosend can separate Jesus’ rhetorical technique from the content of his message. In this case the content of the message shapes the delivery.

 It is the third mark which most clearly differentiates Jesus’ preaching and our own. This is Jesus’ apparent reticence to speak about himself. As Brosend puts it, the preaching of Jesus was occasionally self-referential: “The frequent use of self-reference in the Fourth Gospel is one of the main differences between the rhetoric of Jesus in John and in the Synoptic Gospels. But regardless of that comparison, it is striking how infrequently Jesus is depicted as speaking about himself directly in Matthew, Mark and Luke.”

 This leads Brosend to characterize Jesus as “a Galilean Jew who proclaimed a kingdom and resisted a crown.”  According to Brosend, “Jesus is consistently and persistently depicted as focusing the attention on God and God’s kingdom, not on himself.” The fourth mark of Jesus’ preaching is linked to this: “Jesus never misses an opportunity to elaborate, illustrate, or sharpen his message through metaphor (Matt. 15:24-26), hyperbole (Mark 9:42-50), allegory (Luke 20:9-19), and other rhetorical figures.” Jesus’ preaching is persistently figurative.

 Jesus’ reserve in speaking directly about himself in the Gospels was noted by Thomas Dehany Bernard in his 1864 series of Bampton Lectures on the Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament. According to Bernard this reserve was shared by the apostles during the early stages of their ministry, when they were sent out to announce the kingdom but forbidden to tell anyone that Jesus was the Christ.  A marked change takes place in apostolic preaching in the book of Acts. The essential difference is captured in the summary statement of Acts 5:42: “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.”

Brosend argues that we can learn much from the rhetorical strategy of Jesus. Our preaching can be like the preaching of Jesus in some measure. But Bernard helps us to see why our preaching must also differ from that of Jesus. Jesus came not only to preach the gospel but to accomplish it. He did not preach a different gospel than ours but his place in those redemptive events put constraints on him that we do not share. There was an element of secrecy in Jesus’ preaching, an intentional obscurity which simultaneously revealed and concealed both his identity and his mission.

This is not true of us. Our task in preaching is to make Christ known.

Here is a link to the full text version of Bernard’s lectures on Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=X-JkEaFMprMC&printsec=frontcover&dq=%22progress+of+doctrine+in+the+new+testament%22&lr=&as_drrb_is=q&as_minm_is=0&as_miny_is=&as_maxm_is=0&as_maxy_is=&as_brr=0&cd=1#v=onepage&q&f=false

Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to include the Bampton Lecutures as part of his recreational reading when he went on vacation.

How ‘Christ Centered’ Should Our Preaching Be?

One of disparities between apostolic preaching and our own is the degree to which we have marginalized the gospel. We have not abandoned the gospel, only relegated it to the outskirts of our Christian experience. As a result, the message of the cross is primarily reserved for those who are on the threshold of faith. The gospel has become one of the “elementary truths” believers expect to “leave” when they are ready to “go on to maturity” (Heb. 6:1).

This is a conviction shared by our listeners, whose hearts often sink if they suspect that the sermon is “just a gospel message.” The gospel is something they have already heard. They believe and appreciate it. But now they want to learn about the God who gave the gospel. They do not want to be like those about whom the writer of Hebrews complains, who should have been teachers but needed someone to teach them the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.  

These assumptions, while understandable, are problematic. It is true that there is more to God’s word than the gospel both theologically and practically. The horizon of subjects upon which the Bible touches is as wide the scope of human experience. Its concerns span all the theological categories from theology proper to eschatology. But if our goal in preaching is for people to know God, it must be asked whether this is possible in any meaningful way apart from the gospel.

 Preaching, since it has to do with God, is dependent upon divine self-revelation. We could not know anything about God if he had not taken the initiative to reveal himself. It is, of course, possible to know things about God apart from Christ. The heavens declare the glory of God. Our consciences reveal his eternal power and divine nature.  But it is not possible to know God relationally except through Christ. The God who in the past spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, has in these last days spoken to us through his son (Heb. 1:1-2). Jesus is God’s final and best word about himself. This side of the incarnation, all that we know about God must be seen and understood through the lens which Christ provides.

Ministry Monday: What Happened to Bob?

Something happened to Bob during the sermon yesterday. He got saved. I’d like to take the credit, but I am afraid that I had very little to do with the whole affair. As he explained the experience to me after the service, it seemed to me that what he heard had little correlation with what I actually said.

 I do not blame Bob for this. He was doing his best to pay attention. But a third party distracted him. At some point the Holy Spirit drew Bob aside and resumed a conversation that the two of them had begun earlier. When it was over, Bob was in tears. He prayed with one of the church’s elders after the service and committed his life to Christ.

 It would be nice to think that the incisiveness of my reasoning, the power of my delivery or the clarity of my outline pushed Bob over the line. But the more he thanked me for the message, the more I felt like an awkward bystander who has stumbled upon someone else’s intimate conversation.

 I am not saying that my words played no role at all. I was, after all, preaching about Christ. I think the outcome would have been entirely different if I had been reading recipes from a cookbook. But I have been preaching long enough to know that the power does not lie in my rhetoric or my structure, as important as those things are to my preaching. This is not the first time that the Holy Spirit has stolen my thunder.

 In his book Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd Jones speaks of the “romance” of preaching. One dimension of this, according to Lloyd Jones, is the element of surprise: “…you never know who is going to be listening to you, and you never know what is going to happen to those who are listening to you.” I would add that you never really know how it will happen. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going” Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:8, “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Thanks be to God.

On Preachers and Preaching: Text or Audience?

Here is a link to Joeseph M.  Stowell’s article,  “Why I Love to Preach” on SermonCentral.com: http://www.sermoncentral.com/articlec.asp?article=Joseph-Stowell-Why-I-Love-to-Preach&ac=true. The article was excerpted from The Moody Handbook of Preaching. To learn about Haddon Robinson’s book Biblical Preaching, click here: http://www.amazon.com/Biblical-Preaching-Development-Delivery-Expository/dp/0801022622. To learn about Bryan Chapell’s book Christ Centered Preaching, click here: http://www.amazon.com/Christ-Centered-Preaching-Redeeming-Expository-Sermon/dp/0801027985/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273774666&sr=1-1

On Preachers and Preaching-Why Theology Matters in Preaching

I have often heard the church criticized for its lack of interest in theology. The church, we are told, is theologically illiterate, more interested in entertainment than in doctrine. But if there is any truth in this complaint, I do not think the church is entirely at fault. I hold the church’s theologians at least partially responsible.

In his book A Theology of Preaching: The Dynamics of the Gospel, Richard Lischer quotes from an article by Walter Wink that was published in The Christian Century over thirty years ago. In the article, Wink criticizes the theological scholarship of his day saying, “The American scholarly scene is one of frenetic decadence with the publication of vast numbers of articles and books which fewer and fewer people read. Most scholars no longer address the lived experience of actual people in churches or society. Instead they address the current questions of their peers in the professional guild.”

After thirty years, this tendency has not diminished. If you doubt this, simply scan the topics scheduled to be presented at any meeting where professional theologians gather. If the average church member is disinterested in theology, it is partly due to the fact that the church’s theologians are mostly in conversation with themselves. Indeed, it has been my experience that many church members are interested in theology but don’t label it as such. They are asking fundamental and profound questions about the nature of God’s relationship with humanity, the origin of evil, and about their own personal significance. Meanwhile, the church’s theologians, who have been reflecting on these questions for over two millennia, are talking among themselves.

Nowhere is this more evident to me than in our seminaries and Bible colleges, where practical theology is treated as a “soft-science” and preaching is seen as primarily the domain of those who intend to be pastors. Most of the theology majors I meet aspire to be professors rather than pastors. They are not terribly interested in preaching. Yet most church members get their theology from the pulpit. It is in the home and the workplace not the academy that the battle lines of theological controversy are drawn. Those who step into the pulpit are the church’s first line of defense.

John Koessler’s Theology Matters column in Today in the Word: http://www.todayintheword.com/GenMoody/default.asp?sectionid=8A7FDB2F7D2442D49DCF586A165A8C2C

On Preachers and Preaching-Why I Use Notes When I Preach

I preach from a manuscript. This is a practice which, I admit, springs from my own insecurity as much as it does from conviction. It is also a habit which has earned me some criticism from those who feel that the use of notes is a hinders the work of the spirit.

 There are, of course, some good reasons for preaching without notes. You don’t have to shuffle paper. The church doesn’t have to buy a pulpit. People like it if you look at them when you preach. But the reason so many people are enamored of the idea of preaching without notes is a spiritual one. Many Christians share a common assumption that the Holy Spirit is somehow more active in extemporaneous speech than He is in planned speech.

 This view pre–supposes that people who preach without notes or a manuscript are better able to sense the moving of the Holy Spirit. This is a puzzling assumption coming from people who also believe that the Scriptures, words that were committed to manuscript so long ago, are the chief means that the Holy Spirit uses to speak to us is.

 For me, the use of a manuscript enables me to concentrate as much on the language of the sermon as its ideas. There are drawbacks, of course. My movement is restricted to some degree, as is my eye contact with the audience. The pulpit stands between me and my listeners. But I am willing to take the risk. I will continue to preach in this way without apology. I do not think the church is helped when the style in which the sermon is delivered becomes more important than what is said.

On Preachers and Preaching: Haddon Robinson on Sermon Application

Haddon Robinson, author of Biblical Preaching (Baker), is a teacher of preachers and a mentor to those who teach preaching. For more help from him on this important subject, see his interview on LeadershipJournal.net  (http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/1997/fall/7l4020.html) and his article “The Heresy of Application” on PreachingToday.com (http://www.preachingtoday.com/skills/artcraft/80–robinson.html).

On Preachers and Preaching-Inflecting the Text

Preaching is an exercise in inflection, one that involves much more than pitch, volume and tone. In the sermon the preacher makes God’s written word incarnate by speaking the biblical author’s words into the contemporary context. This is an inflection not merely of the preacher’s voice but of the text itself. The task of inflection places a dual responsibility upon the preacher. One area of responsibility is to the text itself.

The preacher’s aim in the sermon is to animate the text without altering it. The written word has been detached from its original context but is not freed from it. We who preach must speak to circumstances that the biblical writers did not originally envision. But this does not give us liberty to wrest the Scriptures from their original context and make them say whatever we please.

The other area of responsibility involves the audience. An uninflected text is a dead text as far as the listener is concerned. “Somehow or other, every other agency dealing with the public recognizes that contact with the actual life of the auditor is the one place to begin” Harry Emerson Fosdick chided. “Only the preacher proceeds still upon the idea that folk come to church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites.” Fosdick’s point has been heeded, perhaps too well, by contemporary preachers. But this does not make his assessment less true.

Inflecting the text requires application and application is local in nature. Despite this, preaching cannot afford to ignore what happened to the Jebusites any more than it can afford to overlook those who are actually present. A sermon which focuses only on the concerns of the contemporary audience and pays no attention to the historical and literary context of Scripture also removes the biblical text from its living voice. Such preaching co-opts the text instead of inflecting it, turning the living and active word into a ventriloquist’s dummy, a caricature whose hollow voice merely echoes the preacher’s own (or that of the audience).


Question: Do you think the preacher is important to the sermon? Why or why not?

Sentimentality and Preaching

In an essay entitled “Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts,” Jeremy Begbie discusses the “pathology of sentimentality.” This is a pathology marked by three traits. It misrepresents reality by evading or trivializing evil, is emotionally self-indulgent, and fails to take appropriate costly action.

Sentimentality is not confined to the arts. It can also afflict the sermon. When the sermon becomes sentimentalized the preacher’s need to feel good about the experience of preaching leads to manipulation. Emotion is the sermon’s primary aim and weeping at the altar is equated with repentance. Because the preacher fails to deal honestly with the reality of evil, problems are romanticized and pat answers, slogans or clichés are offered as solutions.

What is the remedy for sentimentalism? According to Begbie, it is the cross, proclaimed in all its horror and glory. “In a nutshell,” Begbie explains, “Christian sentimentalism arises from a premature grasp for Easter morning, a refusal to follow the three days of Easter as three days in an irreversible sequence of victory over evil.” Preaching that deals honestly with the reality of the cross acknowledges the darkened sky of Good Friday and the awful silence of Holy Saturday, as well as the bright dawn of Sunday morning.

Begbie’s excellent essay can be found in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, edited by Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands and Roger Lundin (InterVarsity).