do we really believe in preaching?

mlkA friend of mine was recently shocked to learn that in a couple of weeks time his church is planning a panel discussion instead of the sermon.

To him, this feels like a slippery slope. It threatens to marginalise the sermon, suggesting we don’t have to have it for church to be church.

Now, although it might arouse his ire, I should mention that our congregation has been experimenting with the form of the sermon. In pursuit of the ideal of participatory learning, we’ve taken some tentative steps in the direction of a more dialogical teaching model.

In this we’re guided by our (admittedly slightly fuzzy) sense of the vision of church life reflected in 1 Corinthians 12-14. There, Christ’s rule over his church in his Spirit by the Word doesn’t seem to be expressed in the form that’s the default setting for us Sydney Anglicans — the  authoritative, trained individual (usually a man) giving a 20 to 40 minute monologue. Rather, it’s expressed in a much more dynamic and unpredictable (and risky) practice of mutual edification.

Ultimately what’s needed — more than either suspicion of or enthusiasm for such experimentation — is a theology of proclamation.

I deliberately say ‘proclamation’ rather than ‘preaching’. Peter Jensen (The Revelation of God, p 38) points out that ‘When we consider how the gospel was actually transmitted by Jesus and the apostles, we see that human effort, whether physical, personal or intellectual, is not bypassed. On the contrary, in accordance with the incarnation itself, the human is regarded as fit to communicate the divine message.’ This human dimension to the transmission of God’s self-revelation explains why Luke, for example, seems so comfortable to present the apostolic activity of proclamation in a variety of ways — including but by no means limited to what we habitually think of as ‘preaching’.

In fact this human aspect of the form in which the authoritative gospel message was proclaimed finds a place in our practice of preaching if not in our theory of it. As John Stott underlines in I Believe In Preaching (pp 60-61):

[W]e need to remember the dialogical character of preaching. That is, a true sermon is not the monologue which it appears to be. ‘Monstrous ministerial monologue’ is the expression sometimes used. The Rev. R. E. O. White, Principal of the Baptist Theological College of Scotland, quotes an even ruder definition, ‘a monstrous monologue by a moron to mutes’. But I want to argue that true preaching is always dialogical.

At one end of the spectrum it can be expresses as ‘Vocal dialogue between the preacher and congregation’ — picture a raucous African-American church. At the other end, ‘It refers to the silent dialogue between the preacher and his hearers. For what he says provokes questions in their minds which he then proceeds to answer.’

What I want to do is chart the unexplored territory in between. To do so I hope to work through the following topics:

  1. Preach the word — why proclamation is an imperative
  2. As it really is — the place of human words in the divine economy
  3. That you may be transformed — the aims of proclamation
  4. Lest the cross be emptied — rhetoric, imagination and the means of proclamation
  5. With tears… — why those we’re speaking to need to be much more than a mere audience

What’s missing?


  1. Let me cheekily respond to the desire to be guided by the (admittedly fuzzy) NT church service. Are you letting it guide all the functional aspects of the service, or just the sermon?

    How does the prayer book fit in? What about robes? Singing? I could go on – but I won’t. That’s the whole problem with aiming for a fuzzy picture – it’s fuzzy, and dare I say it, unattainable.

    By all means we need to think harder and work harder at teaching to different learning styles. It’s something we haven’t been very good at. So go for it – but it does seem a shame that often calls to cater for people with different sermon styles, or to go back to the “original” service, ends up dumping the sermon, which seems to be not as foreign to the original churches as some suggest, and has worked well for thousands of years.

    keep us updated on how it all goes.


    1. Thanks, mate. This is an appropriate caution (I think).

      If I’ve understood what you’re driving at, I guess it needs to be said that I’m not ultimately interested in ‘getting back to how Christians did it in the first century’, as though that represents some a-cultural purity. It was very culturally specific and — if Paul’s strong words are anything to go by — not very pure!

      I’m not sure I know exactly how to put it, but what I want us to get at (and what I’ve only got a fuzzy sense of) is the values that Paul insists our gatherings reflect. And, once we’ve got hold of these values, I want to see them embodied in our own services (which always exist in our own culture and with our own history and traditions — hence the significance of things like the prayerbook). But I want to see them embodied in a way that follows the grain of the NT application of these values.

      Does that make sense?

  2. makes good – and great sense.

    And I think that’s the key – we want to hit the values or principles Paul uses, and put them appropriately into practise today.

    We don’t necessarily want to hit his practise (if that’s a target we can even realistically hit).

    And this whole discussion – is somewhat tangental to the idea of making the news about Jesus accessible to those who come to our meetings.


  3. mate, this stuff looks really helpful. can you write my project for me?

    my submitted topic was ‘a theology of preaching’, not ‘proclamation’.

    I’ve fallen at the first hurdle.


    1. Surely there’s still time to massage your topic a bit? Just say you’re ‘refining’ it.

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