Why Privilege Preaching?

An interesting opinion piece in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald, ‘University Lectures Are A Legacy of Our Pre-Digital Past’, got me thinking about preaching. Is preaching as a medium of communication also a legacy of the pre-digital past? This one-person monologue, delivered in countless churches week-by-week – isn’t it also something we should reconsider given the proliferation of the type of instant, multi-sensory digital means of communication that we are consuming every other day of the week? If university lectures need re-examination, then surely so does preaching, right?

I guess a broader question is: of all the different kinds of valid means of reading and teaching the Word of God (e.g. public reading of Scripture, personal encouragement, one-on-one Bibles study, small groups, video and net-based ministries), why privilege preaching?

In the next series of posts, I thought I’d rehash a seminar I delivered at a preaching conference last year and get the conversation going (so please comment away).

In this first post, I’d like to begin with definitions. What do we mean by Biblical preaching?

Here are a number of definitions I came across:

  • Sociological: ‘A public formal monologue to the congregation.’
  • Peter Adam: ‘The explanation and application of the Word in the assembled congregation of Christ.’
  • John Stott: ‘To open up the inspired text with such faithfulness and sensitivity that God’s voice is heard and God’s people obey him.’
  • Phillip Jensen: ‘Preaching the gospel by prayerfully expounding the Bible to the people God has given me to love.’

Not ever content with just going with what someone else said, I feebly attempted my own amalgam of the above and came up with this as a definition of Biblical preaching:

Biblical preaching is declaring God’s Word to people by faithfully expounding the Scriptures through the power of the Holy Spirit for the glory of Christ.

With my definition I’m trying to capture three elements:

1. I want to define BIBLICAL preaching. Preaching as a means of communication is pretty universal. Parents can preach to their kids; sales-people can preach to their prospective buyers; other religious leaders can preach to their congregants; motivational speakers are preachers too. But I want to attempt to capture what Biblical preaching is. It is, first of all then, tied to faithful exposition of the Scriptural text.

2. I want to capture the VERTICAL dimension of Biblical preaching. God is actually speaking his Word through the preacher. There is therefore a power that must be at work for hearers to change. I guess this vertical dimension is what old-school preachers (like Martyn Lloyd-Jones) would call ‘unction’ or ‘anointing’. John Calvin wrote:

It is certain that if we come to church we shall not hear only a mortal man speaking but we shall feel (even by his secret power) that God is speaking to our souls, that he is the teacher. He so touches us that the human voice enters into us and so profits us that we are refreshed and nourished by it.

3. I want to capture the HORIZONTAL dimension of Biblical preaching as well. The preacher is preaching to God’s people in order to edify them. As he expounds Scripture and applies it, he is simultaneously exhorting his hearers (Peter Adam). Both the vertical and horizontal dimensions are key. Without the vertical, preaching is powerless. Without the horizontal, preaching won’t grow the church and bring about conversions.

Put simply I believe that Biblical preaching is PROPHETIC TEACHING. By this I am referring to prophecy in the broadest terms. (Note: I do believe in the continuation of the gift of New Testament prophecy as a smaller subset of this, but that’s for another post on another day perhaps). Here I simply mean prophecy in the ‘men spoke from God’ sense of the term (2 Peter 1:21). This is the vertical dimension in operation.

But preaching is also teaching because of that horizontal dimension. Therefore preaching is anchored in study, preparation, understanding and analysis of both the world of Scripture and the world of the hearers (John Stott).

Now the mix of prophecy and teaching can vary from preacher to preacher or even from sermon to sermon. It’s unimportant to distinguish which bits of a sermon correspond to which. However, I believe that Biblical preaching must have both elements. In other words, it is not just a spontaneous prophetic message; nor is it just a prepared lecture or seminar or workshop. It is God speaking to his gathered people through a prophetic teacher who expounds and applies the Bible. Nothing less than that will fulfil God’s mighty purposes for this ministry for the glory of Christ.

(Another note: different church traditions seem to privilege one over the other. Charismatic/Pentecostal traditions tend to emphasise the prophetic element of preaching and will tend towards spontaneity and less systematic exposition of the Biblical text, while Reformed Evangelical traditions tend to emphasise the teaching element of preaching and will sometimes be indistinguishable from a lecture. Which does your church tradition lean towards?)

So why privilege preaching? Well, I’m not quite at a full answer just yet. Next post I’ll be proposing that preaching as a mode of communication best reflects God’s own primary speech-act. But in the meantime, I’d love to hear your comments and critiques, so fire away!


About Pete

I am a child of God, a husband, a father of four children, a pastor, and a church planter. I live in Sydney Australia and live to see Jesus made famous in this city and be the only God people worship.

Posted on July 11, 2012, in Church, Ministry, Preachng, Theology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Good kick off to the discussion Pete.

    The concept of preaching being prophetic teaching is both awesome and awful – i.e. awesome that God would do that and awful to think, as a preacher, if I stuff it up through lack of preparation or sinful arrogance or any number of 1,000,000 other ways, I am bringing a greater condemnation to myself.

    In that vein though, I like Phillips Brooks definition: (something like) – preaching is truth through personality.

    God has spoken, so we speak.
    God has spoken through his Word, so we speak his Word.
    God breaks his Word so we can eat it and have life, so we break it (exposit & expound) and live.


  2. Interesting post Pete. I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say.

    When it comes to lectures (Which is almost all about teaching) I’ve always said to myself that my own “live” lectures need to be better than just delivering a good speech. After all, if it was just a good speech with a bunch of slides, it would be better to pre record it, edit it and then post it online for people to view at at time that best suits them. They could also pause to think through a point or take notes and ask me questions online which I could answer.

    In terms of church preaching, we have been recording sermons and distributing them for decades and they have certainly been useful for people who can’t physically get to a church or supplement their bible reading during the week. Some preachers say that they don’t like doing this because they want people to gather together (something the bible commands us to do) and they think if they distribute online less people would come. Having said that I dont buy that as a good reason for why sermons should always be live.

    Personally, I am not exactly sure why sermons need to be live. If preaching a sermon is simply a form of communicating information (which the spirit can use to convict us) then I don’t think we should privilege one person standing up on Sunday monologuing over other forms. That said, I don’t believe it is simply a form of communication….there is much more to it….I am not sure what it is but when I work it out…I’ll comment some more 🙂

    • Hey Dave, helpful to have a lecturer’s perspective on this topic. It sounds like you are really wanting your lectures to be more than “just a lecture”. I’m sure it’s a stack better than some of the stuff I had to sit through at Uni!

      On the church preaching comment, I agree with you about recorded sermons. I’ve benefited a stack from hearing preachers online and I believe the Spirit has used that a whole heap to speak to me. I don’t think the recorded sermon necessarily takes away the prophetic element.

      That being said, the ‘live’ sermon has the advantage of being part of an entire package of corporate worship. There are some churches in our tradition that tend towards Sunday meetings as mainly about the sermon with a couple of songs and announcements tacked on. If the entire gathering is really only about the sermon then I think you miss very little by hearing it online. However if, as we’ve been trying hard to implement in our church gatherings, it’s an entire package of engaging with God – heart, soul, mind, will – then the live sermon is given a great deal more effectiveness because it’s a part of that larger corporate worship.

  3. When you say, “God is speaking his word through the preacher,” do you just mean, “God is speaking insofar as the preacher says what the Scriptures say,” or do you mean, “The preacher could say at the end, ‘Thus saith the LORD,'” or something else altogether?

    If the first, then maybe it’s misleading to say that, “God is speaking his word through the preacher.” It might be clearer to say, “God has spoken in the Scriptures. One way we have of communicating the Scriptures is a monologue to a group of people.”

    You may then want to privilege that means of communication, and I guess that’s where you’re headed in the next post.

    • Hi Stuart, helpful pickup there.

      You’re correct in distinguishing between what God has spoken once for all through his written Word, the Scriptures, and what he says now through his Holy Spirit by the Word-ministries that his people participate in (of which preaching is one activity). There is an indirect sense in which our speaking (insofar as we say what the Scriptures say) can become the word of God to his people as God’s sovereign Spirit illuminates and applies the Scriptures to our hearts. I just want to avoid a mechanical view that because Scripture = Word of God, therefore God only speaks in the bits of the sermon (or teaching) where the Scripture is being read or quoted. If you like, my view of preaching is a little like Barth’s view of Scripture… the preached word can “become” the word of God (insofar as it faithfully corresponds to THE Scriptural Word of God). It’s a more dynamic view of the relationship between where God’s voice / word can be heard when a preacher expounds the Word.

      • Yes, I see what you’re trying to avoid. It opens the door to other problems, though, around the authority of what the preacher says (and perhaps when he says it?). Different pastoral problems for different groups of people 🙂

        Leaving all the details aside for a moment, is this ‘God-speakingness’ peculiar to preaching? Or does it exist in, say, Bible studies, or 1:1 conversations as well?

    • Yes I think it applies to other Word-ministry mediums as well. It’s part of letting the word of Christ dwell richly among us.

  4. Sorry, I should’ve clarified why the question: it seems that you’ve moved the authority/God-speakingness away from the preaching itself. It lies in what the Spirit does in the hearer. So the preaching is just a lifeless vessel — one that the Spirit can use, certainly, but not authoritative or privilegeable in itself.

    • Mmm… I don’t know if ‘lifeless vessel’ is a bit prejudicial as it carries with it connotations that I would not want to say of preaching (since I do have a high view of it). Besides, the Spirit, the (written) Word, and God’s “vessels” seem to have quite a cohesive relationship in the Scriptures don’t they?

      • Yeah, I just wanted to give you space to admit to special pleading and question-begging regarding the high view of preaching 😉

  5. Hi Pete,

    Interesting post. I’m going to read the rest shortly.

    Preaching, as a medium has such a huge impact, when done well. Our society has no issue with listening to preaching, or “monologue” type presentations. Take television for example. Everytime, we sit down and watch the television, we listen to a monologue.

    The broad issue, I believe, is that there are so many irrelevant, unqualified (spiritually speaking) and unskilled preachers running around today.

    I am not a preacher, but I am a school teacher. Teachers spend years honing their craft through understanding learning styles and how to engage your pupils and different methods of delivery. Mark Driscoll has tapped into this by investigating sermon delivery and execution by studying comedians. He is a great preacher! Matt Chandler has done something similar.

    The issue isn’t preaching, rather, the issue is preachers who can’t preach well.

  1. Pingback: Is Multimedia the Death of Preaching? « Fan Into Flame

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