Friday, December 10, 2010

On preaching


The Guardian (online) is running a series on preaching, trying to measure the health of the medium, and debating whether it has a future.

Simon Jenkins of the Ship of Fools comments on the lease of life that sermons have received from digital media, not least from YouTube. But what's also interesting is his passing comment that "preaching remains a significant event in churches", in other words, not just online but in the hard reality of church-bound worship. This rather belies the assertion in the opener from the Guardian, that "the one form of preaching that seems to have died in the West is the traditional delivery from a pulpit".

 I think this captures one of the strange things about modern church culture. There is a received wisdom that says that preaching is dead and belongs to the past, yet Sunday by Sunday thousands of sermons are preached without excessive objection from the listeners (we'll come back to that later). This is a good reminder to us that we shouldn't believe everything that people tell us. The church seems to have more than its share of people who don't allow the facts to stand in the way of a good opinion, and the "preaching is dead" brigade are a good example. It's possible to make a really forceful case for the death of the sermon, but sadly for those who make it, the one thing lacking is evidence.

So how can we explain the persistent survival of the sermon, despite the attempts of some to kill it off? A number of points suggest themselves.

  1. A revival of rhetoric. The art of speaking has seen something of a revival in recent years.  Politicians, notably Barack Obama, have honed the art of communicating from the podium. People make careers out of public speaking. The rise of the "inspirational speaker" as a career description is very recent. In the light of all this, the idea that the sermon employs a dead mode of communication is starting to look a bit silly. 
  2. Online media.  As Simon Jenkins points out, sermons get a new lease of life on the web.  Recording technology made it possible for a sermon to be heard outside the church where it was first preached. But now, with the advent of video streaming and YouTube, a sermon preached one Sunday morning can be available to anyone in the world with a broadband connection. The sermons of American megapastors are viewed by tens of thousands. Preaching that hits home with people will have an impact that isn't just a single hit, but a wave that rolls and rolls.
  3. Preaching isn't just education.  One of the things that fuelled the idea that the sermon was dead was the assertion that preaching was out of touch with modern educational practice. "How many teachers would go into a classroom and just talk at their pupils for 45 minutes?" we would be asked. But it's not a good comparison. It's true that many churches have tended to treat the sermon as a purely educational exercise, especially my own evangelical community, with our emphasis on "good teaching".  And teaching is no doubt an element of any good sermon.  But a sermon isn't a lesson, it's much more than that. 
  4. Lack of quality. If the only wine you'd ever tasted was Liebfraumilch at student parties, you might reasonably conclude that wine is a liquid better used as mouthwash than for drinking purposes. Similarly a lot of people have concluded that preaching is rubbish because that is what their experience suggests.  But in reality there's a lot of good stuff out there, and it's easy to tell the difference once you've tried it. 
  5. All of which leads to a final observation. The main reason for the survival of the sermon is that preaching works.  Earlier this year there was a survey of attitudes to preaching, which was presented by some in quite a negative light, but in fact the overwhelming majority of people polled said that listening to sermons had affected the way they live their lives.  This is a huge vote of confidence in something which we had been told was obsolete.
Preaching works.  The question of why it works is something that has fascinated me for years, and which deserves whole books written about it.  But in a nutshell, it is because a sermon is not just a piece of oratory, or teaching, but a chance for us to encounter the Word of God. Many writers on preaching talk about the sermon as an "event", something which happens to those who listen (including the preacher).

Karl Barth said that in preaching, the preached word becomes the Word of God. In saying this, he wasn't downgrading the importance of Scripture, as some people said he was, but saying that preaching is something dynamic in which the Holy Spirit is acting on our hearts and minds, and through that we meet with Jesus.

Would it be too much to say that sometimes the event is more dynamic than others?  I don't think so. Also in the Guardian, Alan Wilson has a really good piece on preaching in context.  Sometimes the time and the place is right for a sermon to become an earth-shattering event of the Spirit. Alan suggests that the reason much of our preaching in this country is feeble is because the context is feeble. Like Jesus in his home town, perhaps? Maybe so, but God still seems to be able to work through preaching, even in Britain. And if we come to the sermon expecting to be changed, then the chances we are we will be. 




3 comments:

Roger said...

"Alan suggests that the reason much of our preaching in this country is feeble is because the context is feeble".

As always (almost) with the media I do not recognise what they are talking about at all. For 30+ years I have seen preaching (as the central act of worship) again and again being the main means of changing real people. It's inevitable (IMHO)... preaching to a verdict 'works'. In our current incarnation working with youth in the Exeter area we see hundreds touched and changed by the preaching of the gospel message.

Philip Ritchie said...

Excellent post Charlie.

One of the issues I have with recorded sermons or published texts is that they miss that 'event' aspect of the sermon; the interaction between God, preacher, congregation and the context. Bishop Stephen's inaugural sermon as Bishop of Chelmsford a couple of weeks ago reads well, but it doesn't do justice to the event and impact on those of us there.

In training and assessing preachers, which is part of my job, I always find myself coming back to a basic question: What has God said to you through this sermon? And I am often surprised and challenged by the answer.

News of the death of the sermon is somewhat premature!

Suem said...

"Many writers on preaching talk about the sermon as an "event", something which happens to those who listen (including the preacher.)

I think that is very true, it is more than or different from a leson or lecture somehow - I can't quite say how, but it must be because of the spiritual, rather than purely intellectual, dimension.

I love to listen to sermons (generally!)It is an art form we should not lose, it gives me great pleasure to hear good preaching.