Where have all the preachers gone?

Posted on 01 April 2008

Evangel 8:4 (Winter 1990)

Where have all the preachers gone?

Evangel 8:4 (Winter 1990)

For some, the answer to the question raised above is that preachers have gone to the place of all other dinosaurs. Preachers have become extinct because they failed to change with their changing surroundings. Modern man is best reached by other means of communication than the sermon.

This charge cannot be cavalierly dismissed. Modem studies have correctly emphasised that the word ‘preach’ in the Bible refers far more to the content of the Gospel message than the form of its presentation. Further, it is correct to note that not all teaching in the Bible was by means of the monologue form and that no less an example than Jesus sought to present his teaching in a flexible and contemporary way so as to communicate his message more effectively. All too often those of us who are preachers have failed to walk in the steps of our master.

Nevertheless, universal experience, the witness of Scripture and the nature of the modem Bible teacher’s material requires that the message will often, even usually, need to be in the sermon form. So where have the preachers gone?

Perhaps, however, a prior question is in order; ‘what is true preaching?‘. Here there is less unanimity than might be supposed and, not infrequently (and so typically of evangelicals) the peripheral has been mistaken for the core. Thus, it is tragically true that most books on preaching are preoccupied with setting out the techniques for public address. These things are not unimportant but they produce preachers who are able speakers but sadly have little to say! One suspects that, in part, the modem Christian public is voting with its feet and saying that if it wants good entertainment it can find better on the TV.

Often, too, one hears phrases like ‘anointed preaching’ or ‘unction’. These phrases are sometimes used by preachers themselves to describe the sense of havingdelivered a ‘blinder’. There are all sorts of reasons for such experiences, shared of course by all public speakers whether Christian or not. Perhaps the speaker had a good breakfast. However, sometimes it is used of preachers by others. Not infrequently it is associated Ne?with the powerful presence of the speaker. He or she may have little, in reality, to say but the person’s character is able to convey a sense of authority, even elevation (it helps to be Welsh!). Yet, effectiveness of ministry is often seen in the longer rather than the short term and while one wants a sense of being before God in a meeting this can be easily manufactured and determined by our own sub-cultural presuppositions.

All too easily, then, preaching is perceived and judged awry. Not infrequently, this leads to the potential preacher ‘ducking out’ since he or she considers It impossible to reproduce the particular form of public address that is considered true ‘preaching’ by the peer group. Equally, gifted Bible teachers are ignored as not conforming to a particular and expected pattern.

What then is true preaching? The preacher is essentially an expositor. While there are other legitimate forms of Christian teaching (e.g. subject studies, etc.), the exposition of Scripture is the primary form of preaching. Modem studies have correctly stressed that authority lies not in the office of the preacher, nor in a distinctive call, nor in a particular form of address but in the text of Scripture itself. Thus the preacher must, above all, be a proclaimer of the content of Scripture.

In this connection it is worth emphasising that this demands that the preacher sit under the text of Scripture. Too many sermons in evangelical churches reflect a very low level of interaction with the text. One hears messages loosely based on a text or drawing inspiration for a theme from the text but seldom actually explaining the text itself. True exposition demands that the message reflects the text itself. The prime responsibility is to reproduce the concerns and interests of the biblical author.

But that cannot be all! There is nothing worse than the preacher who simply explains what the text meant then. True expository preaching must be able to ‘merge the horizons’ between the original author and his audience and the preacher and his hearers now. God’s word then has to be presented in a way that renders God’s word to his people today transparent in the light of the text. Tragically, this is seldom undertaken and even more rarely with skill.

Lying behind this is the woeful level of understanding in the area of biblical interpretation. Few preachers seem to have a basic competence in ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’. Moralism and allegorisation are among the fruits produced.

Equally, a failure to proclaim God’s eternal word to the present means that the prophetic element in preaching is lost. It is not surprising that the modern evangelical world is running hither and thither seeking ‘words from the Lord’. If the word of God is scarce and the prophets silent, what more can we expect?

Yet, paradoxically, this shows that the hunger is there. God’s people may not know what they need but they do know they are hungry.

Thus we need to rediscover a confidence in the Scriptures and (I am speaking to preachers) we must labour to wrestle with the text of Scripture till its purpose becomes apparent. Then we must prayerfully and diligently seek to grasp (and be grasped by) its relevance today. Finally, humbly dependent on God we must go forth and present that message as clearly and effectively as we know how.

A sick person sometimes takes time to re-discover an appetite for good things. So may our hearers. But God grant that through our labours and his working through us not only might a mighty generation of preachers be spawned but also God’s people might become again ‘the people of the book’.

In a small way, the present issue of Evangel is sent forth to contribute to this great end!