Thursday, March 11, 2010

Preaching: A Sacred Task?


I recently read the article “Theology After Google” by Phillip Clayton. In many aspects I completely agree with his assessment of the need for the church to make major changes in light of the current cultural shifts in communication such as blogging, Facebook, Twitter and the like. Reading the article reminded me of a paper I previously wrote. Two years ago I was invited to write and submit an academic paper for “The Christian Scholars Conference”. I was invited to write in the Homiletics section, with the prompt: “Does Preaching Matter?”. While the topic was about preaching specifically, my paper addressed many broader themes affecting the church today and the reason for the decline in the effectiveness of the typical western, Protestant church to younger generations. The following is a shorter, article version of that academic paper. (If you want to read the full text of the paper then see my "pages" on the sidebar to the right)


For many, the statistics reported in Gabe Lyon and David Kinnaman’s book, UnChristian, were not surprising. They simply supported what many had already felt as they were discouraged and disillusioned by the common “churchianity” experienced on Sunday mornings at local churches. For many, including me, the typical church has become somewhat unauthentic, spurious, and more like a “Christian club” rather than a meaningful gathering of believers. I resonate a lot with recent articles like “Theology After Google” which call for a new way of doing church for a new generation in a new era of communication.


One of the key things that I believe needs to change in our current churches is the emphasis on preaching. Currently a typical church revolves mostly around the preacher and the Sunday morning sermon. The whole gathering of believers is centered on a preached sermon. Typically, even small groups are based around the content of the Sunday morning sermon. However, the very idea of one person controlling the topic of conversation and limiting the conversation to a one way dialogue is completely contrary to our current communication era. We are in the midst of the information age; the era of Facebook, Twitter and blogging. The younger Mosaic and Buster generations value interaction, discussion and dialogue, not necessarily a “talking head”.


One reason that preaching is such a foundational element in our churches is because it continues to be assumed that preaching is a Biblical mandate. However, I contend that proclamation of the gospel is a Biblical mandate, not necessarily preaching. Historically preaching was necessary, beginning in Jesus time and before, because of the oral tradition. Literacy rates were very low and manuscripts were very hard to come by – usually only obtained by the very wealthy or priests and rabbis. The oral tradition was a key component of society and often how history continued to be passed down. For this reason, when we read about preaching in scripture we should see this as necessary and pragmatic at that time because it was the key mode of communication. Consequently, I do not believe that it is preaching that is sacred and biblically mandated – but proclamation. Preaching was simply the most common and pragmatic mode of communication at the time Jesus lived and our scriptures were recorded.

Literacy rates did not rise significantly until the introduction of the print era with Guttenberg’s printing press starting in 1450. This changed the face of communication significantly. The invention of the printing press began to eliminate the necessity of oral transmission and took biblical and religious knowledge out of the hands of just the clergy and into the hands of the common man. Our current western society has now entered into yet another huge cultural shift in communication. Over the centuries our culture has moved from an oral tradition, to a print tradition and now to a technological tradition or information age. The influences of just the print tradition were overwhelming. Today in America there are bookstores and libraries full of books, academic journals and magazines in every town and city. Magazines and news papers can be delivered to your doorstep. Available translations of the Bible are countless along with biblical commentaries, church history texts, spiritual self help books, translations of the philosophies and theologies of our church fathers, and very academic and scholarly religious surveys. Religious and biblical resources in whatever depth or opinion a person may desire are readily available and used by the masses. In addition to this, the rise of the information age has exponentially increased the availability of these resources and knowledge of any sort for that matter.

Today an estimated 75% of all adult Americans and 92% of all 18 – 29 year olds have regular access to the internet.[1] The internet can now provide instant access to just about whatever information a person may desire, religious or non-religious. The Bible can be read online as well as devotionals, commentaries and scholarly biblical articles. Encyclopedias can be accessed online along with books and newspapers. In addition to that, through blogs, Face Book, Twitter and online chat rooms, people can communicate and discourse with people from all over the world, gaining differing opinions and insights. The information that was once only available to the wealthy or religious elite, and then made more readily available in print, is now available to any person with internet accessibility. The question that remains for the church is will it be passed up by this major cultural communication shift or will it change the emphasis of the preacher accordingly? In an era of unlimited access to information and education, and in a society that has had exposure (or at least the readily availability of exposure) to the basic ideas and traditions of Christianity, I must question the significance of the role of preaching as the main mode of proclamation, and function of the church, that was initially introduced to an oral culture out of necessity and pragmatism. It is time to evaluate the effectiveness of this mode of proclamation in a culture that has gone through two major shifts in modes of communication. It is time to de-sanctify the role of preaching and see it for what it is: a mode of proclamation that has been institutionalized through centuries of tradition and has become increasingly outdated in the current technological, information age.

“dOing CHuRCH”

Preaching is particularly unappealing to the postmodern and emerging generations for a number of reasons. Preaching prohibits individuals’ involvement in the conversation and dialogue, thus rendering my experience and my knowledge useless, or at the least unimportant. It is a passive, not active experience and promotes a “club” mentality, focused on club members, rather than the real world, and issues of the real world such as poverty and social justice. A book by Doug Pagitt, Preaching Re-Imagined, emphasizes a lot of these issues. To paraphrase some of Pagitt’s main points: the Sunday morning service not only inhibits community, the exercising of the spiritual gifts of the body, eliminates personal involvement in scripture and the “story of God”, but it also insults the intelligence of individuals who may have much knowledge and insights, as well as questions and disputes with the information being presented. I would highly recommend this particular book by Doug Pagitt as it offers what I believe to be, a very relevant alternative to doing church, which he calls, “progressional dialogue”. While I believe this to be a great alternative for those looking to continue “doing church” in a more relevant way, I would still like to suggest a more radical alternative; a way of doing church that does not look like “church” in a conventional sense at all.


I believe that proclamation of the gospel to a postmodern generation cannot stop with a verbal proclamation. It is my contention that preaching is simply one mode of proclamation and it is not preaching that is sacred and mandated, but proclamation. There are some more relevant alternatives to preaching within the church, but proclamation should not stop here. Proclamation is the expression of the good news of the gospel which should be evident not only in our words and discussions, but in our actions and lives. In a time of ever increasing doubt and uncertainty, the postmodern culture needs more than anything to see the reality of Christ in the lives of Christians. The majority of young Americans today have heard the generic message of the Church, what they need is to see this message lived out in the dynamic and transformed lives of Christ followers. This may be the single greatest mode of proclamation in our current culture. Remaining a loyal friend, serving our community, fighting against injustice, correcting negative attitudes Christians have propagated towards those who do not follow the same lifestyle, admitting wrong and asking for forgiveness, loving our enemies and neighbors despite their actions – all of these are forms of proclamation of the gospel message that will demonstrate the reality of our words to our current culture. The Holy Spirit is living and active in the lives of believers, and believers are called to be the living body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). As his body, it is our responsibility to act as the body of Christ and demonstrate through our actions the reality of the living Christ.

What if instead of meeting on Sunday mornings listening to a pastor “preach to the choir” at the local “Christian club” (aka: church building), the “church” met in small localized groups to actually go out into their community and live out the mission of the church – to love people in the name of Jesus Christ and to bring the peace, forgiveness, justice and restoration of the Kingdom of God? What if Christians spent their time acting out what they believe in their community, rather than just hanging out together in a somewhat exclusive club? What if Christians spent their time doing the things they say they believe during the time they gather together, rather than just talking about it? What would happen in our communities if we put the energy and focus that we spend on a Sunday morning production, on serving our community and working directly at helping the pain, brokenness, injustices and poverty we encounter? I believe we would see massive changes in our community – not only in terms of restoration, peace, forgiveness, improvement of poverty standards and social justice issues, but also in terms of our community’s experience and faith in a loving God who actually does exist and care about our needs. I think we would see Christians of all ages engaged in the Church community, invigorated to serve the Lord, united in a very real and tangible way. I think you would see postmodern and emerging Christians not shying away from Church, but rallying around a church that was relevant and genuine in living out the mission of Christ and acting as the hands and feet of Jesus. I think we would not only hear but see the proclamation of the gospel message resonating and active in our cities and towns. This is proclamation for our day and age, and it is a message that this world needs desperately to see and hear.

[1] Pew Internet and American Life Project. Demographics of Internet Users., October 2007 – December 2007.

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