Challenges for 21st-Century Preaching
- Friday, May 02, 2008
What I have in mind is the need for Christian preachers so to think through God’s Word that they can wrestle discerningly, penetratingly, critically, and integratively with the manifold movements and cultural (including moral and ethical) questions of the day. This does not mean that the agenda of an age becomes the preacher’s agenda. It means, rather, that we must not pretend we can preach the Bible in a cultural vacuum.
Most of us have met preachers who have spent years of their lives reading the Puritans (or the Reformers, of the Fathers) and little else, and whose entire imaginations are locked in a time warp several centuries old. They should not deter us from reading history, or course: history opens our eyes to other cultures, introduces us to brothers and sisters in other times and places, and weaves depth and perspective into our lives. Preachers whose every point of integration and application springs from the Donatist controversy or the debate over Socinianism or the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes or the legitimacy or otherwise of the Hooker principle, but who never addresses abortion and other sweeping bioethical issues congregating around the beginning of life and the end of life, are living in the wrong century.
At a time when internet porn now outsells cigarettes, booze, and hard drugs combined, when digital worlds open up new horizons and yet shut down human intimacy, when globalization reminds us that we are one world and yet sometimes exploits the weak, when AIDS threatens tens of millions of human beings, and when Islam, fueled by oil, strengthened by demographic trends, and disgusted by the immorality of the West, is once again resurgent, the preacher who never demonstrates how the gospel of Jesus Christ addresses these things has, at best, retreated to an individualistic form of piety not sanctioned by the biblical prophetic tradition.
Christian preachers are not authorized to duck important issues. At the same time, these issues must not determine his message. Yet failure to show the bearing of the gospel on such issues is merely to trumpet that there is no bearing. Our task, then, is to be expositors of the Word of God yet to exercise that ministry in the time and place where God has providentially placed us.
Pace of Change
The pace of change in the 20th century was staggering. But virtually all quantifiers promise that the pace of change in the 21st century will accelerate and prove to be far more rapid.
At one level, of course, this should matter little to the preacher. We deal in eternal realities. Indeed, endless analysis about change and its pace may distract us from the eternal gospel, the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” Nevertheless, our task is to communicate the truth of God’s words, which are forever settled in heaven, to mean and women who very much live on earth — a rapidly-changing earth.
What this suggests is that along with the primacy the preacher must give to the study of Scripture and ancillary disciplines, he must also set aside time to try to understand his own times. This may be done through reading, discussion groups of various sorts (e.g., analyzing books and films), seminars with the most experienced and insightful preachers, and much more. But to ignore the pace of change is to lust after a false security, the security of stability, that will not characterize any part of the 21st century.
Modeling and Mentoring
For much of the last three decades my primary task has been to teach students at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I have sometimes said that if, God forbid, I were suddenly appointed evangelical Pope, the first thing I would do on my first day in office would be to bring 10 or 15 of the ablest pastor-preachers to churches within a short driving distance of Trinity. The reason is obvious: a great many things are better caught than taught. I wish more of our students were exposed to great preaching. Some of the most important lessons I have learned about preaching have been gleaned by sitting under the ministry of able preachers.
This suggests we ought to be thinking hard about mentoring and apprenticeships. Various organizations, such as The Proclamation Trust in the United Kingdom, have developed preaching workshops that devote time to (a) listening to able preachers, and to (b) mutual criticism of sermon outlines that each participant prepares in advance. Other networks prepare preachers for urban ministry or cross-cultural ministry.
The apostle Paul understands how much of his own life must shape Timothy (e.g., 2 Tim. 3:10-11). Considering the challenges ahead of us, preachers are more likely to multiply their fruitfulness if they pay attention to the importance of mentoring than if they persist in “Lone Ranger” ministries all their days.
Preachers cannot responsibly ignore these things, for they stand between the speaking God and the listening people — people who are not empty ciphers but culturally located men and women who must be addressed where they are, even if our hope and prayer is that they will not remain where they are, but begin by God’s grace the march down the King’s highway, the narrow road that leads to life.
Our motivation to understand and address people in the 21st century is not to domesticate the gospel by constant appeal to cultural analysis, but to prove effective ambassadors of the Sovereign whose Word we announce. For one day the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He will reign for ever and ever (Rev. 11:15). It is precisely because we are anchored in eternity that we are so utterly resolved, like Paul, to address lost men and women who must one day meet their God.
[i] One may not always like the sometimes sassy and savagely funny analysis of Mark Steyn, America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It (Washington DC: Regnery, 2006), but it is difficult to ignore the plethora of documented statistics.
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