And the elders of the Jews built and prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. (Ezra 6:14)

What should be the role of preaching in churches today? Changes in preaching style—from being stationed behind a pulpit to moving freely around a stage (formerly, "chancel"); from tightly—argued exposition and application to more anecdotal and practical homilies; from preaching that withers sinners to exhortations that elicit cheers of approval or howls of laughter—coupled with adjustments in the liturgy of the church—changes in music styles, increased space for more contemporary choruses and songs, use of drama and video, elimination or minimizing of congregational responses-have reduced the role of preaching in most churches.  

The declining importance of preaching is reflected, as one might expect, in the quality of preaching offered in most congregations. I have heard my share of preachers over the past 30 years of ministry, and talked with many more lay leaders about the quality of preaching in their churches. The decline in preaching has become so marked, and so widespread, that it is now typical for churches to "lower the bar" of expectation for their preachers. I recently talked with a member of a pastoral search committee about the candidate his church had just called as their new preacher. He remarked that, while his preaching was "adequate," his pastoral skills were excellent and his commitment to missions was outstanding. Clearly, this 1,000-member church puts more value on these latter abilities and interests than on the week-in, week-out exposition and proclamation of the Word of God. When it comes to preaching, "adequate" is good enough.

Pastoral training programs, as a rule, do not put much value in preaching, either. Students may be required to take one or perhaps two courses in homiletics, but these are overshadowed in importance by the larger umbrella of instruction in theology, contemporary thought, and the demands of leadership for healthy, growing churches. By far, more evaluation is done in determining the extent of a student's "mastery" of the "divinity" curriculum through written papers and passed exams than through careful analysis of his preaching. One seminary even suggests in its advertising that preaching may not be the most effective way of reaching our postmodern generation, if it is effective at all. One gets the impression that it would be unwise to spend more time training men to preach when preaching itself is regarded as of strictly secondary importance by the churches and as outright foolishness by sophisticated postmoderns.

Preaching for Dialogue

There seems to be a growing consensus, albeit unspoken, that preaching is not all it is—or once was—cracked up to be. Sure it would be nice each week to hear an eloquent, clear, timely, passionate, and relevant exposition of the text of Scripture, but most preachers are not capable of this on a consistent basis. Certainly they are not trained for it. Their best effort consists of an honest attempt to explain a passage, being careful, along the way, to hold the congregation's attention by appropriate uses of form, illustration, and humor, while, at the same time, taking pains not to offend anyone, and making sure not to go on too long. An "adequate" sermon is one that leaves people feeling as though they have "learned" something new, or been affirmed or encouraged in their walk with the Lord. Such homiletical objectives as achieving conviction and repentance, eliciting first-time or renewed commitments to the life of discipleship, or launching people out in specific tasks of mission and evangelism, no longer seem as important as they once did.

The sermon today has taken on something of the role of the monologue of a late-night talk show host, but not as funny. Its purpose seems to be to sustain a dialogue between the pastor and the congregation for the purpose of building relationships, fostering group identity and comity, and providing a port-of-entry for newcomers. If the dialogue is interesting, pleasant, and generally uplifting, the partners will continue their conversation for the foreseeable future. Church members might even be encouraged to invite their friends to join in, and visitors will be made to feel right at home from the get-go. And because the sermon is only a dialogue, a context for congregational conversation, it can't be expected to carry much of the "disciple-making" weight. So the church multiplies programs, staff, and training contexts, cafeteria-like, so that members can pursue their interests and needs in as many ways as possible.