The State of Preaching Today
- Wednesday, August 30, 2006
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity. . ." With those famous words, Charles Dickens introduced his great novel A Tale of Two Cities. Of course, Dickens had the two cities of London and Paris in mind, and much of his story revealed that the tenor of the times depended upon where one lived.
In some sense, that remains true as we consider the state of preaching today. To a large degree, this depends upon where one chooses to look.
On the one hand, there are signs of great promise and encouragement. On the other hand, several ominous trends point toward dangerous directions for preaching in the future.
In surveying the current state of preaching, my primary concern is for preaching in the evangelical churches of North America. In these circles, preaching is generally considered to be an important part of worship and church life. Furthermore, it is generally understood to be the chief means of instructing the congregation in the Word of God and in presenting the claims of Christ. Even so, there appears to be little consensus about what preaching is to be in terms of shape, structure, substance, and subject matter. This confusion is readily seen when attending conferences on preaching or in listening to preachers talk about their own understanding of the task.
Signs of encouragement include a large number of younger evangelical pastors who are unabashedly committed to biblical exposition and represent a resurgence of genuine biblical exposition from the pulpits of churches situated in every part of the country, from the inner city to the suburbs and beyond. This new generation is proving once again that the effective and faithful exposition of the Word of God draws persons to Christ and leads to spiritual growth and to the health of the church. A generation of young ministers, along with others making their way through college and seminary education, may point toward a renaissance of biblical preaching in coming years.
On the other hand, several trends represent issues of genuine concern. In the main, the last few decades have been a period of wanton experimentation in many pulpits and preaching has often been redefined and reconceived as something other than the exposition and application of the biblical text.
1. A Loss of Confidence in the Power of the Word.
Contemporary Americans are surrounded by more words than any previous generation in human history. We are bombarded with words delivered to us in every conceivable form--sung, broadcast, electrified, printed, and spoken. Words have been digitalized, commercialized, and subjected to postmodern linguistic theories.
Taken together, all this amounts to a significant loss of confidence in the word as written and spoken. Several years ago, the photographer Richard Avedon declared that "images are fast replacing words as our primary language."
This certainly appears to be the case. In The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word, author Mitchell Stephens of New York University argues that "the image is replacing the word as the predominant means of mental transport."
Since preaching is itself a form of "mental transport," any loss of confidence in the word leads to a loss of confidence in preaching. Ultimately, preaching will cease to be Christian preaching if the preacher loses confidence in the authority of the Bible as the Word of God and in the power of the spoken word to communicate the saving and transforming message of the Bible. The preacher must stand up and speak with confidence, declaring the Word of God to a congregation that is bombarded with hundreds of thousands of words each week, many of them delivered with a soundtrack or moving images. The audacious claim of Christian preaching is that the faithful declaration of the Word of God, spoken through the preacher's voice, is even more powerful than anything music or image can deliver.
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