The Art of Preaching
Preaching is traditionally the main way that churches proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. An ancient practice, its relevance has sometimes been called into question in a context where people have access to more information than ever before. What is preaching, exactly, and do we still need to engage in it? Insights spoke to a number of people from different facets of Uniting Church life, to ask them what they think preaching is in the age of Zoom-mediated worship.
Anyone who has stepped foot in a church before has encountered preaching. While not always considered the central feature of a church service (in Catholic liturgy, for example, communion is emphasised above other aspects), it is a prominent part that has been a part of church life since Jesus’ ministry.
Preaching: What is it?
Rev. Dr Elizabeth Raine is Minister of the Word at Tuggeranong Uniting Church.
“Preaching in essence is considered to be the proclamation of the word, and is designed to help people in congregations help understand the meaning of scripture and its importance to growing faith and discipleship in their lives. This is what sets it apart from other inspiring forms of speech, the focus on scripture, relevance for our lives and encouraging discipleship,” Rev. Dr Raine said.
“I have to say it seems to be important because it has a very long tradition in the church. People expect a sermon in worship services. For some, it may be the only teaching they receive on a scripture passage.”
Rev. Dr Ockert Meyer lectures in homiletics at United Theological College.
“What preaching is, also distinguishes it from other types of public speeches,” he said.
In other words, in preaching the congregation is not simply told a story about things that happened in the past, nor are they simply given (moral) advice or instructions about their life in the present or future, but they are given (proclaimed) the good news of God’s gift in Jesus Christ.
“The word ‘proclaim’ is very important to understand the unique meaning of preaching as opposed to public discourse,” Rev. Dr Meyer said.
“To use another example that is relevant here: it is like the moment a celebrant declares to a couple that they are legally married, his or her words have an effect that changes the status of the couple.”
“Preaching as ‘proclamation’ contains something of this. We see this in the NT in Jesus’ first sermon as reported in Luke 4:21 ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
“However, preaching is not only the proclamation of the Word of God, but also of the presence of God. An old Reformed Confession put it like this: ‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.’ In other words, in preaching we have a God who is present both in the spoken word and present as the One who speaks the Word.”
“This doesn’t mean that the preacher is simply a puppet speaking at the behest of a divine ventriloquist. Preaching is deeply incarnational because God dares the Word in the mouths and on the tongues of ordinary men and women. Preachers are called and used with their talents and shortcomings. The Word enters into their lives and the word that leaves their mouths is a word that is saturated with the power and potential to give new life, faith and hope – in ways that the preachers cannot even imagine for themselves.”
“The preacher is the one who speaks the words of the sermon, but God actually does the proclaiming.”
The point of preaching, Rev. Dr Myer said, is not to provide moral advice, express opinions, or to lay out life principles, “but rather to be the occasion for the hearing of a voice beyond the preacher’s voice: the very words of the living God.”
Preaching, then, has very specific meaning in the life of the church, but is often a misunderstood activity.
Adding to this is a popular understanding of ‘preaching’ as moral instruction, that often sees the term used in less-than-favourable ways.
Is it still relevant?
Rev. Dr Raine told Insights that she sometimes questions whether or not preaching remains relevant in and of itself.
“Certainly it keeps the stories of the Bible alive and hopefully fresh for people to think about, but I wonder at whether this is necessarily the best way for people to engage with scripture and discipleship in a congregation,” she said.
“The question I have is, ‘Is it still relevant?’ Ask any given congregation the following week whether they remember the sermon of the week before, and generally they cannot tell you. The exception is if you have done a bible study as well as preaching on the text.
“Research tells us talking at people in a monologue for 10 to 20 minutes does not actually influence behaviour or change people’s thinking. However, I have found Bible studies do change thinking and behaviour, as you get time to really explore the text and discuss the implications it has for how people live.”
“We are no longer an oral culture so do not have the same capacity to remember stories and words and think about them. This has worsened since the advent of three minute YouTube bites and social media grabs. Apparently researchers have demonstrated that this is actually changing our neural pathways in the brain and the way we process information. Maybe preaching is therefore no longer the best way of communicating.”
Rev. Dr Raine also identified the additional challenge of what can happen when preachers are reticent to challenge their congregations.
“Part of the problem I think is that preachers want to reinforce the beliefs of people or expound their own hobby horses and this tends to keep congregations right in their comfort zones, probably explaining why they don’t tend to remember sermons,” she said.
“Sermons that stir people up and challenge their perceptions or values tend to be remembered more, but this is seen as risky by many preachers.”
“Despite what many ministers will tell you about themselves, there is actually little evidence that most preaching …transforms congregations or grows them in faith or numerically. Engaging them in behaviours that are out of their comfort zones and creating space for people to process this is what leads to transformation in my experience.”
Rev. Dr Meyer said that the question of preaching’s relevance is not a new one, attributing it in part to times when it has not been done properly.
“In the first half of the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer also refers to this and then says that the Church is not suffering from too much preaching, but from too much bad preaching,” he said.
“In his four-volume set ‘The History of Preaching’, points out that over the course of the last two thousand years, the times of the great preachers also coincided with the times of the greatest exponential growth in the church.”
“Herein might lie the reason for the decline of the church…”
Not just for ordained ministers
While churches traditionally set aside ordained ministers with the task of preaching, they are not the only people who handle preaching duties, which also fall on Deacons and lay people.
James Ellis is a Uniting Church lay person, who has been preaching since he was 16.
“I think [Lay Preaching] is important for a few different reasons,” Mr Ellis said.
“Proclaiming the gospel isn’t the sole duty of ‘the minister’. It is something lay people are called to do in their baptism. While not everyone is suited or feel called to preaching in public, it is important for the church to be reminded. I think the Uniting Church does this reasonably well.”
Mr Ellis also suggested that Lay Preachers add an extra layer of flexibility for congregations, relief for ministers, and opportunities for those exploring the various ministries of the church.”
“I think the Church should place more emphasis and a sense of ‘renewal’ on the ministry of Lay Preacher as a valid vocation available to people in the Church,” he said.
“While the flexibility exists that almost anyone can be given the opportunity to preach, properly resources and training Lay Preachers ensures that ‘good theology’ preached, and that preaching is consistent with the Basis of Union and what it means to be a Uniting Church.”
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