Is preaching past its sell-by date?
|Pastor Choolwe Mwetwa, one of my favourite Zambian preachers|
One issue I often have to address in my itinerant preaching is the abiding relevance of preaching. One interviewer said to me after hearing me preach, "But don't you think you put too much confidence and emphasis on preaching? People have their Bibles now. Shouldn't they simply be encouraged to read their Bibles and then come together to discuss what they are learning from their Bible reading?"
That is the popular mindset. Men and women do not want to be told what to believe and how to live. They want to share their opinions. This is particularly observable in the blogosphere. It does not matter how thoroughly you as the author of a blog post have done your research, thought through a matter, and then posted your most educated work. Most comments come from people who just want to say what they already know, without putting their thoughts through a fresh test in the light of the blog post. So, if what you are teaching opposes their long-held beliefs, they will not even pause to really listen to you. They immediately tick you off and go on to say what they think—which is often nothing more than a scoop from a pool of ignorance. I say again, this is the popular mindset. We are all teachers and should just share what we all already know.
There is a place for Bible reading and discussion
Let me begin by granting that there is a place for Bible reading and Bible discussion. It was the error of Roman Catholicism that developed a priesthood that insisted that only trained priests could understand the Bible. Ordinary people could not. Taking this further, it became not only intellectually dangerous but criminally illegal for ordinary (“ignorant”) people to have the Bible in their own mother tongue. The Latin Vulgate was the last stop. Any other version was to be burnt!
However, having granted that does not mean that we do away with the preaching ministry. A preacher is a herald. He comes into our busy and preoccupied lives and announces to us what the king of heaven has sent him to announce. That is how God normally communicates with his people. He burdens men with his word and sends them to us to unburden themselves before us. While we are busy with our callings in the world they are busy in the study of the word and of the world. They then come to teach us what the word says about our world and about our lives in this world. We ignore them to our own peril.
Rightly dividing the word of truth
The view that we all have Bibles, and so should simply read and discuss what we discover in our Bibles, overlooks the fact that "rightly dividing the word of truth" necessitates training, experience, spirituality, and giftedness. The more you have of these ingredients, the more the sacred pages seem to yield to your eyes and your heart. Some biblical truths are milk and any spiritual baby can understand them; but other truths are strong meat that only the truly mature can process without having stomach problems. If we insist on meeting on equal ground, it will not be long before the blind lead the blind into the ditch!
Come on! Even in secular fields, a lecturer does not begin with, "Read your text books and let us discuss as equals.” Rather, he teaches first, gives assignments to enable you to think a little further, and then calls you to discuss the issues that you have learned. Even where he asks you to read your textbooks first, his learning is acknowledged in the discussion that ensues afterwards. Now, if that is true of subjects that do not endanger human souls for eternity, how much more should this be the case with spiritual truths? Surely, we should be humble enough to sit and humbly learn under proven and experienced "men of God" before we open our mouths to speak.
The pride of human learning
It seems to me that we are up against the pride of human learning when men and women suggest that preaching is past its sell-by date. Ultimately, men and women do not want anything that sounds authoritative, especially if they have grown up in a context where there were no authority figures in their lives. So, they want to control the learning process themselves. Like Herod they want to be able to say, "Enough! I'll hear you later!" This is especially the case when the subject is getting uncomfortable and touching their darling sins. Some interpretations of the Bible swallow an entire camel to legitimize sin.
A typical example is the modern understanding of the text, “Do not judge”. If you sit in a group and hear people citing this verse, you would think that Jesus was saying that we should not pass moral judgment on anyone who is doing something that is morally questionable. This is especially the case with sexual sin. So, if men and women who are co-habiting come to church, we should all look the other way because the Bible says, “Do not judge.” It is in cases like this that you need those whose spiritual senses have been trained due to the regular study of God’s word to speak to us all about what Jesus really meant by that statement. An honest study of the context soon shows that the modern interpretation is totally wrong. God calls us to judge those among us who are living in sin.
Is preaching a boring monologue?
Another version of this problem is the claim that we now live in a very interactive society. “People cannot sit for 30 minutes to an hour listening to one person talking in monologue fashion,” we are told. I find this claim very hypocritical. The same people who say this will sit and listen to an hour of news or of the president giving a "state of the nation" address! They will even tell the children to shut up or leave the room because they want to concentrate on what they are listening to. Then on Sunday during worship they say that they cannot concentrate. The sermon is too long. We need more discussion and less preaching. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam. Let us face it—the problem is a lack of interest.
To those who claim that preaching is a boring monologue, I argue that preaching is very interactive. There is a lot of communication going back and forth between the preacher and the hearers. Of course if what is being called preaching is the dead droning along that sends half the church to sleep then there is need to trade in the preacher for someone or something more interesting. But that is not preaching. Preaching is "theology on fire". The whole body of the preacher preaches and as the sermon's intensity grows it is almost impossible for anyone to sleep. Empathy with the subject or hatred for it keeps the adrenaline flowing in both the preacher and the hearers. They cannot sleep.
Preachers must be godly men
Finally, to suggest that preaching is past its sell-by date overlooks the place of sanctification in the assimilation of God’s word. Preachers must be godly men. In that way, they will not dodge any part of God’s word but will bring out the full menu to feed the flock. A story is told of a preacher who was called to pastor a church in an area where the favourite sport was cock fighting. Sunday after Sunday he addressed this vice from the Bible (I am not sure which verses he used!). Finally, the deacons of the church called him for a meeting in which they told him, “This congregation does not like sermons on cock fighting. So, if you want to remain our pastor you must stop preaching on that subject.”
God in his wisdom has raised up godly and faithful preachers to stand against the popular tide—even among believers. As long as sin remains in the world, preaching will never be past its sell-by date—until the Lord himself returns to put an end to our spiritual rebellion.