Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness (Colossians 1:24-25)
Reggie McNeal, a church analyst and futurist who’s built a lucrative career throwing firebombs at evangelical churches, says the act of preaching is irrelevant and outmoded. What modern churches need instead is testimony, individual believers sharing with one another how they’ve figured out the Christian lifestyle. According to McNeal, the didactic nature of preaching—at least in the classical sense of a designated individual guiding a congregation in biblical theology and godly living—is neither appealing nor useful to contemporary society. People today could care less about instruction; what they want is example.
McNeal isn’t alone. Many observers of the American church are questioning the place and role of the preacher, to the point where it’s an open question if preaching will have any place at all for future congregations. To modern ears, preaching often echoes the spiritual arrogance and captivity to religious tradition that led American churches into the state of disrepair and irrelevance they now occupy. How could someone actually believe they have the right to stand behind a pulpit—ornate wood for the traditionalist, plexiglass for the contemporary crowd—and tell others what God desires for them to do or what kind of person he wants them to be?
In direct contrast to critics, though, the New Testament holds up preaching as essential to both the mission and the health of the church. Romans 10:14-15 is unequivocal: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”
Preaching announces God’s plan and purposes, to the world as well as to God’s people within the church. So John Chrysostom—a preacher so eloquent he’s known to history as “golden tongue”—saved the early church from government domination; a thousand years later Francis of Assisi saved the medieval church from itself. Preaching was the means of success for both. Martin Luther’s writings, fleshed out in his sermons, initiated the spiritual revolution known as the Protestant Reformation. John Wesley’s preaching affected the British people from the humblest to the most powerful and altered the course of their nation. Charles Finney’s preaching changed the fabric of American society, as his preaching expressed the spiritual and cultural insights flowing from the Second Great Awakening. From the pulpit of Riverside Church in New York City, Harry Emerson Fosdick reconciled the emerging insights of modern science with historic Christian theology. Billy Graham called the post-modern world to repentance and Pope John Paul II preached down the Soviet Union. Through every era, God has raised up preachers to announce to the church—and beyond —how to live faithful and authentic lives through a relationship with the risen Savior.
Herman Melville, in the great American novel Moby-Dick, captures the place of preaching in the startling imagery of a nineteenth-century sailing ship:
What could be more full of meaning?—for the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.
Despite his lurid prose style, Melville’s perception is right on point with the Bible’s perspective as well as the church’s history. Preaching has always been the cutting edge of gospel ministry and church effectiveness. If today’s churches are going to re-discover their identity and mission, preachers still must lead the way.
The biblical description of preaching is much more than testimony, story-telling, dialogue, conversation, videos, drama productions, narrative, meta-narrative, cute outlines, memorable acronyms, alliterative points, comedy sketches, personal revelations, interviews, probing questions, boring theological lectures, interesting theological lectures, history lectures, pop psychology lectures, adventures into positive thinking, diatribes against What’s Wrong With America, complaints against people in the congregation, whining about life’s unfair conditions, personal agendas dressed up with scriptural references, entertaining personal experiences and all the other tricks of the trade that modern preachers—from traditionalist to contemporary to everything in between—are prone to use. Instead, the primary Greek word for preaching, keyrgma, simply means “announcement.” In other words, the preacher is one who announces—usually to a believing congregation; sometimes to a skeptical congregation; and almost always to a non-believing world—what God’s Word reveals about his divine actions, redemptive purposes and gracious intent. When the older Paul instructs a younger colleague in ministry in the essential nature of ministry, he uses just this word: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:2)