Recovering Preachers & Preaching

By Alan D. Strange

We live in a day in which many regard preaching, at best, as sharing, not proclamation, and in which the therapist has replaced the preacher. We need to recover both the preaching office and a high view of preaching.

Historically, there was in Protestantism a high view of both the preacher and preaching. It is striking what E. Brooks Holifield says in Theology in Americaregarding the place of pastor/theologians before the American Civil War. There was a real appetite then for serious theological teaching and preaching, and it was met in the pulpits and in the writings of ministers in parish service. In those earlier years, the theologian was not so much of an “academic” as he was to become in subsequent years, when biblical higher criticism, having ravaged Germany and England, took hold in America and the “academic theologian” replaced the pastor as the leading theological voice.

We have experienced, over the course of time, a downgrading of the preaching office and of theological instruction in preaching. (Bible reading has become increasingly focused on the reader’s response, and preaching has become increasingly seeker-sensitive.) This downgrade began with the rise of the intellectual, which occurred earlier in Europe than America. Alister McGrath explains, in The Twilight of Atheism:

The emergence of the intellectual as a recognized social type is one of the most remarkable developments of recent centuries. Intellectuals became a secular priesthood, unfettered by the dogmas of the religious past, addressing a growing audience who were becoming increasingly impatient with the moral failures and cultural unsophistication of their clergy. At some point, perhaps one that can never be determined with historical accuracy, Western society came to believe that it should look elsewhere than to its clergy for guidance. Instead, they turned to the intellectuals, who were able to portray their clerical opponents as lazy fools who could do no more than unthinkingly repeat the slogans and nostrums of an increasingly distant past. A new future lay ahead, and society needed brave new thinkers to lead them to its lush Promethean pastures. (p. 49)

The modernism that developed after the Enlightenment witnessed the enthroning of naturalism and the secularization of the sciences. Then the postmodernism that arose in the wake of the evident failures of modernism saw the rejection of propositional truth and the embracing of skepticism. Both of these post-Enlightenment developments meant further marginalization of the office of minister and the replacement of that office with the scientist, therapist, or spiritualist, with the laboratory and the couch shoving aside the pulpit. The response of the church and the ministry has varied, ranging from a call to return to premodernist rationalism to the embrace of postmodernism in movements like the Emergent Church.

What is needed is a recovery both of preaching and of the office of preacher. The democratization of American Christianity (as Nathan Hatch has termed it) tends to separate preaching from preachers. Some would agree that preaching is the need of the hour, but would also argue that any committed Christian is called to and competent for such a task. Such a denial of the preaching office flows in part out of both Great Awakenings, but far more out of the Second. It denied man’s inability and also tended to minimize the preaching office in the church, which properly derives from the gifts and callings that God bestows according to his good pleasure.

Jacksonian democracy, Restorationism, and the whole American ethos of self-reliance contributed to the lowering of the office of preacher. It is not only the intellectual and the expert (the scientist, the philosopher, the psychiatrist, etc.) who shove aside the minister, but also, on the other end of the spectrum, the anti-intellectual who senses no need for the minister, being in the grip of a “Jesus, my Bible, and me” mentality. This is, as Mark Noll puts it, “the scandal of the evangelical mind.” And the needed recovery of preachers and preaching will not come about through manipulative techniques (drama in worship, musical productions, etc.). It will only come about through the church recognizing men who fit the bill of 1 Timothy 3, giving them solid theological training, placing them in office, and receiving with meekness and joy the Word of God from their lips.

The cure for our spiritual ills can never be anything other than what God himself has prescribed. If our postmodern situation is rightly understood, we have come full circle in our neo-paganism, back to the premodern paganism of Paul’s world, the world of Acts 17, to which the apostles, and those who followed them in the ministerial office, preached. Preaching is not passé, as so many would have it, but needed more now than ever.

The Preached Word of God

A recovery of the office of preacher will do us no good if we do not receive the preached word as did the Thessalonians: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13). Some may think that what the Thessalonians welcomed from Paul as the word of God was exclusively the divinely inspired word that he delivered as an apostle, but that interpretation is open to challenge.

To be sure, the apostle Paul did occasionally speak divinely inspired words, but not always. More often than not, he preached. Certainly the vast majority of his teaching is not inscripturated. The office of apostle, while extraordinary, had to it an ordinary, repeatable element. As an apostle, Paul was also an evangelist, a pastor, an elder, and a deacon. Much of what he did in ministry is to be associated with the ordinary preaching office that we find described first in the Old Testament in the Levitical priesthood and then as modified in the New Testament in the office of evangelist or pastor (see “Pastors” in Westminster’s Form of Presbyterial Church-Government).

Important commentators, including Luther and Calvin, have recognized that the word of God that the Thessalonians heard from Paul and that they received as such was his preaching. The Westminster divines accordingly cite 1 Thessalonians 2:13 as a proof text for the teaching that we are to “receive the truth [preached] … as the Word of God” (Larger Catechism, 160). According to the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566, there is a sense in which, derivatively, “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”

Another piece of evidence that preaching is a divine activity is found in Romans 10:14, which may be literally translated, “How shall they believe him whom they have not heard?” This is immediately followed by another question: “And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Paul teaches here that men hear Christ when they hear—receive in faith—the one who truly preaches. We hear Christ representatively when we hear the preacher: Christ, not merely the man preaching, is the true gospel preacher.

In the church lately, though, there seems to be a low view of preaching and a lust for “more exciting” means of bringing the lost to Christ. When we hear folk in the church opine that we need to do something (that we are presumably not doing) to get people in the door, the subtext of such sentiments is often, “The last thing that we need here is more of that boring preaching that drives prospects away.” And, too often, they are right. Such preaching as we have—even in Reformed churches—is often just that: boring, dry, academic, lacking in heart, tending to repel rather than draw needy sinners to Christ.

All this is to say that preachers cannot blame parishioners and prospects entirely for the lack of interest in preaching that is too frequently manifested in our churches. To be sure, many people want their ears tickled. They want to hear smooth things and not to be confronted with their sin and responsibility. Yet how often do we as preachers fail to preach in a way that is calculated to engage the hearts and lives of our hearers? How much “Reformed” preaching is passionless, droning, and disconnected from the congregation? Is a lack of good preaching part of the reason why there is so little taste for preaching?

The kind of preaching that we need is Spirit-filled and Spirit-blessed. We need preaching that is Christ-centered, that comes from a brokenhearted preacher, and that opens up the heart of the people and applies the only balm that can cure sin-sick souls. Laughing revivals may bring people through the doors, but only preaching blessed by the unction of the Holy Spirit will, to paraphrase the Larger Catechism (Q. 155), cause sinners to see their misery, despair of themselves utterly, and flee to Christ alone for salvation.

As T. David Gordon laments in his latest book, Johnny often cannot preach. Even artless preaching, however, that is faithful is an administration of the Word of God. Perhaps then it is not simply that Johnny (in the pulpit) cannot preach, but also that Johnny (in the pew) does not know how to receive faithful preaching as the word of the Lord. It may be, as George Schultz once opined, that we have not only a crisis of leadership, but of followership, and that we need to learn both to preach faithfully and to receive the preached Word in faith.

The author is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church in New Lenox, Ill., and teaches at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2009.