Klaus Runia, in his book The Sermon Under Attack quotes a rather unkind definition of preaching as ‘a monstrous monologue by a moron to mutes’. In his book, which is actually a defence of preaching and an appeal for more effective communication, Runia explores some of the reasons why monologue preaching has been subject to such criticism. He identifies important shifts that have taken place in the social context within which preaching is now situated and which challenge the practice of preaching. Amongst these shifts Runia identifies a cultural shift, away from passive instruction to participatory learning; a societal shift, away from simplicity to complexity; and a media shift, away from logical argument to ‘pic ‘n’ mix’ learning.
These shifts can all be understood as manifestations of a larger shift that is taking place throughout the western world. Communication now frequently involves the use of images as well as words, short contributions from diverse points of view, and open-ended presentation that allows freedom to chose your own conclusion. For preachers, this implies not only the use of visual communication as well as verbal communication but difficult challenges about the style and purpose of preaching. Statistical evidence suggests that somewhere between 65% and 90% of people interviewed directly after the service ended could not say what the main point of the sermon was or what issue it was addressing. For Klaus Runia what is needed are better sermons and more effective preachers … but does this really take us to the heart of the problem?
How much preaching is a sheer waste of time? The preacher prays, studies, reflects, crafts a sermon, illustrates it with stories, delivers it with passion and integrity … but it has very little impact on those who listen. Members of the church and congregation are usually too polite to say so, but the reality is that most preaching does not engage their attention, address their concerns or affect their lives. How many of the thousand people a week who have left UK churches during that last 20 or 30 years did so because they were bored by the sermons? Others remain and listen to perhaps 50-60 sermons a year … but with what result? For all the effort in preparing, delivering and listening to sermons, most church members are not as mature as we might expect as a result.
Why is this? Of course there are bad sermons, and there are preachers whose lives are inconsistent with their teaching … but people may listen week after week to the best prepared and presented sermons, given by thoroughly sincere preachers, and yet make little progress in Christian discipleship. Some preachers blame the congregations for a lack of expectancy that God will speak, or an inability to listen to a ‘solid exposition’ of the word, or even downright disobedience to what they hear. I suspect, however, that there is a more significant factor in the failure rate of the sermon than the quality of the preacher or the responsiveness of the hearers … I want to suggest that the problem really lies in our concept of preaching itself. The solution is not to be found in replacing monologue preaching with interactive preaching as some would suggest. I am an advocate of the use of interactive preaching but, having pastored a church where the interactive preaching model was employed regularly on Sunday evenings for more than seven years, I know that interactive preaching can be just as ineffective as monologue preaching.
It is not preaching per se that is the problem in my opinion but the lack of ‘prophetic preaching’ – speaking God’s ‘now word’ for the church and the world! Largely as a result of misinterpreting such texts as 1 Corinthians 1:21 [KJV] – ‘It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe’ – there has grown up, within evangelical circles in particular, an emphasis on the act of preaching itself, rather than ‘the message preached’ [NASB]. The actual Greek word Paul uses here in 1 Corinthians 1:21 is kērugma which literally means ‘a proclamation by a herald’ and denotes ‘the substance of what is preached as distinct from the act of preaching itself’.
I am sure that there are many capable preachers around today who faithfully expound the Scriptures as the word of God week by week but, putting it bluntly, all too often preacher satisfaction takes precedence over congregational growth. Preachers repeatedly choose their favourite texts, passages or themes to preach on to their people. They plagiarize other people’s sermons, books, and ideas and all too often decide of their own volition what it is the people need to hear … whereas what is really needed is ‘prophetic preaching’, God’s ‘now word’ for the people! There are numerous books about preaching on the market today, many of them very helpful, but I know of no book that deals with the subject of ‘prophetic preaching’. When Paul refers to the ‘word of God’ as ‘the sword of the Spirit’ [Ephesians 6:17], the actual Greek word he uses for ‘word’ is rhēma which is indicative of ‘a particular word or message that comes underlined by the Holy Spirit’. Most preachers will claim to have prayed about what they should preach about the following Sunday … but have they truly waited upon God for that prophetic word that will truly ‘cut to the heart’ of the people as Peter’s sermon did on the Day of Pentecost [Acts 2:37]?