What is This Preacher Doing?

What is the preacher doing when they preach?  Sometimes that question might be asked in a concerned tone – what is this preacher doing?  But even without the negative or concerned tone, the question is worth pondering.

John Stott wrote about the task of the preacher in his book, Between Two Worlds.  He recognized the biblical metaphors of herald, sower, ambassador, steward, shepherd and workman.  He noted that each presents the preacher as one under the authority of another, one who communicates the word of another.  Thus, he argued that preaching wasn’t mere presentation of exegesis, but also communication to a contemporary situation.  It is this “two-world” approach that led to his use of the metaphor of the preacher as a bridge-builder between the world of the Scriptures and the world of the listener (and necessarily in that order, for the “type of bridge to be built must be determined more by the biblical revelation than by the zeitgeist or the spirit of the age.”)

While affirming Stott’s simplified model of preaching, there are other aspects of the preacher’s role that should be highlighted.  Yes, the preacher has to seek to represent the text effectively, while also targeting effective communication for the pastoral good of those receiving the message.  Furthermore, the preacher always has a prayerful responsibility (almost priestly, but you’ve got to be careful with that language), to stand before the throne of grace on behalf of those to whom the message will be preached.  The preacher also has to take into account that he/she typically does not know everyone who will be present when the message is presented, so there is an ambassadorial role in respect to representing the God of the Bible to those who may only ever make an overt personal evaluation of this God based on this message (especially if the representation is poor!)

William Sanford LaSor once wrote that “the art of preaching is the application of Scripture to the present situation. . . For the preacher who believes that the Bible is the authoritative word of God in every generation, his task is to start with the text of Scripture and to derive from it a message that will be in effect the word of God to his audience.”

So I’m back to my original question.  What is the preacher doing?  Any answer that is content with an inherently impersonal definition of preaching is inadequate.  Preaching is not merely presenting information.  Neither is it merely presenting information for the good of generic people-in-general who may be listening.  Preaching involves personally representing the God who has revealed Himself in His Word, supremely in His Son, by His Spirit, to specific people that He is wooing, winning and nurturing.  It involves representing not only information, but the tone, the manner, the character of a personal God to people who may or may not know Him.  However we define preaching, it must include something about the persons of the Trinity, the preacher as a person and the listeners as people.

So next time you preach, what might someone say if they asked themselves, what is this preacher doing?  What would you want them to say?

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12 Responses to What is This Preacher Doing?

  1. Roscoe Mishmack September 14, 2010 at 7:03 am #

    Very good way of putting the question, if I may say so – although it seems it might be a while before I have another occasion to ask it of myself. I’ve been thinking about this very thing for the last month or two, in the context of a course I’ve just withdrawn from. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in my understanding of what preaching is really about.

    I particularly like Phillips Brooks’ definition of preaching as “the communication of truth by man to men”. (A bit more of that on my blog, if anyone’s interested.) Brooks goes on to talk about the transparency of the preacher to God on the one side and his congregation on the other – I must read it more closely.

    Just today, I came across a quote from Hooker in an article, “The Importance of Preaching for Anglican Renewal”, on the North American Anglican website (http://www.39articles.com/). I thought that was pretty good as well:-

    “For the instruction therefore of all sorts of men unto eternal life it is necessary, that the sacred and saving truth of God be openly published unto them. Which open publication of heavenly mysteries is by an excellency termed Preaching.”

  2. Glen Scrivener September 14, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

    I really don’t like all those ‘bridge building’ metaphors for preaching – they usually make it sound like the bible itself is distant, dull, obscure and disjointed and it requires these strange breed of men with special training to make it relevant, lively, clear and pointed.

  3. Ron Frost September 15, 2010 at 4:46 am #

    The question of how to find and use proper metaphors is on my mind (I’ll address that issue in a separate context for my Cor Deo entry next week). So, given your qualm, Glen, do you have any imagery that you prefer?

    I’ll offer a different metaphor that complements Peter’s proposal. He noted that “Preaching involves personally representing the God who has revealed Himself in His Word, supremely in His Son, by His Spirit . . .” which elicits for me a picture of a magnifying glass: of the preacher remaining as transparent as possible (by so capturing the central thrust of the text) that the One speaking in/through the text can be seen in the heart’s eye of the listener.

  4. Peter Mead September 15, 2010 at 6:04 am #

    I know what you mean, Glen. Actually your concern drove a major project I did a few years back that was concerned with the influence of preaching on the Bible habits of listeners. Specifically, is the “trained expert” functionally making the Bible inaccessible to listeners and demotivating them from personal encounters with the Word and therefore with the God of the Word?

    Stott wasn’t the first to use the bridge notion, nor the last. Jean-Jacques Von Allmen used an arrow concept back in 1962, but that is by the by. It is the critiques that I am thinking of here. Thomas Long expressed concern that the arrow was unidirectional and no other arrow was drawn in any direction. He affirmed the motivation that the Bible should be setting the agenda, but felt that it obscured the truth that “those who hear the gospel are not passive receivers of information, they are active participants in the gospel story.”

    More recently Michael Quicke has critiqued the 180 degree model by pointing to the massive number of variables at play in preaching and suggested a more complicated 360 degree model of preaching.

    I suppose that from my perspective there is a real value in the simple model, but also some inherent dangers. One is the one you suggest, which I think many people actually believe. I think it is helpful to recognise the distance between the times of the Bible and today – cultural, linguistic, geographical, political, technological, etc. – but affirm the value of those who are effective at demonstrating the inherent relevant, lively and engaging message of the text. We don’t make it relevant, we show how it is relevant.

    A good preacher should not really be pursuing praise for their ability, but rather draw praise and response to the God of the Bible, stirring listeners to want to be in the Word for themselves and responding to the Word Himself, themselves. It’s a fine line though, between serving God and people by facilitating a heaven-earth transaction, and becoming the needed intermediary that helps on Sundays, but hinders by their absence on Monday-Saturday.

  5. Bobby Grow September 15, 2010 at 6:40 am #

    I came across this quote from Karl Barth on preaching that I thought was relevant to the discussion here:

    “If the preacher sets himself to expound a particular idea, in some form or another-even if the idea is derived from a serious and well-informed exegesis-then the Scripture is not allowed to speak for itself; the preacher is discoursing on it. To put it more positively preaching should be an explanation of Scripture; the preacher does not have to speak ‘on’ but ‘from’ (ex), drawing from the Scriptures whatever he says. He does not have to invent, but rather repeat something. No thesis, no purpose derived from his own resources must be allowed to intervene: God alone must speak…He must follow the special trend of the text, and keep to it wherever it may lead him, not raising questions about a subject which may, as it seems to him, arise from the text.” – Karl Barth, Preaching I.7

  6. Peter Mead September 15, 2010 at 6:46 am #

    Bobby, I was thinking about this recently when I heard one of the more well known preachers in the UK preach. I was uncomfortable throughout and wrote the following on my preaching blog:

    When you preach, are you overtly or implicitly saying “my message (on this text)” and “my points”? Or, are you overtly and implicitly saying “Paul’s message in this text” and “Paul’s point.” Exposition that isn’t by the fence at the periphery of camp exposition, but sits right in the middle, is exposition where the text is not just the source of the propositional content and historical background, but where the text is really the boss of the message. The best expositions are where the listeners haven’t just been informed about the text, but where they have entered into the text, the text has entered into them, and where the text has been set free to do what the text was intended to do.

    Too easily some of us don’t really do what the text does, but instead we focus just on saying what the text says, and actually end up helping the text out by nursing it through with the aid of our well planned structures and materials of interest.

  7. Rich Owen September 15, 2010 at 9:49 am #

    Hello folks.

    Yes, the “explain what it says” approach might communicate some truth to the listener, but it doesn’t, as Peter suggests, reflect the tone, character and manner in which it was written. Often some points get expounded rather than the scripture and God is depersonalised – reduced to propositions and concepts which we are to apply. It might make sense of something, it might even be helpful but is that preaching? Are they becoming the very mouth of the God, speaking Christ out to be received?

  8. Glen Scrivener September 15, 2010 at 12:08 pm #

    Hi all – if we’re looking for alternative imagery, what about overflowing? Gustaf Wingren says this in ‘The Living Word’ (great title!):

    “The Bible itself overflows into preaching and is itself active when the preaching of Christ to men takes place.”

    Also: “preaching is a link in a chain of creative words: preaching possesses, as a continuation of the Bible, of God’s Word, the same might which once created the world and shall one day create the world anew.”

    Or (another Lutheran!) Bonhoeffer:

    “It is wrong to assume that on the one hand there is a word, or a truth, and on the other hand there is a community existing as two separate entities, and that it would then be the task of the preacher to take this word, to manipulate and enliven it, in order to bring it within and apply it to the community. Rather, the Word moves along this path of its own accord. The preacher should and can do nothing more than be a servant of this movement inherent in the Word itself, and refrain from placing obstacles in its path.” (‘Discipleship’)

    The bible itself is God preaching and it overflows into contemporary proclamation as the preacher, swept along by the Word, entreats along side by pointing to just what the Scriptures are pointing to – Christ.

    That seems far closer to the ‘compulsion’ language of the bible ‘I’m weary of holding it it, I cannot’, ‘I am compelled to preach’, ‘God makes His appeal through us’.

  9. Glen Scrivener September 15, 2010 at 9:06 pm #

    Here’s another image I thought of today: Preachers are waiters not chefs


  10. Roscoe Mishmack September 15, 2010 at 11:10 pm #

    Can I ask, do you see preaching as being the same as interpreting or, perhaps, including interpretation – or is that a different job? Peter’s comments above put me in mind of something C H Dodd said in his inaugural lecture as Norris-Hulse Professor at Cambridge:

    “The ideal interpreter would be one who has entered into that strange first-century world, has felt its whole strangeness, has sojourned in it until he has lived himself into it, thinking and feeling as one of those to whom the Gospel first came, and who will then return to our world, and give to the truth he has discerned a body out of the stuff of our own thought.” (Quoted by John A T Robinson, who, I assume, would not be one of this group’s heroes, in his introduction to ‘The Founder of Christianity’.)

    I would have to say that, personally, I like sermons that put the ideas of the gospels, and the language and images used to express them, into their original context. If done well it can bring the gospel to life – make it much more real, for me at least. If done badly, or not at all, a sermon can take us down the wrong path altogether.

    Hope you don’t mind another intrusion by an outsider – but I am interested in the discussion and you are having it, after all, in the public domain.

  11. Bobby Grow September 16, 2010 at 12:21 am #

    Amen, Peter! If the “text” is not tied to the reality to whom it bears witness; then indeed all we are is “nurse-maids” (or worse “mad scientists”).

  12. Peter Mead September 16, 2010 at 5:20 am #

    Glen, thanks for the image of waiters, not chefs. I like that. I followed your link – we’ll let you get away with that this time :) – and to be honest I am not sure about the use of “interpretation” in the quote. Is he suggesting that he does not interpret in preparing his messages? By normal definitions, I suggest he does. Interpretation seems to point to hermeneutics rather than concoction of something new. We are all using hermeneutics every time we listen or read communication from someone else. Having said that, I like your description of the waiter versus the chef – we certainly need more waiters in our pulpits, and less self-confessed amateur chefs (which is what I was pointing to in an earlier reference to “listen to my message on this text”).

    Roscoe, thanks for engaging the discussion. This is not a closed group, but an open invitation to discuss the subjects we raise here and you are most welcome. I suppose the traditional understanding of preaching is that it is firstly about hermeneutics (seeking to accurately understand the message of the text) and then about homiletics in the narrower sense (seeking to effectively communicate the message of the text with an emphasis on its relevance to the contemporary and local listeners). Too much preaching falls short because either the preacher hasn’t handled the text well in preparation (i.e.poor hermeneutics), or they haven’t prepared the message effectively (i.e.poor homiletics), or both. I would say that preaching includes interpretation.

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