by Jeremy Thomson
Originally Published by Anabaptism Today, Issue 20, Spring 1999
Preaching sermons lies at the heart of church life in the Protestant tradition. For Luther, the preaching of the Word virtually constituted the church, while much of Calvin’s output consisted of sermons. Many books on the theory and practice of preaching continue to flow from the religious and academic publishers. In recent years, The Proclamation Trust has been set up to encourage quality expository preaching in Britain. For most evangelical church leaders, preparing to preach sermons is a major, regular responsibility. In choosing a new minister, most churches look for someone who can deliver good sermons (however “good” might be defined).
Since I left ordained Anglican ministry in 1988, I have listened to many more sermons than I have preached, in Anglican, United Reformed, Free and now Baptist churches. A sizeable proportion of them have been, frankly, appalling: apparently biblical, but actually a string of references merely following hackneyed themes, frequently boring and sometimes arrogantly delivered. But even if they had helped me to understand and apply the Scriptures, challenged my discipleship, or renewed my vision for the church, I would still be left with doubts about the high profile of the conventional sermon in the life of the church. Before I became immersed in the Anabaptist tradition, I wrote an essay which questioned the preoccupation with sermons in several church traditions, and this was published by Grove Books in December 1996.
That essay challenged the common equation of preaching with the delivery of monologue sermons. It sought to understand the high estimation that sermons enjoy in Lutheran and particularly Reformed theologies of preaching, and offered an alternative theology for a more dialogical kind of preaching. Three years ago, I became convinced by John Howard Yoder’s writings that conventional Protestant ways of understanding the church inhibited a proper appreciation of human community at the centre of church life. Since then, I have sought to understand Yoder’s doctrine of the church and have developed several further considerations about preaching and sermons. Here I will summarise my earlier argument from the New Testament and then outline three of these new considerations.
The Argument from the New Testament
In the New Testament, the word “preach” translates several different Greek words which mean to bring good news, proclaim, speak, and so on. It is used in Acts and the Epistles for situations which we might call evangelistic, rather than teaching committed Christians. Preaching appears to vary in format and setting from a fairly formal monologue (e.g. Acts 13:16-41) to a Bible study in a chariot (Acts 8:35). Many other terms are used which indicate considerable verbal interaction between preacher and hearers: argue, persuade, dispute, discuss, converse.
When the activity is geared to teaching the committed, the same variety is to be found. There are some blocks of teaching, like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but he might also ask questions of his disciples and interact with them in houses or on the road. At Troas, Paul spoke to the believers through the night (Acts 20:7-12), but we should not think of this as a monologue, interrupted only by Eutychus’ fall from the window; the Greek words imply verbal interaction between Paul and his hearers.
The early history of the Christian sermon is not clear, but it seems that there was at least some congregational participation in patristic homilies. Over the years, the formal sermon has developed and the congregation has come to expect to listen in silence. Pastoral ministry may include some more interactive teaching, and some valuable learning takes place in Bible study/ discussion groups. But for most preachers, the real business happens in church on a Sunday, from a pulpit. And there would be shock, indignation, reprimand even, should a member of the congregation ask a question of the preacher in mid-sermon!
Now interpretation of the New Testament cannot separate what is said from how it is said. The manner of preaching and teaching in the Bible conveys significant attitudes concerning human nature and ways of learning. So I conclude that there remains a place for formal presentation of the gospel or teaching of believers, but that the monologue must not be overvalued, since it is only one form among many, and the informal and interactive are no less important.
The Relationship between God and his People
Defenders of the traditional sermon sometimes accuse those who would challenge it of wanting to undermine the authority of God’s word or of having no message to proclaim. But I would counter this by arguing that we have become so used to the great doctrine of the word of God that we confine to the realm of prayer the less well known doctrine of the listening of God. Here we need to do some biblical theology, starting with the Old Testament.
The non-negotiable heart of the Law was not given by human mediation at all (Exodus 20:1, 18f). It is true that Moses (and later prophets) had a vital role in conveying and interpreting God’s word, priests taught the law, and sages emphasised listening to and obeying instruction (Proverbs 6:20). So we might conclude that communication between God and human beings was unidirectional, with certain figures acting as mouthpieces. However, it is clear (from passages like Genesis ??: 17-32, Exodus 3:4-4:17, and several places in the prophets) that God wanted an interactive relationship with certain people in the Old Testament. Even more significantly, it is not only with certain key people that God formed an interactive relationship, but with the people of Israel as a whole. Their ancient confession, the Shema, (“Hear”, as in Deuteronomy 6:4) reflected on God’s original command at Sinai (Exodus 20:2-3). But before God spoke to the Israelites, he had heard their cry for help (Exodus 2:23-25; 3:7-9). This was because God had previously committed himself to Israel in a relationship of love(Deuteronomy 7:7-11; Hosea 11:1-4), and love listens as well as speaks. Speech is only part of a relationship: listening is “The Other Side of Language”.55 This is the title of Gemma Corradi Fiumara’s philosophy of listening, (Routledge, London, 1990). Perhaps it is significant that a woman should write such a book, since men generally find listening more difficult than women. In fact, I wonder whether the historical domination of preaching by men has been a factor in the careful guarding of its monologue format. The lament or complaint psalms were uttered on the premise that God listens and responds to his people. The psalms of praise and thanks-giving were vehicles for the people to express their response to and confidence in God.
I would argue that the conversational or interactive relationship which God sought with Israel (though it was frequently compromised by Israel), as well as with certain key people in Israel, begins to shift the role of the prophet or other leader away from that of mouthpiece (as in conventional religious views of revelation), and the role of the people away from that of passive recipients. It is only the beginning of a shift, since Moses realises the limitations imposed upon the people by restricted access to God’s Spirit (Numbers 11:29) and Joel must look forward to a pouring out of the Spirit on all (Joel 2:28). But, of course, the Spirit was given to the church on the Day of Pentecost, and now no human being plays an exclusive or unques-tionable role in the reception of God’s word. While there are various gifts and ministries, it is through the church as a community that God’s word is perceived66 Yoder expounds this brilliantly in his essay, “The Hermeneutics of Peoplehood”, in The Priestly Kingdom (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), pp 15-44..
I am claiming that the great variety of means of communication employed in the Gospels and Acts77 Of course many of the Epistles were also part of an ongoing dialogical relationship between the writers and churches. Several letters passed between the Corinthians and Paul., involving speak-ing and listening, initiative and response, bears witness to the relational nature of human beings and to the way God communicates with the church. Having made us this way, and enlivened us by his Spirit, God communicates with us accordingly. The fact that Jesus and his followers encouraged dialogue, entered debate, and conversed with people does not mean that they had nothing to communicate or lacked authority. It means that their communication was richly relational; they respected their interlocutors to the extent of listening as well as speaking. Only by the recognition of the particularity of their conversation partners could Jesus and the apostles match the expression of their message to its recipients and communicate effectively. Only by involving the receivers of their communication at the level of linguistic self-expression could they help them to articulate their own mistaken assumptions, or doubts, or growing faith.
The Issue of Modelling
I would suggest that the dominant monological preaching paradigm can be traced to a master/slave model of God’s relationship to human beings, characterised by commands or issuing instructions, as it were, by mega-phone. We have seen that this paradigm is partly present, but partly undermined in the Old Testament. While there is a proper reverence before God’s word, and it is true that we are “unworthy servants” (Luke 17:10), this emphasis is balanced in the New Testament by Jesus calling his disciples “no longer servants but friends” (John 15:15). Thus, although there should be significant times for a church to listen to God’s word in humble submission in the form of conventional preaching (or prophecy or other ministry), a church needs to see modelled other ways in which God speaks with the church. The use of more interactive forms of preaching would have a significant modelling function.
The image of the preacher, “six feet above contradiction”, is at least partly derived from the supposed authority of the clergy over the lay congregation. There is no need for me to argue that the abusive clergy-laity divide should come to an end, since Alan Kreider has ably presented the case88 “Abolishing the Laity”, in Paul Beasely-Murray (ed.): Anyone for Ordination (Tunbridge Wells: MARC, 1993) pp 84-111.. I believe that church leaders are worthy of respect, but that they must actively look for ways to break down the conventional religious expectations which keep recurring in churches. Here is a key practice with which preachers and teachers can undermine the clergy-laity mind-set. We can model a way of communicating which reflects God’s own way if we stimulate more questions and allow more interaction.
Ordering Systematic Theology
Those who set great store by the sermon often emphasise the doctrine of the word of God. The doctrine of the church comes much further down their list of priorities. This is understandable because the Reformation definition of the church was usually in terms of “where the Word of God is properly preached and the sacraments properly administered”. Such a definition placed the emphasis upon the one who exercised ordained ministry, not on the community who made up the church. But if the focus were to be moved from the leaders of the church to the congregation as a whole, as Yoder argues99 The Royal Priesthood (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) pp 76ff., a more convincing definition of the church could be given. The church is made up of those whose basic personal posture is to confess Jesus as Lord110 Yoder, The Royal Priesthood, p 171.0. Now I would suggest that our thinking about the ministry of the word in the church should come logically after our thinking about the church.
Here we need to consider more carefully the recipients of preaching and teaching. In the New Testament, preaching the good news was aimed at unbelievers, whereas believers were taught about growth in discipleship. Many contemporary sermons aim at converting unbelievers, even when most present have some Christian faith and the rest of the “service” assumes they are (creed, prayers, hymns). An Anabaptist view of the church would suggest that in the gathering of Christians the assumption can be made that Christian faith is shared and the emphasis can be on teaching disciples. This is not to say all are disciples, but those who are not are most likely to be challenged by such teaching. It is outside the church gathering that evangelism goes on; largely informally, but sometimes more formally, preaching the gospel occurs. Thus, evangelistic preaching builds the church in the sense of adding to its number those who are being saved. But teaching disciples builds the church in the sense of developing maturity and deepening community.
This view of things is clearly reflected in I Corinthians 14. Yoder points out that this chapter was an important in the discussions of church life all across the Reformation movement in its early years111 John Howard Yoder: Body Politics (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1992) pp 64-67.1. It is a chapter which submits the spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues to the criterion “what builds the church?” (vv.-5, 12, 26) and which allows to the whole church an importantt weighing function as to what constitutes God’s word (v26-32). Of course, the magisterial reformers had subsequently to distance themselves from such a revolutionary understanding of how God speaks to the church, since it relativised their authoritarian role as preachers. But the Anabaptists were able to able to embody it in a style of church life which allowed much more participation to the church community (at least, to begin with).
Common usage of the term “preaching” seems to reflect not only the confinement of the ministry of the word to the monologue given by a select few, but also confusion about the identity of the church. It should be clear by now that I believe an Anabaptist view of preaching depends upon an Anabaptist ecclesiology. Anabaptists can ask searching questions concern-ing the effectiveness of preaching more easily than can our mainstream Protestant friends simply because preaching is less of an icon of our identity.
A Personal Reflection and Conclusion
In my own experience, I would say that God has spoken to me through some sermons, but these are but one channel among many, including group Bible study, talks followed by questions, reading books and conversations with friends. When it has been a question of God’s word to the church, again the sermon has sometimes been effective, but more often than not this has been a means of avoiding grappling with the real issues at stake, or of imposing a leadership view.
I do not deny that some people have been richly taught, helped and encouraged by great sermons. But I want to maintain that many people who insist stridently on the central importance of the sermon have a one-dimensional understanding of the way God speaks and a limited vision of the church. I believe that teachers and preachers should be looking for ways to break old models of dependency and remodel their ministries around the flexibility and adaptability of Jesus and the apostles, looking for more interactive relationships with their hearers.
So, while I would not argue that conventional sermons should cease, I do believe that they should be viewed as one of a number of ministries of the word. From time to time, a conventional sermon will be appropriate, but at other times a sermon might be followed by a time of questions from the congregation, a talk might lead into guided discussion, or other forms of educational activity might be adopted to enable people to hear and learn from God’s word what discipleship in today’s world means112 For further explorations of the practical implications, see the penultimate section of Preaching as Dialogue. If you want to pursue the subject further, I can recommend David Norrington’s To Preach or not to Preach? (Paternoster Press, 1996), which examines the historical origins of the sermon and argues that it fails to foster the maturity which New Testament writers envisage for disciples.2.
Jeremy Thomson is a theological educator and relationship counsellor, currently completing a doctorate in the ecclesiology of John H Yoder at King’s College, London. He is the author of Preaching as Dialogue: Is the Sermon a Sacred Cow?