What is preaching? I’ve thought and studied a lot about that. It’s an important question for a Christian. Why is it so important? Because preaching is the most important 25-45 minutes a church body spends together and is one of the few things that can change the world.
Martin Lloyd Jones said:
“The most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and the most urgent need in the Church, it is obviously the greatest need of the world also” (Preaching and Preachers, Jones, 17).
A lot of people claim to preach. Many others say they hear preaching every Sunday. But many of the people who claim they are preaching are doing something very different than others who also claim to be preaching.
For example: one man stands in front of a group of people on Sunday morning and shares compelling stories about loving one another, giving examples from society, his life, using poetry, video clips, and song lyrics. He also quotes a verse of Scripture about love. People leave feeling warm and encouraged, but without having been engaged with God’s Word. They know what to do, but they don’t know what God has said.
Another man reads a text of Scripture in front of a group of people, then proceeds to essentially say what the text makes him think of: other Scriptures, stories, examples from society, etc. The man hardly references his original text again and hasn’t thought once about what the original author intended to say to his original audience. Many of the things he says are good and true, but they’re just not found in the text he started with. People who agree with the statements leave happy and affirmed, but rarely challenged by being engaged with an appropriately applied passage. And the people who disagree with his talk, well, they just leave mad.
Still another man reads a text of Scripture and very meticulously points out original meanings of words and phrases, noting syntax, grammar, context, cross references and allusions throughout Scripture. There’s a lot of “What Paul is saying is . . . ” People leave more informed, certainly having confidence that their pastor “knows his Bible,” but haven’t seen what in the world the passage has to do with them.
None of these examples are preaching.
“Preaching is when the content and the intent of a passage of Scripture becomes the content and intent of a sermon.” Mike Bullmore
Why The Examples Aren’t Preaching
In the first example I made up, the content and intent of the sermon is only mildly influenced by Scripture. The preacher thought of what he wanted to say to the people, and then found a verse that went along with it. This is hardly letting the text drive the content or intent of the message. Maybe the talk was inspiring, and maybe God used it (who knows?). Maybe the talk was even necessary, but it was not preaching.
The second example seems more like preaching to some because this man is more likely to say “churchy” phrases many of us have heard growing up–true things even! And he says them with such power and conviction! “Homosexual behavior is sin!” We rightly reply, “Yes, that’s true. But what does that have to do with the text you just read?” This preacher doesn’t let the content or intent of the text guide him any more than the guy who plays videos from his iPad does. And it is still not preaching.
On to the third example. Those of us who have been to Bible College or seminary are even more likely to think this man is preaching, but sadly, he is not. This preacher does a good job at understanding the content and intent of the original author to the original audience, but he fails to make it his content and intent to his audience. This preacher says “Paul told them to repent” too much and doesn’t say “You must repent” enough. A “sermon” not directed and applied to contemporary hearers is not a sermon, it’s a NT grammar lesson. And a grammar lesson is not preaching.
What I’m Not Saying
I’m not saying I know everything about preaching. I’m very young and inexperienced and have a ton to learn!
I’m also not saying that the other kind of talks are bad or always inappropriate for every context. God can use the three examples I’ve listed, and I pray He does. These other kinds of talks aren’t bad, it just means they aren’t examples of preaching.
Another thing I’m not saying that in order for it to be preaching that it has to be verse-by-verse exposition. You can preach an entire book of the Bible in one sermon by applying the major themes of its content and intent to your congregation. Mark Dever does this. I have attempted to do this with the book of Jonah (emphasis on the word attempted). Or take Martin Lloyd Jones for example. Most of the sermons I’ve heard from him aren’t verse-by-verse exposition (which probably should be the main way preaching should happen IMO). Instead, many of his sermons are thematic–he’ll preach about what it means to have faith, for example. But even in that, he’s applying the content and intent of several passages that deal with the biblical concept of faith to his hearers–he makes the content and intent his content and intent. That’s different than saying whatever a verse makes you think about (like example #2 above)–which is what David Helms calls “impressionistic preaching” (like impressionist painters).
Fellow pastors, lets hone our skills and proclaim the text as well as we possible can, considering what it is we’re trying to accomplish from the pulpit every Sunday.