017 The Art of Preaching Today


We who preach understand how difficult it is to preach well; those who hear us probably understand it even better! With that in mind Roger E. Van Harn wrote Pew Rights: For People Who Listen to Sermons (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1992). This pastor of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids is a veteran who’s profited from in-depth academic study of his subject. And he asks us, in this book, to think more about listening than speaking, about “pew rights” than “pulpit prerogatives.”

Hearing the Word of the Lord is one of our “pew rights.” It’s indicated in Paul’s letter to the Romans: “‘Every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’ But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? . . . to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? . . . So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (10:13-17).

In Van Harn’s view, central to the ordo salutis stands hearing. It’s not all there is to salvation, but it’s basic. So preaching, the Reformers said, is God’s way of saving people. “It is the preaching of the word, they said, that brings faith to people and people to faith” (p. 13).

If this process takes place, the one who preaches must, first of all, hear the Word of the Lord! “Preachers should be listeners before they are speakers” (p. 18). Indeed, they should be “pioneer listeners”–vanguard experts who’re part of the listening community, folks who first hear and faithfully transmit the message. In the pews, hearers have a right to hear from a preacher who’s heard (through study and prayer) God’s Word.

Our hearers also have a right to have their deepest needs addressed. There are, in fact, ultimate issues which deeply concern us. There is, in fact, a difference between finding meaning in life and living resigned to absurdity . . . between truth and illusion . . . between heaven and hell.

In the pew, we have a right to hear preachers who’re concerned with more than trivial pursuits, more than political polls, more than psychological pablum. Clearly the Bible, when hermeneutically focused on Jesus, deals with life and death issues. It faces the tragedies and absurdities of existence, and it offers supernatural endowments such as faith and hope and love. We might like our preachers to be more interesting, even more entertaining–but we don’t merely want interesting lectures or funny stories. We have a right to hear of things eternal when we attend church.

What we want, in church, is “the story behind the text” (p. 47). It’s the story of Jesus’ birth, life, message, death, and resurrection. It’s often subtly shadowed rather than boldly stroked, but it’s basic to every biblical message. It’s “the Story. The Story with a capital S. The gospel is the good news Story of what God has done for us in the history of Israel and in the person of Jesus Christ” (p. 48). Behind the text, whatever the sermon, we would see Jesus.

Then good sermons enable us to “hear the story around the test” (p. 58). Biblical events and passages must be rightly positioned in their ancient context. Good historians enliven the past by accurately painting the setting, by skillfully using the documents, which allow us to see how things were, to understand why things occurred. Good literature teachers bring Aeschylus or Dante or Shakespeare to life by explaining the difference between prose and poetry (the genre), by lifting our imagination through the power of analogies and figures of speech. So sermons should make sense of the historical and literary aspects of the text. But they’re not, of course The Story!

The sermon brings us a message from the biblical text. We in the pew may appreciate history and literature, but we come to church to hear a message which moves from the text to us. The words we hear as the text is exposed must somehow relate to us and our daily world. We rightly expect sermons to give us guidance through the issues which demand more than human ingenuity.

More than personal direction, however, we must learn how to make sense of our world. God’s Story, Jesus, gives us a theology of history secularists have always lacked. Despite the turmoil and anarchy, despite the evil and destruction, we who believe “that Jesus is the Christ” have a clue as to where we come from and where we’re going. We’re realistic (which is not to say pessimistic) about human nature (given our belief in original sin), but we’re optimistic about the future, for we believe in full salvation through Christ.

Finally, Van Harn declares, “People who listen to sermons have the right to be listened to before and after the sermons are spoken” (p. 150). Preachers can involve laymen in the process of preparing sermons; they can assemble feed-back groups to evaluate sermons. As “pioneer listeners” they need to hear from the Lord, but they also need to be attuned to their communities.

The value of this book, in my opinion, is its focus: listening. We read and talk a lot about preaching, speaking, rhetoric. We don’t often enough reflect upon the activity of listening. What’s important in a sermon is not simply what’s said but what’s heard and heeded. Reading Van Harn helps us reflect on that reality.

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The sociological studies of George Barna, such as User Friendly Churches, have been widely used for some time now. A recent publication, The Power of Vision: How You Can Capture and Apply God’s Vision for Your Ministry (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, c. 1992), emphasizes the importance of vision–“where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV)–and ways to implement it.

Barna himself has been deeply impressed by the Willow Creek Community Church, whose pastor, Bill Hybels, certainly is a model for many who are concerned with church growth (if not building a super-church of some sort). In Barna’s opinion, Hybels’s success is, to a large degree, the result of implementing a godly vision.

The research which Barna conducts is extensive and impressive. He certainly describes the conditions which seem to make for successful churches in modern America. “In evaluating churches that are growing and healthy as compared to those that are stagnant or in decline,” he finds, “one of the key distinctions that emerges is the existence of true vision for ministry” (p. 12). Such visions must be clearly articulated by a congregation’s leaders and sincerely embraced by their followers.

Unfortunately, Barna found, the importance of vision, widely recognized in the business world, is largely untaught in seminaries and ignored by “Christian intellectuals, theologians, teachers and authors” (p. 13). Thus he seeks, in this book, to provide pastors with a resource which may enable them to develop “the power of vision.”

He builds his case by looking at examples, in the Bible and history, of visionary people–from St Paul to Mother Teresa, from Donald McGavran’s church growth movement to Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. Clearly the leaders who’ve moved multitudes have been captivated by a vision.

Recognizing its importance, Barna then defines it: “Vision for ministry is a clear mental image of a preferable future imparted by God to His chosen servants and is based upon an accurate understanding of God, self and circumstances” (p. 28). Fleshing out that vision begins with a pastor who is both enamored with the vision and surrendered to God’s design and control of it. It then proceeds to a “vision statement,” drafted and owned by the congregation, which provides a basis for the life and mission of the church.

It’s important not to confuse vision with mission, however. “Mission is a general statement of ministry objectives; it is philosophic. Vision is a specific, detailed statement of direction and uniqueness; it is strategic” (p. 37). Various churches may have the same mission in a community –but they should have different visions, enabling them to truly cooperate with each other, fitting into their niche of the Kingdom.

Thus a mission statement may emerge as a consensus involving the whole congregation. Vision statements ordinarily come from a visionary person, often (though not necessarily) the pastor, who senses God’s guidance, a specific calling for a specific congregation in a specific time and place. “Grasping God’s vision for the church’s ministry is not a committee process” (p. 45).

Barna insists the vision may have nothing to do with numerical growth! “The absolute goal of vision for ministry is to glorify God. It is more important to have a church of committed followers of Christ than to have a church swelled with numbers of ‘social Christian,s’ ‘nominal Christians’ or Christians who demonstrate no evidence of growth in their relationship with God. If the vision is truly from God, it is one that will push the church forward towards ends that satisfy Him rather than to meet standards that result from the world” (p. 51).

This means a leader must seek, above all, to capture God’s vision for his congregation. This involves knowing yourself and your gifts. If you mind your divine design, if you’re attentive to what God has enabled you to be and become, you’ll better capture God’s vision for you and your ministry. “One of the most revealing questions to ask is the identity of those matters about which you are passionate. What is it that, without fail, excites you in ministry” (p. 81). Chances are the vision God wants to give you will engage your passion!

God’s vision comes from Him, so knowing Him is also important! To know Him we must get quiet long enough to hear Him! “The leaders of the American Christian church are generally people who feel they are successful only when they are active. God, however, seems to speak most clearly to Christian leaders when they are inactive; that is, when they have made a conscious effort to allow Him to lead the conversation and to impart wisdom in His own way, in His own timing” (p. 90).

Coming from God, we can expect a vision to have these nine characteristics: inspiring, change-oriented, challenging, empowering, long-term, customized, detailed, people-oriented, future-promising. Any vision lacking too many of the above must be suspect. But a healthy, God-given vision can make a difference, an eternal difference, in one’s ministry.

Barna also gives tips on communicating the vision to the congregation, enabling people to “own” it, and the marketing the vision in the community so as to reach those who need it.

I find the book readable, persuasive, reasonably balanced in its appeal. It’s a “how-to-do-it” book which insists on the unique ways God guides each pastor and church, that numerical growth is not necessarily God’s only vision for churches. We’re too tempted to either praise and imitate Bill Hybels or criticize and ignore him. In fact we might better seek to praise and learn from Hybels without feeling compelled imitate him. If our vision comes from God, it will be unique and specific, not a clone of some sort.

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The biblical studies of Walter Brueggemann have enabled many of us to better grasp, often in remarkably fresh ways, the message of God’s Word. In Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, c. 1989), originally given as the 1989 Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School, he reflects on the Old Testament mode of proclamation, suggesting it frequently takes the form of poetry rather than prose. Thus preaching, in a biblical mode, means speaking as a poet so as to facilitate forgiveness, communion, obedience, and relinquishment.

Brueggemann says “The task and possibility of preaching is to open out the good news of the gospel with alternative modes of speech–speech that is dramatic, artistic, capable of inviting persons to join in another conversation, free of the reason of technique, unencumbered by onotolgies that grow abstract, unembarrassed about concreteness” (p. 3). Too many of us, too often, live in a world squashed flat by prose, subject to logical analysis but lacking imagination and life. It’s a world whose soil has been sterilized by sin, needing the rich humus of living organisms, of spontaneity and life. Amidst the “numbness and ache” of a world alienated from God, the preacher stands and points toward “the other side,” another reality, which heals and quickens the human heart.

To do this well, preachers must be more than psychological technicians or scholarly analysts. To absolve the guilt of sin, to reconcile man with God, demands more than clever epigrams or catchy recipes. “Unless we speak poetically, God’s self-giving transformation will be hard as a form of cheap grace that costs God nothing” or, conversely, “as a form of works righteousness” (p. 37), neither of which actually cleanses sin’s guilt. Most of us, hearing sermons, need neither more information nor admonition–we need strength, courage, a sense of direction and empowerment.

When we preach, according to model Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah, we try to sensitize hearers to the presence of God. “The act of preaching is not instruction, rational discourse, or moral suasion. It is the invitation and permit to practice a life of doxology and obedience” (p. 68), the creative call to enter God’s sacred space and time–sabbath time–where praise and yielding satisfy the deepest yearnings of the spirit.

Praise and yielding facilitate communion. Both involve attention, hearing, responding. “We are created for listening. It is our proper business. We are made for communion, but the communion for which we are formed is not that of mindless camaraderie” (p. 81). That’s because “Listening of any serious kind is difficult” (p. 81). Indeed: “Listening is difficult for us because the modern world is organized against serious speech, against authoritative speech, against listening, against passionate discourse that binds us one to another and causes one to yield to another. The notions of self-sufficiency and autonomy that govern our consciousness make listening difficult and obedience nearly impossible” (p. 82).

Though the heirs of Descartes may declare “I doubt, therefore I am,” biblical people say “I listen, and therefore I am” (p. 82). God’s people must hear His voice, a voice mediated through the preacher, breatheing life into us hearers, obeying the One who calls us to participate in His life.

Those of you who’ve read Brueggemann need no encouragement to read more. He has the unusual capacity to write as a scholar without compromising his competence while communicating with the general reader. He also has the ability to utilize sophisticated analytical methodologies in approaching the text without desiccating it with hypercritical questions. In suggesting that preaching is more an art than a science, more than poetry than prose, he enables us both to hear the biblical message more accurately and (hopefully) preach it more powerfully.

To cite Walt Whitman’s lines, which give the book its title: “After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,) / After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work, / After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist, / Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name, / The true son of God shall come singing his songs.

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Roger Van Harn referred repeatedly to John Stott’s Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1982), so I found and read what will I suspect stand as one of our generation’s finest studies of preaching, written by a highly-acclaimed pulpit master.

Many of us will identify with Stott when he begins with the confession that “seldom if ever do I leave the pulpit without a sense of partial failure, a mood of penitence, a cry to God for forgiveness” (p. 9) for failing to do justice to the Gospel’s good news. Yet for all our limitations, “Preaching is indispensable to Christianity. . . . . For Christianity is, in its very essence, a religion of the Word of God” (p. 15).

That becomes clear in the sections where Stott surveys the history of preaching, showing how, century after century, great preachers have been used of God to keep alive the Faith. Next, he responds to “contemporary objections to preaching,” rightly locating them in the widespread contempt for authority which characterizes modernity.

What we need now, however, as sociologist Peter Berger insists, is an affirmation of “‘the transcendence and authority of Christianity,'” a shift from “asking ‘what does modern man have to say to the Church?'” to “asking ‘what does the Church have to say to modern man?'” (p. 89). Preachers must proclaim God’s everlasting Word. That means they must preach!

Such preaching must rest in clear theological foundations: convictions about God, Scripture, Church, pastoring, preaching. Anchored in abiding certainties, the world of God’s Truth, but confronting the world we meet on the street and via the TV, one can begin the essential work of preaching: bridge-building.

There’s a “cultural gulf” to be crossed, for “Our task is to enable God’s revealed truth to flow out of the Scriptures into the lives of the men and women of today” (p. 138). This means, as Karl Barth insisted, that we approach our work with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. In the words of Ian Pitt-Watson: “‘Every sermon is stretched like a bowstring between the text of the bible on the one hand and the problems of contemporary human life on the other. If the string is insecurely tethered to either end, the bow is useless'” (p. 150).

Having built his case for the necessity of preaching, Stott then turns to the craft of writing and delivering sermons. He insists on the importance of study. Calvin said: “None will ever be a good minister of the word of God unless he is first of all a scholar.” Then one can construct a sermon true to the text. If delivered with certain personal qualities–sincerity, earnestness, courage, humility–the sermon will reach hearers and accomplish God’s intent for the ministry of preaching.

Stott draws upon scores of books on preaching in writing this book. His quotations amplify and support his presentation, making it a valuable collation as well as a personal position. It’s one of the best studies available.

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