Grappling with Pragmatism vs. Preaching
In the fall of 1996, I like the disobedient Jonah gave up running away from God and accepted Jesus call upon my life to be a minister of the gospel. I simultaneously fell in love with the Bible and got involved in a number of campus ministries. Taking an "Intro To Ministry" class at the college I was attending seemed like a good idea, but after that class I avoided practical ministry courses like they were a plague throughout all my eight years and three degrees of theological education.
Now, after being a pastor and a church planter for some time, I realize that probably wasn't the wisest thing and there is much I could have learned and gleaned from investing some time learning from the "how to" experts. Mostly because failure has made me more teachable, I have since gone back and tried to learn what I can from the practical guys and continue to do so.
However, what rubbed me wrong about practical ministry classes is that they were built on the concept of the "how to" rather than the "what is." It seemed pretty basic to me, ministry was a product of the word of God at work in people. So I thought the question should be what does God's word say and not a question of what works best. Thus, I figured I'd focus on theology instead and thought whatever I ended up doing in ministry would probably just work out because it was driven by good theology.
My attitude wasn't always the best, especially when I was a youth pastor and a college pastor and even when I first began the church I now pastor at. Too often I was reactionary, thinking "you're going about it wrong, I'm going to do it right." Which at the time meant me busting out as many seven letter plus theological words I could think of. You can probably find old sermons of mine saying something along the lines of how you're not really a Christian unless you understand that justification is the result of God imputing the dikaiosune of Christ to sinners on account of his propitiating work, which he planned supralapsariously before the foundation of the world.
Hopefully it wasn't that bad and hopefully by God's grace I've become more gracious. Yet the principle of doing ministry based on the conviction that the word of God does the work of God has stuck with me and continues to inform how I function day to day as a pastor and how the church I pastor is organized and goes about things.
I remember when we first planted The Resolved Church in April of 2005 and the major milieu of the time in regards to starting a church was primarily a pragmatic business approach. It was pretty nuts and bolts. The main idea went something like this... You come up with a cool name for your church, a good slogan, some core values, a mission statement, send out a truck load of flyers into the surrounding neighborhood and then you just start having service making sure to have entertaining music and a catchy, short message that people like.
Besides the fact that I didn't really know how to do any of that because I had become a theologian and not a businessman, such an approach sounded about as appealing as eating dirt. If I were a little more mature at the time perhaps I could have realized not all of those things are bad things and some are in fact good and necessary. You've got to have a church name! But I couldn't handle that, so instead my plan was to get together as many people as I could in my living room and just start yelling Bible verses at them and see what happened.
When I moved down to San Diego to plant the church I remember one of my pastor friends at the time asked me what our strategy was for planting and I took my Bible clenched in my fist, looked him in the eye and said, "My strategy is to preach the gospel!"
Now I realize I had a lot to learn back then but that conviction has never left me. The heart and the strategy of The Resolved Church is the preaching of the gospel. Our philosophy of ministry is to preach the word and to be a church that is formed and propelled by the preaching of the word. Everything we are and do flows out of that passion. We lead with our front foot forward by preaching.
What Does it Mean to "Preach"?
Etymologically (where the word comes from) the word, "preach" or "preaching" has a rich history. In the Pre-Homeric period the "Kerux" or the "Preacher" was an official position in the king's court. He was an authorized herald of the monarchy and then later the state. Originally there were even four different classes or types of Preachers in Greco-Roman culture: a Preacher of Mysteries, a Preacher of The Games, a Preacher of Festivals and a Preacher of The Market. In order to become a preacher, one had to have a loud and resonant voice that was powerful and authoritative (Pollux, Onomasticon, IV, 94).
In the Bible "preaching" (kerygma - noun, kerusso - verb) becomes one of the chief words used to describe the presentation of the gospel by Jesus and his apostles. The word occurs in various forms 76 times in the New Testament alone and is used uniquely to describe the proclaiming the gospel with an authority that calls its listeners to respond and follow.
You get a strong sense of this in several passages. Matthew 4:17 says,
"Jesus began to preach saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." And likewise Acts 9:28 states that "He (Paul) went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord."
Preaching was the resident form and method of Jesus ministry everywhere he went. In fact in Luke 4:43 Jesus says he "must preach" for it was integral to the purpose for which he came into the world. Then Jesus calls and commissions his apostles to preach. "He (Jesus) appointed twelve [whom he also named apostles] so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach (Mark 3:14)."
This resulted in preaching becoming the central drive and forming principle of the early church in the book of Acts. The Church begins with apostles preaching. Acts 5:42 says that in those early days, "every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ."
When things started to take off and get busy and there were other ministries and aspects of ministry to take care of as well, the preaching of the early church was intentionally kept primary and protected. As the apostles state in Acts 6:2, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables."
All throughout the book of Acts, in nearly every chapter in connection with nearly every major movement of God, we consistently see preaching present (Acts 5:42; 6:12; 8:4, 12, 25, 40; 9:27, 28; 10:36, 42; 11:20; 14:7, 21; 15:35; 16:16; 17:18). In the very least, we see that preaching was extremely important to the early church.
So what does it mean to preach? To preach is to have someone who is called by God authoritatively declare the good news of Jesus life, death and resurrection for sinners who put faith in him and is the thing upon which the church centers herself on.
The History of Emphasizing Preaching
For most of Christian history, preaching has been emphasized in Jesus' church. The word "gospel" itself is an amalgamation from a popular description of what happens to people who listened to authoritative preaching of the good news of Jesus. It was said it seemed they came under a "God-spell." Their reactions to sermons were spell-bound like and resulted in lives devoted to God, so preaching the good news became a "God-spell" sermon, which over time changed to "gospel."
From what we can gather among the writings of the Church Fathers, preaching remained a central focus and charge of The Church. Augustine says we "must absolutely preach, so that he who has ears to hear, may hear (Anti-Pelagian Writings)." But during the medieval age, the Church began to focus more on the Eucharist, where the bulk of time in worship services was devoted no longer to the exposition of Scripture but the administration of the Lord's Supper.
One of the major changes of The Reformation, of which Martin Luther expended much energy towards, was bringing the preaching of the gospel back into the central place of church worship. He writes, "Truth and doctrine, are to be preached always, openly, and firmly, and are never to be dissembled or concealed (The Bondage of the Will)."
What did preaching mean to Luther? He tells us, "The chief office of a preacher is to teach uprightly, and diligently to look to the chief points and grounds whereon he stands, and so instruct and teach the hearers that they understand rightly and may be able to say: this is well taught (Table Talk On The Church Fathers)."
We still see the play out of this today. In most Protestant churches (child churches of the Reformed tradition) the sermon is the central focus and time of the service, whereas in Catholic churches the Eucharist remains the central focus of the service simply accompanied by a short homily. Yet, even then, the Eucharist is undiscernable without that homily exposition, as short and suggestive as it may be.
During the Great Awakening in America the impetus driving revival was preaching...the passionate preaching of Jonathan Edwards and the booming voice of George Whitfield. Throughout church history one is hard-pressed not to recognize that regardless of tradition, preaching is central to the life and worship of the historical orthodox Christian church.
Non-Preaching Focused Approaches and Why
In our day there is much concern over preaching and as a result other models of ministry are being presented and used among Jesus' church. Some of the concerns are valid and some are not. I think it is important to listen to the concerns and understand what is driving these shifts in methodology. After all, just because someone does something in a new or different way doesn't make it bad as long as it doesn't compromise an essential area of doctrine or a direct command of Jesus.
Those with cultural concerns point out shifts, at least in the Western World, where Americans in large tend to have shorter attention spans, are extremely busy, and may be progressively adopting modes of learning which are more visual than audible. Preaching thus seems to run against some of the current cultural trends, so genuine and well-meaning church leaders are asking whether traditional preaching has become counter-productive, irrelevant, and no longer helpful for the mission of spreading the gospel.
Responses of those who think preaching may be or be becoming culturally untenable range from the extremes of the emerging church who has created "dialogical preaching," where the preacher is merely a facilitator for the group's "conversation," to the other more tempered approaches of short, topical sermons, with a dumbed down message intentionally crafted to be more palatable for the potential "seeker."
Social & Communal Concerns
Those with social or communal concerns are sensitive to what is perceived as the church's neglect of injustices and the need for community. These church leaders have noted duplicities among churches where individuals will show up on Sundays for a worship service but have no other interaction with other believers during the week much less any real Christian lifestyle and/or love tangibly expressed to their neighbors and cities.
Responses of those who with social and/or communal concerns range from the more liberal approach of making the church's central focus some sort of social justice or activism to the more conservative approaches of making community groups (a.k.a. small groups, missional communities, cell groups, home fellowships) the banner of the church and preaching easily gets redefined as Christians just sharing or talking about Jesus.
Lastly, there's the concern which springs from a bad experience. Some had to suffer through bad preaching from the mouth of a young pastor in his living room. Others can't help but associate all preaching with some crazy guy on the street with a sign or a legalistic father who beat them in the name of Jesus. Or some have been under the leadership of a preacher who either failed morally or became self-absorbed and overwhelmed with his sense of authority or giftedness.
Responses from those who have had bad experiences range from those who take an anti-church approach and desire to have nothing to do with church in any way to those who instead choose to flock to para-church ministries or ad-hoc spiritual groups where they hope to protect themselves from having to go through such a thing ever again.
As I said earlier, some of these concerns are valid and some are not. Some are reactionary and others are outright rebellious. However, I cannot help but wonder if the problem is not preaching itself, but bad preaching? Good preaching ought to be able to keep people's attention. Good preaching ought to drive people into community with one another and doing good works for their neighbors, city, and beyond. Good preaching ought to come from a pastor who is humble, realizes he is a sinner, and that apart from Jesus he can do nothing.
Woe to Me if I Do Not Preach
The apostle Paul, who wrote two-thirds of the New Testament and the most specific instructions on how to be the church and how to do church had some strong words concerning preaching for pastors and churches.
First, Paul commands the young pastor Timothy to preach. 2 Timothy 4:1-4,
"I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths."
The implication of this passage is: if a church does not make preaching central, then false teaching will eventually come in and corrupt the church. The preaching of pastors is one of the chief ways Jesus has given his leaders a way to exercise their authority, which enables them to protect the church from moral and doctrinal heresy. For this reason I do not think any church model or methodology which does not esteem preaching is a sustainable option for Jesus' churches.
Second, Paul calls down a curse on himself and others for not preaching. In 1 Corinthians 9:16 he declares, "Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" In Galatians 1:8 he says "If we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed." A woe is a death wish and to be accursed is to be damned. These passages quite literally tell us Paul believed a neglect of preaching the gospel was ground for being eternally damned. And lest we think preaching here just means the common talking or sharing of believers about Jesus, we are rebuffed by the context in 1 Corinthians 9:14 where Paul talks about the pastors of churches and says, "The Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel."
In light of these three passages alone it seems pretty clear that pastors and churches ought to take preaching very seriously. Apparently to not take preaching seriously is damnable and is a good recipe to attract heretics with.
Preaching is vital. It is my conviction that the church cannot live without it. The Church was founded on the gospel by the method of preaching and has continued, grown, and thrived whenever preaching has been revered. Other methods of ministry in the church may be useful or supplementary but they ought not take the place of preaching and ought to remain secondary. The New Testament has some strong commands concerning preaching, which pastors must heed.
It's my prayer the church where I pastor, The Resolved Church and all of Jesus' churches would hold preaching the gospel in high regard...that preaching would be seen as extremely important...that churches would lead by preaching...plant new churches by preaching...having their philosophies of ministries formed around preaching...and that everything churches say and do would be propelled by the preaching of the gospel.
May the word of God do the work of God. And may God send me to hell if I preach not the gospel.