What to Expect of Preaching
All of us know the experience of reality not matching expectations. Sometimes the problem is with the reality. We buy a cruise on the internet. But, when we take the cruise we find that it falls far short of what was advertised. Other times the problem is with expectations. We get married expecting we are going to live the world’s greatest romance, only to find that we have to deal with things like garbage, and hair curlers, and towels left on the bathroom floor.
What should you expect from preaching? Whether we consciously have expectations and whether we can articulate them, we all have expectations when we go to church and hear a sermon. Sometimes our expectations are met and once in a while exceeded, while other times our expectations are disappointed.
Some expect something like a Bible study – basically an analysis and organization of the portion of Scripture so that the person goes home able to say, ‘Today I learned ______.’ Some churches where the pastor teaches a Bible study as a sermon, people are encouraged to bring notebooks and take notes as though they were attending a lecture.
Others expect something like a ‘how to manual’ on life. They want the sermon above all to be ‘practical.’ They like to go away with the feeling, ‘Today I learned about how to live a consistent Christian life,’ or ‘Today I learned how to be a Christian husband (or wife or parent),’ or, ‘Today I learned how to be a Christian businessman (or employee).’ The test of a sermon is, ‘What did I learn on Sunday that I can put into practice on Monday?’
Now surely we want people to learn what the Bible says from preaching. One of the main reasons I have come to practice mostly preaching through sections or books of the Bible, is because I believe we all need to be exposed to and understand as much of God’s Word as possible. And surely we want people to see how the truth applies to their lives. We do not want just to collect information, but we want our lives to be affected by what we learn. Preaching without application is like learning basic arithmetic without being able to balance a cheque book.
But I do not believe that either of these understandings of preaching captures what preaching is supposed ‘to be and to do.’ Let me offer a descriptive definition of preaching:
Preaching is the proclamation of the timeless written Word into the present day life-setting of the people, delivered through a called man’s personality, so that a person hears the Word with something of the clarity, urgency, and vitality experienced by the original hearers.
That definition has been influenced by many things I have read and heard over the years, but whatever may be its inaccuracies or deficiencies, they are all mine.
Let me unpack my definition briefly. First, a sermon is proclamation. Proclamation includes teaching, but it is more than teaching. It is an urgent declaration of what God has done in Christ, of what He says, and of how we are called to respond to His works and words.
Preaching is grounded in the written Word. The first thing any preacher must ask is, ‘What does the text say?’ His sources are the sixty-six books of the Bible. The preacher has no freedom to change, add to, or subtract what God intends to say through the portion of Scripture from which the sermon is drawn. The Bible alone is the inerrant and infallible Word of God.
The Word that was spoken (and recorded) or written was given into a particular historical and cultural context. Those who hear the preached Word today do not live in the same historical and cultural situation. That means the Word must be preached in such a way as to bring it into the present historical and cultural context of today’s hearers. John Stott titled his book on preaching, Between Two Worlds. That catches it very well. The minister has one foot in the world of the Bible and one in the congregation to which he preaches. He is, as it were, the ‘bridge’ between the two worlds.
The Word is delivered through the personality of a called man. If you and I were to choose a way to communicate a divine message to people today, we probably would choose some other way than to do it through a human personality. That human is a sinner. He has weaknesses, foibles, and personality quirks. He has been shaped by genes, nurture, and choices he has made. But he has a call to be a messenger. He does not appoint himself but is appointed by the church which upon examination is satisfied that he is one of those ‘personalities’ whom God has called and qualified.
Through preaching, the message of the written Word should come to today’s hearer with clarity. There should be no doubt about what the preacher intended to say. His first task in preparing and delivering a sermon is clarity. Also the hearer should experience something of the vital urgency of the Word as originally delivered by prophet or apostle. The hearers should, in a sense, feel that this Word which was spoken to Israel or written to a New Testament church is now being spoken to them with the same effects as the original hearers and readers experienced.
When you come away from preaching it is not so much that you can say, ‘I learned____’ or ‘I learned how to _____.’ It should rather be, ‘I have met God’ (in the sense that ‘I have heard Him speak His Word into my life’).
The Second Helvetic Confession, after asserting that the canonical books of the Bible are the Word of God, goes on to speak of how the Word comes now to us:
Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.
Rev William H Smith is Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, Louisville, Mississippi.
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