I have recently been involved in facilitating a group from a congregation endeavouring to identify what its future shape should be. As often it quickly focussed on the shape of its worship and among the proposals made was shortening the length of the sermon and having time for response in ‘which people could discuss/debate a sermon’. It immediately made me realise that this idea represented a basic misunderstanding of what we are endeavouring to do in preaching.
A recent book on preaching, drawn from feedback provided by those who listen, helped to emphasise the major concern I have about preaching. ‘I like good music and my church friends, but I come on Sunday hoping for inspiration from the sermon to encourage my spiritual growth.’ The author summarised the key finding in the feedback by saying this is often overlooked by pastors who may be focusing on explanation and exposition. She writes, ‘Please hear the affirmation of your role as a leader of a community of Christ-followers who are seeking spiritual growth through you preaching’.
One of the things I have come to realise in my journey from parish ministry, back into secondary teaching and then into theological teaching, while still regularly doing as well as teaching preaching, is that there is a difference between teaching and preaching. With a teaching bent in my makeup, by nature and grace, I obviously believe that preaching should teach but have become clear that preaching is not just teaching.
Teaching at its best provides what people need to know about God, how people have witnessed to and understood God. It gives information about God for people to make sense of their experience of God. But it does not introduce them to God. It stops short of or providing an encounter with God, although by the grace of God I find occasionally that does happen. In preaching though this should be the desired outcome. Too often when listening to sermons I find that God, who should be the main subject and actor, is missing. We might learn ‘how to manage our finances better’ or as a recent sermon I heard titled it ‘find your lifetime partner’ but do we encounter the living God.
James Torrance argues that many preachers have a view of preaching which has ‘no doctrine of Christ the mediator, is human centred, has no proper doctrine of the Holy Spirit… We sit in the pew watching the minister “doing his thing”, exhorting us “to do our thing”…’ The aim of preaching is not the sermon itself, but the one to whom it is directing those who hear it, the living Christ. Tom Wright claims that ‘Preaching is meant to be an occasion when God happens; when that strange and yet familiar moment comes upon us, and we know we have been addressed, healed, confronted and kindled by the one who made us and loves us.” For me this is the critical factor in evaluating whether preaching or mere talking has occurred. Have those present encountered the living God?
When this happens preaching is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it, a sacramentum verbi (sacrament of the word) which offers God to people in Christ so that they encounter God not as ideas but in the Spirit as the one who loves, forgives and transforms them. It is this encounter which shapes a ragtag group of individuals gathered in a church building into a community of faith that becomes a ‘sign, foretaste and instrument’ of what God is doing in and for the whole world.