David Couchman
David Couchman is the Director of Focus and the producer of the 'God: new evidence,' 'God and the Big Bang,' 'After Life?' and 'Jesus Myths' video series. More...

Digital Evangelism blog

What is preaching?

Today when we talk about preaching, we usually have in mind a particular kind of rhetorical act - preparing and delivering sermons. This act has some or all of the following elements:

  • an address given in a particular kind of building set aside for religious purposes
  • often from a dedicated place in that building - what Thomson calls a 'symbolic location.'[1]
  • usually on a particular day of the week
  • in the formal setting of a religious service
  • a monologue
  • by a particular individual who is specifically ordained or charismatically gifted for the task
  • often with a particular identifiable kind of structure

This kind of sermon-making seems to have acquired an almost sacramental quality. Thomson quotes Lloyd-Jones as saying that 'it is God's own method.'[2] This article contends that Biblical warrant for this view is lacking, that none of the above elements is essential, and that preaching should not be identified with sermon-making. Rather, preaching should be seen as effectively teaching the message of the Bible.

Does the New Testament itself provide any support for this understanding of preaching? It  talks about teaching more often than it talks about preaching: words in the διδάσκω / διδάσκαλος / διδαχή group are used more than a hundred and eighty times. Jesus teaches;[3] the apostles teach;[4] Barnabas and Paul teach;[5] Timothy and Titus are to teach.[6] The list of God's gifts to the church includes teachers but not preachers.[7] This is a significant distinction: teaching focuses on communicating the content of what is learned, rather than on the rhetorical act involved.

Another important word group that is translated 'preach' is ευαγγελίζω / ευαγγέλιον / ευαγγελιστής. Words in this group are used some hundred and thirty times, and the verb is often translated 'preach the gospel.'  This is an unfortunate translation, because it imports two words that have, in contemporary thought, a technical meaning which they did not have in New Testament times - 'preach,' and 'gospel.'  A happier translation would be something like 'announce good news.'  This would make it clear that the emphasis is on the content of what is being announced, and that no particular kind of rhetorical act is in view.

The final important word group translated 'preach' is the κηρύσσω / κήρυγμα / κήρυξ group, with the verb usually taken to mean 'to herald.' Words in this group are used approximately seventy times. Again, however, the emphasis is on the content of the message being announced, rather than on a particular kind of rhetorical performance.

Is there a difference between preaching and teaching? Dodd famously made a distinction between κήρυγμα and διδαχή, in terms of the content of the message, and the intended audience. Κήρυγμα was directed to non-believers, and included the core facts of the message about Jesus Christ. Διδαχή was directed to believers, and included primarily ethical teaching.[8] However, Mounce questions whether this distinction has been over-drawn.[9]  Even if it has not, it does not relate to the kind of rhetorical action that is in view, but only to the audience and the content of the message.

'…Ευδόκησεν 'ο θεος δια της μωρίας του κηρύγματος σωσαι τους πιστεύοντας·'[10] is often quoted to support the rhetorical model of preaching as sermon-making. However, Dodd points out that the 'κηρύγματος' should be understood as 'the message preached' rather than 'the act of preaching':

'The word here translated 'preaching,' kerygma, signifies not the action of the preacher, but that which he preaches…'[11]

Teaching, announcing good news, and heralding: the NT understanding of preaching has in view a definite message that is to be taught, but it does not have in view a particular kind of rhetorical act for the teaching. As Norrington says:

'[W]henever the word 'preach' occurs in our versions, the tacit assumption is often made that the activity under consideration is similar to that undertaken by Christian clergy in their pulpits. This assumption often results in a serious misunderstanding of the text.'[12]

In the many examples of Christian communication (both κήρυγμα and διδαχή) in the New Testament, the diversity of circumstances and rhetorical approaches adopted is impressive:[13] Thomson points out that Jesus taught people in informal settings, often by means of dialogue and responses to questions. In Acts, the apostles also 'preached' in informal settings.

'The widespread picture of Paul the public orator, sophist or street corner preacher is a false one.'[14]

In the New Testament, preaching could be in homes, out of doors, on the road.[15] It was as much a spontaneous as a planned or regular activity.

'It entailed recognising and challenging assumptions, and dealing with questions raised by others.'[16]

It could be addressed to individuals, to families, or to small groups.

'Argument and discussion were important means of persuasive preaching.'[17]

So the New Testament provides no justification for our practice of preaching as sermon-making.  Norrington traces the development of the sermon to the church Fathers, and to the influence of Graeco-Roman principles of rhetoric.[18]

Preaching as sermon-making is not only without New Testament justification; it is not particularly effective. Thomson observes:

'Yet as I have listened to sermons and preached them myself, I have become uneasy about the exalted place the sermon enjoys in Christian estimation. For all the efforts of preparing, delivering, and listening to sermons, most church members are not as mature as we might expect as a result.'[19]

Norrington agrees:

'Recent studies indicate that lectures are often useful for simply transmitting data but that discussion and participation are better for critically examining ideas, stimulating thought and changing attitudes.'[20]

If the goal of preaching is teaching the message of the Bible as effectively as possible, and if we are not locked in to the rhetorical model of preaching as sermon-making, this allows us to ask what methods of communication will be effective in our culture today, without dismissing all that has gone before. (In situations where most of the listeners were less well educated, and where there was not a plethora of media choice available, a monologue sermon may well have been an effective means of communication. Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones and others seem to have been able to attract large audiences with this model.)

However, our culture today is different: we live in a media-saturated society, where people expect interactive styles of learning. We need to consider communications approaches that are more visual, tactile, and participatory. In our cultural setting, the use of a more interactive style of teaching is especially important. However, this is not simply a pragmatic move. Thomson says:

'The case for preaching dialogically is a matter of effective communication, but it is so because this is part of a profoundly theological understanding of life's social dimensions.'[21]

An interactive and participatory model of preaching is Biblical, culturally appropriate for the postmodern western world, and practically effective, in terms of current thinking about pedagogy. Murray Williams describes such a model as including the following elements:[22]

  1. It is learner-focussed - 'concerned more about what is learned than what is taught.'
  2. It is multi-voiced - 'not dominated by one voice, but open to participation by many people.'
  3. It is open-ended - 'prepared to leave loose ends and to live with uncertainty, to run the risk of allowing people space to think, to reflect, to explore, to ask how biblical teaching might apply to their situation.'
  4. It is dialogue-based - it makes 'room for questions, comments, challenges, ideas and exploration.'

Bibliography

Dodd, C H, The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1936)
Mounce, R H, 'Preaching, Kerygma' in Hawthorne G F, Martin R P & Reid D G (eds) Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove & Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1993)
Murray Williams, S, Interactive Preaching
http://www.eleutheria.biz/rnb/article.php?i=25&m=11 accessed 23rd December 2005
Murray Williams, S, Interactive Preaching
www.anabaptistnetwork.com/book/print/322, accessed 28th December 2005
Norrington, D C, To Preach or not to Preach? (Carlisle: Paternoster Press 1996)
Thomson, J, Preaching as Dialogue: is the sermon a sacred cow? (Cambridge: Grove Books 2003)
Thomson, J, Interactive Preaching
www.anabaptistnetwork.com/book/print/157, accessed 28th December 2005
Thomson, J,  Preaching as Dialogue
www.anabaptistnetwork.com/book/print/292, accessed 28th December 2005

Endnotes

[1] Thomson, Sacred Cow, p. 4

[2] Thomson, ibid, p. 10

[3] About forty times in the Gospels, e.g. in Luke alone, 4:15; 4:31; 5:3; 6:6; 11:1; 13:10; 13:22; 19:47; 20:1; 20:21; 21:37;

[4] Acts 4:2; 5:21; 5:25; 5:42

[5] E.g. Acts 11:26, 11:35

[6] 1 Timothy 4:11; 6:2, 2 Timothy 2:24, Titus 2:1.

[7] Ephesians 4:11

[8] Dodd, p. 7, see also Longenecker p. 289 and de Silva p. 352-3 for discussions of the content of the  κήρυγμα.

[9] Mounce, p. 736

[10] 1 Cor. 1:21

[11] Dodd p. 7, Norrington also discusses this passage, p. 9-10

[12] Norrington p. 8

[13] Norrington discusses some of the relevant passages, pp. 8-12, and concludes that we can learn little from them about the form of preaching in the NT.

[14] Thomson, ibid, p. 7, citing Stowers

[15] Thomson, ibid,  p. 8

[16] Thomson, ibid, p. 8

[17] Thomson, ibid, p. 8

[18] Norrington, p. 20-24

[19] Thomson, ibid, p. 3

[20] Norrington p. 6

[21] Thomson, ibid,  p. 20

[22] Murray Williams on www.eleutheria.biz