As I have traveled these past few years, I’ve heard the repetitive refrain from despondent pastors: “I always thought that if I preached a good sermon the church would grow.” I heard it again last week so I thought I’d comment on it along with two other beliefs about preaching that get me disturbed. Here’s 3 dying myths (IMO) of Christendom about Preaching.
If You Preach A Good Sermon The Church Will Grow (in Numbers)
Many a despondent preacher has discovered that this notion is no longer true. It has become a dying myth in post Christendom. Nevertheless, this notion gets reinforced by mega churches who leverage (by video screens etc.) one (or two) charismatic gifted teacher to build crowds who come to consume a good sermon. This, I contend, is largely drawing on the leftovers of Christendom, people still looking for “good teaching” that is portable and user friendly to somehow improve their Christian lives. I take no offense in ministering to those of us who are leftovers from Christendom, we need to be fed and nurtured too! I just want all pastors who aim their ministries in this direction to realize the pie is getting smaller and the competition hotter. Anyone therefore still holding onto the premise – if I just preach a good sermon, they will come – and ministering in post Christendom- must either compete or be grossly disappointed with the continued dwindling of his/her congregation.
I fully grant that good teaching is necessary and it feeds the soul. (I regularly defend the 9 a.m. communal teaching hour at our church as essential) Certainly consistent doctrinal exposition of texts is important on an interpersonal dialogical level in a smaller class room type setting Unfortunately in larger arenas, the retention rate is next to nil from week to week. Good charismatic (entertaining?) preaching soothes the soul as opposed to feeds the soul. It can become a consumer item, even if it is expository preaching. Under these conditions, Christians, who are told to connect to the local church for the sake of their discipleship (as opposed to being part of a politic of mission in the world) – will naturally gravitate towards the most exciting preacher. They will leave the previous church because “I wasn’t getting fed.” For the small community churches of modernity therefore, whose members are graying, who are seeking new and younger members to replenish the dying saints, they must compete for the remainders of Christendom by presenting the Bible in as compelling and entertaining a way as they can muster. To those who can’t compete, they are in a quandary.
Having said all this, the “great halls” (stadiums) of preaching distribution” will not connect to the lost souls of post Christendom. Post Christian people are not attracted to “the sermon” as the first place to go out of their spiritual distress. We must help the leaders of the Mission in America therefore to understand, that if you spend 35-40 hours a week in your office preparing a good sermon on Sunday – making it not only theologically competent (which is worthy) but slick, you are ministering to the dying vestiges of Christendom. And don’t just expect that if you preach a good sermon on Sunday your church will grow.
Who You Preach To Is Who Will Be In Your Congregation
I have heard it said repeatedly “who you preach to is who will come.” This has worked within Christendom for centuries. Today, in post-Christendom, it has become another dying myth that IMO should be dispelled. It says that if you preach to unbelievers in your service your members will start inviting their unbelieving friends to “hear” what you’re saying. But if you don’t preach to unbelievers you’ll have a worship service full of believers. But here again, this feeds on the impulses of Christendom – that the way to bring non-believers into the Kingdom is through inviting them to hear a good sermon. Although, frankly, this still works with what I have been calling the “leftovers of Christendom,” this simply will not make any sense to those who can think of nothing more irrelevant and disenchanting than to go listen to someone “preach at me” (often their perception). Many within Christendom, are trained into the discipline of the sermon. Instinctively, this is the place where we can go and learn about God. I don’t want to disparage the work of ministering to the “leftovers of Christendom.” It is however a shrinking pie. And more people are competing for a piece of it. Therefore it is just not necessarily as true as it once was that “Who You Preach To Is Who Will Be In Your Congregation.”
The Goal of Preaching is to Make the Bible Relevant
We pastors, who are at the end of our wits in the fields of post-Christendom, will often -as a last ditch effort- try to make our preaching more relevant. Caught between the winds of the Neo-Reformed who argue “we just need to preach the truth and they will come,” and the mega church gurus who argue that we need to make the Bible relevant, we make a last ditch effort to do the latter (because we already tried the former). Sadly however, this is a Christendom attitude that attempts to pull in the Christendom leftovers with a more updated gospel ready made to fit their already Christianized lives. As more and more churches try to “out relevant” each other, and the leftovers of Christendom become anesthetized to relevancy, “making the Bible more relevant” is revealed as yet another dying myth in post Christendom.
The Kind of Preaching We Desperately Need in Post-Christendom
The task of preaching is to proclaim truth. It is the moment that brings the truth into the present. Much like anamnesis in the Lord’s Supper is much more than intellectual recall of the Lord’s death and resuurection, so preaching is more than recalling and teaching information from the past (in the Bible) about God. Preaching is a speech-act. It is the proclaiming of the truth out of Scripture over us so as to bring the truth into being – by the Spirit. Preaching is a truth making event – not in the sense that the truth is invented here – but that the Spirit – through the gifts – brings it into reality. (I’ll have to defend myself against the accusation that I’m a Bultmannian sometime). Much like Jesus said in Luke chapter 4:21 – “today this Scripture has been fulfilled in its hearing” – proclamation is a speaking forth of an interpretation (from Scripture) of our lives in terms of who God is, the gospel and what He is doing to bring it about in our lives and thru us into the world. If anything then, far from trying to make the Scriptures relevant – the goal of preaching is to make everything else irrelevant. It is the renarrating of our selves corporately into God.
The bottom line is, even if you only have ten people left, once we preach for formation, where God’s truth is birthed in and among us, we become shaped for His Mission in the world. We can see things we didn’t see before. We act out of assumptions we didn’t have before. We imagine what God is doing in ways not possible before. And the little congregation of “ten” becomes a powder-keg for Mission and the harvesting of fields ready for the gospel (the mission will grow!). Such preaching is essential to the missional community because it is the means by which the Spirit shapes a community into the reality of God, the Lordship of Christ and His Mission.
Bottom line is I think churches trying to enter post Christendom need to look at preaching totally differently. And I think Missional gatherings need to nurture this gift named proclamation. Comments?