Conservative Evangelicals have a (justifiably) high view of preaching. “Preach or perish” is one of our slogans. Seminarians graduate bright eyed and bushy tailed, determined to wholeheartedly preach the word of God. They have been correctly taught that the fundamental work of the pastor is preaching. Similarly, any decent pastors’ conference will stress the importance of always preaching from scripture. Amen. But what is preaching, biblically speaking?
Many Christians have an overly narrow view of what preaching is.
The argument I make in this article is that contemporary definitions and ideas concerning preaching are shaped by tradition rather than the Bible. Therefore many Christians, but especially conservative Evangelicals, have an overly narrow view of what preaching is. My intention is certainly not to undermine pulpit preaching. We need pulpits reserved for faithful, bold, persuasive, and God glorifying preaching. However, I want to suggest that pulpits aren’t the only place where such preaching can take place.
We Need a Biblical Definition of Preaching
When asked to justify their commitment to the primacy of preaching, pastors will often cite the giants of church history (such as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, or Lloyd-Jones). They may also point to contemporary preachers: Keller, Piper, Begg, Mbewe and so on. These men are tremendous gifts to the church, worthy of emulation. Thus the desire to preach like them is good. However, I want to suggest that this desire can also be bad. For the danger is that we’ll equate their preaching with preaching as it is defined in the New Testament.
Most Evangelicals hold to this formula: sermon verbalised=preaching.
Most Evangelicals (perhaps unwittingly) hold to this formula: sermon verbalised=preaching. There is an almost exact identification between a sermon (which is delivered in a church) and preaching. For example, in his great work Preaching and Preachers, Martin Lloyd-Jones views preaching and delivering a sermon synonymously. Everything in that classic work on preaching is related to the sermon. Likewise, most Evangelicals buy into this understanding of preaching without pausing to think.
Is Our Preaching too Safe?
Today’s preaching comes to us in a certain context and packaging. Preaching is virtually always the communication of the gospel and biblical truth to a sympathetic audience, or at least nominal insiders. Our preaching is one way traffic. The audience is largely passive, though hopefully spiritually and mentally engaged. It is virtually unthinkable, most preacher’s worst nightmare, that he might be heckled. No one is going to loudly declare during a sermon that they think he’s talking rubbish.
The unwritten assumption is that this is the preacher’s turf. He can say what he wants to.
There are exceptions. Whitefield and Wesley often preached on non-ecclesiastical turf. For this they copped a lot of flak. On one occasion, a heckler actually threw a dead cat at Whitefield! But today the physical environment is completely different. Preachers are almost always “protected” by a lectern or pulpit, a kind of spiritual Linus blanket, perhaps. There is also a certain emotional atmosphere. The audience has gotten into the zone, through songs and prayers and so on. They’re also familiar with the routine, the ups and downs. Thus the unwritten assumption is that this is the preacher’s turf. He can say what he wants to, safely.
But does this accord with the New Testament? Looking past both the present accepted format for preaching and 2000 years of church history, can we reach a biblical definition of preaching?
In Search of Biblical Preaching
If you get one thing from this article, I hope it’s this: the spoken sermon among believers doesn’t encapsulate the full scope of biblical preaching.
The New Testament uses four main words for preaching, occurring hundreds of times. They are kerusso (herald, declare); euangelizo (declare the good news); martureo (bear witness to certain facts); and disdasko (to teach, to spell out the implications). A study of these terms points to a large overlap between them. Preaching involves all four. Thus Paul’s famous charge in 2 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction,” wouldn’t have been limited to pulpits and Sundays.
The spoken sermon among believers doesn’t encapsulate preaching.
Furthermore, the New Testament writers would have taken much of their thinking concerning preaching from the Old Testament prophets. This is in itself instructive, because one thing Old Testament prophetic proclamation could never be called is one dimensional. In fact, like the Old Testament prophets, New Testament preaching took place in various locations and contexts: synagogues, lakeshores, town squares, homes, and at the meeting of city councillors. The audiences ranged from small to large groups, families to mobs, intellectuals to blue collar workers, and even church leaders.
Preaching was also not one way traffic. There were interruptions, interjections, riots, heckling, questions, dialogue, reasoned argumentation, miraculous works, stoning, and a guy falling out a window. In other words, preaching was often in an unsympathetic environment. Biblical preaching is not exclusively carried out in a formal worship context.
A Broader and Better Definition
This may make people nervous. Others will be growing agitated and starting to sharpen their swords. “You are opening up a can of worms and making allowance for all kinds of things in the name of preaching!,” they’ll cry. So, time for a definition. Preaching can be called the authoritative, verbal proclamation of the gospel. It is broader than what we call a sermon, though faithful sermons certainly constitute faithful preaching.
Preaching is the authoritative, verbal proclamation of the gospel.
Skits, meditations, poetry recitals, musical items, and interpretive spiritual dance are not biblical preaching. These might have their place, since they are edifying and God glorifying. But they don’t constitute preaching, nor can they replace it. This is not about trashing preaching and having chat sessions or dramas instead. It’s about having a proper understanding of what preaching is. My attempt to slightly loosen our definition, and thus include more than the Sunday sermon, is not to suggest preaching can be anything we choose. We must consider the evidence in the New Testament, both what is written and practiced.
Preach to the People, Not Only the Pews
We must get our definition of preaching from the Bible; not church history or our favourite podcasts. This definition should take us beyond the church precincts, to the people. For biblical preaching is anything but safe and predictable. It isn’t limited to Sundays, sermons, and pulpits. In fact, it’s a challenging call to evangelism and missions. It’s an invitation to proclaim Christ crucified. And it’s a warning against being too comfortable in our nominally Christian cultures and countries.