Monday, August 8, 2016

Is Preaching Still Important?

Let me cut to the chase - is preaching still important? - yes, of course it is! And yet, in many congregations, preaching has fallen on hard times.

It was not always this way. If you were to go to Europe and visit many of the churches which were grown or influenced by the Protestant Reformation, you would be struck by the large, ornate pulpits that are centrally located and which dominate their sanctuaries. The placement of these pulpits spoke eloquently of the centrality and indispensability of the preaching of the Word to communicate Christ and his saving work to his people. 

The Reformation’s restoration of preaching to the center of Christian worship and life could not have been more dramatically illustrated. If the worship of the Medieval Roman Catholic Church was focused upon the altar and the sacrament of the mass, the worship of the churches of the Reformation was focused upon the pulpit. Christ’s dwelling in the midst of his people was understood to be primarily mediated through the proclamation of the gospel, and only secondarily through the administration of the sacrament.

But we face challenging times in Protestant churches today. We are witnessing the final demise of theological liberalism, the rise of Pentecostalism, the quick rise and fall of the emerging church movement, the breakdown of evangelicalism, and an utter discombobulation about how the church is to conduct its life and ministry in an increasing “post-Christian” culture. All around us, in the name of reaching the culture with the gospel, we see evangelical churches compromising (usually without intending to) in both message and methods. This has affected preaching dramatically. The fundamental assumption underlying these new approaches is that “everything has changed,” and so our methods must change.

The Reformation’s view of preaching has been seriously challenged in recent years. On the one hand, there is a spirit of democratization and egalitarianism that chafes at the notion of an ordained ministry whose administration of the Word of God in preaching has a place of pre-eminence in the church. When this spirit captivates the churches, all of the members alike become equally “ministers” of the Word of God, the ministers of the Word being only a specialized expression of a more general activity. And on the other hand, there is a growing prejudice that preaching no longer serves as an effective means of communicating the gospel. This prejudice can give birth to an almost endless proliferation of new devices or strategies for preaching the gospel—alternatives to preaching in drama, music and other, sometimes esoteric, worship practices. The only common thread holding these devices together is that they constitute an alternative to preaching. The sorry image of preaching today can easily be illustrated by noting that the expression, “to preach to (at) someone,” is generally thought to be objectionable.

And yet, more than ever, we need to re-affirm a commitment to an “ordinary means” approach to church life and ministry which says the gospel "works" and God has given us both the method and the message. This is vitally important in a time where one of the dominant storylines in churches has been that of alternative methods unwittingly, unhelpfully, and unbiblically altering both the message and the ministry.

Ordinary means of grace-based ministry is ministry that focuses on doing the things God, in the Bible, says are central to the spiritual health and growth of His people, and which aims to see the qualities and priorities of the church reflect biblical norms. Hence, God has given us both the message of salvation and the means of gathering and building the church, in His Word. 

However important understanding our context or the times may be, the ordinary means approach to ministry is first and foremost concerned with biblical fidelity. Because faithfulness is relevance. The gospel is the message and the local church is the plan. God has given to his church spiritual weapons for the bringing down of strongholds. These ordinary means of grace are the Word, sacraments (the Lord's Supper and Baptism), and prayer. 

Ordinary means ministry believes that the key things that the church can do in order to help people know God and grow in their knowledge of God are: First, emphasize the public reading and preaching of the Word; second, emphasize the confirming, sanctifying and assuring efficacy of the Lord's Supper and Baptism, publicly administered; and third, emphasize a life of prayer, especially expressed corporately in the church. These things are central and vital but sadly often under-emphasized, under-appreciated, and undermined.

Ordinary means of grace-based ministry believes that God means what He says in the Bible about the central importance of these public, outward instruments for spiritual life and growth, and rather than church growth fads and marketing strategies, we will be dedicated to those things. 

God explicitly instructs ministers and churches to do the following things: “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13); “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2); “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19); “take, eat; this is my body. …which is for you…drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins; …do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (Matt. 26:26–28; 1 Cor. 11:25–26); “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made…. I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands” (1 Tim. 2:1, 8).

All of which means, preaching is a vital component of ordinary means of grace ministry and we must affirm its central place in Christian worship. Preaching is foundational even where it does not seem to be so.  The preaching office undergirds and nourishes all the work of the church and of Christians.  Abraham Kuyper expressed well this point: 
“And through this office the call goes forth from the pulpit, in the catechetical class, in family, in writing, and by personal exhortation.  However, not always to every sinner directly through the office… For the instruments of the call whether they were persons or printed books, proceeded from the office.”
Preaching stands behind the family and friends and small group Bible studies that influence so many people today. One of the central acts of worship is hearing the Word preached. Where the Word is not preached and heard, there is no church. To be the Body of Christ and to worship God, we need preaching. That is how important it is.