This blog is the combined effort of four senior pastors of different churches. Their desire is to point you toward living a God-centered, gospel-focused, Christian life.

Monday, June 24, 2013

What is the Purpose of Preaching?

After my post last week, I realized that I failed to touch on a topic I had meant to cover more deeply: what is the purpose of preaching? Without first understanding this, we are unable to rightly discern whether preaching is "good" or "bad." When we say preaching is good, we may be right, but for the wrong reasons! The following is an excerpt from a paper I did in a seminar for my expository preaching degree:

The final chapter of David Buttrick’s Homiletic is entitled “A Brief Theology of Preaching.”  Here Buttrick asks a salient question:
From a social perspective, preaching may be superfluous….  Reasons for preaching can only be found in faith.  So, though we may enjoy the sweet freedoms of a superfluous vocation, in faith let us struggle with the question: Why do preachers preach?”[1]

Most of the works we read [in this seminar] suffer from failing to answer this question correctly, if at all.  It is difficult to overstate the importance of knowing what the purpose of preaching is.  The widespread lack of understanding of or attention to the purpose of preaching in the evangelical community is perhaps the most disturbing trend I have observed during our coursework.  It was frustrating to read various authors develop and defend methods that clearly did not share the passions of Scripture. 
Failure to Consider Purpose.  On one end of the Protestant homiletical spectrum are those works that fail to even consider why Scripture tells us we are to preach.  Fred Craddock rebels against the idea of the authoritative proclamation of truth.  He advocates that the preacher “re-create with the congregation the inductive experience of coming to an understanding of the message of the text.”[2]  Eugene Lowry advocates the narrative form of the sermon based upon our intuitive sense of how to preach: “Transforming our intuitions into articulate form [the narrative] is precisely the purpose of this book.”[3]  Their works never even address what God would have the preacher do.
Purpose and Proof-Texting.  But even works written by sound bible expositors sometimes betray a lack of proper concern with purpose.  A biblical theology of preaching is not one that can be simply defended with a few quick proof texts.  Warren Wiersbe in Preaching and Teaching with Imagination develops an entire work around the thesis that preaching should be creative.  His text to defend this argument is 2 Samuel 17 where Ahithophel’s counsel is thwarted due to Hushai’s speech. 
It is not that Wiersbe is wrong to urge creativity in preaching.  His practical suggestions are excellent.  The problem lies in the fact that his work is driven by a text that is simply not about creativity.  The primary purpose of the text is to show how the sovereign hand of God uses Hushai to protect David.  Not to unfairly target Wiersbe, but the absence of passion about God’s purpose for preaching in his work left me hungry for something more.  What is needed in homiletical instruction is to develop within the preacher a heart that burns for the things of the Lord. 
A passage that seems to creep up frequently in sections of preaching books that are presumably dealing with purpose is 2 Samuel 12 where David is confronted by Nathan through the telling of a story.  For example, York and Decker introduce their chapter entitled “The Goal of Preaching” with this story.  They conclude their introductory remarks, “Making the emotional connection with David was instrumental in getting David to act on Nathan’s rebuke rather than just to hear it.”[4]  But this text is not about preaching.  And, what is more concerning, nowhere in this chapter on the goal of preaching are any biblical texts that deal with preaching in the church even mentioned, much less explored.
The problem is that there is a lack of a clarion call to the church regarding the true purpose of preaching.  This problem is not universal, but it is wide-spread.  Some works may feel that such a question is beyond the scope of their work, but it seems to be so essential to anything else one might say about preaching that it is a question that should at least be addressed at some level.
Preoccupation with Pragmatics.  Finding something that “works” is the goal of many homiletical books.  Craddock’s call for change is not based on the fact that the church is failing to fulfill God’s design for preaching but rather that “in countless courts of opinion the verdict on preaching has been rendered and the sentence passed.”[5]  Graham Johnston assumes our primary task is to “reach the present age without selling out to it.”[6]  Even Michael Fabarez contends that the proper evaluation of a successful sermon is “the biblical change it brings about in the lives of our congregants.” [7]  Our postmodern culture, as the handout from the seminar contends, “is into whatever’s expedient.”[8]
Failure to Apply Purpose.  Some of the works we examined have a solid evangelical theology of preaching but fail to consider the implications of that theology.  Dennis Cahill in The Shape of Preaching provides an overview of the tools available to the homiletician of the contemporary church.  He does this while maintaining an appreciation for and a defense of traditional evangelicalism’s understanding of the purpose of the sermon.  Unfortunately, he fails to have his theology truly interact with his method.  The purpose of the sermon is never really applied to the methods he surveys.  At one point he juxtaposes preachers who neglect to develop a propositional idea with homileticians “who sound as if preaching is just the communication of information about the Bible.  For them…it is explanation with some application.”[9]  Cahill never describes what the middle ground looks like, nor what exactly is unsettling about explaining and applying the Bible.
Focus on the Sacred Task.  It should come as no surprise to anyone at Southern that Dr. Mohler gets it right.  In the introductory chapter to Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, he identifies the true reason we preach: “True preaching begins with this confession: we preach because God has spoken.”[10]  This simple statement is surprisingly profound, even within evangelical circles.  Mohler’s conclusion to the article should be required reading for some of the people who advocated various methods in our material:
The preacher is a commissioned agent whose task is to speak because God has spoken, because the preacher has been entrusted with the telling of the gospel of the Son who saved, and because God has promised the power of the Spirit as the seal and efficacy of the
preacher’s calling.
The ground of preaching is none other than the revelation which God has addressed to us in Scripture.  The goal of preaching is no more and no less than faithfulness to this calling.  The glory of preaching is that God has promised to use preachers and preaching to accomplish His purpose and bring glory unto Himself.
Therefore, a theology of preaching is essentially doxology.  The ultimate purpose of the sermon is to glorify God and to reveal a glimpse of His glory to His creation.  This is the sum and substance of the preaching task.  That God would choose such a means to express
His own glory is beyond our understanding; it is rooted in the mystery of the will and wisdom of God.
Yet, God has called out preachers and commanded them to preach.  Preaching is not an act the church is called to defend but a ministry preachers are called to perform.  Thus, whatever the season, the imperative stands: Preach the Word![11]

[1] David Buttrick, Homiletic (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1987), 449.
[2] Fred Craddock, As One Without Authority (St. Louis: Chalice Books), 99.
[3] Eugene Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), xix.
[4] Hershael York and Bert Decker, Preaching with Bold Assurance (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), 11.
[5] Craddock, 3.
[6] Graham Johnston, Preaching to a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001), 10.
[7] Michael Fabarez, Preaching that Changes Lives (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002), 9-10.
[8] “Postmodernism Handout,” Expository Preaching 80314.
[9] Dennis M. Cahill, The Shape of Preaching: Theory and Practice in Sermon Design (Grand
Rapids: Baker Books, 2007),93.
[10] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “A Theology of Preaching ,” Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, Michael Duduitt, ed., (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 14.
[11] Ibid., 19-20.

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