Thursday, February 6, 2014

Preaching for. . . ?

What is the goal of preaching?  It is a straight forward enough question.  I am afraid the answers are all over the page -- even from those within the same Christian tradition.  Lutherans have traditionally spoken of preaching as a sacramental act.  The goal of preaching is to preach the whole counsel of God's Word because that Word is itself a means of grace, dare I say the chief means of grace.  So if the Word of God is preached faithfully, carefully distinguishing the Law and Gospel (that which demands from that which imparts), then the Word will accomplish its purpose (Isaiah 55).

The hope is, of course, that this will result in the transformation of the lives of the hearers but this is the fruit rather than the goal of faithful preaching.  The confidence is, to be sure, that God's saving will and gracious purpose will be fulfilled in His own time when His Word is faithfully proclaimed -- even though we fail to see with our eyes any difference in the external lives of the hearers.

For those who do not believe the Word has the power to do what is says, preaching has a much more basic and fundamental task -- to change the hearer.  In this respect, preaching (largely evangelical preaching) is much akin to motivational speaking -- except that the topic and the character of the proclamation is different.  I suspect, however, that many in the pews and those outside churches might have a more difficult time distinguishing motivational speaking from such evangelical preaching.

Rick Warren, here cited not as a spokesman for evangelical Christianity but more as a prominent example, has characterized the goal of preaching strictly as transformational.  You can read his whole article here.  Let me quote a couple of paragraphs from that article.  First:

If God's objective for every believer is to transform us into total Christlikeness, then the objective of preaching is to motivate people to develop Christlike convictions (to think like Jesus), Christlike character (to feel like Jesus), and Christlike conduct (to act like Jesus). Every other objective of preaching is secondary. At the end of the sermon, if people aren't being transformed in how they think, feel, and act, I've missed the mark as a preacher.

It is clear that Warren believes the preacher's job is to develop the mindset of Christ, the heart of Christ, and the life of Christ in the hearer.  That is a tall order, indeed.  While I am confident that Warren would admit that God is at work in this process, it is also clear that Warren places the burden of this task upon the preacher.  The whole measure of the proclamation can be effectively gauged and evaluated then by the visible and demonstrable transformation of the lives of the hearers.  I am not at all sure that Jesus would survive the cut since the result of many of His sermons was that people neither understood nor accepted what they had heard and even His most intimate disciples found His preaching hard and difficult.


To put it another way, the ultimate goal of preaching is not information. In fact, giving people a greater knowledge of the Bible can cause pride to develop in our hearers rather than humility if that information isn't translated into obedience. And the goal if preaching is not merely instruction either. Preaching certainly includes instruction, but there is more to preaching that mere behavior modification. The goal of well-rounded preaching is transformation and obedience.

I would heartily agree that the object of the sermon is not to inform (at least in the sense of imparting knowledge).  The sermon is not a Bible study nor is it a class lecture.  But it seems that Warren and many of his kind fail to believe that God is at work right there in the Word.  The Word is a tool in the hand of the preacher instead of the preacher a tool for the Word.  Warren also insists that he is not speaking simply of behavior modification but certainly this is a very important component of the transformation for obedience that is the goal of his well-rounded sermon.


Pastors, we are in the business of producing repentance. And repentance is more than being sorry, it's more than confessing sin, and it's more than changing some bad habits. Repentance involves a total change of our thinking to be in agreement with God, which affects our emotions and moves us to act in obedience.

Who would disagree with the fact that preaching produces repentance?  What is at issue here is whether this repentance and change of heart that results in obedience is simply the response of the hearer to good motivational and transformational preaching or the working of God through the Word by the power of the Spirit?  As Lutheran Christians we would insist that the fruit of preaching is exactly this -- repentance -- but this repentance is not a decision, choice, or even deduction on the part of the hearer but the Spirit a work through the Word as means of grace.  Faithful preaching of the Word of the Lord always results in repentance and this repentance leads to the fruits of repentance in the life of the hearer -- this is true.  What is at odds here seems to be whether this is the motivational goal of the sermon and the guiding principle of the preacher in preparing and delivering that sermon OR whether the faithful proclamation and explication of the Word of the Lord, carefully distinguishing Law and Gospel and preaching both fully, will result in this.

Lutherans (but not just Lutherans) are so very tempted to believe that the Word is one of the tools in the toolbox of the preacher instead of seeing the preacher as a tool of the Word.  This is not merely a difference of emphasis.  It is, in the end, a different Word that is being proclaimed for different purpose.  Much as we might admire such an effective personality as Mr. Warren, Lutherans dare not forsake our understanding of the efficacious Word in order to learn how to preach for results.  To do so is to forsake our right to the name and to the Confessions that define who we are.


Janis Williams said...

"Pastors, we are in the business of producing repentance."

I greatly fear what Warren means here is not that preaching the Word produces repentance. I am afraid that the likely meaning of the sentence is the man (pastor) himself is responsible for producing repentance. This is ridiculous.

A mere man can shame a person into feeling bad or sorry for his failures/sins. He cannot, however produce true repentance, which is a work of the Spirit. Also, so much of Evangelical preaching is devoid of the Gospel, people are either going to rebel or despair at the constant pounding of the Law. Since it is God's kindness which leads us to repentance, both Law and Gospel must be present in preaching. The condemnation of the Law alone cannot bring real repentance, only sorrow or fear. The sweetness of the Gospel is the pipeline (means) through which God delivers the ability to repent and turn to Christ.

Tapani Simojoki said...

Actually, pastors, we are in the business of producing faith. Which the Holy Spirit does, through the Word and the Sacraments, where and when it pleases God. And so, we preach the whole counsel of God, rightly dividing Law and Gospel, and trusting God with the wisdom to know what fruit and when that preaching produces.