PREACHING THE GOSPEL FOR A POST MODERN AUDIENCE

 

Are we hucksters of the Word?  (II Corinthians 2.17)  Shall we scrap the sermon?  What significance does preaching play in the life of a contemporary congregation?  What are men thinking and writing about the place of preaching today?  What does the Word of God have to say about the subject?  Does preaching still have a place in the sun?  Does preaching really matter?

 

Before we seek answers to these latter two questions, we can say without fear of being refuted that preaching has fallen upon evil days!  Melville’s classical description of the pulpit in his book, Moby Dick, comes to mind—“What could be more full of meaning?  For the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world.  From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath first decried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt.”

 

Robert Louis Stevenson’s attitude toward the sermon is expressed in his diary—“I went to Church this morning and was greatly depressed.”  Gene E. Bartlett, in his Lyman Beecher Lectures, The Audacity of Preaching, quotes the great nineteenth century preacher, Frederick W. Robertson.  “All I can say and feel is, that by the change of times the pulpit has lost its place. It does only part of that whole which used to be done by it alone.  Once it was newspaper, schoolmaster, theological treatise, a stimulant to good work.  Now these are partitioned out to different offices, and the pulpit is no more the pulpit of three centuries back, than the authority of a householder is that of Abraham.”

 

Then Mr. Bartlett continues—“surely we will recognize a contemporary complaint in these words.” (p. 17) 

 

Dr. Conrad Massa, formerly teacher at Princeton Theological Seminary, says grimly:  “In the history of the Church preaching has been neglected, ignored, debased, even almost totally forgotten, but never has its place been as seriously questioned by those who are genuinely concerned with the vitality of the Church’s witness as has been done repeatedly in this century.”  This was quoted from Dr. Massa’s doctoral thesis at Princeton, The Theology of Preaching and is available through Inter Library Loan.

 

William Barclay of the New Testament faculty of Trinity College in Glasgow, Scotland, tells of asking one of the most intelligent students to have ever graduated from Glasgow University to consider the ministry for his vocation.  Dr. Barclay relives those stunning moments as the young man replied with these stinging, unforgettable words—“Why should I commit my life to a complete vacuum?”  This young man was expressing his image of the ministry and the significance of preaching.  Strangely enough, Scotland is the home of some of the greatest preachers in the history of the Church—John Knox, James Denny, James S. Stewart, and Dr. Torrence.

 

Otto Dibelius, a truly great vanguard of the past generation whose great faith and power of preaching has escaped the atrocities of two world wars and the Berlin wall, in his eloquent simplicity states his early and unchanged attitude toward preaching—                                                 

 

It was in 1910, when I was transferred from Crossen on the Oder to Danzig, that I really found out what preaching meant.  I had gone to Danzig very reluctantly.  The Reformed congregation to which I was assigned numbered barely two thousand souls, scattered throughout the city and its suburbs.  Of ‘reform’ there was not a trace.  People were prosperous and worldly, that was all.  And the small congregation was lost in the huge church of Saint Peter and Paul.  A magnificent musician, Professor Fuchs sat at the powerful organ.  But he was not interested in the service.  During the sermon he read his Schopenhauer.  From the first day I realized that everything depended on the sermon.

                       

A. Leonard Griffith, the successor to Leslie Weatherhead at the famous City Temple in London and its world renowned pulpit, commented about his change of ministry from Canada to England in these words—

 

When the scene of my Christian ministry changed from Canada to England, it quickly became evident to me that the burden of my preaching and writing must now be apologetic, in the classical sense of that word.  Whereas in North America, people are asking, ‘What light does the Church’s gospel shed on the practical problems of life?’, in Britain, as in all of Europe, they are asking, ‘Is the Church’s gospel still true?’

 

In contrasting the method and message of Reginald John Campbell, successor to Joseph Parker at the famous City Temple, Dr. Griffith lays bare the contemporary problem of preaching and the status of the sermon in these words:

 

Even within the Church today a vastly different situation confronts the preacher than that which confronted R.J. Campbell half a century ago.  Campbell’s generation had the supreme advantage of speaking to an age of faith, an age that still believed in the basic Christian doctrines, and at the very least he could assume a modicum of theological literacy on which to build.  One of his contemporaries said recently, however, that whereas in any congregation sixty years ago you could count on a general sense of guilt, now the only thing you can count on is a general sense of doubt.  After spending some time in Europe, an American theological professor concluded that today the preacher can expect two reactions to every sermon, ‘Oh Yeah!’ and ‘So What?’  Never has Christian orthodoxy been more sharply challenged.  (A. Leonard Griffith, Barriers to Christian Belief, Author’s preface (Harper and Row, NY, 1962)

 

On Reformation Day, Professor Helmut Thielicke spoke at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota on the subject, The Relevance of Modern Preaching.  Dr. Thielicke was one of the greatest German theologians and preachers in post modern Germany.  He spoke to between eight and ten thousand people each Lord’s Day.  The audience ranged from physicists to farmers, from milkmaid to model.  Twice each Lord’s Day morning the giant cathedral was filled to overflowing.  The central theme of Dr. Thielicke’s lecture was “the Present Distress of Preaching, Both in Germany and America.”

 

In Germany, the preaching is so theological that the pastor begins speaking in heaven and never quite gets down to earth.  The opposite is true in American preaching.  He begins speaking on earth and never quite gets to heaven.  The two kinds of sermons would be very complementary to one another but where in the stratosphere could the two preachers meet!?

 

Alvin Pitcher in the book, Preaching the Gospel in an Achievement Culture, states that the Church and its activity are dominated by the philosophy of justification by success.  This philosophy is expressed in this little rhyme:  “I will be the biggest, I will be the best, until I am the biggest, I will get no rest.”  In judging the status and effect of contemporary preaching, Mr. Pitcher concludes that

 

Our culture lives on the drive of those who seek to be justified by works.  Remove that drive and you threaten our culture.  The Christian faith begins with the assertion that one is justified by grace through faith.  Try to make this clear today and you may be rejected by culture and by the Church.  But most likely, . .  you will sound so preposterous that you will not be heard. (The Pulpit, April, 1962)

 

How can the skandalon of the Gospel be overcome in preaching?  It cannot be overcome except through repentance and surrender.  Yet, many preachers attempt to overcome the stumbling block of Christ by situational preaching, i.e., analyzing human situations in order to get the subject matter for preaching.  My dear friends, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Morse of the Burma Mission, related to me the following story while they were on leave from the mission field.  On Christmas Day in 1954 they (the Morse family) visited the Methodist Church in Rangoon, Burma.  Many Church members had brought Buddhists friends to the service in order that they might see how Christians worship.  The minister began to speak and declared, with great fanfare, that he did not wish to offend the visitors, so he would retell the story of another great man—the Buddha!  This sounds strangely like post modern multicultural pluralism.

 

Men, both great and small, competent and incompetent, have attempted to eliminate the “hard demands” of the gospel.  In more modern times, from Schleiermacher to Bultmann, men have attempted to make the Gospel acceptable to its cultured despisers.  How does one make the Gospel of God palatable to one who listens with his “cultured ears?”  Every great, competent contemporary preacher, whether in Britain, the continent, or North America, raise their voices in unison against the methodological techniques of preaching.  No one ever learned to be a great preacher by memorizing his homiletics textbook or becoming knowledgeable in mass media methods.  Instead of spending so much time analyzing the audience or its environment, could it be that contemporary preachers should spend much more time analyzing the Word than the world?  After the message is prepared, there remains the great spiritual task of preparing the messenger.  God’s messengers should all be prepared in the manner Southy asserted of Wordsworth, the great Romantic author, philosopher, theologian, and preacher.  Southy said that every time he heard Wordsworth preach he was so enthralled with his message that he reminded him of an “eagle dallying with the wind.”  We should all aspire to such control over our medium of expression when we speak on God’s behalf.  Edwin Booth, the great Shakespearean, expressed this same thought when he declared that he was so fascinated with MacBeth that often he could not distinguish between Booth and MacBeth.  This should be our goal while proclaiming the unreachable riches of Jesus.  In the words of Richard Baxter, we should always “Preach as never sure to preach again and as a dying man to dying men.”

 

The modern obsession with method also extends into the area of preaching.  Following the scientific operationalists, the homiletician says that if you perform these steps (use this method) you will be a preacher.  The Greek term “method” appears only two times in the entire New Testament.  In Ephesians 4.14, methodeian is translated “craftiness”; and methodeias is translated “wiles” in Ephesians 6.11 (1901).  The words of the immortal Bard still ring true—“There’s method in his madness.”  Method is always circular, whether in science or preaching.  You have structured into the system what you can get back out.  All post modern Logicians of Science avoid using the term method for this reason.  Augustine would concur with the declaration of Dietrich Ritschl in his book Theology of Proclamation (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1960).  “The content is what matters; form and technique will grow out of the content, not vice-versa.”  This statement should be modified by changing the word “will” to “should.”  We should be more concerned with what to preach than how to preach.  The cause of biblical Christianity needs to give immediate, serious attention to the biblical theology of preaching and compare it with the popular folklore that has been uncritically transmitted regarding this magnificent obsession—preaching the Word.  This would imply that we, who are committed to the apostolic message, have failed to examine the doctrine of preaching as it is exemplified in the word of God.  Carl Becker, the great historian, expresses the problem of reactionary resentment when the tradition of the elders is challenged regarding preaching or anything else.  He says in his book, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers that— “Whether arguments command assent or not depends less upon the logic that conveys them than upon the climate of opinion in which they are sustained.”

 

Biblical preaching is not performance; it is the event which opens the 2004 year gap between Christ’s work and word and the post modern hearer.  If this is true, why is current, popular preaching so sluggish and impotent?  Franklin H. Littell gives us one reason in his work, From State Church to Pluralism.  He finds the pulpit language archaic and “irrelevant to the complex societies of industrial civilization.”  Another reason given by Dr. Littell is what he calls “the vulgar control of pulpits.”  He quotes an appropriate statement from an essay which appeared in the Emory University Alumnus: 

 

If their advocacy from their pulpits (in which they are in the last analysis the paid guest speakers) become sufficiently obnoxious to their listeners to cause a substantial decline in attendance and gross receipts the clergyman must not be too surprised when Church fathers arrange for his transfer to more favorable times.

 

God’s preachers must never become a mere echo of the mind and mood of the people.  The “paid guest speaker” concept of the ministry is quite widespread and brilliantly articulated by the following “classified advertisement.”

 

WANTED:  MINISTER FOR GROWING CHURCH

 

A real challenge for the right man!  Opportunity to become better acquainted with people.  Applicant must offer experience as shop worker - office manager – educator (all levels, including college) – artist – salesman – diplomat – writer – theologian – politician – Boy Scout leader – children’s worker – minor league athlete – psychologist – vocational counselor – psychiatrist – funeral director – wedding consultant – master of ceremonies – circus clown – missionary – social worker.  Helpful but not essential:  experience as hunter – baker – cowboy – Western Union messenger.

 

Must know all about problems of birth, marriage, and death; also conversant with latest theories and practices in areas like pediatrics, economics, and nuclear science.

 

Right man will hold firm views on every topic, but is careful not to upset people who disagree.  Must be forthright but flexible; returns criticism and back-biting with Christian love and forgiveness.

 

Should have outgoing, friendly disposition at all times; should be captivating speaker and intent listener; will pretend he enjoys hearing women talk.

 

Education must be beyond Ph.D. requirements, but always concealed in homespun modesty and folksy talk.  Able to sound learned at times, but most of time talks and acts like a good old Joe.  Familiar with literature read by the average congregation.

 

Must be willing to work long hours; subject to call any time day or night; adaptable to sudden interruption.  Will spend at least 25 hours preparing his sermon; an additional 10 hours reading books and magazines.

 

Applicant’s wife must be both stunning and plain; smartly attired but conservative in appearance; gracious and able to get along with everyone, even women.  Must be willing to work in the Church kitchen, teach Sunday School, baby-sit, run a multilith machine, wait tables, never listen to gossip, and never become discouraged.  The children must be exemplary in conduct and character; well behaved, yet basically no different from other children; decently dressed.

Opportunity for applicant to live close to work.  Furnished home provided; open-door hospitality enforced.  Must be ever mindful the house does not belong to him.

 

Directly responsible for views and conduct to all church members and visitors; not confined to direction or support from any one person.  Salary not commensurate with experience or need; no overtime pay.  All replies kept confidential.  Anyone applying will undergo full investigation to determine sanity.  (A classified advertisement prepared by Robert M. Boltwood, a member of First Baptist Church of Birmingham, MI; it appeared in Christianity Today on June 8, 1962)

 

A more recent innovation which supplies data for the confidential file of the applicant is a full privacy invasion via investigation into bank accounts, outstanding bills, etc. by a selected group of religious privacy invaders.  The Church really has a right to know all about those who desire to become their “paid guest speaker”, doesn’t it?  Perhaps the applicant ought also to get a confidential file on each of those who are the official representatives of the congregation.  Where but in an age when the corporation image has captured the Church would such an idea come from?  Certainly not from an examination of the biblical doctrine of preaching and the preacher.  Kyle Haselden sounds the clarion challenge of a prophetic warning in these words,

 

It is well to ask when preaching, ‘what will the people say about this’ (our preaching must be relevant, you know).  But there is a prior and paramount question, ‘what storm of God’s wrath will strike first me and then the people if I do not speak?’  It is an awful thing when the pulpit falls into the hands of a living God.  (The Pulpit, A Journal of Contemporary Preaching (May, 1962, p. 19)

                       

How are we to break the fetters of pragmatic activism on the Church and pulpit?  What is the relation of thinking, doing and preaching?  How can thinking accomplish anything?  Alexander Graham Bell said “All really big discoveries are the result of thought.”  Albert Einstein declared that he did not need any further confirmation of his formula E = ML 2 than logical deduction.  There would not exist I.C.B. missiles nor computer systems had the engineers been committed to an activistic pragmatism.  Thought must determine action, not action determine thought.  This certainly holds for the biblical doctrine of preaching.  Paul said that “it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching (the thing preached, not the activity) to save them that believe.”  The resurgent liturgical movement is attempting to replace “ambiguous symbolism” for the specific Word of God, in the context of worship and evangelism.

 

If grace is made available to fallen man other than through the proclaimed word, then the door is reopened for the repetition of the tragedy that all but silenced the Church after the apostolic period.  Sacerdotalism (i.e., grace is available through a validly ordained clergy and the sacraments) generated a creeping paralysis on preaching Christ alone as Savior.  Augustine, Luther, Calvin, et.al., recovered the Word as the source of the grace of God.  Preaching was restored to its apostolic place.  One can examine Patristic, Medieval, Modern, and Contemporary preaching, and see very plainly that after the New Testament period there was no serious examination of the biblical theology of preaching and teaching until the more recent preoccupation with distinguishing the “original apostolic message” from the “Church’s interpretation” of the life and ministry of Christ.  Is all of the New Testament the Word of God or is most of it nothing more than the Christian community attempting to express in human language its interpretation, not necessarily correct, of the “original Christ event?”  What does the New Testament say about preaching and teaching?

 

A Prolegomena to the Biblical Theology of Teaching and Preaching

 

The salesmanship concept of preaching is emphatically repudiated by the Apostle Paul in his second correspondence to the Church at Corinth.  Paul denies that a Christian preacher can be a huckster of the word in II Corinthians 2.12-17. 

 

Vs. 12 – But coming to Troas [with the] gospel of Christ and a door to me having been opened (perfect passive) by (the) Lord

 

Vs. 13 – I have had no (perfect indicative) rest (of) my spirit when I did not find Titus my brother but saying farewell to them I went forth into Macedonia

 

Vs. 14 – always leading in triumph (present participle) (the image of a Roman victory march during which the vanquished were included and marched to their deaths)

 

Vs. 15 – the ones being saved (present passive participle) and the ones perishing (present passive participle) (whether saved or lost depends on our relationship to Christ--this is a mandate for missions).

 

Vs. 16 – to one a saver to death, to the other a savor to life.  Who is sufficient (hikanos – competent, sufficient, adequate, qualified, fit, worthy) for these things

 

Vs. 17 – For we are not as the many hawking (kapeleuontes – present participle, root significance, a retailer, a huckster, a peddler of the Word of God) but as of sincerity (from the Greek, to be judged in the sunshine), but as of God and in the sight of God we speak in Christ.

 

The vital term in this passage of scripture is kapeleuontes, a present participle structure and it means hawking or huckstering or placing the gospel, in this instance, up for sale as a commodity in a competitive market with other preachers of the Word.  The Word is used in this sense by Aeschylus, Herodotus, Philo, Deo Chrysostom, implying in verb form, the “tricks of the small tradesmen.”  The Latin text translates the above Greek term with adulterante and conveys only a part of the word’s significance.  The Latin word is derived from ad plus alter and means to corrupt, debase, make impure by admixture, to prepare for sale with an ingredient included witch is not part of the professed substance.  The semantical range of meaning does include the sense of falseness and this particular concept is translated in the German bible by verfalschen; by French translators as falsifions; by the King James as corrupt (but the Greek word is more faithfully translated by the Revised Standard translation as peddlers; and by Phillips as which traffics; the New English Bible as hawking.  Paul is not necessarily charging the many (hoi polloi) with preaching false doctrine, but rather, with being willing to become hucksters, i.e., to place the Gospel on the bargain counter for sale.  Paul emphatically denies by the use of the hapax legomena (kapeleuontes) that he is a salesman of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

 

Have we of the Restoration Movement carefully, critically examined the Scriptures for the express purpose of mining their rich ore concerning the Biblical doctrine of preaching and teaching?  Does the Bible consistently employ a specific sense for the words preaching and teaching and their cognate forms?  If so, what are the distinguishing characteristics of each?  Does the Bible itself sustain C.H. Dodd’s kerygma didache distinction?  If so, is there any difference in the purpose and content of kerygma didache distinction?  If so, is there any difference in the purpose and content of kerygma didache in the Bible and in C.H. Dodd’s position?  If the Bible does sustain the kerygma didache distinction, what possible bearing could it have on the Biblical doctrine of preaching and teaching?  What is specifically meant?

 when we speak of Biblical preaching?  Does the Bible reveal any distinction in aim and content when the proclaimers were speaking to a Jewish versus a Gentile audience?

 

Though I cannot investigate the Biblical doctrine of listening in this essay, I must call it to the attention of the reader.  Evangelist Howard E. Butt, Jr. recently stated in his message before the Christian Layman’s Workshop held in the historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. that “. . . sermon listening is an escape. . . .  God wants transformation from listening to living.”  He also opined that too many Church goers tend to regard sermon listening as an end in itself. . . . Sermon listening may actually be one of America’s greatest sins.”  John Knox has a challenging chapter entitled, “Hearing As An Act of Worship” (chapter two) in his book, The Integrity of Preaching.  Probably preaching would improve in direct proportion to our preparing to listen.  The Word of God comes as both mercy and judgment in the life of the congregation.  In most congregations, the gathered community judges the Word rather than accepting its judgment upon the hearers.

 

See my listing of sermon and lecture tapes available at the Lincoln Christian College Media Center on the web site—www.worldvieweyes.org/resource-rv.html; also two  books (Job and the Book of Revelation) are available on the College Press web site in Joplin, MO.  Also available at LCC – Science and Christianity video (75 minutes) and Science and Christianity audio (15 hours).  See especially “Conception and Narrative Displacement in the Rush Toward Relevance” “Paradigm Shifts in Homiletics Resulting from Postmodern Influence, i.e., Buttrick, Craddock, Long, Lucy Rose, Lowry, et. al.  The influences of Lyotard, Heidegger, Fish, Rorty, Foucault, Quine, Gadamer, Kuhn are everywhere apparent.  In the Chicago Tribune, December 28, 2003, p. 9, is a article regarding Stanley Fish:  “Making academia more accessible” which is a paradigmatic shift from Fish’s postmodern deconstructionism  origin of Story and Narrative Homiletics field with a distortion of the Scientific Enterprise as grounded in Inductivism (contra classical Deductionism.)

 

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                Dr. James D. Strauss

                                                                                                                                                                                                Professor Emeritus

                                                                                                                                                                                                Lincoln Christian Seminary

                                                                                                                                                                                                Lincoln, IL 62 656