One of the unique things about serving in the College of Ministry at Northwest University is the opportunity I have to teach in a number of different areas. Though these pursuits do sometimes take me away from my main academic field (American religious history) and the strict purview of my position (youth ministry), I find them enjoyable. In my short time here I have taught Church history, theology, Bible, general ministry, youth ministry, and now: preaching. I sometimes quip that I’m like a one-man seminary.
I’ve long held an interest in the task of preaching. When staffing issues left our introductory preaching course open this semester, I was excited to have the opportunity to offer some thoughts and provide guidance to the students under my care. Though my PhD is not in homiletics, I do feel that I am ready to help students understand the basics of the preaching task through my experience, course texts, and classroom feedback.
Thinking about preaching for an entire semester will be a rich source of reflection for me personally. One of the initial questions I have as I am working through the material is this: what is the place of preaching in today’s world? Because, when you think about it, preaching is a rather “old-school” enterprise. In a world defined by Instagrams and Twitter feeds, Michael Bay-esque explosions, Youtube videos on every conceivable subject, and a Google search bar ready to give you the answer to any factual question you’ve ever had, why do we need to listen to someone preach?
What’s the point of a sermon when you have Siri?
While I’ll bet you know where I land on the matter of the sermon’s relative value, I can say that each of these concerns points to the fact that our world has changed–rapidly–in the past few decades. The technological and information revolutions of our time mean that the way in which we teach, learn, and engage others is simply different. Top-down hierarchical structures tend to be rejected in favor of more democratic means, and access to data means that mere content acquisition is a goal ostensibly achievable by anyone with a smart phone.
If done in a certain way, preaching could therefore seem a bit of a throwback. One person distributing information to the many. Passive listeners taking it all in. Little to no participation and no dialogue or question-and-answer period. No pyrotechnics. Little to no technology.
I’ll admit: if that’s all preaching ever is, I can understand its critics. If preaching is not about something else, I would questions its ubiquity in our time.
Thankfully, this is not all that it can be.
Sermons are an important tool for the pastor not because they are simply content downloads for their people. To be sure, there is content to the Faith and followers of Christ need to understand many things. But the sermon is so much more. The preacher is (often by nature of her/his training) the expert and the hearers the non-experts, but this does not mean the latter has no role besides listening or that they are incapable of also constructing meaning (especially when we take into account the work of the Holy Spirit alive in the midst of preacher and congregation).
Especially in today’s world, preaching must not just educate but evoke. Preachers must needs be attentive to the voice of God, studied in the Scriptures, proficient in their delivery…but they must also be ready to let and prepare for the work of the sermon to continue on past the final “Amen” of a Sunday service. As our hearers grapple with the biblical text, we have the privilege of helping them consider new thoughts and ways of application. Knowledge, while a proximate goal of the sermon, has never been the ultimate end towards which we aim. Godly wisdom is what we must seek to develop. Facts, while a sine qua non of the preacher’s task, must always be used in a manner that point us to the ways in which those facts can and will make a difference. The preacher is a teacher, yes. But much more foundationally she is the wise one who can help us, by the power of God, to understand what living in like of God’s truth means.
Preaching is vital, then, provided we realize our people don’t need all the answers from us. Because a lot of the content of our faith–and the Bible–are (via the Internet) just as open to them as to us. We will help them think more about these things and will hopefully have the training to do so, but we must also help them to understand more. Sermonic forms and methods need to flow from this realization.
In sum, there is a place for preachers as long as there is a place for teachers and wise leaders who help us to think more deeply about our life, beliefs, and the way in which these work together.