the problem with preaching?

For those of you interested in the ministry of preaching...

There is a spirited discussion going on in the pages of the magazine of the Baptist Churches of New Zealand at the moment. David Allis - with a breadth of experience in church and mission life in NZ and overseas - contributed an article in the July issue entitled "The Problem with Preaching". It is uploaded here:


I was among those who made a response in the August issue of the magazine. It is also uploaded here (with the formatting included that inadvertently dropped out of the print version!):


enuf said - nice chatting



Scott said…
Thanks for your boldness and fairness here Paul, it's a real blessing.

In my own context of TSCF student ministry, and life in an evangelical Anglican church in Christchurch, I've seen Christians thrive and develop under regular and faithful Bible exposition. Far from disempowering Christians, and stunting their understanding of the gospel of the Lord Jesus, this ministry has refreshed their passion to know and share Christ with others and relate their faith to everyday life. There is a greater willingness to discuss the actual content of the teaching after the meetings than I've seen before, and to equip Christians in the service of Christ rather than just leaving it all up to 'one trained professional'.

Therefore, reading this critique left me feeling quite bemused. It's not my experience at all that believers in NZ already 'know it all' and simply need to 'live it out'. I just have to ask the average student some simple questions about the nature of the gospel, or the shape of biblical salvation history to overturn that damaging assumption. It is so true, as you say, that... "In the NZ setting biblical preaching has not been tried and found wanting, it has been wanted and not tried often enough."
Andrew Butcher said…
I am very glad that you have responded to this Paul. Quite seriously, you should write a book about preaching - bring the debate broader, beyond just those who read the Baptist. I was talking to my Uncle Bruce Murray about the article to which you responded and he would agree strongly with your comments - I hope we see more of your kind of approach in the pages of the NZ Baptist and elsewhere. Keep on preaching!
Andy said…

Thanks again for making an important contribution to a crucial discussion.

At the recent IFES World Assembly a commitment to inductive Bible study/teaching was reasserted again and again by various men and women from many different global contexts. New Zealand indeed has many things for which we are grateful but none which marks us out as unique in 'needing' to move away from preaching/proclaiming/communicating/teaching Scripture well.

On reflection I think that the best of preaching is accompanied by the best of small group Bible study and a consistent emphasis on the sufficiency and authority of God's Word for the whole of life, in the whole of life.

A similar article to Allan's appeared a number of years ago in The Times (uk) newspaper. In the ensuing letters the point about sermons not being remembered was made. One astute correspondant then replied.

"I have eaten many thousands of meals over my [?] years. I remember very few, but without being fed daily and weekly I would not be the man I am today!"

This is true. Good sermons feed as a matter of course. There are outstanding feasts, the moments of enjoying them to be recounted with gusto. But this is not the pattern of ordinary life.

As I type I'm about to sit down and enjoy dinner with my family. One year from now, I daresay I shall hardly recall the details of the meal (it at all) but without it I would not function well tonight OR until I am fed again.

I fear that what people are giving up on IS unbiblical preaching, the junk food of quickly prepared and highly processed communication - without ever having tried (or rarely come across) the joys of wholesome, "home cooked food" from a pastor/teacher who seeks to faithfully teach God's Word into the culture and congregation before them (ie Biblical teaching). They (and we) do so to our own detriment and the eventual emaciation of God's people.
Richard said…
great article Paul! thought it was very well thought out and gracefull, especially considering how close to home the critique hit

i still have worries that both sides of the debate in the baptist don't really get it, both those who call for preaching to be abandoned and those who claim its some sort of universal, "biblical", timeless and necessary form of communication.

i too have benefitted from excellent expository preaching (i would not be where i am now without the excellent teaching though TSCF, Remuera Baptist etc.), but i don't believe its a "biblical" practice in the sense that some of the writers in the baptist were trying to say (i.e "Loyd Jones and John Stott were great preachers therefore everyone should always hear sermons because we did and anyone who thinks otherwise is 'unbiblical'"). Thats simply trying to play the same game David plays in his article (the early church did or didn't do it therefore we should or shouldn't) and playing it poorly. The whole question of whether preaching is "biblical" (the great and often abusive evagelical power game that we ALL love to play) to me is largely irrelevant.

much like the dreaded worship debate about singing and musicla style...preaching, small group studies, house churches, interactive flashing super duper scripture presentations, lighting candles and incense in the dark (whatever we come up with..) should never be thought of as eternal, caste in stone practices to be practiced forevermore. the ultimate aim has to be getting people to engage and be shaped by the scriptures, and ultimately be confronted with Jesus. in many cases i think that still means preaching is a usefull and even vital practice in many places.
Anonymous said…
Yes, I share a similar level of scepticism about the missional or emergent movement - which Allis has clearly associated with.
Raymond said…
Thanks for your comments Paul and for your teaching on this subject, of which I have always appreciated and will always be grateful for people like yourself who have been called to do what you do so well.
As a pastor for the last 11 yrs 7 of which has been sole charge in a small rural church. preaching style and content needs to fit the context you are in. As you have always said Paul, when the people know you care then they will hear what you have to say, when they know you love them they will tell you what they need to hear. I have been developing a culture where we can discuss the message after the sermon and people have found this incredibly helpful. I enjoy the interaction and am amazed at who speaks up sometimes. I have even had people who speak up in the middle of my sermon and wanted clarification or discussion on a point I was making and I gladly obliged. This does not happen often but people know they can, and I think thats important. I know it would not work in other places, but it's what works and helps here and I feel comfortable doing it with people I know well. It's another wonderful reason why longevity in the pastoral role is so important, people need to get to know me and I need to get to know them. Preaching in the context of a loving community is so different to preaching to the masses who you don't know and they don't know you, it requires a different set of skills and or method. It's about finding your niche that sweet spot where things flow and the Spirit of God is directing and conducting us as preachers.
Paul said…
I hope others are enjoying these comments - I find them fascinating.

With Richard particularly in mind ...

Over the years I have moved away from using the phrase "expository preaching". In the NZ context people seem to jump so quickly from there to "exegetical preaching" which drives me nuts because I think that latter phrase is an oxymoron.

I prefer "biblical preaching" as a phrase - with the distinguishing mark of such preaching being that the preacher remains in the text and so listeners are repeatedly drawn back to the text during the course of the sermon. Or as I am want to say "the text is not the springboard from which we dive, but the swimming pool into which we dive!"

Such an approach includes classical Stottian exposition - but it also includes 'preaching the narratives of the Bible as narratives' ... and I'd like also to make space for Paul's approach at Athens (and even Jesus with the parables) which is something else again - more "inductive" in their logic, moving from the world to the text, rather than from the text to the world.

So while I think exposition is still the 'meat and potatoes', I do like to change the way the diet is described as well as mix up that diet just a bit.

This then feeds on into Raymond's helpful comments about context - which also needs a greater spaciousness in our approach as we learn to 'read' our people - without loss of conviction.
Sean said…
"A church without sermons will soon have a shrivelled mind, then a wayward heart, next an unquiet soul, and finally a misdirected strength."
Tom Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (London: SPCK, 1997), xi.

Good stuff Paul, especially liked your comment moving from the world to the text, rather than from the text to the world.
I'm trying to do this more and more every week. Scripture should be the climax of our message. We should engage with people where they're at and then take them on a journey into the strange dimension of Scripture, where God's voice can be seen and heard.

Stephen said…
Don't shoot the messenger. Despite the fact the Mr. Allis makes several incorrect assumptions, I commend him for opening the can. Preaching, in a general sense, is far from perfect. But Christians still need to be 'fed'; we're stupid just like everyone else. We need to hear the basics over and over. Somehow, it keeps most Christians feeling like they've had their 'spiritual pill' for the next seven days. Preaching certainly helps us put our training wheels back on.

Mr Allis also assumes that Christians read the Bible. On the whole, they do not. In fact, only 21% read it daily. This is probably the saddest thing about what he's written - he seems to think that people work hard to understand God's Word, look for study guides, earnestly spend time every day seeking God through His Word. Some do (me included), but having worked for a Bible-focussed organisation and seen 'reality', I can say that many Christians don't know how to read the Bible (which really endorses his point #5).

Good on you Mr. Allis. We live in a world of change, and change is needed. Maybe it's time for a revolution?
Malcolm said…
I'm still thinking of what comments I can make (still reading over both articles).

Thought I might pass on two articles on Expository preaching (arguments for and tips) from Peter Adam ( an author on a book on preaching and has done lots of preacher training in Australia and around the world)
Malcolm said…
The last post has issues displaying on FireFox

Here they are again

Article 1

Article 2
Paul said…
Thank-you so much, Malcolm. I do use Peter Adam's material in both my Preaching and Spirituality classes - but I was not familiar with these two articles. I am now! Very useful...

If we imagine that what Adam advocates with respect to preaching can be contained in a circle, I think I would embrace all of it. The convictions he articulates, in a technique-driven world, are valuable rudders and anchors for the preacher. However I think the circle out of which I operate as a teacher of preaching is probably a bit bigger and more spacious - but I'm not sure about that.

I did once sit next to Peter on a trip to Sydney airport. He had me laughing so much we never did get to talk much about preaching!
dale said…
Hi Paul,

Dale here. Popping by again, and glad to finally be studying at Carey (PIC w/ Bulkley)!

I have some thoughts about the preaching conversation, and would love for them to be challenged/sharpened...

Would it be correct to say that the NT is not 'prescriptive' as to the exact regularity of corporate teaching/preaching for meetings? (yes, that may be a loaded question!)

If Sabbath keeping is not required under the new covenant, and if we don't take the silly notion that the Sabbath was 'changed to Sunday', then it seems to me that the NT leaves much freedom for how often believers meet together - provided that they 'don't forsake the assembling' altogether! Am I way off here?

My 'take' (open for sharpening!):
I really sympathize with those who have a 'problem with preaching'. I can see how, for some percentage of people, it may seem too passive an activity - even if it doesn't have to be passive.

Personally, I really enjoy giving sermons and listening to them. I think it is a fully valid form of teaching. I am convinced, also, that it needs to be reinforced by two-way conversational teaching. Also, the 'modeling' kind of teaching in which more is 'caught' than 'taught' is a HUGELY under-recognized form of teaching - and perhaps the most needed?

Another loaded question: Why not just download great sermons from the net - there are many - and let them be your sermon? I think I know the answer - you need real interactive community, right? Well, that is precisely the complaint of some; preaching (esp. in larger churches) is not interactive.

I have a sense that there is no need to attack preaching like some have. Many of the criticisms are simply picking out the worst things and presenting the whole as being like that. But is preaching in any way an 'essential' teaching format? If other forms of teaching work (and by 'work', I mean produce and grow real disciples!), then who are we to say that weekly corporate monologues are essential?

I quite like the idea of the Jewish synagogue style teaching, where disciples pair up each week and hash it out. Much arguing, debating and sharpening. I'd love it! I think we're so used to not disagreeing with things that it would take a while to re-learn this skill of fruitful debate/sharpening/wrestling.

I actually can imagine the NT church being like this - at least after having the good news initially 'preached' to them as a one-off occurrence. I can imagine them 'doing the synagogue thing' in their homes over a meal - sharing, exhorting, testifying, listening, eating, reading, singing, praying...

If the Spirit was leading them into all truth in these communal teaching forms, and some find it very fruitful to do the same today, who are we to say that they should be doing the 'sermon thing'?

Don't get me wrong. I really think preaching is a great teaching tool! I'm just not convinced that the NT prescribes a weekly corporate monologue to believers.

I desperately wish to be shown the blind-spots in my perspective, though... Please do sharpen!

Warmest Regards,

Paul said…
Hi Dale

I don't think much sharpening is needed at all. I kinda like the way you are coming at stuff...

Passivity is one issue that needs addressing - but I would do so by adding things onto the preaching and not by taking the preaching away. I keep coming back to the 'stage' image in my original response...

'Download' is an over-sized four letter word for me, I'm afraid. And its not the community interaction that leads my concerns either. It is important for the person(s) entrusted with the preaching task to pour over the text for themselves and then have the sermon come THROUGH them and not just FROM them. Let it pass through the grid of their own experiences and personality. Plus the right kind of passion emerges in the preacher when they are filled with the joy of discovering truth for themselves in God's word. Downloading stuff from others doesn't really do that... For example, I don't think the cause of the kingdom is really being advanced that much by people downloading Rob Bell 50,000 a week as is currently the case.

On teaching and preaching? Teaching at its best and preaching at its best are both needed - and while they do overlap I think they can each have something different to offer when at their best. Maybe preaching has more of a persuasive edge to it, for example?

Enuf for now!
And introduce yourself sometime - OK?!
dale said…
Thanks Paul!

OK, fine... I'll introduce myself! :)


Mark Maffey said…
John 14:6 I am THE WAY, THE TRUTH, THE LIFE, no one comes to the Father but through me. Without the way there is no going, with the truth there is no knowing, without the life there is no living. Biblical preaching enables people to get insight on what the Bible is saying into 21st Century Life. Preaching needs to enable people to have a way forward, an understanding of biblical truth, and of what it means to live in and for Christ.

Preaching 40 plus minute sermons to a generation who have 7 minute attention spans courtesy of Television and the instant internet age is unlikely to achieve much in increasing peoples understanding of who God is and what they do in response of received knowledge. Preaching can't afford to be diluted in content, but can afford exploration on the medium and delivery.

Story telling, usage of interactive media, and dialogue are aspects of communication which can be incorporated into preaching.

We can ill afford to throw the preaching baby out with the bath water,yet we need to be exegeting how the message can best meet the needs of our church community.

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