With our cultural analysis behind us, I would like to consider the role of preaching in a secular age, particularly preaching as a survival strategy for the church. Many today are reconsidering the role and nature of preaching, especially given the massive changes that now characterize our culture. All sorts of new plans and strategies have been created in order to reinvent preaching in light of demographics, sociology, and even management theories. But I want to posit that the only answer to our current crisis in preaching is to recall how many of our forebears approached the task of standing behind the “sacred desk.”
In a secular age, preaching will be met with one of three responses. First, we will find ourselves preaching in a context of hostility. This will not necessarily take the form of overt action. But, at least in the immediate future, much of this hostility will look like cultural marginalization. Those who listen to us will now do so by paying social capital, not gaining social capital—a cultural situation notably different from our grandparents or even our parents. Second, our preaching will also often be met with befuddlement. For many among the intellectual elites, Christian preachers are not an object of hostility or derision as much as they are creatures of oddity. The plausibility structures of society are so different from our own that many people simply cannot understand us. Finally, we will find that we will not only be met with hostility and befuddlement, but also indifference. Many in our society will not even care enough about our message to spend their energies either in hostility or befuddlement.
One of the problems we encounter moving forward is that in many circumstances our approach to preaching in relation to other theological disciplines is wrongly skewed. For years in the theological academy, homiletics has been seen as something of a finishing school for clergy. We have imagined that the true theological heavy lifting occurs in the disciplines of theology, exegesis, or church history, while homiletics was merely the practical work for those who were moving on to the professional and less theologically involved environment of the pastorate.
I would suggest to you, however, that this alienation between the classical theological disciplines and homiletics is misguided and detrimental to the life of the church. Historically, the tripartite division in institutions of theological education between theological studies, biblical studies, and practical ministry studies originated in Germany, but was concretized as the accreditation expectation for theological seminaries by the Association of Theological of Schools by the middle of the last century. While there are benefits to specialization in academic disciplines, we should also recognize that segmenting theological study along the lines of specialization has come at a cost (perhaps even unintended) in the lives of many modern preachers. We must recognize that the preacher’s task is an exegetical and theological one. Homiletics cannot be divorced from theology and exegesis simply by virtue of the fact that what we proclaim in the pulpit is a biblical theology that originates from the exegesis of God’s Word.
Preachers need to be competent in many arenas of life. They need managerial competence. They need organizational competence. But above everything else, the preacher needs theological and exegetical competence. The curriculum in our seminaries and theological institutions must reflect this commitment to train preaching theologians, and not just men who are entertaining.
When we recognize the challenges posed to us by our current cultural climate, we will also recognize that preaching, doctrinally robust and exegetically rich preaching, is the only mechanism for the church’s survival in a secular age. The faithful pastor is not a theologian at one moment, an exegete the next, and at other times a preacher. He is, instead, all of those things simultaneously and in equal measure. This means that in our churches and in our theological institutions we are not simply training religious professionals who happen to be able to speak in front of a crowd, we are bringing up theologians who know how to rightly handle God’s Word and herald that Word in a way that is understandable to any given audience.
The testimony of Acts and the history of the Church witness to the fact that preaching is the church’s only strategy for survival and for multiplication in the face of cultural hostility. Acts regularly points to the fact that the church is a “creature of the Word,” it is created by the Word and sustained by the Word. Preaching is not just one church growth strategy among others, it is the lifeblood of the church’s existence. This is further highlighted by Paul’s pastoral commission to his protégé Timothy, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).
The early church fathers met the overt opposition of the Roman culture with faithful preaching—preaching that was deemed subversive to the Roman Empire. Further, even after the fall of the Roman Empire preaching was central to the ministry of the church. Peter Brown, renowned historian of late antiquity, notes that the Basilica of Hippo was not just the place that housed Augustine’s pulpit, it was also a place for business transaction. Brown points out that these transactions would occur even during Augustine’s preaching and that Augustine would often be interrupted by interlocutors who objected to the content of his sermons, disagreeing with one point or another. And yet even in the noise of commercial activity and critics, Augustine was clear that preaching must not retreat but continue on as central in the church’s mission and ministry.
As we fast-forward to the Reformation, we find that Luther understood preaching as the first mark of the church. For Luther preaching was the primary means by which sinners were able to come to know the truths of the Gospel first revealed to him in the words of Romans 1:17.Again, we must remember that Luther was no arm-chair theologian. Luther spoke about the centrality of preaching the gospel at the risk of his life. One need only consider the mortal peril he was in at the Diet of Worms to understand the seriousness of his commitment to the Gospel and to the proclamation of the Gospel in preaching.
Similarly, Calvin emphasized the union of Word and Spirit in the preaching event, reminding us that the Holy Spirit convicts and converts through the preaching of the Word, doing more than any preacher in his own power is ever able to achieve. This gave Calvin not only a theology of how preaching worked but also fueled his commitment to why one must preach. Without preaching the church simply could not survive, the Spirit would not move, and the flame of the Reformation would be extinguished. This commitment to the centrality of preaching, particularly with regard to the church’s preservation and multiplication, continued throughout successive generations of faithful Christians like the English Reformers, Whitfield, Wesley, and Edwards.
The biblical witness and the testimony of church history clearly point to the fact that preaching is the church’s survival strategy. By preaching the church expands and by preaching the church remains faithful in a hostile culture. In a secular age, we can no longer rely on the luxury of having other cultural voices do the work of instilling our people with a Christian worldview. The plausibility structures of the culture now work at cross-currents to the message we preach on Sunday mornings. No longer does the culture indicate one “ought” to listen to preaching or one “ought” to give credence to the Christian moral tradition. Those days are behind us. Indeed, the plausibility structures of our culture have so radically changed that the cultural “oughts” are now opposed to Christianity—one ought not associate with those so far outside the cultural mainstream, one ought not define the human predicament in terms of sin, one ought not speak in a way that the Bible speaks or believe the things the Bible proclaims.
The church’s only recourse in a secular city is to continue to do what it has always done, preach the Word. We cannot hope that somehow we might stumble upon a third epistle to Timothy, which gives alternative ministry options to what Paul exhorts his protégé to do in Second Timothy. Our only hope is to continue to do what Jesus and the Apostles’ commissioned us to do. Whether we find ourselves in circumstances of cultural acceptance or cultural hostility, we must preach the Word.
We need to recognize that the age of cultural Christianity is disappearing right before us. The kind of preaching that made for “successful” churches is also disappearing because the people who came for that kind of preaching no longer feel bound to come. We must now recognize that preaching is not just an activity the church engages in on Sunday mornings. Preaching is not a trivial activity. Preaching is a matter of life and death—preaching in the secular city is a matter of survival.
Fundamentally, the survival of the church in the secular city comes down to a promise and a command given us in Scripture, an indicative and an imperative. First, we must remember that Jesus promised “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). Next, we must remember that we have been commissioned, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2). We need to remember both of these words from Scripture in order to serve faithfully in the secular city. Jesus has given his church a strategy for survival in the face of cultural hostility. That strategy, it turns out, is the apostolic call to preach.