Text, Audience & Sermon
Those who preach are in an awkward position, caught between two independent forces and unable to control either of them. On the one side is God on whose behalf the preacher speaks. On the other is the congregation who expects God to speak through the preacher. We who preach have the freedom to craft our sermon but we do not control the message. We may use our own language and select illustrations. We can draw whatever applications seem suitable to us. But we cannot say whatever we please.The biblical text is the foundation of the sermon. But the sermon is also shaped by the audience. In this video Dr. Bryan Chapell, Dr. Haddon Robinson and Dr. Joseph Stowell discuss the relationship between the biblical text and the audience in the sermon.
The Untamed Spirit & the Sermon
Writing the sermon is like the first day of creation. We brood over the message like the Spirit hovering over the waters, dwelling on our words in an effort to wrest life out of chaos and void. What preacher has not felt a stab of panic at the thought of beginning again? The most important aspects of the sermon are out of our hands. We can shape the content of the message but not how our listeners respond. We have influence over the dynamics of delivery, but not the ebb and flow of the Holy Spirit. Yet it does not diminish the sermon to speak of it as a human word.preaching is also a human activity. God has committed his word to human messengers because humanity is an asset when audience you want to reach is human as well.
Preaching & Authority
Preaching is by its very nature an exercise in inflection. This involves more than pitch, volume and tone. In the sermon the preacher makes God’s written word incarnate by speaking the biblical author’s words into the contemporary context. This is an inflection of the text itself, a responsibility which places a dual obligation upon the preacher. One dimension of the preacher’s responsibility is to the text itself. The preacher’s aim in the sermon is to animate the text without altering it. The preacher’s other responsibility is to the audience. An uninflected text is a dead text as far as the listener is concerned. Both contribute to the preacher’s authority.
Word & Sermon
The language of the sermon matters because words matter to God. The Biblical doctrine of inspiration teaches that the Holy Spirit’s influence extended to more than the ideas recorded in the Bible. This means that the words of the writers of Scripture were “breathed out” by God (2 Tim. 3:16). But they were also the writers’ own words. The Holy Spirit did not blot out the authors’ vocabulary or personal style as they were “carried along” in the process of inspiration (2 Pet. 1:21). Like those who inscribed the words of Holy Scripture, the language we use in preaching is our “own particular language.” We who speak for God have been granted the liberty to choose our own words. In the sermon carefully chosen words put a face on the text and bring the ideas of the passage to life. It is a mistake to view the preacher’s words as merely incidental to the sermon. The ideas of the sermon cannot be separated from the words we use to express them.
Prophet, Priest or Stand-Up Comedian?
The kind of preachers we become depends to a great extent upon our mental image of what a preacher is. According to Thomas G. Long, “preachers have at least tacit images of the preacher’s role, primary metaphors that not only describe the nature of the preacher but also embrace by implication all the other crucial aspects of the preaching event.” The preacher has both a prophetic and a priestly role. As a prophet, the preacher represents God to the audience and proclaims his word. A a priest the preacher stands between the text and the audience and listens to God’s word on their behalf. Like the priest, the preacher does not stand apart from those who hear but is called from among them in order to sympathize with them (Heb. 4:15). Whenever we take our place before God’s people to declare his word, we also take upon ourselves this responsibility advocacy. We may stand above or before the congregation in order to be seen or for the sake of acoustics, but our true location is in their midst. We speak to the people but we are also for them.
Preaching & the Gospel
We are not the first to preach. We preach “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3). This means that we take our cues from those who have preceded us. The church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets and Jesus came preaching before the apostles ever uttered a word of the gospel. Yet it only takes a cursory reading of the gospels and Acts to sense that the preaching we engage in week by week sounds very different from theirs. To some extent it must be attributed to a difference in mission. Jesus came to do more than proclaim the gospel. He came to accomplish it. Jesus’ central role in redemptive events and his location on the time-line of their fulfillment placed constraints on his preaching that we do not share. The result was an element of secrecy in Jesus’ preaching. A marked change takes place in apostolic preaching in the book of Acts. The essential difference is captured in the summary statement of Acts 5:42: “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.” Here the announcement of the kingdom so prominent in the Gospels has given way to the explicit proclamation of Christ. The same cannot be said for us. We have not abandoned the gospel. But we have relegated its message to the outskirts of our Christian experience. As a result, the gospel has been marginalized, reserved primarily for those who are on the threshold of faith. Those who believe need to hear the gospel as much as those who do not. All preaching is “gospel” preaching.
Preaching as Oral Theology
What accounts for the divorce between theology and the pulpit in our day? The church does not value theology because theologians are too busy conversing amongst themselves. Those who doubt this need only scan the list of topics to be addressed by speakers at any professional gathering of theologians and ask what bearing their subjects have on the “lived experience of actual people in the churches or society.” The church is not interested in what theologians have to say because the questions that theologians address are not the questions that the church is asking. Preaching must also accept an equal share of the blame. Whether it is out of a sense of intellectual inadequacy or because of its own pragmatic bias, preaching has left theology in the hands of academics. Indeed, it may not be a case where academia has marginalized preaching and excluded the church from the theological conversation so much as it is one where preaching has marginalized theology and excluded it from the church. Preaching has lost confidence in theology and preachers have forsaken their calling as the church’s primary theologians. But preaching that is not doctrinal is not really preaching. Preaching is oral theology.