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The Fullness of Christ: J.H. Yoder – Part VI

8.    Context and Content in  N.T. Preaching. Having sought in vain for a particular concept of preaching to serve as a criterion for church and ministry, let us keep the word as a general label for the varieties of verbal ministry in N.T. times. Only by guess and surmise do we construct a notion...

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Problems and Limitations of the Traditional ‘Sermon’ Concept: Part I

Posted by Radical Resurgence | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 06-06-2012


To question the “sermon” concept should not be equated with the mistaken notion that we do not need teaching or teachers within our churches. There are, however, some inherent problems and limitations with the traditional “sermon” idea. The following is a brief examination of some of those problems.

1. There exists a plethora of books on preaching and homiletics written by evangelicals, but the overwhelming majority of them merely assume and perpetuate the sermon concept. Rarely, if ever, is there any real analysis or investigation as to its legitimacy.

2. The very notion of a formal and professionalized “sermon” comes not from the New Testament, but from Greek culture. With the rise of the Constantinian mass church (4th century A.D.), all sorts of paganistic and Greek ideas entered into Christian thought and practice. One of those practices brought into the church was that of Greek rhetoric. With the conversion of such men as Chrysostom, Ambrose, Tertullian, Cyprian, Arnobius, Lactantius, and Augustine – all of whom were trained in rhetoric and were quite popular as orators within the Greco-Roman culture of their day prior to their conversion – a new style or form of communication began to occur within Christian assemblies (it is interesting to note that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 1:17,22 and 2:1-5, refused to allow the communication patterns of his pagan contemporaries to dictate the form or manner of his delivery).

This new form of speech was marked by polished rhetoric, sophisticated grammar, and an undue emphasis on eloquence. Corporate teaching, within many congregations, was no longer delivered in normal or raw language, but began to take on an artistic form of expression. In some instances, the content of the teacher’s message was less influenced by biblical truth and more by abstract Greek philosophy.

Within time, corporate teaching became more of a form designed to entertain and display the speaker’s oratorical skill or colorful wit, rather than instruct and equip the saints for ministry. Eventually, when the “clergy-laity” division was solidified, only those who were officially “ordained” and trained in the new forms of speech were allowed to address the assembly. This did much to render the saints inactive and helped to promote the idea that only the “professionals” have anything worthy to say.

3. The sermon concept has so permeated our churches that many people do not feel that they have attended “church” until they hear a forty-five minute sermon. Great men of God from past ages, in the minds of many Christians, are not revered for their Christ-like character and ability to equip God’s people for ministry, but for their oratorical skills. Even today, our greatest saints are those who are most eloquent, thunderous, or dynamic when preaching or lecturing. That which holds many churches together (particularly “mega” churches) is not a body of believers mutually loving and serving one another, but the pastor’s dynamics within the pulpit!

4. Congregational communication and teaching within the early apostolic churches appear to have followed a much different structure than our traditional sermon. For instance, when Paul spoke to the believers at Troas in Acts 20:7, the term “preached” [KJV] (dialegomai) comes from a Greek word which means “to dialogue” or “carry on a discussion” (cf. Acts 19:8f). It appears, then, that teaching for Paul was not a mere one-way type of communication wrapped up in abstract and esoteric language, but a two-way type of communication or dialogue for the purpose of promoting edification and practical piety. The same could be said for the judging of prophecies mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14:29-32 and 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21 which suggest that some kind of interaction or dialogue was taking place within the assembly. We see this as well in 1 John 4:1 where the apostle John commands the entire church to “test the spirits.” How could this have been done unless there was some opportunity during the meeting to ask questions and dialogue over the alleged prophecy or teaching (cf. Revelation 2:2)? Even Paul’s recognition of the necessity of “factions” among the Corinthian believers so that those “who are approved may become evident among you” (1 Corinthians 11:19) clearly implies that dialogue, critical discernment, and differing viewpoints were taking place when they gathered. The point is, no one was expected to passively and naively accept the words of another; all were expected to evaluate whatever was said in the light of apostolic doctrine. Paul even commended the Bereans when they evaluated or tested his teachings (Acts 17:11)! This is not meant to suggest that Paul, in certain circumstances, never employed a monologue, but only that the apostolic pattern appears to be one of dialogue and mutual interaction.

The early church, it seems, had an open system of communication, but we, in contrast, have preferred a closed one. Is it any wonder why so few within our churches seem to fully comprehend the sermons and, thus, spiritually grow under our traditional practice of one-way style of communication/preaching? Our “sermon” tradition simply leaves no room for listener participation in the communication process. Thus, with nothing to say, ask, or contribute, the saints are rendered passive.

5. As any good educator knows, people simply do not learn as effectively within a one-way communication kind of format. They learn by being asked questions and provoked to dialogue. When this occurs, people begin to truly think, reason, and “own” the message communicated. By doing this, we can more effectively bring the saints into the learning process, rather than simply dumping a message on the congregation and never truly knowing whether we got through to them or not.

Preaching is commonly a one-way event, and that this characteristic is in opposition to any hope that communication may occur through the sermon event. Communication is intended to bring together meanings from both sides, but monologue is really only interested in imposing meaning from one side. A predictable result is that people tend to be removed from active participation in the sermon, with a corresponding loss of relevance for the hearers. The clergy assume a monopolistic role. One speaks while others can only listen. The whole event may seem distant and impersonal. There is little incentive to struggle to find the meaning of the Word for today, resulting in a loss of power (George W. Swank, Dialogic Style in Preaching [Valley Forge, PA: Hudson Press, 1981] p.24).

[Another] characteristic of conventional preaching is seen in the absence of organized response or feedback from the congregation. Lack of feedback strengthens all the stereotypes which people entertain about preaching. Preaching is frequently done to an invisible congregation because the lights have been turned down; yet the facial expressions and bodily postures and movements of the congregation are communications in response to the preacher, and he needs to see and note them as at least partial guidance for his speaking. The custom of preaching without response from the congregation is irresponsible communication and endangers, more than anything else, the preacher’s relevance (Ruel L. Howe, Partners in Preaching: Clergy and Laity in Dialogue [New York: Seabury Press, 1967] p.36).

If students are to learn to think, they must be placed in situations where they have to do so. The situations in which they are obliged to think are those in which they have to answer questions because questions demand an active response. Although it could be modified to do so, the traditional expository lecture does not demand this . . . The best way to learn to solve problems is to be given problems that have to be solved. The best way to ‘awaken critical skills’ is to practice using the canons of criticism. If this thesis seems obvious common sense, it should be remembered that some people place faith in their lectures to stimulate thought, and expect thinking skills to be absorbed, like some mystical vapors, from a college atmosphere. Psychologists are likely to wince at the impression of such a notion; and learning to think is not an absorption process (D.A. Bligh, What’s the Use of Lectures? [Exeter University, 1978] pp.13,16).

6. Even when Paul and others preached to unbelievers, there was almost always an opportunity for the listeners to engage in feedback or discussion. If this is true with unbelievers, how much more important and needful is it when teaching believers!

The sermon was always followed by general discussion, and it was here that the Christian preacher got the greatest chance of all to communicate the Christian message. The word that we come on again and again in regard to the preaching of the Christians in the synagogue is the word dispute or argue. The Jews disputed with Stephen but could not meet his arguments (Acts 6:9-10). Paul argued in the synagogue at Thessalonica (Acts 17:2); he argued in the synagogue in Corinth (Acts 18:2); he argued in the synagogue at Ephesus (Acts 18:19). Here is the great basic fact of early preaching. Early preaching was not a monologue, but a dialogue. It was not a question of one man telling a crowd of men; it was a case of a group telling it over together (William Barclay, Communicating the Gospel [Sterling, Scotland: The Drummond Press, 1968] pp.34-35).

by Darryl Erkel

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