Every autumn I ask my beginning preaching students to go the library and survey English and American books about preaching from the late nineteenth century to the present to see what common themes they can detect. I give them a hint by suggesting that they can just look at the introduction of each book. It’s not long before the students begin to notice a pattern. A significant proportion of books about preaching written in the past 150 years begin with some variation on this sentence:
Preaching today is facing a crisis.
By “today” the authors of these books may be speaking of contexts as different as the announcement of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the advent of weapons of mass destruction in the First World War, the Great Depression, the dawn of the nuclear age, or the exodus from mainline churches in the 1960s and 1970s. The crisis they describe is more consistent: preaching is not finding an audience, or it is not transforming the audience it finds. The diagnosis for improvement varies in each decade, ranging from different approaches to exegesis to new ideas for sermon construction to better skills for public speaking. Exegesis, sermon construction, and delivery remain the stock-in-trade for those of us who teach preaching to this day, yet somehow the crisis continues despite all the suggested improvements. Like diet books, preaching books continue to sell on the premise that dramatic results are just weeks away.
Rather than delineate the ramifications of “today” or “the crisis,” it seems overdue to consider the nature of preaching itself. What the New Testament knew as proclamation (keryssein) became the teaching (didache) of the Constantinian Church, and persuasion and apologetics in the post-Enlightenment West. As recently as the 1960s, no less distinguished a theologian than Karl Rahner foresaw a Christian diaspora and a return to modest house communities by the late twentieth century—a reduction in scale that would have profoundly affected the shape of preaching had it happened. But Rahner and others of his stripe did not foresee the global resurgence of Christianity as a world religion in the late twentieth century as the seeds of Western colonialism bore unexpected fruit. Today the Christian faith is moving through one of the greatest sea changes in its two-thousand-year history, and we can no longer assume that we know exactly what kind of animal preaching is or ought to be.
From Crisis to Krisis
The word krisis is used forty-seven times in the New Testament, almost never in the sense of our modern word “crisis.” While different New Testament authors use it to mean different things, krisis (“judgment”) unites the gospel and epistle writers around the central proclamation that, in Jesus, God was present in history offering an alternative to human notions of power and destiny and forcing a choice of allegiance. For some New Testament authors, krisis happens in an existential encounter with Jesus during his lifetime; for others, it means the final judgment on a world that did not receive “the One sent from the Father.”1 What unites these uses of the word is an urgency to interpret God’s intervention in human history and a clear understanding that the world is divided into “then” and “now” by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What further unites the authors who use the word krisis to describe God’s intervention in history is that they greet it with joy (1 Thess. 1:4-7). Today a crisis means something we have to fix—fast. For the New Testament it describes a permanent new state of living with one foot in the world where God’s reign is the only power to be reckoned with.
Anyone who has been to seminary would find these claims unremarkable, yet these theological assertions about history fail to shape the preaching of most seminary graduates in anything more than an academic way. As Paul Tillich famously said, “We have to . . . overcome the wrong stumbling block in order to bring people face to face with the right stumbling block and enable them to make a genuine decision [for] the Gospel.”2 Sadly, from the most erudite and interesting of preachers to the most hackneyed and unoriginal, the Christian sermon has for a very long time been reduced to the status of an essay on religious ideas or an interesting story with theological significance rather than a life-changing oral event that confronts its hearers with the krisis of God’s reign breaking into human history and demanding a response of faith and allegiance.
Of course, good sermons still change lives, and clergy from many Christian denominations do preach in a way that expects a behavioral response from their listeners, whether baptism or a recommitment to faith in Jesus. But there are no Christian preachers alive today who have not been formed by the habits of what Douglas John Hall in The Reality of the Gospel and the Unreality of the Churches called the “Constantinian assumption” that the kingdom of God and the outward and visible institution of the church are identical. As a result, sermons are shaped by the needs of the church rather than by the demands of the kingdom, and therefore cannot avoid becoming consumer products available in a variety of shapes and sizes to be purchased by the religious listener/shopper. Isn’t that why books on preaching proliferate like cookbooks? There is always the hope that the offering can be improved and generate more customers for the franchise, perhaps even resulting in a bonus or promotion for the manager.
Unfortunately, Jesus did not send the Twelve or the Seventy to offer sermons that people would enjoy or find meaningful. “He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:2).
Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into the streets and say “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”
Krisis indeed! The verb translated “proclaim” by the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible was translated “preach” by the King James Version. So the first “sent ones” (apostelmenoi, apostles) are sent to preach the kingdom of God and to heal, and their listeners are asked to make a life-determining choice about their message—a tall order for the typical preacher of the early twenty-first century who is charged with attracting and holding members to an institution that depends on their voluntary donations to survive.
“Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60). I am entirely sympathetic to the numerous fine and earnest preachers in the pulpits of North American churches today, many of whom are executing with their whole hearts and minds excellent versions of the sermon models they were taught to create in seminary. But when a group of clergy gathers for a workshop on missional preaching and virtually no one has any content for “the kingdom of God” other than church membership now or heaven later, we do indeed have a crisis. We don’t need to improve our product; we need to change our minds about it.
1 For the former, see John 9:39, 12:31, 16:11; 2 Thessalonians 1:5; 1 Peter 4:17; for the latter, see Matthew 5:21, Luke 10:14, James 2:13, 2 Peter 2:9.
2 Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), 213.
Adapted from Choosing the Kingdom: Missional Preaching for the Household of God, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute.
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