From the Shepherd’s Nook: Preaching as Encounter

By John Frye.

We should not be surprised how the soterian gospel has reshaped USAmerican evangelical preaching in view of that gospel’s long run. Thousands of individuals, saved on the skimpiest of information shaped to elicit a punctiliar decision, filled the church as uninformed converts. The robust kingdom of God gospel announcement (kerygma) has been replaced by Bible-based moralisms backed-up with catchy illustrations to teach Christians “how to” live. New Testament kerygma with its power to captivate human minds and hearts and change lives was replaced by chapter and verse lectures designed to get people to function properly in their families, their churches, and their communities. Preaching became benign, sometimes comedic, corporate counseling.

A key component of post-soterian gospel preaching is application: how do the hearers put the Word into practice? I can imagine someone thinking, “So, what’s wrong with that? We’re supposed to be ‘doers of the Word.’” If a hungry person before me needs food and I have a dinner plate filled with slices of glazed ham, scalloped potatoes and fresh garden peas and I give the hungry person one pea, so, what’s wrong with that? Human hearts need a profound, reality-altering announcement, not a sweet Christian moralism couched in alliterated, applicational “how to’s.” The Bible was never intended to be turned into Christianized Aesop’s Fables. It is this type of “how to” preaching that has led to the stereotypical response, “I just don’t want to be preached at anymore.” It also has led to an unnecessarily suspicious view of “the powerful pastor” and her pastoral ministry in these cool, emerging, “we’re-all-in-charge-so-no-one’s-in-charge” church days.

Preaching, in some traditions, is a sacrament or comparable to a sacrament. Low church evangelicalism will have to ponder this. What it means is: preaching is more about what God does, than what the preacher and congregation do. Preaching is a holy event when the preacher and the preached to encounter the living God together. The aim of preaching is community-encounter with the living, eyes-blazing Christ Who walks in the community’s ordinary, particular midst. Revelation chapters 2-3 are not just about the living Christ showing up a long time ago to seven churches in Asia Minor. The glorified Jesus, as Lord of his church, still walks around in the midst of local gatherings.

In preaching as sacrament, the aim is the application. Encounter God. Preaching as biblical information-giving with pre-meditated applications is too weak for such a cogent and holy aim. To be informed by the Bible about God is not the same as to be encountered by the God of the Bible. We preach to encounter God together, not to create a set of preferred human behaviors. Encounter with God in Christ carries its own energies to shape and direct human lives. We preach for corporate encounter with God, believing that encounter will provoke numerous discussions about how we together can live missionally in light of the encounter. Paul suggested even unbelievers and unconvinced will confess an encounter with God (1 Corinthians 14:25) when the church gathers. I do not think I have to unpack Peter’s paradigmatic sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2) to support what I am writing here. Peter, so perceptive of his particular context, announced an act of God in Christ and the announcement was so profound the congregation asked him, “What must we do?!”  Authentic kingdom of God gospel announcement (preaching) evokes startling and diverse questions about how we go about adjusting our lives to Jesus as Lord.

Several corollaries spin out of preaching as encounter. First, and most importantly, pastor and people are humbled and are at the mercy of God. “You are the air I [we] breathe” is not just a musical metaphor. Every moment for the gathered community is a desperately “poor in spirit” moment. This reality raises the issue of the divine/human cooperative. Second, the robust kingdom of God gospel is essentially necessary for these God-encounters. It needs no props, no set-up, no creating a “worshipful atmosphere.” The gospel of the kingdom of God is not merely a salvation “tool” to be discarded once it is used.  The New Testament gospel is an ongoing announcement about an arriving new reality in Christ into which “whosoever will may come.” Third, any claim that the pastor/preacher is somehow more special or more powerful than all the other gifted people in the church is ludicrous. Those who make this claim tip their hand of alarming ignorance of 1 Corinthians 12. We will explore these corollaries a little more in the posts to come.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Andrew

    I resonate with the contents of this post. Ironically, however, I am left wondering how to concretely apply it. As a ‘preacher’ what would it look like in my preparations and messages to preach for encounter?

  • John W. Frye

    Andrew, next week’s post will address your concern.

  • Suzanne Burden

    Cheering for this series…and wishing the above were taught and discussed and wrestled with in every seminary preaching class. Look forward to more on this.


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