Why Preach?

From the Shepherd’s Nook, a weekly column from pastor John Frye

One rumor in pastoral land is that preaching does not foster Christian formation. Since Christian formation is vital, then as the rumor has it, the preacher is not. If by the rumor it means that preaching in itself does not produce full-blown Christian formation, I would agree. Yet, preaching has had a trigger role in God’s ways of changing lives. Preaching is not the only way, but it is one way God changes lives. If God’s determined purpose is to transform a people into the likeness of the Son, then we agree that Christian formation, becoming more like Christ, is a high ecclesial aim. How does one pastor preaching to a congregation contribute to “Christ being formed” in people (cf. Galatians 4:19)? We have to be realistic in acknowledging that for many Christians their only sustained exposure to the Bible is listening to Sunday sermons. That’s as far as they go. Yet, many others do live in varied and meaningful spheres of community where, beyond the Sunday sermon, the Bible is engaged as a vital resource in the Christian formation process. How does weekly preaching contribute?

You have heard about the pastor who was feeling quite good about his Sunday sermon and as he was riding home in the car with his wife, he sighed contentedly, “There just aren’t many good preachers left anymore.” His wife looked over at him and said, “You’re right, and there’s one less than you think.” I’ve preached expositionally through most of the books of the Bible; I’ve preached on marriage (divorce and remarriage), finances, parenting, what happens after death, the ten commandments, the beatitudes, the Lord’s Table, and many other topics. I’ve written and performed dramatic monologues. I, at one point, jadedly considered myself a professional “sermon machine.” It’s a real shock to discover that sermon-making and sermon-delivering do not define pastoral work. It is a poisonous myth that pastoral work is primarily about a Book and communicating that Book well. Many who drink the poison are devastated later to learn that the large part of pastoral work is rubbing shoulders in the rough and tumble of life with ordinary, often obnoxious, people. If a pastor cannot tease out the scintillating glory hiding within a full-blown embrace of pastoral work, she or he needs to rethink the call.

The robust King Jesus Gospel shapes preaching. Call it RGP, i.e., robust Gospel preaching. RGP is a kind of preaching to which I am presently trying to adjust. I don’t think there is a course for it. This preaching does not tell people who they ought to be and how they ought to live. RGP,  like the Gospel itself, is a radical announcing of unmitigated truth. All oughts and how to’s in Christian formation are launched by the what is of Jesus-first resurrection power. There may be so much more to it, yet, at this time, I find myself emphasizing, no matter the biblical text, three pervading realities (not all three in each message necessarily):

I keep reminding all of us who we are. Jesus was a master at this. Jesus’ own people, having allowed the prevailing Roman imperial culture and the Jewish religious factions to define them, were startled to the core by his own vision of them. With the arrival of and our entrance into the making-all-things-new power of the kingdom of God, we must repetitively remember who we are. Not who we ought to be, should be or can be. The pastor must feel this deep in her soul; he grasps it as true at the core of his being. All imperial/cultural, religious and, yes, demonic assaults are usually aimed at our deepest identity. Jesus did not announce to his rag-tag, marginalized followers that they “ought” to be the salt of the earth, or that they “should” be the light of the world. “You are!” he confidently declared.

I keep reminding all of us where we live. The robust King Jesus Gospel is not a ticket to heaven after we die, but a passport into the now/not yet kingdom of God. We are a new humanity; a startling society. Who we are instantly makes us “aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Peter 2:11). We exist to show a new way of being human. Does it take time to assimilate to any new culture with its ways? Of course, but assimilate we must. There can be, at times, dark, nefarious forces compelling us to return to the “world” culture in which we also live. Have you ever really considered that people may un-choose the kingdom of God realm and return to their old ways? People can cross borders. I encourage you to read Scot McKnight’s latest ebook A Long Faithfulness. Paul boldly asserted to the Christians in Philippi, “…our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 4:20). Not that it ought to be or will be some day. It is now.

I keep reminding all of us of reality. The kingdom of God is more real than the U.S.A. or any other nation or way of life. But it doesn’t seem real to all. We live in a realm hidden from and considered a waste of time by the powers that be. Pastors must passionately explore and be at home in this unseen reality, being familiar with its Lord, its ways and its future. Pastors live with Spirit-enlightened eyes and Spirit-sensitized ears. God’s kingdom, eternal and solid as a rock, will last when all other kingdoms lie mute in the dust before the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. We currently live in the “little as a mustard seed” epoch, but the “not yet” reality of the huge mustard tree is forming and will be startlingly revealed to the shock of the nations. Pastors must pin their hopes on it and call Christocentric people to do the same. What is seen is temporary; what is unseen (real) is eternal. 

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  • Mark Stevens

    John I was only reflecting this week on how the King Jesus Gospel has begun to transform my own understanding of preaching and the pastoral vocation. I find the wider or much larger narrative of scripture easier to retell than a stand alone 3 or 4 verses. I also find meaning easier because it forms part of the larger narrative of the King Jesus Gospel.

  • craigbenno

    I consider myself a community pastor, whose parish is the rough and tumble arena of life. While these days I rarely preach behind a pulpit – my preaching comes through words, deeds, and prayers as I participate in the reconciling processes of the King, rubbing shoulders with those who for various reasons dare not step into a church and for some have never been made welcome in the 4 walls of a church.

    Brilliant article, thanks for sharing it.

  • The platform/pew; performance/passivity paradigm derails engagement of mutual giftedness. There is a 4-5 day lock-down every week concentrating on the 1-2 hour event. Dependency and expectation are two sharp canines. BTDT.

  • Jim

    Terrific, as always. I’ve been preaching through I Peter. Just last week I reminded the congregation that Peter seems to frame what he writes in 3 ways: (1) the end toward which we live (the day of visitation), (2) our identity as believers in a not-always-welcoming environment (holy nation, royal priesthood, people of God, etc.) , and (3) the life that flows from the first two, i.e. our lives, our words, our relationships, etc. as pointing beyond ourselves to the reign of God.

    Thank you for confirming that I’m pretty much on target! 🙂

  • Clay Knick

    Splendid, as always, John. Thanks for this.

  • This is timely! I was just discussing the purpose of the sermon with some other friends this week. Thanks for a shot in the arm!

  • Patrick O

    The trouble with preaching is one of spiritual gifting. I used to be pretty negative about the role of preaching. I’ve adapted that, and in part because of the kind of thoughts expressed here. Yet, I think that misses an important critique about preaching that should be brought out. Preaching is the be all and end all of Evangelical Churches. If you are a pastor, you preach. There are many pastors who are not gifted preachers, but are gifted pastors, but they still preach, and preach poorly.

    Add to this the exceedingly vaulted theological language attached to preaching and its role in ministry. It’s not just speaking, it’s the very Word of God. Of course it’s given this vaulted priority, it was pastors who build theology (especially in the past), so theologically the mouth is given much more priority than the hand or the foot or the eyes. As a gift among many gifts it is very wonderful, it’s when preaching becomes the centerpiece of whole ministries and church life and Christian formation that it becomes extremely over-emphasized.

  • Mike Mercer

    John, I have always responded to the metaphor that weekly corporate worship for a congregation (which includes hearing preaching) is like Sunday dinner with a family. We meet together, share our lives, and enjoy a good meal. No one gathering is necessarily “transformative” but it is the cumulative effect of doing this week after week, year after year that forms us, gives us identity, and draws us closer together. If the meal is a flop once in awhile, that’s OK. If some members can’t make it on a given week, that’s OK too. What matters is the weekly habit of being nourished together at the table.