How Shall They Hear Without a Preacher?
April 20, 2011
In recent months both the elders and the staff team at their meetings have been discussing 'The Trellis and the Vine' by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, both Australians with many years of ministry experience. The thesis of the book is that much of our church life concentrates on the trellis i.e. the framework of committees, programmes, structures, activities, groups for this and groups for that, and meanwhile the real work of vine growing, of Christ being formed in his people's hearts and lives, is often neglected. The remedy they argue is to change from programmes to people, from running events to training, and rather than looking to fill gaps, to train new workers and to develop team ministry. The book is well written in an engaging style and with its main argument I am in complete agreement.
However, we need to remember when we are studying a book other than the Bible that it is not inerrant and that it is not simply a case of swallowing it whole and wondering how we can change our practice to conform to it. I felt increasingly as we discussed the book, valuable as it was, that there was a tendency which becomes clear in Chapter Eight 'Why Sunday Sermons are Necessary but not Sufficient' to see preaching as one of the ways in which we hear the Word of God rather than the supreme way in which the congregation is led, guided and grows to maturity in Christ. So why is preaching so important? In a day of sound bites, interactive learning and in the midst of a highly visual culture are we simply trying to hide our heads in the sand?
Preaching first of all is a unifying activity where the whole Christian body, preacher as well as hearers, come together to hear what the Lord is saying. That is why preaching must be expository, unfolding and applying the text rather than using it as a trampoline to give a boost to our own speculations. This kind of preaching encourages people to read the Bible for themselves. It is effective not when people are entranced by the ingenuity of the speaker but when they say, 'That's clear now. Why didn't I see it before?' As more and more of the Bible is expounded people grow not just in knowledge but in grace, because it is the Spirit himself who takes the words on the page, and, by the preacher's faithful although imperfect words, leads us to the Lord Jesus Christ the living Word.
Preaching also leads the church in a way that house groups and one-to-one studies, however excellent in themselves, cannot. By their very nature groups are often led by those who do not have the time for the in-depth study of the Bible which is essential to all true preaching. A strong pulpit ministry, as one of its beneficial effects will produce people hungry to learn more and this will express itself in the proliferation of groups eager to study together. This is excellent and to be encouraged. But if such groups begin to be seen as alternatives to the pulpit then instead of unifying the body they will cause the growth of cliques, places where the discontented can express their dissatisfaction with the ministry and where the Bible is no longer in the driving seat. It is essential that such groups are loyal to the pulpit ministry and want to help people to apply it to their lives.
Preaching further can address the whole person in the way a group study cannot. In a group we can explore together the meaning of a passage and see how it applies to our lives and raise questions which cannot be raised in large gatherings. However, preaching can build up and explore the argument of a passage [say in a Letter] or unfold the narrative technique of a story in a fuller way and thus give a clearer sense of the flow of a passage. But -- and this is important -- it can also appeal to the heart in a way inappropriate in a smaller group. More importantly still, it can directly challenge the will not only of individuals but of a whole congregation in a way that the more relaxed setting of a group in a living-room cannot. This is why preaching is so vital as it gets under the radar and we hear the unmistakeable voice of God.
Preaching confronts us as well with truth we would rather not hear. A common statement is that the preacher must 'make the Bible relevant'. This is simply untrue; the Bible is relevant and the task of the preacher is to demonstrate its relevance. This is closely linked to another criticism of expository preaching which is that it is simply lectures on the Bible which are boring and bear little or no relevance to people's lives. Far better to sit down with a group of friends and raise our personal concerns and see what, if anything, the Bible has to say about these. Far be it from me to deny that there is preaching which is boring, vague and unrelated to life. That is usually because the preacher has failed to study enough, pray enough and work hard enough at application. That is self-evident. What I am concerned with is the implication that even good expository preaching fails to connect in a way that group work does.
At least two things need to be said. The first is that the starting point must never be 'what is this passage saying to us?' That way we hijack the text and read our own concerns into it and allow these to set the agenda. That means, among other things, that we will not learn anything we do not already know. The Bible is God's story about God and his purpose not only to save his people but also to restore the whole created order and introduce an unimaginably wonderful and glorious new creation. Our little stories need to be fitted into that big story, not the other way round. That is why, for example, in the book of Job, when the Lord comes to answer Job's agonised questions he gives him an amazing panorama of creation and his control of the powers of evil to show Job's experiences in a wider perspective.
The other is that the Bible is continually concerned to present us with the questions God is asking us and the truth he wants to teach us. Sinful people, including forgiven sinners, do not naturally think like God and thus there must be continual teaching ranging widely throughout the Bible. Preachers must take the lead in leading people through these questions and establishing priorities. Nothing can be more practical than this because we will find that the answers to our felt needs will also be addressed as Scripture deals with our real needs. For example in Genesis 32:27 when the Lord asks Jacob 'What is your name?', he is forcing Jacob to admit that he is a cheat and that his real problem is not vengeance from his brother Esau but an unresolved need to remove hindrances to his relationship with God. The preacher, in a way a group leader cannot, will continually be confronting us with our congenital desire to evade God and to fail to be honest with ourselves. Preaching, unlike group discussions, cannot be hijacked by those whose own concerns are more important to them than anything else.
All of us need to be committed to the central ministry of preaching which brings great responsibilities. The Tron has enjoyed faithful Biblical preaching for many decades; some have been here for most of these decades and probably heard every book in the Bible expounded, many several times. How much of that has become part of the congregation's life? Attentive listening and transformed living are products of true biblical preaching. Also, realisation that such preaching does not come except by diligent study and continual prayer and many, many hours of work. That is why the ministry of the whole body is vital; no one man can devote himself to preaching and do a multitude of other tasks well.
Good preaching comes with authority. This does not lie in the preacher and his personality, eloquence, mastery of ancient languages or his pulpit presence. Of course God can and does use these and other gifts but if that is all the preacher has to offer it is a performance which may instruct, move the emotions, even entertain, but it will not bring life from the dead or cause any growth in grace. That authority comes from the Spirit of God and the conviction that, in the words of Timothy Dudley-Smith, 'God in his wisdom for our learning gave his inspired and holy Word'. That conviction, far from leading to laziness in the preacher, will make him study consistently all his ministry as he seeks to unfold the unsearchable riches of Christ. In his wisdom God has ordained that the folly of what is preached [1 Cor 1:15] means that it is not only pulpit preaching Paul has in mind, but all the ways in which the Gospel is presented. But I do not doubt for a moment that Paul deliberately uses the term 'preached' with its connotations of authority, and not 'shared', 'debated', 'discussed' or the like. The note of authority in preaching is a continual reminder that all Gospel work is about enthroning Christ in the human heart.
And preaching is at the heart of a congregation's worship. Worship only happens when we realise that what God says to us is more important than what we say to God. Indeed we would have nothing at all to say to God unless he first spoke to us. Thus only as our minds are renewed by the living Christ who comes to us in the Scriptures can we worship at all. This is why every part of the service matters: the choice of hymns and the emphasis in the prayers are all shaped by the passage to be expounded, and the other parts of the service help us to hear and to respond to the preached word. PT Forsyth, a preacher of an earlier generation, described preaching as 'the ordered alleluia of the congregation'. None of this means that the Word of God is collapsed into the words of men, rather, that as when an ordinary sinful man breaks the Word of Life into digestible pieces that word, like the communion bread, mediates the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is why preaching is never simply 'explaining the passage' but proclaiming Christ. A key passage is Acts 10:44 -- 'While Peter was still speaking these words the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.' The word of God is not collapsed into the human words, yet it was in the hearing of these words that the Holy Spirit worked powerfully to bring Christ to people.
Such a vision of the life-changing power of preaching is an exciting prospect which we badly need to recover in our own day. Sadly, much of contemporary evangelicalism has lost its nerve and has lost this single-minded commitment to this ministry. It is no accident, therefore, that there is so much confusion and a loss of the great realities of what used to be
called 'preaching the eternities'. In my view this is responsible for the lamentable failure to make a vigorous stand for the Gospel in the present debates on sexuality and the lack of confidence in the Gospel which lies behind it. Without true biblical preaching a church will not long remain evangelical.
We rejoice in the varied ministries of the Word in Christianity Explored, Release the Word, the numerous groups for Bible Study and the one-to-one studies in all parts of the congregation and beyond. We thank God, too, for the street evangelism, the caring work among the addicts and homeless as well as innumerable acts of kindness where the love of Christ is shown. May these and others flourish! We are so grateful for the wonderful music ministry both at the regular services and on Fridays and other times. But these will only flourish if at the centre is the preaching of the Word which both inspires and guides all such activities. Remove the central preaching, or even lessen its importance, and it will not be long before the other activities wither or become forces for discontent, and the good will lead us away from the best.
'How shall they hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?' says Paul [Romans 10:14, 15]. This is the crying need of today. It affects all of us. Pray for Willie as he preaches week by week and for others who share that ministry whether on a regular or occasional basis. Whatever our other roles in the church this needs to be close to our hearts. As we look to the future, one of the things which gives greatest encouragement is the young men who have come through Cornhill whom God has so wonderfully gifted and whose ministry is proving such a blessing. Pray that they will be sustained and keep the vision for the years to come and that God will raise up many others, perhaps some who are reading these words.
Bob Fyall is Senior Tutor in Ministry at Cornhill Scotland since 2007. He is an experienced pastor, preacher and Old Testament scholar, having formerly ministered in a parish church in Scotland, and then pastored a large student church in Durham, where he also taught Old Testament at Cranmer Hall, a training college for Anglican clergy. His passion is scholarship that genuinely feeds and equips the bible teacher, and he has written a number of commentaries on Old Testament Books including 'Teaching Amos' in the PT Media Teaching series for preachers. This article originally appeared in the Tron Times and is used here by permission. Information about St. George's Tron can be found at their website here.