The Role of Preaching in the Local Church

We live in a time when it is fashionable to be iconoclastic. A popular slogan of the 1960’€™s was “€œQuestion Authority,”€ and the attitude conveyed by that expression has proliferated as the youth of that generation have progressed through middle age. Sometimes it can be a good thing to question the way things have always been done. In many fields, and even within the Church, useful innovations can result from such questioning. But Christians must exercise care that, in questioning methods that have been historically employed by the Church, they do not overstep the Word of God.

One practice that has come under attack in some areas of the modern Church is preaching. Some have questioned preaching itself as a useful method. Others have moved away from preaching as exposition of the Bible in favor of more topical or narrative forms of discourse. And in many of the modern, “€œseeker-sensitive”€ churches, preaching has become so psychologically oriented and watered down as to become more of a self-help lecture than an exposition of Scripture. Seldom does such preaching mention sin or the need for repentance.

The apostle Paul did not regard the preaching of God’s Word as an option. Rather, at 1 Cor. 9:16, he wrote: “Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”€ In the light of such a strong statement by an apostle of Jesus Christ, it is important to review the place that preaching of God’€™s Word has historically held among His people and to consider whether preaching is still relevant within today’s Church.

In Biblical Times

During all the times of the Old Testament and in Christian times until the biblical canon was completed, the Word of God was conveyed, not merely in writing, but through the preaching and teaching of prophets and apostles. Perhaps the earliest preacher mentioned in Scripture was Noah, whom Peter calls “a preacher of righteousness”€ (2 Pet. 2:5). We are given no details as to the nature of Noah’€™s preaching, but it is clear that God had inspired his building of the ark.

Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Elijah, Jeremiah, Jonah and others of the Old Testament prophets are depicted as preaching to various groups of people. In doing so, they could convey the Word of God directly to the people as He inspired them to do so. Similarly, the apostles functioned in a sense as “€œliving Scripture”€ with God inspiring their teaching directly. After the apostles passed from the scene, however, the Word of God no longer came directly through individuals. It had been committed to writing.  Revealed Scripture was sufficient to meet all the needs of the Church (2 Tim. 3:16). The task of preachers therefore became, not to present God’€™s Word as directly revealed to them, but to interpret and convey the real meaning of God’€™s Word as it was embodied in Scripture.

What Kind of Preaching?

The sort of preaching that was utilized in the early church was what is today referred to as expository preaching, which Robinson defines as follows:

Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers. [1]

In other words, expository preaching actually constitutes the delivery of the Word of God through the preacher to the hearers. Such preaching stands in contrast to narrative or topical preaching, in which stories or concepts are developed for the audience. Story-based and topical sermons may have a place at times, but they do not represent the fullest expression of the meaning of Scripture to the hearers.

Effective expository preaching involves more than talent for speaking and more than a serviceable knowledge of the Scriptures. The object of expository preaching is to convey the actual meaning of the Word of God to the preacher’€™s audience. To do so requires careful exegesis of Scripture to assure that the message being presented is actually the meaning intended by the Holy Spirit in inspiring a given passage. The object is that, as Chapell states, “€œthe meaning of the passage is the message of the sermon€[2].”

Even a thorough knowledge of the material is insufficient. The life of the preacher must already have been touched by the Holy Spirit through his study of the text. Only when the preacher himself has experienced the influence of God’s Word in his own life can he adequately convey its power to his listeners. When the preacher has done careful and accurate exegesis of his text, applied the truth of the text personally and bathed his preparation in prayer, he can be used by the Holy Spirit to convey the very Word of God to his audience.

Is Preaching Relevant?

The question still remains as to whether preaching is relevant to the modern Church. Some may think not. Many churches today are absorbed with marketing plans, programs and entertainment. Getting new members and growing the church has become the order of the day. Some churches claim to be “€œseeker sensitive,”€ gearing their worship services so as to make visiting non-believers feel more at home and less threatened. In doing so, some of these churches have reached enormous size, becoming “€œmega-churches”€ with thousands of members. In such churches, there may be a temptation to abandon strong preaching of God’€™s Word in favor of softer, “€œfeel-good”€ messages and programs with popular appeal.

A disclaimer might be in order at this point. There is no objection in this writer’€™s mind to making newcomers as comfortable as possible in our churches. There is certainly no problem with having attractive programs that allow fellowship and personal growth. And there is nothing wrong with a church gaining many members and becoming a large organization. There is nothing wrong with these things, that is, unless they are accomplished at the expense of proclaiming fully the Word of God. Unfortunately, that is exactly the trap into which many churches have fallen in our day.

As Christians, we must ask ourselves why the church exists. If the object of our church activities is to serve the Church as an organization and ensure its growth, then employing marketing strategies and watering down the message may be the correct way to proceed. If, however, our intent as a Church is the glorification of God -€“ as it should be -€“ then there can be no substitute for the preaching of the Word. God is glorified when sinners turn to Him for salvation, and not necessarily when a church organization gains many members. For sinners to come to the Lord requires that they hear His Word proclaimed -€“ even if it offends them, as it well might. Proclaiming the Gospel in a powerful way and sounding forth God’€™s Word from the pulpit may not always fill the pews and result in the development of a mega-church. But it will result in the salvation of souls and the growth of solid Christians. This is the primary purpose of the church as it relates to believers. Expository preaching is absolutely as relevant -€“ and necessary – to that purpose today as it was in biblical times.

Paul’€™s charge to Timothy should still ring true for every preacher of God’€™s Word today: “€œIn the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage-with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths”€ (2 Tim. 4:1-4).  We live in exactly such a time. May those who preach do so fearlessly and with a strong grip on the Word, with lives truly changed by the Holy Spirit, conveying His perfect Word to all who will listen.

[1] Haddon W. Robinson. Biblical Preaching. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 2001, p. 21.

[2] Bryan Chapell. Christ-Centered Preaching. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 2001, p. 23.