For over 500 years the Sunday service has been dominated by preaching, the foundation for the vast majority of Western churches. Many churchgoers based both their faith and church membership on this sole aspect. But has the centrality of preaching run its course?
I remember the last time I mused about the effectiveness of preaching in a changed world the fundamentalists in my city lost their minds and usurped my church blog.
I’m not against preaching, I just know culturally there are two main places people sit and passively listen to a talk: a church for a sermon, and an auditorium or bar for a comedian.
The heart of evangelicalism (particularly the reformed variety) builds itself upon the a core found at the Sunday service–the sermon. ‘Preaching the Gospel’ for many churches has become the de-facto evangelism strategy. Since only qualified people ‘preach’ the key is to get people into a church service so they can hear and ‘be saved’.
The thing is, it’s not working anymore. Here’s why, and what we can do about it.
The stats don’t lie, there are less and less people coming to church services to even hear any preaching. The shifting culture shouldn’t be ignored. Although statistically hardcore adherents aren’t leaving the church, everyone else is. Furthermore, the increasing minority of people are now areligious. That means they have no religious memory so they don’t know any of the stories that are necessary to comprehend most preaching.
The effectiveness of preaching as an evangelistic tool in today’s western culture is nearly defunct.
This isn’t to undermine the biblical text, it’s apparent that proclamation is a piece. But up to this point preaching has almost been exclusively delivered by qualified clergymen, or by the qualified missionary in the field. When we examine the entirety of the biblical narrative we discover that preaching isn’t foundational. Proclamation (and I am using the terms differently) at some point seems to have a place, but the function of the community in the early church probably never gathered in a manner we would be familiar with today. Discipleship, the life on life embodiment of the gospel, was the defining factor.
This raises an important question to ask today: should preaching be the exception rather than the rule? How would this change our gatherings? What would we focus on instead?
This kind of demotion, however, won’t be easily accepted, particularly in traditions that vehemently defend the necessity of preaching because it’s nearly a requirement. But is it worth fighting for? How many average preaching churches are bursting at the seams because of their preaching (and no, it doesn’t count if you have wicked preaching and all you do is attract lapsed or switcher Christians from other churches). The fact is, what we deem to be important is no longer culturally relevant and we need adjust.
I think there is a way to take a step back and reassess what needs adjustment. If ‘preaching the Gospel’ is central in your tradition, can we at least agree on what the ‘Gospel’ is? There could be a variety of answers here but I believe there is a simple and unchanging one–the Gospel is Jesus.
If we can agree here, that the Gospel is Jesus, then the best way we can share the Gospel is to represent the very heart of what Jesus represented and that would be to embody his character. The unique nature of Jesus is his incarnation, and incarnation is embodiment. Rather than preaching the gospel at all times, we embody the Gospel at all times (which is much harder), while awaiting moments when the Spirit leads others to listen to our story of participating in God’s unfolding Kingdom hope.