In the process of conversion to Orthodox Christianity (and even prior to it), I had grown a rather cynical view of the activity of preaching and to those who did it. The church that I used to attend (of which I still have a great level of love towards, some of my closest friends being attendees there) had adopted a sort of attitude towards preaching which was, frankly, not well thought through. For instance, preaching was done by a team of rostered individuals, performed in different formats, with often inconsistent tones and understandings in purpose. It was not uncommon for the sermon to be an interview, a personal testimony, having been performed by multiple preachers, done by a series of external guests, having music in the background, to be about movies or music, be delivered as a recorded video and/or consist of 30 – 45 minutes of passionate yelling (not to mention an extreme negligence towards the biblical text, both in terms of interpretive method and its presence in the sermon proportional to the length of the message).
It seems to me that this wasn’t exclusive to this church either and seems to be a common trend within Charismatic Evangelical circles. In essence, the level of fluidity and flexibility in what constituted preaching seems to me to indicate an inadequate view of the purpose and function of the task. When preaching isn’t appropriately defined and understood, it can be anything we desire it to be. In that environment, preaching seemed to mean anything from motivational speaking, to academic lecture to performance art. This was a troubling observation to me, as traditional Evangelical theology considering had an elevated sense of the weightiness of the preaching office. I mean, it’s not uncommon in Protestant churches to view preaching as the highest possible exercise of spiritual and pastoral authority. It’s not uncommon to view the value of pastors to the same degree to which they can preach (which, as observed above, could fall under any sort of rubric).
What I found most confusing, however, was the democratisation of preaching – the opening of the preaching floor to as many as possible. This was further followed by what I found to not only be confusing, but to be rather disturbing: the encouragement of people (particularly young people) to be preachers, and to devote themselves, in some fashion, to the vocations of preaching and pastoring. In other words, I am incredibly sceptical and cynical towards those who wish to be preachers: those who wish to enter a vocational ministry and to preach to a crowd, and the cultural attitude that causes such an attitude to grow. I hope to briefly explain why this is the case: primarily speaking I believe it’s because such an inadequate understanding of preaching exists.
What is preaching?
The first question we need to ask is, “what is preaching?”. The simple answer to this is that preaching is not teaching, motivational speaking or performance (though there are pedagogical, motivational and performative elements to it). The fundamental nature of preaching is proclamation. In New Testament language, preaching is kerygma – a declaration of the good news in Christ. In other words, it is a retelling and recapitulation of the Gospel message, of the story of God’s love for humanity in His fulfilment of Messianic promises, Christ’s incarnation, death and Resurrection, and the reality of living life now in the age of the Holy Spirit. It is, in a sense the participation in the retelling of the great story of God, by which God summons his creation to obedience so that they might live the joyous life of communion in, with and through Him. In other words, it is the very essence of proclamation of the word of God so that the Word of God made be manifest.
Take Paul’s example, for instance. In Romans 1, he announces the good news of Christ in the very opening verses of his magisterial work:
“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ”
He continues on in that very chapter to write:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.””
And further in his letter in Chapter 10, in the context of discussing God’s faithfulness to his promises to Israel and the Jewish people, he writes:
“How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
One could point further to the sermons in Acts, or to the Epistle to the Hebrews, to see the same sort of understanding repeated (though particularly contextualised and localised) – a proclamation of God’s salvation of the universe made manifest in the person of Christ and the subsequent obedience that it requires.
The point that I’m trying to make here, regardless of the unique contextual arguments Paul and the other New Testament authors, is that preaching is understood through the particular lens of “proclamation”, and this proclamation is a rather special, as it functions as a means by which God imparts divine grace to us, in a quasi-sacramental fashion, so that we might be saved. It is a way to summon us to be a part of the life of the Church, and to partake of the definitive sacraments, being caught up in the life of God, being in communion with Him. It is proclamation of the word so that the Word is made manifest.
How does this relate to being sceptical of preachers?
Well, simply put, preaching is a special task which is necessarily a heavy burden because it means declaring who God is, which results in a particular activity of Christ in his Spirit. The preacher takes the responsibility of telling all of creation that God is – and that this God’s is-ness is mighty specific. The preacher is responsible for declaring who God is on behalf of God.
This is an inherently impossible task, as humans are finite, and God in all of his magnificence and splendour is by definition infinite. Karl Barth was right, at least in this context, when he insisted upon the infinitive qualitative distinction between God and humanity. God is totally other. “No man can look upon God and live”. Eastern Orthodoxy insists upon the same idea when we discuss the energies and essence of God – that God is unknowable in his divine essence but can be known to us in his divine energies – his gracious presence and activity towards us. Whilst it is theoretically possible to talk about God’s energies towards us, in this respect, this task should still fill the preacher with existential dread and horror, because they will have to account to the God of the entire created universe one day over the fact that they said something about who God was, to a community of people who listened to them, and that they in their fallibility and limited nature were probably wrong.
Yes, there is grace, yes there is mercy, but instantly one should think twice about frivolously approaching such a task. Opening the preaching floor to everybody (and I mean this in the sense of encouraging everyone into thinking that perhaps they could preach, not necessarily letting everyone preach) seems to result in a lot more people who will be condemned for their sin rather than appropriately protecting them. After all, those who explain heavenly mysteries will be judged more harshly than those who do not. One needs to ask whether or not the magnitude of what is taking place has been understood. It seems, then, that one who wants to be a preacher has their desire predicated upon an unintentional ignorance or a self-assured arrogance, which means that scepticism is the only appropriate response to their desires, particularly when it comes from the mouth of someone who has hardly completed high school. It seems that a process and category of discernment and distinction between those who should be authoritative preachers and those who aren’t should exist, for the good of all. This distinction should be a significant one, and for at least this reason, ordination is non-trivial.
I could continue further: Protestantism in making preaching ultimate cripples itself and its preachers. If preaching is of the highest spiritual importance on the Sunday morning, then the height of the spiritual experience is all that can be mustered in a series of inadequate words. Sure, inadequate words which Christ may use and be present through, which is surely no small matter, but it is never truly Christ himself. It is Christ himself as mediated through the subjectivity of the preacher and the listener. No doubt Christ can work through this, and can be present in the Holy Spirit, but it is not Christ directly. It seems that in traditions where the height of the liturgy is not preaching, but rather the literal presence of Christ Himself through the transformation of the bread and wine into His body and blood in the Eucharist (and I assert that this is the correct view of liturgy and the Eucharist – the correct view of Worship and constitutes the very core of the Christian message, life and spirituality), the load is lessened by the very nature of the fact that the preacher and the preacher’s words are not the highlight. Christ quite literally is the highlight, because Christ is really physically present. This does not make preaching a trivial matter, however, as its quasi-sacramental nature still remains, though it remains within the greater context of the whole liturgy acting as proclamation to the reality which becomes actualised in the bread and wine.
One more thought on this note: outside of the greater, robust image of tradition and the Church, every preacher becomes an individual island who needs to discover what God is saying on their own, theoretically as aided by the Spirit, but through the use of their own mental and emotional capacities, relying upon their own scholarship (or the scholarship of others) with no divine guarantee of the trustworthiness of the message they are preparing for preaching. Whereas if one is a part of the Church, they have the traditions of the fathers, the saints and the teaching of the Church as infallibly protected by the Holy Spirit that they can rely upon. As such, they only need to be faithful to what has already been taught and retold rather than trying to ingeniously try to come up with such on their own – without needing to reinvent the wheel. I don’t wish to characterise all of Protestantism as historically isolated (in terms of its interpretive consciousness) but certainly Evangelicalism strives for this, and so each preacher must listen afresh to the text to hear what it is saying. At what point do we have to ask “what if I’m wrong?” and “what happens if I am?”
I should bring my write up to a close. To say the least, the democratisation of preaching seems to be an absurdly arrogant and dangerous notion. I don’t wish to characterise all Protestants as simply viewing preaching as something that should be handed to everyone, but at the same time, the encouraging of lay preachers, of youth speakers, of potentially anybody being able to preach, seems thoroughly wrongheaded. I don’t think preaching should be encouraged, particularly in young people. It appears to me that this is a largely a deficiency in the doctrine of a priesthood of all believers which refuses to see the significant difference in an ordained priesthood and a laity.
This does raise the question though – how do we discern those who are preachers? It’s an essential calling of the Church, certainly, and it will not die. However, we shouldn’t approach it from the perspective of “have a test-drive in the preaching car”. Rather, I think it is more appropriately viewed within the realm of unavoidable calling and burden. That is, it is something that someone cannot escape and is effectively forced into, rather than something one wishes to do.
The analogy I like to draw is that of blessed Old Testament prophets who had their vocation incontrovertibly placed upon them. It is not uncommon for the prophets, and the people of Israel, to conceptualise their prophetic messages as a מַשָּׂ֖א “a burden”. I’m further reminded of Jonah being commissioned by God to proclaim judgement over Nineveh and, as the story goes, Jonah’s attempt to flee God’s calling upon him backfired. He, in the end, was used by God to catalyse the salvation of the Ninevites, even though he resisted God’s calling. Perhaps we should be telling people of the terrible burden of preaching from a young age rather the esteeming it.