The Problem with Preaching

Mike Mawhorter sent me a link to this article by David Allis which I found to be one of the more helpful of the current critiques of preaching: CLICK HERE

My response is that much of what he says is truthful. Preaching, for instance, is expensive. Preachers often can’t be trusted. At the same time, I think that what is actually being critiqued is not that we preach, but that we preach monologically in the traditional sense.

I still believe that the monologue works in most settings – especially larger ones. If it didn’t, I can’t imagine so many would keep coming to listen. At the same time, the traditional sermon does not represent all that preaching can or ought to be. What we do in care groups or in classrooms can still be considered preaching if the goal is to understand the word of God and to persuade others of its truth.

I was a little troubled by Allis’ suggestion that biblical preaching was entirely for the evangelization of the non-believer. Clearly, the New Testament encourages the instruction and training of believers as well. To try to distinguish between preaching and teaching for the purpose of dumping on the traditional sermon is not helpful, in my view. The distinction between the two is little more than a differentiation in form.

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3 thoughts on “The Problem with Preaching

  1. Don Hewison

    The difference between preaching and teaching has become a burden for me over the past year. I have become increasingly concerned with the lack of quality teaching in the Christian church, teaching that allows the Christian (as an individual, unique person designed and loved by God) to become involved in a learning process that causes them to get excited about the Word of God. I have read many articles about preaching and teaching, some of them leave many concerns, some of them start on the right track, but the underlying problem I sense with nearly all of these articles is the lack of understanding of what adult teaching for knowledge, understand and wisdom (refer Proverbs 2) really is. The bible is full of instances where people were taught and bought to understanding and wisdom, either directly from God or through another person.

    It is interesting to note that in my literature reviews, a writer wrote that the biggest assumption in adult education is that teachers are not teachers, they are what they were trained to be. It is ironic that school teachers require around 4 years training (with on-going mentoring) yet adult teaching in both the secular world and the Christian world requires no training for teachers. Pastors are trained to preach but not to teach. The biggest lie in the world today after that Jesus is not the way to God, is that anyone can teach. The Christian church is required to present a gospel that promotes love for each other, yet is quite happy to treat those who have by study, training, and evaluated experience, ‘running the race’ to be a good teacher, as if they were of no value, simply because people who have no idea of how to teach are placed in prominent positions in seminaries and churches. There must be many thousands of good people around the world who are wounded by this.

    There is no such thing as ‘preaching a teaching’, yet it is what happens on Sunday mornings around the world. I’m sorry, but I have seen on TV or heard many sermons that either leaves me educationally wounded, or just simply shaking my head with unbelief. My description of the majority of sermons is best done by saying… that what I am taught on Sundays is the unspoken message that I must sit down, shut up, don’t ask questions. don’t criticize, don’t complain, and if I don’t learn then it is my fault and I should seek repentance. The preacher in effect takes a machinegun loaded with his/her pre-digested skim milk pellets and sprays it around the auditorium with the hope that someone ends up with a pellet in their mouth that they in turn can digest. That is neither biblical nor do I believe it is what God wants. What we need is teaching that is biblically based and continues to be supported by ongoing social science research.

    If this is hard medicine, then perhaps you could consider the following…
    I have spent 37 years of my life in adult education, teaching God’s natural and physical laws – electrical and electronics.
    I have always had a desire to become a good teacher with carefully done experimentation and evaluation of teaching practices over many years.
    In the latter years I have done much reading of adult education practices.
    I have a both a Certificate and Diploma in Adult Education/Teaching, as well as a Masters and Doctorate in Science Education
    I have personally been educationally wounded (some Christians refer to this as the demon of educational wounding), and in a very bad case recently when I was a student in a Christian course, God spoke to me that he took me through this experience so that I would understand.
    I have seen students changed through the release from education wounding and I have experienced the working and presence of the Holy Spirit in a class on non-Christian adult students.
    I cannot shake off the deep concern I have for the lack of biblically based teaching practice that is supported by research, even though I have repeatedly asked God to take the burden away from me.
    God has taught me to become a self-directed learner, and in the Bible I continually read and get excited over the word of God.
    I continually see in the Bible passages that support the concepts of quality teaching.
    As a teacher, my concern is simply others – that they may before their time is gone, be able to experience in their church meetings, in study groups and in their individual lives, the immense joy of reading and studying God’s word with the type of excitement that the Emmaus disciples experienced – Jesus taught them, they understood and they raced off to tell the others.
    I cannot see anything in the Bible that supports or justifies the current practice of weekly preaching to the converted.
    It is not a case of people being happy with what they are receiving (you would be happy cycling along a rough road in the pouring rain if you didn’t know about anything cars), it is a case of the Christian church has a God given, biblically based responsibility to be the very best they can possibly be, i.e. to feed the sheep with good feasts.

    Try reading the parable of the four soils in Matthew from a teacher’s perspective and not from a preacher’s perspective, and you will see that the only harvest comes from those who are taught and understand the message. It is the responsibility of the teacher, through good teaching practice, to till the soil, get rid of the stones and weeds, and sow a good harvest. Unfortunately, preachers use this passage to point a finger at the members in a congregation, a good teacher however sees that is they point a finger at a person, there are three fingers pointing back at them.

    Gifts of the Spirit include teaching and evangelism – preaching is a tool of the evangelist, and teaching is a God given gift. Why doesn’t the Christian church stop hiding behind the bush and realise that amongst many other problems such as membership numbers declining, the answer to the problem that 60% of our young people lose their faith when they attend college and university, is probably in the soils with the stones – they hear only shallowly, they are not taught through to understanding.

    But please, before you take offence at what I say, ask yourself the question, “do I really know, understand, and have the wisdom in adult education to justify my thoughts and/or reply”.

  2. David Allis

    You might be interested in a followup repsonse I wrote, which was published in the NZ Baptist magazine. (My original article on “The Probelm with preaching was published, then the following month 3 Bible College lecturers wrote responses disagreeing with my article, then I wrote this response (limited by space)
    David Allis, NZ

    “I’m impressed by the way NZ Baptists welcome healthy discussion and debate, in order to become more effective in today’s world. My article ‘The Problem with Preaching’ prompted strong response and much discussion. Raising challenging questions about preaching is rather like waving a red rag to a sacred cow. The responses in last month’s Baptist from Ian Kemp, David Richmond & Paul Windsor were gracious and thoughtful, yet somewhat unconvincing.

    In response, I need to clarify some aspects of my original article. In critiquing preaching, I focussed on the specific form of preaching commonly used in modern western churches – monologue preaching to a church congregation. Some people seem to raise this form of preaching onto a ‘pedestal’ above other forms of communication, seeing it as Biblical, essential and prescriptive for us today and presumably for all churches of all times. This perspective effectively raises this form of preaching to a level near baptism and prayer. It is regarded as a spiritual mystery beyond question.

    This view seems evident in last month’s responses through phrases like “the sermon … is the voice of God to be obeyed”, “the high calling of the preacher”, “the divine encounter in the preaching” and “preaching is a spiritual gift and a God-given vocation”.

    I find no convincing evidence of this form of monologue preaching to a church congregation visible in the NT – hence my statement that this form of preaching is extra-biblical (I didn’t say or imply that it is un-biblical or necessarily wrong). Even if examples of this form of preaching are perceived in the NT (eg 2 Tim 4), these examples don’t make preaching prescriptive or essential for all churches at all times.

    In my original article, I attempted to differentiate the form of preaching we practice in churches today from what is seen in the NT. The key point is that there is no essential identifiable difference between the wide variety of communication forms seen in the NT, including preaching and teaching. As Paul Windsor points out with his reference to 34 different words and overlapping circles, the concepts overlap.

    Unfortunately many people see the ‘preach’ words, which appear about 140 times in an English NT, and assume that this ‘preaching’ they read of is the same form as the preaching they hear in church today, and hence that the form of preaching that occurs in their church has a strong (essential) biblical basis and we have to keep doing it. They see preaching as a specific God-given form of communication, and its effectiveness shouldn’t be questioned.

    As Christians, including those exercising leadership, we need to communicate the messages of Jesus and His kingdom to all people, including those outside or on the edge of the kingdom, and those within. A wide variety of forms of communication are available. Some of these forms are clearly visible in the NT, others might be implied, and others are definitely not seen in the Bible (eg emails, Denominational newspapers). These communication forms are not distinct, but rather they overlap. They include teaching (to large groups, small groups and individuals), dialogue, discussion, debate, evangelistic preaching, preaching to church congregations, and questions and answers. None of these forms is inherently on a pedestal above the others. None of these forms is ‘biblical & normative & inherently spiritual’ – ie ‘it is in the Bible and we have to do it and it is a communication form that is inherently more spiritual than other forms’. All of these communication forms can be either effective or ineffective, depending partly on how they are implemented and whether the form & content are relevant for the recipients. Sometimes these forms of communication impart some sort of spiritual life, renewal, revelation, insight, inspiration or encounter – but this is not automatically inherent in any of the forms. This spiritual impartation is more likely to occur when other factors are involved, including prayer, study, good presentation, accurate Biblical interpretation, and people having expectations. On occasions, the form chosen is inappropriate or the communication is poor, yet God chooses to ‘move’ anyway.

    Communication is essential. I am not calling for preaching to be abandoned. Nor am I saying that any other form of communication is always better than a sermon. A monologue sermon to the congregation on Sundays is one form of communication. It should be more accurately described as ‘teaching’, ‘inspiration’, ‘thought-for-the-day’, ‘reflection’, or ‘motivational talk’, depending on its intention and characteristics. Monologue preaching might even be the best communication form in a particular situation – preaching has historically been very effective in many situations. However, we have a wide range of equally valid forms of communication available. If we understand their strengths and weaknesses, become proficient in their use, and evaluate their effectiveness, we will become better communicators.

    Throughout much of church history, monologue sermons have been a predominant form of communication. There are many historical and sociological reasons for this reliance on sermons. There are also many spiritual, pragmatic and educational reasons for questioning the effectiveness of monologue preaching in our society. These include that it is often ineffective, expensive, can limit learning, discussion and debate, foster biblical illiteracy, and disempower people. Monologues silence the voice of the people. Educational studies repeatedly demonstrate that people learn more through interactive teaching and self-learning. Rather than just trying to pass on information, we should be creating life-long spiritual learners.

    David Richmond suggests that if people can’t feed themselves, we need to keep feeding them. In contrast, I’m convinced that for normal healthy people, we should stop spoon feeding them, let them get hungry and then they will become motivated to learn to feed themselves. They might even learn to how to cook, plan their own menu, and begin teaching others to feed themselves.

    Its no surprise to hear ministers defending preaching. Professional ministers usually love preaching and are paid to do it. Preaching is typically part of the ‘package’ of this form of church leadership. A minister questioning preaching and other aspects of professional ministry is like the proverbial person who saws off the branch they are sitting on. It is as rare as beef farmers promoting vegetarianism.

    I told my children that I’ve invented a new school – it has only one class with hundreds of students aged from 5 to 18. They meet for one half-hour class each week, where a quality teacher gives an amazing non-interactive lecture to the class. Students never graduate from the class. The 18 year-olds, who have been hearing these lectures for 13 years, stay in this class with more new entrants for the rest of their lives. The only way to graduate is to become the lecturer or die. My children say this school is stupid and will never work. I agree … but it’s what we do in churches … let’s look for good alternatives.”

  3. K Naylor

    I skimmed through the linked article and came away thinking that THESE were the type of questions I would have liked dealt with in your book on preaching. I think Allis says some good things – including that the one of the main problems with preaching (as done in our churches now) is that it is a monologue.

    That is (I believe) a very significant problem with preaching as we practice it and until we look at that head on and ask some real questions, we won’t hear answers that can make a difference. I don’t think Allis is dumping on preaching, I think he’s challenging some sacred cows. I think he is talking about more than a differentiation in form, he’s talking about something far more fundamental.

    I don’t think Allis goes far enough or deep enough in his questions or his answers, but it’s a start.


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