Something happened to preaching on the way to the 21st century.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when the churches of Christ were the fastest growing religious group in America, we emphasized preaching. In those days we had Gospel meetings, sometimes lasting for a week or longer, and cooperative campaigns where thousands gathered in city auditoriums to hear preaching. We placed emphasis upon preaching in our regular worship assemblies.
But then something happened. We stopped emphasizing preaching, we stopped having meetings and campaigns, and … we stopped growing.
The rationale was that people would no longer attend meetings that emphasized preaching, that our own people would not attend, and that if we wanted to reach and retain young families and young people we would have to find ways other than preaching to do it. We were told that people did not want preaching from the Bible, that they wanted to be made to feel good, that they wanted to hear less about doctrine and more about how to get along with each other and to be happy.
So, we began to reduce the sermon time to twenty-minute spiritual pep talks, better suited for a civic club meeting than the pulpit; the preacher became an after dinner speaker who occasionally alluded to a Scripture; standup comedy became the order of the day … and we lost 50% of our young people. We wanted to stop our decline, so we began to compete with the mega-churches, we lost our distinctive message, and many of our congregations became community churches where little was preached and little was expected. We distorted the great Biblical themes of love and grace and forgiveness by failing to point out the danger of “cheap grace” and by failing to emphasize the authority of Scripture, the Lordship of Christ, and the need for obedience to the divine plan. We neglected to teach lessons on the nature of the New Testament church, how God has taught us to worship, the roles of men and women in the leadership of the church, the kind of music that is authorized in the worship of the church, how one may be saved, and even the mode and purpose of baptism… and we are in decline. We are not saying we must have Gospel meetings. We are saying that we offered no satisfactory alternative and we lost our message.
God has always placed emphasis upon preaching. From the preaching of Noah, “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), to the preaching of the Old Testament prophets, to the preaching of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles, preaching has always been important in God’s purpose. The church was brought into existence by preaching, congregations were planted by preaching, the lost were reached by preaching, and the saved were edified by preaching.
Indeed, “it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21). Those who speak for God have a great responsibility to preach only the Words of God (1 Peter 4:11), and they will give an account to God for what they speak (James 3:1). Feeling this responsibility, Paul said to the Corinthians, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1). Notice that Paul said he declared “the testimony of God.” Testimony is a translation of marturion and means that God was “bearing witness” through Paul as he preached the Gospel. The apostle neither preached as a great orator (so as to draw attention to himself) nor did he preach the philosophies of men (so as to forfeit his calling to present the Gospel—see 1 Corinthians 9:16). He preached the “Gospel of God” (Romans 1:1) which is centered in “His Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:3) and which was designed to produce the “obedience to the faith” in those who heard it (Romans 1:5). Paul’s message was “the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4), “the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2), and “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). For this reason Paul said, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). This means that he had made a definite and final decision to preach only “Christ … crucified,” a synecdoche which summarized all of his preaching as being limited only to the complete revelation of God.
Preaching was a vital part of the worship of the New Testament church. When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, one of the important aspects of the letter was the regulation of the “in church” meeting (see 1 Corinthians 14:19, 28, 34, 35). The ”in church” meeting took place when “the whole church comes together” (vs. 23) for the intended purpose of worship (the letter deals with the worship of the church in chapters 10-16), and this coming together included preaching (1 Corinthians 14:23-40). Preaching is to be a part of the worship of the New Testament church and it may be more important than we think it is.
It is designed for evangelism (1 Corinthians 14:24-25), the edification of the church (1 Corinthians 14:26), and the glory of God (1 Corinthians 14:25b; 1 Peter 4:11; 2 Thessalonians 1:10-12). It is the one avenue of worship in which, when faithfully performed, God speaks to us through a human spokesman (2 Corinthians 4:7). We sing to each other and to God. We pray for one another and offer our thanks and petitions to God. We commune with one another and with God. We give to God for the welfare of others. However, it is only in the preaching of the Word that God speaks to us. With this in mind, it would seem that the church needs more preaching (more hearing the voice of God), not less.
From the practical standpoint, we are not told in Scripture how the worship assembly of the church is to unfold. We are not told the length of the preaching time, whether the sermon should come first or last or in the middle of the assembly, or who should do the preaching (except that it be delivered by a man—1 Corinthians 14:34- 35; see also 1 Timothy 2:8-15). It is a matter of judgment as to whether the sermon should occupy most of the assembly time or if we should spend most of the time together in partaking of the Lord’s Supper. However, it is a fact that those who do not care all that much about preaching think that it should be short. Traditionally, however, the sermon is allotted the most time in our assemblies.
The preaching that God desires is a proclamation of the Word (2 Timothy 4:1-2), which should include the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-3), and holding “fast the pattern of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13). The preacher should do this, the congregation should expect this, and the elders of the church should demand it. Young people and adults will respond to Biblical preaching … and we will grow again.
In continuing the process of the restoration of New Testament Christianity in the 21st century, we need to give serious attention to the restoration of Biblical preaching that characterized the first century church. Let those who preach understand that they are stewards of the things of God, and “it is required in stewards that one be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). Let them “handle aright the word of truth” so that they may be workers who do “not need to be ashamed” before God (2 Timothy 2:15). Finally, let them, like Paul, approach their work of preaching “in fear and in much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3) as they recognize they are “workers together with” God (2 Corinthians 6:1) in the greatest work under Heaven.
By Jay Lockhart
This article first appeared in the July 2013 issue of “Think” magazine.