Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Two stereotypes in the popular mind of the 21st century characterise the Christian Church. One is the picture of a group of robed clerics (women are expressly excluded) clustered round an altar participating in elaborate rituals and swathed in a cloud of incense. The other is of a fiery preacher, haranguing a quaking or rejoicing congregation from a pulpit or stage "six feet above contradiction".

The former image is most closely connected with the Catholic party of the Christian Church; the latter with the Protestant party. Yet both groups place preaching at the heart of the Christian ministry. Preaching as a ministry is not confined to the ordained. If the clergy don't do their preaching, lay people must.

The roots of preaching as an activity go back far beyond the boundaries of human history. Our very earliest evidence indicates an art already sophisticated and central to even the most primitive cultures.

Certainly by the time of the Greek and Roman cultures the art of speaking (rhetoric) was an essential part of a gentleman's education. Apuleius in the second century says that at a banquet

The first cup is poured for us by the litterator who begins to polish the roughness of our mind. Then comes the grammaticus who adorns us with varied knowledge. Finally it is the rhetor's turn, who puts in our hands the weapons of eloquence. [1] 

Rhetoric as the art of persuasion was tuned to a fine pitch in the Roman Empire and so on through into Europe of the very recent past. It was equally prized in other cultures. The author of the Acts of the Apostles (17.19) relates how Paul in Athens attempted to speak in the public square where many a debate would have taken place. Paul's preaching in Athens failed - but we don't know if that was because he wasn't skilled enough or because his hearers lacked interest in his subject.

At any rate, Paul seems to have been eloquent enough a speaker to persuade many in Corinth and elsewhere to become Christian. He certainly was reputed to have talked for a long time on occasion - in one case, long enough for the unfortunate Eutychus to go to sleep and fall to his death out of a third storey window (Acts 20.9). His letters clearly contain the message of his sermons, no doubt preached over periods of time.

But the length of Paul's speech or sermon (as we would today term it) would not have been unusual for the time. In Southern Africa today, many cultures are only a generation away from a purely verbal means of communication. Paul's culture, unlike those of Africa, had writing - though that was confined to a very small proportion of the population. In both cases, the spoken word was accorded a degree of respect much greater than that given by the communication-overloaded cultures of modern times. To this day, sermons in some African churches can last for hours, replete with repetition and great detail.

As scholars emphasise, the gospels are essentially a type of preaching. That is, each contains a vision of Jesus derived from a particular Christian region in the years between about 70 (Mark) and about 110 (John).

From the earliest days of the Christian Church, then, preaching during gatherings and worship rapidly became the norm - as it had been in Jewish communities and many other places of (pagan) worship throughout the Roman world. In Roman political life, the rhetorical debate took the place given today to the highly professional image building of political parties through radio and television.

Over two millennia, the Church has gradually developed a substantial practice of preaching. But expert preachers existed only in the more educated strata of the clergy until quite recent times. In the average congregation the sermon would have been more like an extended homily than a well constructed, sophisticated sermon. 

In Europe before the 17th century, for example, homilies were produced for the use of poorly educated clergy. In 1547 a Book of Homilies was produced in England for the use of disaffected and semi-literate clergy. It consisted of twelve simple homilies, each about a theological or ethical matter. A second book of twenty-one homilies followed in 1571.

But it was the Reformation which brought the sermon proper into full bloom. As the new churches moved away from elaborate ceremonial practices, so the art of preaching the "Word of God" became more and more central. Just as Catholic churches have the altar at the center of focus in a building, so many Protestant churches placed the pulpit at the center.

Preaching as the proper function of a clergyman rose to its zenith as education became more common. By the 19th century in the Western world, preaching was important enough for many thousands of books of sermons to be published and avidly collected and read by many.

Today, preaching must take its place in a world bombarded by political and commercial messages through the media - from print to the most recent arrivals, the internet and the mobile telephone. Mass media preaching reaches millions wherever Christians are willing and able to pay the steep costs of buying television and radio time. Otherwise, today's preachers speak to relatively small numbers as they gather in church for worship.

Nevertheless, there remains a sturdy body of theory relating to preaching as an essential facet of the Christian life. A typical outline might propose three aspects to preaching:

  1. Exegesis  It is the preacher's duty to expound a biblical text from either the Old or the New Testament or, in the case of the Catholic Church, an official church doctrine. The meaning expounded should be that of those who first wrote the text or who originally experienced the Word of God in their trailblazing situation.

  2. Interpretation  The next step is to ensure that the original meaning is translated into the concepts and terms of those who are listening to the sermon. The underlying understanding is that the original meaning is not bound by culture but is in a real sense eternally applicable to all people everywhere.

  3. Application  The final step is for the preacher to relate the message to the contemporary situation of his hearers. How are they to apply what they hear in a culture which is very different from that in which God first revealed his will?

Perhaps understandably, as the media have taken over the attention of the average Western citizen, so have Christian claims for preaching grown larger. In many churches, only the foolish preacher will time his services and sermons to coincide with a popular television program or an important sporting event. To compensate, many clergy insist that the sermon remains more important than the mass media.

And as the pews have emptied in Europe, so have trainee clergy been given ever more grounding in the practices of preaching in the wake of far reaching theological claims. John Stacey writes that

... [preaching] has been seen as part of God's eternal action ... as means of God speaking and acting in an almost totalitarian fashion so that there is nothing more momentous and decisive than preaching (Karl Barth) ... so that ... those who believe can be saved (Rudolf Bultmann) ... as the essential action of the church, renewing its life as it proclaims the kingdom (C H Dodd). [2]

Having said that, there have been a number of clear trends in preaching since the eventful decade of the 1960s and the subsequent domination of preaching by the mass media:

  1. The sermon has remained an integral part of both Catholic and Protestant worship in the West (in the East it has never had quite the same pride of place). But it has become much less prominent. Sermons are, by and large, much shorter than ever before. In some congregations, the sermon is now often supported by computer-generated graphics projected onto a screen. In more adventurous types of worship a short homily may even be supported by brief events such as a choreographed dance or short dramatic scetch.

  2. In many churches, the sermon has taken on some of the characteristics of entertainment. Huge congregations of many thousands will listen to a preacher as he or she paces the stage and strings together a number of biblical quotations and emotional exhortations - interspersed by music and singing. The audience is encouraged to respond through exclamation and movement. The emphasis of such sermons is primarily to influence hearers. Teaching is a relatively minor part of the preaching.

  3. Tele-evangelists are those who pay large sums of money to buy time on otherwise completely secular mass media. If the costs are high, so are the potential financial rewards, for the sermons are peppered with appeals for donations to fund the broadcasts. Analysts of the style and content of these sermons tend to be somewhat scathing about the tenuous connections between traditional Christianity and their emotional and sometimes manipulative contents.

  4. A minority tends to altogether abandon or sideline sermons in their traditional form. They maintain that the top-down nature of the sermon is essentially paternalistic and that the average person today prefers to negotiate meaning through discussion and sharing of personal experience. The time given to sermons in the past is replaced by group work after, or even during, worship sessions. This format enshrines the traditional aims of combining teaching and persuading through the medium of a sermon.

What of the future of preaching? Will it survive and strengthen as an essential tool of the Church - or will it gradually succumb to the blast of sounds and sights which increasingly unite the global community?

Only time will tell, of course. And the tides of cultural change are extremely slow. Even now there is a large gap between the Western world and the slowly awakening cultures of Africa. The latter may have to first go through a phase of sermonising before it must face the challenges which so stress Western Christianity in the 21st century.

Bishop John Spong has tried to envision a Church of the future [3]. He suggests that it will embody a number of characteristics which we can now only glimpse on the cultural horizon:

  • There will be a shift from traditional theism to a more world-focused, natural understanding of Jesus. 

  • Guilt will no longer be used to persuade or drive people into the arms of a protective body of the faithful. Instead the emphasis will be on a corporate search for experienced truth and ethics based on life rather than doctrine.

  • In place of ritualised worship and rites of passage will evolve a caring, supportive community characterised by mutual acceptance rather than tribal boundaries or exclusive claims.

If Spong is even moderately correct, the sermon is clearly going to either disappear completely, or persist in a modified, attenuated form. It will become more of a dialogue than a monologue. Preaching will have to prove itself in a forum where hearers can and will contest a point or deliver their own contradictory testimony.

In short, preaching is already in the workshop waiting to be remodeled and reshaped into something radically unlike anything before.
[1] Quoted by Jerome Carcopino in Daily Life in Ancient Rome, Penguin, 1964
[2] In A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press, 1983
[3] A New Christianity For a New World, HarperSanFrancisco, 2002

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