Adventist Media Response and Conversation

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Problem of Preaching

I recently ran across the following article entitled: The Problem With Preaching

The article from 2006 goes over a lot of the things that I have expressed here (see side bar links). I can't agree with all his assessments because of the philosophical disagreement I have with the idea that we have to do everything the same way that New Testament Christians did things. Culture and times change and people have to change also. But the article is interesting, here is my pruned version of the article, there are comments from others for those who go to the website.

2. Preaching is an Ineffective Form of Communication
'Preaching' is a form of monologue, which is proven to be an ineffective form of communication. Passive listening is a very ineffective way of learning. Scientific studies of education show that passive listening leads only to a small percentage of retention. Few people can remember a sermon the next day, week or month (often the preacher can't remember it either). Although modern communication methods are improving, through the use of things like visual aids, the monologue remains one of the least effective forms of communication.

3. Preaching Limits Learning, Discussion & Debate
Preaching usually allows no opportunity for questions or discussion. It is rare for a church to allow interaction during a sermon, or questions & discussion time afterwards. Sermons are designed to be listened to, not interacted with.

6. Preaching Disempowers People
People who have been in church for many years, and have often heard 50-100 sermons each year, still think they need to be 'fed' by a sermon each week. They remain dependent for their spiritual nurture on getting a 'spiritual fix' each week through corporate worship and a sermon from a professional preacher. This seems to be the milk of Heb 5:12-14, rather than the meat that adults should be feeding themselves.

7. Preachers are a Problem
In each local church, most preaching is usually performed by one main trained professional minister.

Hence, sermons are usually built around the 'person of God', Some of the unfortunate implications of centering preaching around one trained professional religious person are -->
* It implies that one person hears from God & mediates to everyone else.
* It creates a dependence on being 'fed' by the necessary combination of professional ordained ministersxii plus theological training plus eloquent preaching.
* Week after week, the Christian message is filtered through one person, the preacher. It is filtered through one set of experiences, one personality, one mind, and one limited life experience.

* It devalues the experiences, insight and revelation of other members of the church, as they are relegated to only being listeners and often never being preachers. It implies that their knowledge of God & life wisdom are of no value to the wider church. Although we might give lip-service to the 'priesthood of all believers', we definitely don't practice it.
* By centering our gatherings on one person and their sermon, we are, in practice, reversing the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:14 and suggesting that the body is not many members, but one (often the same person, usually a man, who preaches most weeks). Moreover, by centering our church meetings on one persons ability to speak, we subtly begin to form a personality-cult around their talents. In many churches, this person becomes the final authority on spiritual and theological matters, effectively producing our own brand of 'Protestant Popes'.

"Where did our practice of preaching a monologue Gospel sermon to assembled believers on a weekly basis come from? Much of it came from the Protestant Reformers who saw the "church" as consisting of all those within a given territory - saved and unsaved. Because so many unbelievers were present within the Reformation churches (and even compelled to attend), it was necessary to continually preach the Gospel to them."xiv
However, in current western society, the majority of people in churches are 'believers' - hence preaching in these churches has virtually no evangelistic value.
There have also been other major cultural shifts which affect preaching - Stuart Murray Williams identifies three:
The first is a cultural shift away from passive instruction to participatory learning, from paternalism to partnership, from monologue to dialogue, from instruction to interaction. Those who teach, especially those who teach adults, no longer assume they are the experts who know everything and that their task is to convey information to others who simply receive this information. The new paradigm is of partnership, where teachers and learners work together...
The second is a societal shift away from an integrated world to a world where networks overlap, a shift away from simplicity to complexity...
There are very few generalists; most of us are specialists in one area or another. The education system is geared towards this, despite occasional attempts to broaden the curriculum. For preachers, this raises the issue of how to address such a complex world: the biblical text may not change but if we are concerned with application as well as interpretation, how are we to make the connections? Many preachers seem unable to relate the Bible and theology to the world of work or to issues in public life - these are areas of profound weakness in most churches. Perhaps we need the help of those in the congregation who have expertise and experience in areas where we do not.
The third is a media shift away from linear to non-linear methods of conveying information, from logical argument to pic 'n' mix learning. Whether we like it or not, the television age has deeply affected the way in which communication takes place and how people learn. A careful argument that takes thirty minutes to develop does not make for good viewing in the age of sound bites. Watching someone lecturing for thirty minutes, however many camera angles are used, is not an effective use of the visual media. Communication now frequently involves the use of images as well as words, short contributions from diverse points of view, and open-ended presentation that allows freedom to choose your own conclusion. For preachers, this implies not only the use of visual communication as well as verbal communication but hard challenges about the style and purpose of preaching.

What is the Alternative?
I believe that a better & more scriptural alternative is personal and corporate Bible study, listening to God, discussion, and working together in mutually-accountable community to help each other apply biblical truths in our lives, community and world.


Sven said...

This is an excellent analysis of the problems with regards to preaching. The alternative would be something along the lines of "interactive preaching".

There are some problems with this as well:

(1) How do you structure interactive preaching so that it does not become chaotic, particularly in the context of larger congregations?

(2) There seems to be a natural tendency towards passivity and anonymonity amongst humans. How do you overcome these tendencies?


David Allis said...

Thanks for this reference to my article - glad you agree with much of it.
Just for reference re the philosophical position - I don;t believe we have to do everthing the same way as the NT Christians. However, I do believe we should try to understand accurately what they did (rather than clinging to the some of the modern christian myths), & then we can decide which parts of what they did are relevant for us today.
One of the problems with 'preaching' is that it is perceived to be biblical & in some way a 'higher' form of communication, & hence many preachers believe its effectiveness shouldn't be questioned.
My article was published in the NZ Baptist magazine, & the following month there were 3 long responses from theologians who teach preaching. I wrote a response to these which can be seen at - it helps clarify what I was trying to say in the original article.
Many blessings in what you are doing. David Allis