Dialogue on Sermons #1

The following are edited extracts from an email dialogue that I had recently with someone who wishes to remain anonymous. It followed a talk in which I questioned the privileged status given to sermons. I hope my editing does justice to both sides of the argument. I’ve edited out a lot of the introductory niceties to make it more interesting for the reader, but the whole discussion was conducted in a cordial and gracious manner.

I was wondering if I could come back to you on one issue you mentioned: the sermon. I couldn’t tell how much you were deliberately being provocative – to promote thinking – and how much you were actually personally persuaded by what you said.

If I’ve understood you correctly, you said:
a) The sermon does not necessarily equate with Word ministry. So arguments for Word ministry aren’t arguments for the sermon per se.
b) That there is no real theological case for the sermon (as we traditionally have understood it) being a necessary part of the life of the church. Word ministry is a part, but not necessarily in the form of the sermon. Evidenced by the fact that the sermon has not always been a regular part of the life of the church historically.
c) That the sermon is not necessarily the best way to communicate truth in a way that will be thoroughly learnt/digested/applied. Certainly culturally among the people you work with. Probably true of our wider culture – at least that’s what various research tells us.
d) That you’re not ruling out the sermon. It’s just one of many possible methods of doing Word ministry. You’re just not convinced it’s always the best one. It’s not sacrosanct.

… I would personally rate the sermon much lower on my list of teaching methods. If I was persuaded by a), b) and c), then I would probably fashion the way I do Word ministry very differently …

I’d come back to you on b). I think I’d want to make a case for a particular theological place for ‘the sermon’. And I’ve got most of this from ‘Speaking God’s Words’ by Peter Adam (IVP). He defines preaching as ‘a public formal monologue to the congregation’, which seems to be how you were using the term ‘sermon’. He makes a (I think) strong case for such a public formal monologue being a crucial element of the church’s life for theological reasons. In chapter 3 he acknowledges that Word ministry does not equate with ‘the sermon’ and that there are a number of different types of ‘word ministry. However, he argues for ‘preaching’/’the sermon’ playing a key and central role to all the other forms of Word ministry.

A potted description of that case (mostly from chapter 2), would be:
1) Moses’ ministry of preaching. E.g. his three sermons in Deuteronomy. The first is described in 1:5 as an exposition. And all three have exposition, application and exhortation. He also argues that since Moses’ ministry is paradigmatic for OT Word ministry, the ‘public formal monologue to the congregation’ is a crucial part of that paradigm.
2) This ‘public formal monologue to the congregation’ is, he argues, the normal and regular way that ‘teaching’ occurs (e.g. Ezra’s preaching in Nehemiah 8). It seems to me that what is described in Nehemiah 8:1-8 is a sermon and 8:9-12 is the community and fellowship that flows out of that preaching. The sermon itself doesn’t seem interactive.

3) John the Baptist is described as ‘preaching’ and ‘proclaiming’. The Greek word (kerussw) used of both him, Jesus and the apostles seems to carry the sense of public formal declaration. In the Synoptics, which use kerussw to describe what John is doing, he seems to deliver public formal speeches.

4) Jesus is described as ‘proclaiming’ in the same way (e.g. Mark 1:14-15). In Luke 4:16-30, Jesus reads Isaiah 61, sits down, and then delivers an exposition of the passage from its context. The crowds words aren’t described as interaction here, but as comments, gossip, heckling of Jesus, who seems to be doing a public formal sermon.

5) In 2 Timothy 4v2 Timothy is commanded to ‘preach’ (kerussw).
6) Peter’s sermon in 2 would be a great occasion for an interactive discussion, but it’s a sermon. In Acts 13 Paul is invited to give a ‘word of exhortation’ after the reading from the OT and he delivers a sermon. In Acts 17 Paul preaches to the Areopagus.

None of that is to deny the huge diversity of Word ministries in the Bible. However, it does seem to me that a public formal proclamatory monologue is a key ingredient of the ordinary life of the church.

My reply:
Your summary of my position is pretty accurate. I have no problem with preaching/proclamation, exposition, application and exhortation.

None of the six references you list describe what takes place in church.

Moses and Ezra could be described as a church though you would have to qualify the implications of that – after all we do not do everything Israel did when they gathered (e.g. sacrifice animals). Moreover if you have a large group of people then monologue is going to make sense. But I’m not sure that it is very relevant to the household congregations of the NT.

None of the other monologues you describe take place in a church. Indeed they are all addressed to unbelievers.

Timothy’s exhortation to preach does not tell us anything about the format. (It is anachronistic to assume preaching = sermons. The word means ‘to herald’ and takes place through a variety of forms in the NT.)

To be honest, Adams’ six points look very like special pleading to me and only reinforce my view that the status of the preacher is what is being defended. The irony is that those who trumpet their adherence to the word do not teach that word in the way it describes itself being taught!

The case for the sermon seems to be that it reflects the authority if God’s word, because the word is proclaimed without interruption or question. Think about it for a moment. What a bizarre definition of authority. Authority = lack of interruption! Surely the authority of the word is best expressed when we live in obedience to that word. So let’s work the truth down into people’s hearts and lives.


9 thoughts on “Dialogue on Sermons #1

  1. Tim

    Hello, how are you? I wanted to get in touch and find I don’t have your email address any more. But I’ve enjoyed finding your blog – really interesting. And someone was telling me about your work at a dedication a few months ago.

    I was just wondering if you might read something for me? It’s not at all theological, more sociological. Could you get in touch?



  2. Tim, I would like to hear you more on this, what does a typical house group church look like for you guys for instance? Is there a sermon?

  3. Tim – thanks for you thoughts. One of your THC co-workers, Michael Tinker was out in South Africa with me a month or two back and we got into a similar discussion around the idea of ‘heralding’. Can you please, if you have time, expand on how you see ‘heralding’ and interactive study of the word come together. Could you also perhaps talk a bit about what ‘heralding’ looks like in a household church. Blessings.
    Stephen Murray.

  4. I think both ‘heralding’ and ‘proclamation’ in the NT describe the act of proclaiming the good news or announcing the coming of King Jesus. I think there are both akin to the way we use the word ‘evangelism’. In the NT they can take a variety of forms – everything from a law court address to a discussion to a debate. They can take place before a mob or in a house. They don’t describe the form of delivery, but the content of delivery (and to some extent the hearer as I think they often assume the hearer in an unbeliever). In Acts 8:4 the ‘ordinary’ believers ‘preach’ the gospel as they are scattered. Nowhere, as far as I am aware, in the NT are they used to describe a sermon or monologue delivered to the gathered church on a Sunday.

  5. Tim
    You mentioned a talk in which you questioned the privileged status given to sermons. Does that talk expand on any of the material in the comments and your replies; if so, is it available? I did look for it on your site, but couldn’t locate it.

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