If you have grown up in the church of the Nazarene you have probably been exposed to two major forms of preaching. Expository preaching is noted for its verse by verse in-depth analysis of scripture. Always searching for a hidden meaning, citing the Greek, and foregoing unnecessary illustrations, expository preaching is very common and popular in Evangelical churches. Topical preaching is based more on felt needs than on scripture. Typically topical preaching will begin with the preacher choosing and subject and trying to determine what they want to say and find scripture to relate to that topic. In Boomer Generation churches both forms are often highlighted by 3 points and a sermon outline for people to fill out in the pews.
My descriptions of these forms of preaching are certainly overly generalized, but neither is a critique of these types of preaching. For many decades that have faithfully served preachers who have ministered to modern generations. I have known fabulous preachers with both of these styles, and they are similar to the styles of preaching I was raised and trained in through college and seminary. But, are they sufficient for ministry to postmodern people? I think we need to breathe new life into our preaching to reach this changing and challenging generation.
In many emergent and more liberal protestant circles there is an emphasis on narrative preaching. Narrative preaching takes the text and draws it back to the context of the passage, views it as a work of literature, and applies it to the context of the congregation. Narrative preaching is not a postmodern invention. It was not created by the emerging church. As a matter of fact, scholars such as Walter Brueggemann have been toting narrative preaching for quite some time. You can find examples of narrative preaching and its critiques throughout the past century. The strength of narrative preaching is its ability to connect to the story of each person in the congregation and connect them to God’s story, which we find in the scripture. The downside is that many have taken narrative preaching and removed the power of the gospel from it. They believe that stories have more power than the word of God, which they may just sprinkle into their sermon to remind everyone it is a sermon. There are some amazing narrative preachers. There are terrible narrative preachers.
Is there a style of preaching that will work best in a postmodern context? Do expository, topical or narrative styles have a better fit for postmodern preaching than the others? How is preaching changing? I have a number of ideas for ways we can rethink our preaching to incorporate the strengths of all of these styles and think beyond styles.
1 – Connect the sermon to the service
Certainly the idea of having the rest of the worship service connect to ideas from the sermon is not new, but we can do a much better job of making our preaching bigger than the sermon slot of a worship service. There is great strength in the liturgical traditions that move the sermon from the back of the service to the middle or front. When the sermon shifts to the front of the service it removes the spoken word from its place the primary way of growing in our faith and knowing God. It allows for more experiential worship in response to spoken word and allows the congregation to simmer in the sermon before leaving the service. It is also powerful to allow for a time of silence immediately following the sermon for people to stop and allow God to speak to them. We have far too much noise in our world. Silence is powerful and stirring. By bracketing the reading of scripture or the preaching of the word with silence we allow for God to speak clearly in our worship.
2 – View the sermon as a communal effort
One of the most powerful things we have done at Evolution, the service I lead each week, is to create an environment where people expect to interact and participate in the sermon. I ask questions a lot, not just rhetorical questions, and listen for answers. We dialogue about how to apply to Word of God to our lives. We break into small groups to share our stories with one another and connect them to the narrative of the text. We have hosted Q&A sessions at the end of a series to cover topics or passages we missed. Most of all, we never presume that the preacher is the only one with a message to share about a passage. We want our people to own the text and live in it and dialogue is an awesome way to accomplish that goal.
3 – Preach without fear
So many preachers are simply afraid when they preach. They are afraid of tackling difficult texts, hard topics, or the sin of their congregation. We must reclaim our prophetic voice and speak out, balancing the truth with grace. Have you spoken to your congregation about living together before marriage, homosexuality, consumerism or war? I am not saying I know what you should be saying about those issues, I know what I have said, but I am sure we are supposed to be talking about them. We must love and live in the Old Testament (it is 2/3 of the Bible) as well as the New Testament. We can’t reinforce our congregation’s fear of part of the Bible they can’t understand. When was your last sermon from Leviticus or Judges or the Minor Prophets?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers as a preacher, but I think these are some places to start. I would love for us to have some further dialogue on preaching and hear some of your ideas.