Preaching That Connects

What enables the words of the preacher reverberate past one’s defenses and inspire faith?

Todd Brewer / 10.20.22

In his journal toward the end of his life, novelist Mark Rutherford recounted observing a beachside preacher on their morning walk. “Believe in the Lord,” the preacher shouted, “believe or you will be lost; you can do nothing of yourselves; you must be saved by grace alone, by blood, without blood is no remission of sins.”[1] The observer fails to note how the sermon is received by the dozen or so people surrounding the preacher, but they themselves are unmoved, finding the spectacle of blue skies and the breaking waves fare more compelling. Literature is riddled with obtuse clergy and boring sermons.

Rutherford’s tale is certainly understandable. Who wouldn’t rather enjoy a sunny day on the beach than be afflicted by yet another bad sermon? I’ve never known the sun to induce burdensome guilt or the shore to elicit undue sorrow.

There are a thousand different ways for a sermon to go wrong and only one way for it to go right. Over the course of a lifetime, one might hear thousands of sermons. Comparatively few of these will likely prompt repentance and faith. Few sermons will cause you to reflect — if only momentarily — upon your life, demanding a newfound understanding of yourself and of the God whose care and provision has held you before the foundation of the world.

What claims to be Christian preaching could easily be characterized as secularized Christianity. The difference between the two is slight, yet vast in practice, like the distinction between a genuine friend and one who only appears as such while plotting your demise. One type of preaching is life-giving, the other soul-sucking, empty words that crash on shore and slowly erode the listener into oblivion.

Secularized preaching takes many forms, genuine preaching just one. In his essay from 1959,[2] theologian and Biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann explored the gamut of sermons typically preached on Sunday mornings, seeking to define what precisely makes preaching, well, Christian. His list of grievances against bad preaching is surprising, lengthy, and (sadly) entirely relatable.

Bultmann begins by noting how Christian preaching should not be confused with the propagation of a philosophical system. The words of Heidegger, Sartre, or Kierkegaard might bear some general truths, but this kind of reflection has very little in common with the pronouncements of preaching.

Turning next to the question of ethical instruction, Bultmann likewise deems it to be secularized preaching. This point is particularly controversial when compared with many sermons today. Many preachers believe it their job to educate and train the congregation to become more ethical, to weigh in on the pressing moral quandaries of the day and give a “Christian perspective.” And so it’s not uncommon to hear sermons that follow the “how to” preaching format: how to become a better husband, a better steward of finances, a better Christian. For Bultmann, these approaches to preaching are no different from the advice columns in secular publications. Preaching is patently not practical advice for living or basic instructions for moral improvement.

Along these lines, when Jesus is presented “as a hero and model of piety, as the bearer of a new, pure ethics, wherever there is talk of the beneficial influences which emanate from him, no matter how high the words,” this Jesus is no more than a secularized Jesus, no different from Moses, Socrates, or Aesop’s fables.[3] Why listen to a such a sermon, when the same information can be found by reading a self-help book?

Jesus certainly has many ethical teachings, but their genius cannot be reduced to practice advice. If one seeks wisdom about how to live well, Jesus will be a disappointing, if not infuriating, mentor. He was the strangest ethicist then and continues to be ill-fitted for pragmatics. The righteousness he demands exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees. If you’ve done everything right, he will ask you to sell everything you have and give it to the poor. He demanded nothing short of one’s very life in service of others. One cannot grasp the ethical content of his preaching without being confronted by its impossibility. Anything short of this demotes Jesus to the quotidian status of yet another secular moralist.

If Bultmann has no time for the ethicist preacher, he has less time for catechetical preaching. While preaching certainly contains a degree of doctrinal instruction, there is a world of a difference between thinking a doctrine to be true and believing it to be true for oneself. For example, “the fact that preaching says to one that he or she needs God’s forgiveness can be brought to expression in the doctrine of original sin. But the believing acceptance of such preaching is expressed only in the confession ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’ and not in agreeing with any doctrine of original sin.”[4] One can acknowledge the truthfulness of all the church’s seven ecumenical councils, checking off all of the boxes of proper orthodoxy, and not believe a word of it.

This, I think, is where many sermons fail to connect properly, arising from a genuine lack of clarity over what a sermon is intended to do. John Calvin believed that the church was analogous to a schoolhouse, meant to educate the faithful in proper doctrine and practice. The presumption at work here is that right information will straightforwardly lead to right belief and practice in the way that a teacher might confer knowledge to students. Jesus was a rabbi, after all, with disciples who benefitted from his teaching. By contrast, Thomas Cranmer, versed as he was in Martin Luther’s theology, believed that the church was more akin to a hospital, whose attendees might limp to the pews to find good news. If church is like a hospital, and Christians more like wounded patients in need of care, then the preaching therein aims to provide more than mere information. Proclamation aims squarely at the those wounded by sin and the world, offering balm for the soul.

There is a draw to catechesis that can feel to preachers like necessity. Living in a secular world where many of the articles of the creed seem incredulous or fantastical, it is tempting for the preacher to try and make up for lost ground, whether it be through teaching on the Trinity, the virgin birth, or the two natures of Christ. This path might seem appealing, but it is a blind alley in the end. On this question Bultmann remarked, “in the place of true confession, there is the acceptance of doctrine.”[5] As stimulating as doctrine might be, it is not the substance of proclamation or the tip of the spear that enables a sermon to cut to the heart. Though it might sound strangely ironic to say, catechizing a secular world actually secularizes one’s preaching. In the book of Acts, the apostles didn’t island hop around the Mediterranean debating with Gentiles over the superiority of monotheism. It was the offensiveness of the cross which was foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews.

Many of the most boring and ineffectual sermons have been preached in the name of catechesis. Lacking any connection to real life, the preacher’s lofty and sophisticated words are as dead as the theologians who wrote the now centuries old creeds and confessions.

So what makes a sermon connect? What enables the words of the preacher reverberate past one’s defenses and inspire faith?

Genuine preaching does not speak about God as a spectator looking on from a distance, but on behalf of God as an ambassador. For Bultmann, the sermon is an “authoritative direct address, transmitted through people and demanding faith.”[6] The preacher bears the word of God and declares it as God’s word for you. But this broader structure does not define the specific content of preaching. Taking a step closer to the heart of the matter, Bultmann defines the content of genuine preaching as none other than the demonstration that one is in need of forgiveness and the declaration that God actively forgives in the here and now. Genuine preaching properly distinguishes between law and gospel, employing both — in that order — to bind and loose the sinner from themselves, freeing them to love their neighbor.

And yet even this traditionally Lutheran understanding of the sermon does not suffice for Bultmann. Taking one more step further and putting a finer point on it, this proclamation must “strike the hearer as direct address in one’s concrete situation, so that he knows himself questioned, challenged, comforted, so that he cannot draw back.”[7] Such preaching could never become reduced to a formula, or a mechanistic incantation that reliably achieves the desired effect. It must address the hearer in the life they actually live, the care and concerns that confront them every day. The actual guilt the hearer carries with them and the good news of Jesus’ life-giving grace — the real world in which one lives and from which one must be liberated.

The preacher Mark Rutherford overheard on the beach spoke of the call of God and need for decision, of sin and grace and salvation from judgment. However true or orthodox this preacher might or might not have been, he was indifferent to the woes and yearnings of the assembled congregation before him. If he knew what they were, he gave no indication. The word he delivered could have been preached to anyone — and for that very reason it was preached to no one at all. The coastal setting for the sermon, Rutherford notes, was genuinely stunning. But the splendor of the sea is far surpassed by the beauty of those who bring good news.

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12 responses to “Preaching That Connects”

  1. Josh Musser Gritter says:

    Thanks, Todd. A great reminder of the need for preaching to the heart.

  2. Paul Zahl says:

    What an outstanding, pertinent, encouraging word!

  3. Peter Sjoblom says:

    Truly great reminder of what connects with the heart of the last, lost, least, little and dead.

  4. Phil Wold says:

    I doubt there’s a need to order law-Gospel preaching as law-then-Gospel. Is there such an order in life?
    Gerhard Forde – among others – would often assert that preaching is direct address.
    Forde would also suggest that he would like to hear a sermon OPEN with the announcement of grace, and go from there.
    I’m not certain that was how he preached, but he would suggest this often.

  5. Joey Goodall says:

    As I read this, I was thinking PZ would approve of the direct application of theology to (as you put it, Todd) “address the hearer in the life they actually live, the care and concerns that confront them every day.”

    Great piece, Todd!

  6. ZW says:

    This is tremendous. Glad I logged on and read today.

  7. […] and amen to this essay on the purpose and point of preaching. Give them the goods, […]

  8. William Robertson says:

    Excellent essay, and I would wish for every seminarian to read it. I would add one tiny quibble, which is that it is possible that the preacher on the beach, however unsubtle, might possibly bring salvation to someone someday. The Spirit is always on the loose, and a straight shot of short-form Gospel might be just the right thing for a lost soul taking a dispirited stroll on the beach.

  9. […] distinction here, I think, is a helpful one and mirrors my own thoughts on good preaching. But I find myself a bit more circumscribed on the sharp dichotomy he makes between a gospel church […]

  10. Todd Capen says:

    Prior to the call to worship, I provide a “word of grace” – a short Scripture explained that relates to the indicatives, the full work of Christ for these who have gathered.

  11. […] Click here to read Todd Brewer’s piece on “Preaching That Connects” […]

  12. […] but are obliged to deliver with as few blemishes and distractions as possible. “The preacher,” Todd Brewer wrote recently, “bears the word of God and declares it as God’s word for you.” It is a particular Word for a […]

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