The Effective Communicator
What is Preaching?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
What concepts do we carry unexamined behind our use of certain familiar words? Several years ago I had a fascinating opportunity to think about this communication question when I read an article about the importance of “preaching.” Unfortunately, the tone and content of this article was like so many wild-eyed, emotionally frothy and angry articles calling themselves “Christian.”
This author appeared confused about what he was saying, let alone about the topic he was addressing! The author was concerned with the use of various methods of spreading the gospel. In his comments, he reveals his concept of preaching. It seemed different from what the New Testament meant by the words translated with the English word “preach.”
He starts out thus:
“Through the years, and it seems more so in recent times, we have been assailed by modern, and by extension, better, ways of carrying the gospel to the lost.” [Note that the writer begins with a focus on the good news to the lost.]
Confused or Confusing?
“What about radio and television? What about computers and compact disks? What about the electronic bulletin board and the information super highway? Can technology make what we do each Sunday at church obsolete, a pleasant reminder of the past, like a buggy whip or a model T. Will church services give in to something different? I believe the answer is no, and for a simple reason.” [Now he has shifted to focus on church services.]
"We do not preach because churches have experimented over the years with various ways of spreading the gospel and settled on preaching as the best. We do not preach because preaching is thought to be a good idea or an effective technique.” [Now he is referring to preaching the Good News again.]
“The sermon has not earned its place in our worship service by providing its utility in comparison with other means of communication.” [Now he confusingly jumps back to the morning worship service of those who have already received the Good News!]
“We preach because we have been commanded to preach!” [Well, OK, so now he informs us that he is just doing this because he has to, has been told to. Sad, no? This sounds really alien for a faith that offers freedom in grace. But I am left with the question “What are you really talking about!?”]
The writer seeks a scripture to support his view:
“In 2 Timothy 4:2 we are told simply to 'preach the word.'” He interprets this to mean: “We are not called to investigate the new, or to implement the effective, but are called to preach the Word.... The preacher on the other hand can be confident that he is doing exactly what he is supposed to and in precisely the way that will work.”
It is interesting that nowhere does the writer investigate the meaning of the word “preach.” Nor does he ever tell us what he himself really means by the word. Specifically he does not seek the biblical meaning. This is odd, based on the characteristics of his denomination. I know this group very well (though I will not embarrass the author or his church by revealing the name here).
They pride themselves on the “defense” of the Bible, and being only “biblical” in everything they do and teach. Then where is the biblical information here? Why is his launching pad his personal preferences and opinion? The Timothy passage has nothing to do with format of communication, either inside or outside the church. Very interesting!
Oh, but he continues:
“Nothing will ever improve on the plans of God. No means of communication can ever excel that commanded of the Lord.” The writer then expresses another aspect of confusion in the meaning of “preaching.”
“Preaching is characteristic of Christianity. No other religion makes a practice of assembling so regularly to hear such instruction and exhortation.” But these matters are different from “preaching the good news,” which is where he started this diatribe.
“Because of this, Christianity, as the Bible reveals it, stands or falls because of preaching.” What does this mean?
But still, what does “preaching” really mean? Here at the end he refers to preaching as instruction and exhortation. He began the article with reference to carrying the gospel to the lost.
And the writer never tells us why he thinks the various media or means he mentions earlier are somehow not preaching. I am very interested to know that! Does preach means both to proclaim and to teach? Where is there mention of some limitation of method or place?
Preaching is universally accepted as an appropriate, even effective, method of instruction and exhortation for the believers gathered in Christian family as the Church of God. This is an entirely different context, with a totally different goal from presenting the good news of salvation to those who have not heard, or who have heard but not yet accepted.
I think here of the “Great Commission” (ref Matt 28:19-20). This says nothing about preaching. The focus there is simply to “make followers (“disciples”).
The Effective Communicator must have a clear goal in mind. This starts with your audience. What do they know? What do you want them to know? What do they need to know. What do they want to know? Where do you need to go to communicate with them? What format of communication do you need to use to be heard (accepted and listened to) by them?!
For a Christian preacher, these are pertinent questions:
Are you communicating for the first time with those who have never heard your message, information or news? Are you giving initial instruction to those who have just believed, with no background in the church? Are you teaching believers who are firm members of the church?
The next step is to find what methods or media of communication best reach that goal. Preaching might be one of those methods for certain purposes in certain situations.
Who comes to church? The indifferent or unconcerned? No. Usually it is believers or seekers. To reach the unreached, the message needs to be taken where they are. To get their attention and keep their interest, the message must be communicated in a way they know. Otherwise we cannot say we've fulfilled our responsibility to enable them to hear the message.
The writer seems to have in mind a traditional, Western cultural concept of “preach.” He has read this back into the Biblical passages. He does not need to investigate what the Bible is really talking about. He seems satisfied with his own cultural concepts that have arisen out of his cultural worldview.
This example of fuzzy thinking is all too common, when people do not stop to consider the actual sources of their ideas. They simply start with their ideas or preferences, then look for a Bible verse (with no regard to the topic it was actually talking about) that might “prove” what they think.
What a trap! It does not seem to occur to them that God, or the writer of a book of the Bible, might have a different worldview than theirs!
The valid approach would rather be to look into the New Testament to discover the Biblical usage and allow that meaning to correct our inherited cultural concept! The New Testament words translated “preach” all mean to “express in various ways,” but are not limited to what we traditionally think of as “preaching.”
Biblical meanings of the Greek words translated “preach” mean variously:
spread good news, convey, make known, communicate.
The English word preach comes from old French, meaning to proclaim publicly. The original Latin word was prae-dicare, to speak before (others).
This Latin verb is a pre-Christian word, so it has nothing to do with speaking in a church building or even a Christian service. Besides, there weren’t any church buildings until in the 300s, after Christianity was recognized as a legal religion in the Roman Empire!
Task, not Method
None of these meanings in the biblical use of the words limits the medium, the method or the place. Specifically, there is certainly no connotation of being limited to:
Speaking formally in a church building
Speaking only to believers in worship
Speaking only for the purpose of teaching or exhortation
Teaching specific theological doctrines.
On the contrary, the intention is to communicate, proclaim, speak, convey ideas, beliefs, encouragement, etc., in any manner and any available place or situation, the good news about God's love and the possibility of redemption through repentance and faith in its various aspects. It is good news which is in focus and it is communication which is urged.
The Effective Communicator will keep in mind this broad, original meaning of “preach,” using any means, and the most effective means, for each specific situation, culture and individual to be sure the good news is heard! After all, isn’t the goal to make sense and be understood!?
Originally published under the title “Preaching” in the series “The Effective Communicator” in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, a cross-cultural communication newsletter, April 1995.
Rewritten for SLRK 1 November 2008
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.