Preaching in the Western Context: Australia Reflections, part 4
In part 2, we looked at Australian lostness.
While I was in Australia, I did lots of things--too many, probably. I preached at two churches, a pair of colleges, and three conferences. But my main "hosts" were Murray Campbell and Scott Sanders. Murray focused on preaching and Scott on church planting.
I've never spoken at a preaching conference before this one, but I was glad to participate in the annual expository preaching conference called "Xpose" along with Mikey Lynch.
Here is Murray's take on the necessity of preaching in the Western context. Feel free to interact with him in the comments.
Preaching in the Australian culture has many challenges. I suspect none are particular to us but together they formed an opposition fiercer than Darth Vader, Genghis Khan and the Joker combined.
Have you ever listened to an orchestra tuning their instruments prior to a concert? Welcome to the sounds of 21st century Australia. Australian culture is sounding more and more like a disorganised Symphony Orchestra, where each instrument is playing its own tune, competing against all the others. If the new atheists are the trumpet section (small but noisy), then secular relativists are the string section (lots of them).
The fact that there is so much discordance doesn't mean that all the voices are bad or evil, many are raising important questions and expressing genuine concerns, but in the midst of this din where is God's voice being spoken?
We have many preachers in our context, from politicians to celebrities and minority group campaigners, to religious gurus and self-help speakers, but where are the preachers who speak God's words?
Australians are renowned for their anti-authoritarianism. Beginning with our convict days to World War I where Aussie diggers refused to salute English officers to our obsession with supporting the underdog in sporting events; we are the great egalitarian society.
On top of this, the city where I preach, Melbourne, was recently voted the most liveable city in the world. In fact 4 of the 10 most liveable cities in the world are found in Australia. We have so much wealth, comfort and leisure, that for many there is no need for God. Questions about Heaven and God are light years away for most Aussies. This mixture of economic prosperity, social hedonism, and political stability are the makings of an apathetic state. And I ask myself, "where is God?"
This cultural milieu is not only out there, it's very much part of Church culture as well. With these challenges, there has come a lost confidence in the power of the Word and even a lost desire to hear the Word.
Every context has its challenges and these are some of ours, and with them we are seeing many churches giving up on preaching and other changing what we preach. Neither are valid options.
We can't stop preaching because:
1. Preaching is ordained by God. Preaching is key to God bringing the gospel to communities and to growing his church in maturity. Preaching is not everything: without prayer and without the whole body exercising the grace given to them there is something lacking in the Church's life and growth (Eph 4:7-16). But preaching is essential.
When we look through the Bible we discover that preaching was not only normative, but was present at many of the pivotal moments in salvation history.
The highpoint of God ruling his Church in the Old Testament was when Israel gathered at Mount Sinai (Ex 19). Here, God covenanted himself to Israel and revealed His law to His people. The focal point of this assembly (the word in the OT is our word 'Church,' Deut 4:10) was God speaking His Word. Moses, the preacher, received God's Word and he came down the mountain and declared this Word to the people. This sermon serves as a paradigm for future preaching: It was monologue, it was authoritative (this is what the Lord says and you are to listen and obey), it was speech (God communicated his being and purposes in words understandable to the listener), and it was public (Moses addressed his sermon to the whole congregation of Israel).
Moses' sermon was an activity of God ruling his people, communicating through words that they were to believe and how they should live (e.g. how to relate to God, marriage, family, government, sexuality, finances, and other spheres of everyday life).
The same characteristics of preaching (that it is monologue, authoritative, etc.) are found in Moses' expositions of the law in Deuteronomy, and in the preaching of those who followed (i.e. Josh 9:2; 2 Chron 34:29-30; Neh 8). As we enter the New Testament, preaching, while retaining the same features as in the OT, has an even greater prominence. The Gospels are full of references to Jesus preaching and Jesus accentuates the point: one of the reasons for his coming was 'to preach' (Luk 4:43). Acts records numerous sermons by the Apostles, and in the Epistles local Churches and their leaders are reminded of the central place of preaching in the life of the Church.
Preaching is not simply a pattern found in the Bible, it is commanded by God. But it's not God commanding preaching that makes preaching important, it is because preaching is vital that God commands it.
2. Preaching is an act that communicates something about God and his purposes that other ministries-- even other word ministries-- don't.
I enjoy sitting in cafés with a flat white (Americans really should learn to enjoy this drink) and a Bible, conversing with someone about Jesus. Dialogue is great. Jesus used it! And it is every pastor's dream to see his Church talking with others about God. Church itself ought to include dialogue: when we sing we are singing to one another, as much as we are singing to God. Church is also a time when we share together words of testimony, encouragement, etc. The issue is not dialogue, but dialogue in the place of preaching.
There is something unique about preaching, something that can't be replicated by other forms of communication.
Preaching is a visual demonstration of God ruling His Church. The very nature of preaching (that it is monologue, authoritative, speech), is a public demonstration of God ruling (teaching, correcting, rebuking, encouraging, training) over his people (God is saving a people, not simply individuals).
i. God rules
Preaching demonstrates God's authority in a public and visual way. When people sit under the Word, they are recognizing God's rule over them. God is teaching them. God is rebuking them. God is encouraging them. Like at Sinai when Moses read the Law, or Ezra expounding the Law to the returning exiles, or Timothy preaching at Ephesus, when we preach the Bible God is ruling his people. When we meet to hear the Word of God, we are saying God rules us.
ii. God is ruling a people
Of course God rules all the time and everywhere, not just in the sermon at church. Of course, every time a Christian opens the Bible (whether solo or in a group) God is giving instruction, and yet preaching is saying something theologically that other word ministries cannot - and that is, God rules over his Church. God's big purpose in the world is not to save individuals, but a people, his Church.
When Christ's people congregate together to hear the Word of God, we are declaring to each other and to the world that we are His people and that we live under God's rule. It is a magnificent picture. It is a mirror of heaven. It is an awesome testimony to our community
iii. God matters
Whether we are preaching evangelistically or to our congregations, when we faithfully, passionately, and clearly expound the Word of God we are saying God matters. There is no activity of greater worth in the week than listening to the Bible. We are saying God's Word is crucial for you to live this week. God knows what is best for us, and we need to listen to him now.
iv. People matter
Biblical preaching is important because people are made in the image of God-- the imago Dei. God made us, Christ died to save us, and God has written his Word for us. That says to me that people are incredibly loved by God, and I want to love people (whether they are Christians or not), and this love demands preaching.
The answer to our challenge is not to stop preaching or to change the content of our preaching, those options only take us to the world of obscurantism and hell. There is a third way: preach. Preach biblically. But think hard about how we preach.
1. Preach the authority of God's Word but let people see that we are also under the Word. Show our humanity, empathize with people, and consciously and publically bring ourselves under the Word as we preach. That way, we communicate our humanity without losing the Bible's authority.
2. Preach sermons that are true to the meaning of the text, but throughout the year preach on many texts (I find systematic exposition through whole books works well). By doing this we cover a multitude of ideas and issues, which can only be fruitful for the triadic goal of preaching, to correct, rebuke and encourage.
3. Work hard at connecting with people. If we know our people during the week, we'll be better equipped to preach to them on the weekend. The best preachers I know understand both the Bible and their congregation.
At the recent Xpose Preaching Conference in Melbourne, Stu White told the 120 preachers present, "If you & I want to be a Jedi Knight with a light saber kind of preacher, you and I must be expository preachers."
Despite our shortcomings as preachers, most preachers I know have a passion for Jesus, and they want Him to be known and honored in our churches and cities. But passion alone is not enough. We need to combine a passion for God's voice to be heard with a belief that the Bible is God's true and sufficient Word, powerful enough to raise a dead man.
The most famous building in Melbourne is the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground), home of Aussie Rules Football, cricket, and the 1956 Olympics. It has stood for more than a century and has a seating capacity of 100,000. The MCG is a holy place to Australians, and we flock there every weekend to pay homage to the greatest game ever created-- footy! And yet, as though God thought he would humour himself, the largest crowd ever witnessed at the MCG was not for a football game, but 140,000 men and women crammed into the stalls and on the field to listen to a preacher. We pray to witness such a day again, but we labour and struggle with all his energy to preach to the 20s and 30s and 100s week by week, for there we are seeing God ruling and God saving a people.
At the end of the day, we preach because God matters, and we preach because people matter. Preaching is not the only ministry or the only form of Word ministry, there are many, and we need to use each as they help us reach people and grow people. But biblical preaching is pivotal to the life and health of the Church. We have an opportunity and privilege to proclaim the greatest news story ever told, to make known God and His gospel and to offer people eternal life through Jesus; why wouldn't we preach?