We live in a dark world. Our hearts long for goodness, beauty, justice, and peace, but they are often hidden behind the shadow cast by evil and sin. This is why preaching is so necessary. Whenever the kingdom of God is proclaimed, it is like a bright burst of light. In those brief moments, the shadows recede and we are given a glimpse of a world behind the darkness. It is a sublime vision that reorders our perception of reality and leaves us hungry for more.
This understanding of preaching, the unveiling of an inspiring vision of God's kingdom, is not the one I've always held. I was formed to think that the primary purpose of preaching was instruction. This view of preaching expects the informed, articulate person behind the pulpit to teach the congregation divine truths and skills. The pupils are then expected to bury these seeds of biblical knowledge away in their brains where in time they germinate into godly values and behaviors, although few people seem surprised when they don't.
In Dallas Willard's V.I.M. model of spiritual formation, he differentiates three parts: vision, intention, and means. Instructional preaching falls under the third component - means. It teaches people the methods through which they can obey Christ. These "how to" sermons usually have clearly articulated, often alliterated, application points relevant to one's life.
I never questioned this "preaching as instruction" view until I stepped behind the pulpit myself. What I discovered disturbed me.
Despite my hours of preparation, thoughtful use of visuals, and tangible takeaways, most people retained very little of the nutritious content offered to them. Like my lactose-intolerant son who spat up every ounce of milk we gave him, how would people thrive if they couldn't retain biblical knowledge? How would they live differently?
What I have since discovered is that lecturing a passive audience for 20 to 40 minutes, what Doug Pagitt calls "speeching," has been repeatedly proven to result in a very low retention of content. Likewise, adult education experts testify, along with a multitude of unregenerate pew sitters, that passive learning rarely transforms values. Does this mean we should abandon instruction in the church? Of course not. After all, we are commissioned to teach people to obey everything Christ commanded. It simply means traditional preaching is not the best medium for skill training and instruction.
But preaching is wonderfully designed for the prerequisite component of Willard's spiritual formation model - vision. Preaching this way will not always have the end goal of application, but rather inspiration. As Willard says, "It's the beauty of the kingdom that Jesus said was causing people to climb over each other just to get in." Only after people have a vision of God (the love, beauty, justice, and power of his kingdom) will they be ready to intentionally seek and employ the means to experience him through obedience - an aspect of spiritual formation that occurs most effectively in smaller settings through the medium of relationship.
Preaching to inspire rather than instruct is a differentiation we see in Jesus' own ministry. The Greek word for "preach" (kerusso) means to announce. This is not the same as the word for "teach" (didasko), meaning to instruct. In Mark's Gospel we learn that Jesus came "preaching the gospel of God" and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand." Jesus' preaching was a revelatory act. He announced the kingdom. He turned the lights on so people could see the kingdom that lay "at hand" just behind their present darkness.