By now it is old news that we live in a world marked by postmodernity. In such a world, truth is not something that is outside ourselves, but something that is self-determined. Each of us constructs our own private, personal realities. What’s ‘true’ for you is not ‘true’ for me.
So, how do we break into the lives of people who are immersed in this postmodern reality? How do we reach them for the gospel? Do we find ways to show them how the gospel is existentially satisfying? Do we offer therapeutic entertainment to draw them in?
Nope. Instead, we do the unthinkable in our modern age. We preach.
Of course, the first reaction to such an idea is, “Are you kidding?” When faced with the challenges of postmodernity, do we really think the solution is to stick some guy in front of the group and let him talk for 30 minutes? Wouldn’t a video be more effective? Or at least a dialogue or panel discussion?
But, as scandalous as it is, there is something about preaching that is unique and special. Let us consider what those things are.
1. Preaching is Word-Centered (in a world that is people-centered).
Preaching doesn’t ask first, “what works?” nor does it ask “what is personally satisfying?” Rather, preaching asks, most fundamentally, what does God have to say in his Word? Thus, preaching is a decisive challenge to the postmodern world because it takes the attention off of us and onto the Scriptures. It forces us to go outside of ourselves.
This is precisely why preaching that does not focus on the Word is not really preaching. Indeed, such an activity (whatever you want to call it) actually serves to exacerbate the problem of postmodernity rather than remedy it. It reinforces people’s perception that they get to define truth for themselves.
2. Preaching is Authoritative (in a world that is anti-authority).
Our world’s anti-authority posture is so pervasive that even Christians cannot escape its effects. Indeed, it even influences the way we receive God’s word. We prefer Bible studies, personal devotions, or small groups, as the primary means we receive God’s word. It allows us to be in charge. We are the authoritative interpreters and guides.
There is nothing wrong with these activities, but preaching is something wholly other. In the act of preaching, a duly-ordained man comes to us representing God himself and speaks with real authority. So much so, that the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) can declare, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”
Of course, our world will find this highly offensive. “Who does this man think he is?” they might ask incredulously. But, they are missing the point. He speaks not for himself, but for another. The preacher is a representative.
Thus, preaching, at its core is a vertical act (between man and God), not a horizontal one (between man and man).
3. Preaching is Proclamation (in a world that wants ‘dialogue’).
What makes preaching so unique is that is intentionally one-directional. It is not designed for discussion, or conversation, or for Q&A. It is designed as a powerful, one-way act of declaration by which we are encouraged, challenged, rebuked, and inspired. Sure, preaching includes information; it does supply us with data. But, at its core it is an act of powerful exhortation. Thus, preaching is the antithesis of Oprah’s couch.
I am reminded of the story of George Whitfield where a man came to ask if he could print his sermons. “Well, I have no inherent objection if you like,” said Whitfield, “but you will never be able to put on the printed page the lightning and the thunder.”
4. Preaching is Corporate (in a world that prefers individualism).
People might prefer to sit at home on a Sunday morning and listen to a sermon on the web. But, that does not capture what preaching is intended to be. Preaching is a corporate enterprise that takes place when the people of God are gathered together. In effect, preaching is the team meeting when the coach gives the big pep talk. Such things cannot happen individually. They must happen as a group.
And when preaching happens as a group, the entire enterprise is (rightly) taken out of our control. We cannot so easily change the channel or shut off the iPod. We are drawn into an event that is larger than ourselves. We are being drawn into the very body of Christ where preaching finds its proper home.
Thus, preaching is anti-individualistic. It directly challenges the postmodern sentiment that all I need is me, my Bible, and Jesus. It forces us to recover a higher ecclesiology.
In sum, preaching is a stunningly simple solution to a complex and daunting problem (postmodernity). But, the solution has been there all along. Paul said it plainly when he laid out our mission, “But we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23).