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A Prescription for Reformation: Replace the Persuasive Artistry of Preaching with Christ-Focussed, Scriptural Teaching for All Ages

A Prescription for Reformation: Replace the Persuasive Artistry of Preaching with Christ-Focussed, Scriptural Teaching for All Ages
Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! (Psalm 43.3, ESV)
...exploring the interface between Scripture and the Church's mission in our day

By Rollin Grams
May 07, 2023

We are living during a time of major change in the Church. For some, it is a devastating time of the demise of their denomination. Yet this is also a time of Reformation--or potential Reformation--of the same magnitude of the 16th century. If we are to have true Reformation, however, we need to do more than simply stand still while others drift into heresy. We need to ask what we should do differently. In this post, I turn to offer some thoughts about the need for teaching in the local church. In view are what we teach, who is taught, where the teaching occurs, and how teaching is superior to so much preaching.\

In 1 Corinthians 2.1-5, Paul contrasts Greek and Roman rhetorical practices with his own proclamation. Rhetoric is defined as the art of persuasion. Paul explains it as lofty speech and plausible words of wisdom (vv. 1, 4), or the wisdom of men (v. 5). His speech was defined not by the medium of the message but the message itself, not by clever speech but by a demonstration of the Spirit and power of God (4, 5). The difference is between persuasive speech and persuasive truth. The truth Paul proclaims is 'Jesus Christ and him crucified' (2.2; cf. 1.23).

In Plato's Gorgias, the same issue is discussed between Socrates and Gorgias. Gorgias was a rhetorician, and he claims that he can convince a crowd of something over against a doctor who was telling people the truth. Socrates asks Gorgias if he means that he intends to teach his students how to carry conviction to the crowd not by teaching them but by persuading them (Gorgias 458e).

So much preaching in our day leans to the side of persuasive rhetoric rather than teaching the truth. Preachers train their congregations to listen to clever thoughts, fascinating stories or examples, well-constructed clauses and sentences, and the like. Many preachers understand their role to be that of the rhetorician. This is no better illustrated by the preacher, shirt out, sauntering onto the stage of a mega-church, sitting down on a stool, opening his talk with some personal story or hook to draw the crowd in to the message.

Contrast the Jewish synagogue from which the early churches arose. Biblical passages would be read, a teaching would be given on the texts, and some discussion might ensue. The expectation in the synagogue was (1) teaching (2) from the text of (3) Scripture. To this, Paul added (4) the Gospel message, which he connected to the Church's Scriptures, the Old Testament. This was the message of the doctor, to return to the discussion in Gorgias, not the persuasive artistry of the rhetorician.

Martin Luther redesigned church architecture with a lofty pulpit, indicating the importance of preaching the Word in the service. He intended to counter the failures of Roman Catholicism with preaching that taught the Scriptures. This led to a greater role for the sermon in the Protestant churches from that time to today. The problem is that, for too many churches today, the sermon remains a major part of the service as persuasive artistry, not teaching.

For the past several decades, we have been involved in another Reformation. All the old, mainline denominations have become heretical--the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church (in the USA), and the United Methodist Church. Similar heretical drift has occurred in other 'Western' countries (i.e., in Europe and North America as well as South Africa, Australia, New Zealand) and some smaller denominations. Such denominations did not follow the mega-church preacher mentioned above, but they did find their own ways to preach feel-good 'sermons' of encouragement without Biblical authority and without warnings of sin. Sermons were human-focussed for liberals and Evangelicals alike rather than Christ-focussed, just as worship became entertainment for consumers. As Paul would say, to paraphrase 1 Corinthians 2.1-5, they lost the message to proclaim and were left with nothing but their rhetoric.

In the Reformation in which we now live, we are continuing to teach how to preach by focussing on the rhetoric. Just as Luther redesigned the service to have more preaching, we need to redesign the preaching so that we have teaching, not rhetoric. Perhaps we should just have a short homily as part of the worship service, and then have a separate time of teaching--before or after the service of worship. Covid, for that matter, raised questions about why and how we meet together as Christians. We learned many things, including that we should not forsake meeting together (Hebrews 10.25). However, in answering that we should meet together (and never again comply with those encouraging us not to do so), we also need to ask what should we really be doing. So many worship services are three songs and a sermon exercises, mostly entertainment, with a short chat afterwards (maybe), and then everyone heads home. We could do so much better in various ways than this, and one thing we might do is promote a time of teaching when we come together and then also have a time of worship.

Drilling down a little further on this point, I would say two things. First, in several countries, adult education is an important part of a Sunday--Sunday School for adults. Yet this is not so everywhere, especially in the UK, where Sunday School often happens during the sermon for children who leave the service. This has been an utter disaster for the Church--an undereducated laity in the hands of rhetoricians who dislike the Bible and offer human interest talks that only find Jesus an example of love and not the Saviour of the world. Of course, Sunday School for any age can and all too often is poorly run, but a recovery of adult education in the Scriptures should be a major part of any plan for the needed Reformation in our day. Indeed, the 16th c. Reformation was largely the result of a recovery of teaching the Word that was recently made available to many because of the invention of the printing press and because of the focus on teaching in the preaching of the time.

A second example was pointed out recently to me and came as a surprise. A church decided that it needed to do a better job to build community, as mentioned above. So, it placed a great emphasis on house groups, called life groups. What church of any size does not promote such groups? The emphasis in this church on life groups was so strong that Sunday School for adults and children was suspended. When the church declined in size, members suggested that the church was strengthened because those in life groups were the truly committed believers. In my view, however, the issue should not be about levels of commitment but about the need in churches to have qualified teachers who provide teaching for all in the church, including those loosely committed to the church. Small house groups likely do not have well educated Bible teachers guiding them, and the main purpose of the life group is just that--life on life fellowship and friendship, not teaching. Life groups are wonderful, but they are a different ministry from teaching in the local church and should not be combined, as a general rule.

So, in our day of bringing Reformation to the Church after the devastating drift of mainline denominations into heresies and the dilution of both teaching and worship in too many Evangelical churches, we need what Paul was advocating in any case--teaching of the Scriptures. This was not new. It was what one would have found in Jewish synagogues of his day. What was new was the understanding that Christian teachers had of the Scriptures in light of Christ Jesus. This is how teaching should look in our day: teaching from the text of Scripture how Jesus fulfills what we read in the Old Testament. (Applications, of course, are natural when teaching--the Scriptures are to be taught as a living Word for the continuing community of God's people. In fact, teaching is a better form of communication than worship service preaching for dialogue about and application of texts.) Much of the New Testament is just this, though we also now have a New Testament to teach as God's authoritative Word. The answer for how to change our practices in this needed time of Reformation so that the Church is once again orthodox and not blown about by every wind of doctrine is to bring back teaching and reject the notion of preaching as persuasive artistry. This teaching, as has been said, is to be Scriptural and Christ-focussed. And it should be teaching for all ages. Kudus to those churches that never lost this, but far too many churches have.

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