For most evangelical protestants today, preaching is central to the life of the church. The pulpit is where the Scriptures are interpreted, people are taught and the church is challenged to live the Christian life. Whether it be through a careful exposition of the text, a topical study, a sermon that offers three points and an application, or a narrative exploration that generates an inspirational challenge, for most protestants, the focus on Sunday morning is a sermon that teaches Christians how to live. Given the cultural shifts in North America however, I want to question this focus on teaching in the pulpit. I want to suggest that a return to the more ancient focus on proclamation in our preaching is in order as we seek to shape congregations for mission in the new post Christendom cultures of North America.
Proclaiming Versus Teaching
In the 1930s, British NT scholar C.H. Dodd famously drew a distinction between preaching (or proclamation) and teaching in the NT. In his Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (Hodder and Stoughton, 1936), Dodd asserted that teaching in the NT referred to moral instruction to Christians for how to live. It is the exposition of key beliefs or perhaps some apologetics that help the Christian make sense of a belief in light of the world. Whatever form it takes, Dodd argued that teaching is primarily done for Christians. Preaching, however, is the public proclamation of the gospel to nonbelievers. Preaching is the announcing of the new world where Jesus is now Lord, and this was mainly done for those outside the church.
Since the publication of Apostolic Preaching, many have discredited Dodd’s sharp distinction between teaching and preaching. They have argued that there is more of an overlap between the two in the NT than Dodd allowed for. There is no doubt some truth to this correction. Indeed, I hope to show that (preaching as) proclamation can be as much for Christians as teaching can be. Likewise, few would disagree that proclamation contains some teaching and teaching can contain proclamation as well. Nonetheless, the two words do describe two distinct functions in the NT and the difference is an important one. (See Robert Worley, Preaching and Teaching in the Earliest Church [Westminster, 1967]; Robert Mounce, The Essential Nature of New Testament Preaching [Eerdmans, 1960]. My account of proclamation is indebted to the work of Karl Barth, Walter Brueggeman and Thomas Long.)
To expound on this difference, preaching is the announcing of the new world coming via the gospel of Jesus Christ. Dodd outlines this gospel in ways similar to current-day NT scholars Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright. He summarizes it in six points, using Peter’s four sermons in Acts. The gospel is (1) the age of fulfillment has dawned; (2) this has taken place through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; (3) by his resurrection, Jesus has been exalted to the right hand; (4) the Holy Spirit is the sign of the Christ’s presence and power, and (5) the Messianic Age will shortly reach its consummation in the return of Christ. (6) Finally, the gospel always closes with an invitation to repentance and the promise of “the life of the Age to Come” (Dodd, 38-43). The gospel, then, as outlined in Acts, is the announcement that the kingdom of God has begun and it has come via “Christ and him crucified.”
Preaching as proclamation, then, is a different kind of “speech-act” than most modern people are used to. It an announcement of sorts, a declaration. It does not explain the gospel or argue for it. It tells the story of the gospel, describes the alternative account of reality it offers, and then asks: Can you see it? Can you receive the news? Do you want to enter in? It therefore accomplishes something different than conveying information. It is more description than prescription. It is like painting a picture. The proclaimer describes the world as it is under Jesus as Lord and then, always, invites the person into it.
Arguably, proclamation comes before teaching. It is only after having seen the beauty of the story, the power of its description, being compelled by the reality of his reign, and “cut to the heart” by its goodness, that we can ask, “What do we do?” (Acts 2:37). It is only after having entered into the gospel that teaching can then make sense of what we now believe. The imperative (what we must do) always comes after the indicative (a description of the way things are) (Herman Ridderbos famously describes this pattern in all of Paul’s letters, in Paul: An Outline of His Theology [Eerdmans, 1975], 253-58.) Our lives respond in faith, choosing to enter the world as it is under his Lordship. Once we are in, we are compelled to learn more about what this all means. It is then that we need teaching.
Because proclaiming the gospel does not immediately appeal to ones’ rationality, but offers a new interpretation of events, it is an epistemological shift of sorts. It does not play on Western cognitive rational ways of knowing. Instead of putting my “self” forward as the control-center of knowledge, it decenters my “self.” It decenters “me” from being the center of my world and instead centers me before God and what he is doing in the world through Jesus Christ. The gospel does not come as “plausible words of wisdom” or as a good teaching lesson. Instead, it derives from “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:4). The authority of this kind of preaching does not derive from a person’s expertise in biblical knowledge only, although these skills may be of help. Proclamation is spoken from a place of weakness and humility (1 Cor 2:3). It tells the gospel from a place of having witnessed it, seen it, been humbled by it. It is unsettling. It calls for a conversion (a response) every time. This is the nature of proclaiming the gospel.
Regular preaching like this makes possible the birthing of a community living in the new world of his reign. It funds our ability to see God at work in all we are going through in our every day lives. It brings us together to discern life in the new world under the one “mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). And it calls us to the regular submitting to his lordship over our lives, circumstances, and neighborhoods, and entering into his kingdom. In other words, preaching like this is fundamental to the life of missional engaged communities.
Why Christians Today Need More Proclamation
Contra Dodd, therefore, I do not believe proclamation (kēryssein) is done only for non-Christians and teaching (didaskein) only for Christians. We know for instance that the apostle Paul was eager to come to Rome, an established church of Christians, and proclaim the gospel to them even though they had already received it (Rom 1:15). In 1 Cor 15:1-2, the apostle states that the gospel was not only received (past tense) by the Corinthian church at their founding, but it was also the means by which they currently “stand” together and that by which they are continually being saved (future) (cf. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT [Eerdmans, 1987] 720). For Paul, the proclamation of the gospel was an ongoing part of the life of Christians, which forms us regularly into the kingdom of God.
Given the prominence of post-Christendom cultures in the West, Christians may need proclamation now more than ever. For instance, it almost goes without saying that Christians in the West today live most of their week outside of the influence of church. More than ever, we live in a social world that teaches us daily how to live as if God does not exist. Our economic habits, our entertainment habits, and the daily bombardment of messages we get from television, social media, and our workplaces teach us that the world operates on human achievement, national politics, and good education. We are trained out of seeing that God is at work among us, that Jesus is Lord and taking this world towards completion of the new heavens and the new earth. As Christians, then, we need to hear regularly the many ways Jesus is Lord and working in our lives and neighborhoods. We need to fund an imagination for how he accomplishes his work among and around us and then be invited to join with him by His Spirit in the healing and transformation of the world and our lives. This comes from proclaiming the gospel from the Scriptures in all its contextual relevancy every Sunday morning. Then we go out and do the same in our everyday lives as we gather in the neighborhoods for meals and cups of coffee, at town hall meetings, at Black Lives Matters marches. God is at work in and through Jesus Christ and he has begun to make the world right. He just “needs” (in the sense of Luke 10:2) witnesses, participants in the reconciliation and renewal of all things in Jesus Christ. To have that kind of Spirit-filled imagination requires the regular proclaiming of the gospel, and not only the teaching of the gospel.
It used to be, 40 or 50 years ago, that we could (try to) assume most people in society were acclimated to living Christian lives. Even those outside the church accepted some form of traditional Christian morality. Often “missions” was a program of the church conducted across the oceans. Evangelism was a program conducted on a weeknight to convince people in the neighborhood who already believed in God to get right with God. And teaching from the pulpit works because Christians only needed to be reinforced in what they already believed and why (I am not justifying the North American culture of 50 years ago, just observing how it worked). Today, we walk in a world daily being confronted by brokenness, violence, strife, and injustice everywhere. We see it in our streets, families, and church communities. Yet we have been called to witness God at work in this world and participate with him. This requires an imaginary of the gospel. We need the reality of God’s work in Christ for the world proclaimed over us every week to help us see God at work, and to live and proclaim the good news in people’s lives and institutions everywhere. This requires the regular proclaiming of the gospel, and not only the teaching of the gospel.
A Personal Story
The first several years of Life on the Vine Community’s existence (our church plant in Chicago), the leadership reflected seriously on the what’s, why’s, and how’s of preaching. Why even have preaching? Few people remembered what we taught on any given Sunday anyway. Those who did rarely did anything with it. And I kept running into younger persons from the large conservative church ten miles away who were exhausted after a year or two of sermon application points. During this questioning, we began to examine the difference between teaching and preaching. This differentiation began to reshape what we did in those 25 or so minutes when we gathered to hear the word preached. I saw how important it was to proclaim weekly out of Scripture what God had done, is doing among us, and where he is taking us in Jesus Christ. I saw how important it was to declare what God has made possible in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ all of Scripture. We made a commitment that the pulpit would be a place from which God would fund gospel imagination for the justice he is working all around us in our neighborhoods. We committed ourselves to preaching the gospel of his Kingdom from which people could be invited into the transformation of his lordship.
Over the years we slowly learned the craft of preaching as proclamation. We learned how to structure a rhetorical phrase to summarize a text and proclaim the gospel. We learned that it was important to say words like “we proclaim,” “we declare,” or “on the basis of … (a given text), we as a congregation stand in the reality that God is ….” We would open up the space of the gathered community for discussion (200 of us). Then we would proclaim gospel over all these things we heard. We would ask: Will we follow him? Will we trust him? Will we submit to him? Will we confess our sin? Will we receive his healing? Will we believe and walk in faith and hope? Will we enter the reality of his reign, his kingdom? We would provide people with a sentence to use to pray these commitments in public prayer. The sermon always ended with an invitation to live into the kingdom.
Many times sitting amidst the congregation during those times of response, I felt the fullness of his presence. I would hear the responses around the gathering of people entering the kingdom. And the Eucharist would follow. I could not help but explode with amazement. A new world was being born in our midst, the world of his kingdom.
Years later, I am more convinced than ever that such proclamation of gospel is essential to the founding of a community in mission. It forms a people into the social reality that is his kingdom. It births his very real presence among us as a group. A people are born in the midst of this gospel event. It is from here then that we go out to proclaim the gospel into the world. Proclaiming the gospel is the lifeblood of a people shaped into his kingdom for God’s mission in the world.
[This article draws on excerpts from ch. 5 of David E. Fitch, Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission (InterVarsity, 2016). These themes are worked out more extensively there.]