Renewal Through Preaching

by John R. Brokhoff, Ordained Minister, Lutheran Church in America
Professor of Homiletics, Candler School of Theology (United Methodist), Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

In addressing a church convention, a Canadian pastor recently said, “If my own church burned, I’d stand across the street singing, ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow’, with my hand out for the insurance money.”

This may shock those who believe the church is not to be burned down but to be built up, but it is a desperate way of saying that today’s church needs renewal. No one can deny that the church is in a critical state. In 1968, the church in America enjoyed an increase in membership of only one-half of one percent. Accordingly, the church is not keeping up with our population growth. Church attendance and offerings are declining. Public opinion polls reveal that an increasing percentage of people believe that the church is becoming less effective and relevant to society. These facts cry out that the church needs renewal.

Isn’t this what we have been talking about for some time now? We have talked about “renewal” so much that the term has lost its impact. Vatican 11 was the Roman Catholic Church’s gigantic effort to update the church. Likewise, many Protestant churches have been concerned with renewal.

But to date efforts have dealt largely with externals. We tried innovations and changes in worship with jazz masses, moving altars closer to the people, and giving laymen a part in the leadership of the service. Structural changes have been made, like the dropping of ineffective auxiliaries for men and youth. We interpreted renewal in terms of getting out into “the world” and getting engaged in social improvements. Or we tried to get renewal through the ecumenical movement.

But we now see, in spite of all this, that our merged churches are no better off, no more spiritually vital, and are as apathetic as ever.

The renewal which the modern church needs is one that is internal, dealing with the spirit and heart of the church. Like in Ezekiel’s day, the people of God today are dry, dead bones needing new life. According to Ezekiel, only the Spirit of God can give this life. Thus, renewal does not come from revolution, the burning down of churches, nor from renovation by rearranging ecclesiastical furniture. Instead, renewal is an internal matter. God commanded Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones … O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”

What does preaching the Word have to do with renewal? The Spirit comes in, with, and under the Word. It is the Spirit who creates life through God’s Word, resulting in rebirth and renewal.

Thus, the renewal of the church depends upon preaching the Word.

This claim can be justified by the very nature of preaching. It is none other than the very Word of God – provided that preaching is Biblical and Christ-centered. Preaching is Kerygma[1], the proclamation not of preachers’ opinions about life, but instead the truth of God through a messenger called by God to perform this function. It is the good news of God’s action in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It is a message of truth, grace and redemption.

A sermon is not a speech about God, but it is God-speech. This distinguishes a sermon from other forms of speech. It has a perpendicular dimension: God speaks through a man to mankind. The prophets expressed it in this way, “Thus saith the Lord.”

Other forms of speech are horizontal in dimension: a person speaking to fellow persons, sharing facts, ideas and opinions about life. A sermon is not an address in which a man comments upon life and its problems. Preaching is not an editorial. It is the proclamation of God’s truth in Christ.

This understanding of preaching runs counter to a popular view that a sermon is a sharing of ideas. It is not a matter of “tell me what you think and I’ll tell you what I think.” Preaching is not a dialogue between preacher and people, but between God and people.

One of the “new wrinkles” in preaching is for the pastor to meet at the beginning of each week with a chosen group of laymen to discuss what he might preach about the following Sunday. According to the Bible, a preacher is to learn what God wants him to say to His people. This gives a declarative element to a sermon. It is a message of authority because it is God’s Word to His people. The truth is declared whether the people like it or not. The truth is not open to discussion or question: the Word is to be accepted and believed, because it is Divine truth.

Preaching as the key to church renewal can be justified also because of the nature of the Word that is proclaimed in preaching. The Word is of and from God, and therefore it is a Word of power. This Word has the power within it to produce and actualize what it promises. The Word of God is as good as the deed; no sooner is it said than it is done. When God, at the time of creation, said, “Let there be light,” there was light immediately. A Roman soldier learned that his servant was healed at the very time when Jesus said he would be healed. In Romans, Paul says that he is not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God to salvation.

What is people’s basic need? It is, we submit, to be right with God. When we say that the Word has power to save, we mean that it has power to bring sinners to repentance and then to provide faith to accept the gift of grace.[2] The Word brings this grace to mankind and therefore it is a means of grace. For man to be saved he must also have faith to accept God’s mercy. How does a man come to faith? Paul teaches that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. If the church’s business is to bring man into a harmonious relationship with God, then the church must get busy preaching the Word.

The Word that is preached is not only one of power but of life. The Word is identified with the Spirit of God and the Spirit gives life. As Ezekiel brought dead bones to life again through the preaching of the Word of the Lord, so today preaching of God’s Word will bring new life into a dead church.

The church has all of the externals to be effective. It has millions of members. Church facilities are more adequate and beautiful than ever. There is an ample supply of leaders for church staffs. We are saturated with publications, publicity, policies and programs.

The one thing lacking is God’s Word empowered and illuminated by His Spirit.

In spite of our ecclesiastical machinery and promotional aids, we lack drive, spirit and life. Ask the average pastor what is wrong with his congregation and he will answer, “No interest.”

Why don’t more people come to church? No interest. Why do so few people tithe? No interest. Church people lack motivation. Church programs are crippled by apathy and lethargy. Many could not care less what happens to the church or to the world.

Here is where Biblical preaching is desperately needed. The Word gives life to the church. Sound, Biblical preaching will serve the church as a spark plug serves a motor. The Biblically sound sermon will be the source of motivation and inspiration for activity.

If the church is dead, it is usually because the pulpit is dead. The church on Sunday at 11:00 a.m., is empty because the pulpit is empty.

The Biblical pulpit calls for action: people are to repent, souls are to be saved, a world is to be conquered for Christ. Evil is to be eradicated from society. The motivation comes from the preaching of God’s love expressed in the cross. Preaching should develop in people a sense of gratitude for what God has done in Christ. The sermon should challenge them to rise up and Iive, work and sacrifice for Christ.

Preaching is also the key to church renewal, because preaching is the best method of communication. In our day this is not a popular position because preaching, as a method of communication, is often considered outmoded and old-fashioned. Today many are looking for substitutes for preaching.

A magazine article on preaching began, “Hurrah, no sermon! Let’s dialogue.” (The sermon time is given to questions and comments from the congregation).

One preacher displayed scenes from Playboy to illustrate his sermon. Another stepped into the pulpit and began to shave. One preacher has the custom of taking a dummy into the pulpit and speaking through it. (In this case you have two dummies in the pulpit instead of one!)

Let it be said emphatically that there is nothing wrong with preaching as a technique of communication! The trouble is with the kind of preaching that is being presented in the church. Because preaching has hit a new low, there is a search for sermon substitutes.

If preaching is the key to church renewal, why then is the church still in the doldrums? Surely we have plenty of preaching in America. Each Sunday 70,000,000 people listen to 230,000 preachers.

The sad fact is that preaching itself is in need of renewal. How can the blind lead the blind? Kavanaugh, in A Modern Priest Looks at His Outdated Church reports that a study of sermons in 30 churches in five states indicates that only two out of 100 sermons could be considered worthy of an average audience. One minister expressed the feeling of many of his colleagues, “Preaching is the occupational hazard of the ministry.” For many laymen, sermon time is drop-out time.

This sad condition has resulted from a general practice of offering topical sermons on current events and social problems. In most cases a text is not used – except, perhaps, as a pretext. The sermons are preacher-centered rather than Christ – centered. Consequently, much of today’s preaching is a waste of time.

If the renewal of the church does depend upon the renewal of preaching, then it follows that the renewal of preaching depends upon the renewal of the preacher himself. For preaching ultimately depends upon charisma involving a man’s personal relationship with Christ. He cannot effectively preach unless he feels called to preach, and he dare not be disobedient to the call. He has nothing to preach until he has a deep conviction about the truth of God. Because of his own faith he feels, like St. Paul, an inner drive to preach: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.”

If there is going to be any church renewal through preaching, the preacher will not wish to see his church burned to the ground to collect the insurance money. Instead, he himself will burn with zeal for the Gospel. When a young man asked John Wesley how he drew crowds he said, “Put yourself on fire with the Gospel and people will come and watch you burn up.”

It is high time that we preachers prayed ourselves hot and became “burned up” with zeal for God’s Gospel. Then, like the Phoenix, out of the ashes of her preachers, the church will rise with newness of life to meet the challenges and causes of the coming century.

[1] Kerygma: The essence of the New Testament message that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the enfleshed Word of God; whose life, death and resurrection provide God’s means of saving all who believe.

[2] Gift of Grace: The undeserved mercy, forgiveness, cleansing and salvation which God extends to all sinners.


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