On Preaching: Information and Inspiration

I think it’s easy to think of preaching as a mere transaction of information from pulpit to congregation. To be fair, one of the aims of preaching should be to present the truths of Scripture in clear and understandable terms. The church has always held firm to the conviction that the informed disciple is constantly transformed through the renewing of her mind (Rom 12.2). And this is the default mode of communication for most practitioners of preaching. Who among us hasn’t found great benefit in sermons that inform us about “Five Principles for Outreach” or “Three Applications of the Parable of the Sower”? The presentation of information will always have a home in the sermons we preach.

Yet, we are often forget that preaching is more than teaching. Preaching informs, but preaching also aspires to do something in the life of the disciple. Rather than simply stimulating the mind, preaching aims to speak a word to the heart as well. Preaching evokes a response. Preaching aims to inform AND inspire. I think the best preaching will vacillate between informing / teaching and inspiring the congregation to follow Christ in radical new ways. Or maybe a better way to say it is preaching calls forth an informed response.

What sort of response? Simply put: discipleship. As preaching occurs in the life of the church, the message aims to inspire the non-disciple, to put him in a position to “overhear the Gospel” (to borrow Fred Craddock’s phraseology) in order that he might choose to follow Christ. But preaching also functions to call current disciples to even deeper ways of following Christ. This definition of preaching operates under the presupposition that discipleship is the life-long process of being conformed more fully into the image of Christ. As such, we find ourselves constantly responding to the vocal proclamation of the Living Word.

A word about evangelism: I’m of the opinion that the most effective evangelism occurs through dialogue rather than monologue. This is not to say that evangelism does not occur in the preaching event (see above). But especially in today’s culture, most of the “evangelism” that I’m a part of occurs in the give and take of dialogue over a cup of coffee at Starbucks rather than through the monologue of the sermons I deliver. Another way to differentiate between the two is to think of preaching as “vocal proclamation” and evangelism as “living proclamation”. The vocal act of proclamation in the life of a body of disciples will always have an evangelistic edge to it, but it’s the living out of the Gospel in “everyday life” that most resonates with the skeptic. It’s the old maxim, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” I think of what we call “evangelism” as a much broader category than the specific act of preaching.

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4 Responses to On Preaching: Information and Inspiration

  1. lanewidick says:

    I’m often torn about preaching and its purpose. I’ve heard many a great communicator get up and totally botch it because instead of using their communication skills, they do 2 weeks of research and over-inform and over-teach a thought. While a few intellectual beyond common knowledge comments are fine if well placed, too often I think it removes the connection that can be made. Jesus used very familiar things to teach to the masses.

    I’m curious as to how one can preach and evoke some sort of response other than “okay, now that the sermon is over, let’s say a final prayer and go eat”. It seems as if the churches I have been a part of view the sermon time as just that “filler time” before the end. I think if you could do a write up of how to preach in that way would be great.

    Excellent thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Jason says:

    If preaching is merely about information, then it’s just teaching. But I like to think of preaching as teaching that invokes a response of discipleship. But I know we’re all guilty of “data-dumping” sometimes.

    I think the sermons that evoke a response have to vary in form because our congregations are made up of diverse people. Some people will find the rational, intellectual appeal to be most compelling; but that’s too often been our ONLY appeal, at least in our tradition in churches of Christ. That’s why I think many of our churches are hungering for an appeal on a more visceral level. I’m sure some will look at the sermon as simply “filler time”, but the preaching that most appeals to me is the kind that invites me to imagine new realities for my life in light of the truth revealed in Scripture.

    We would also do well to take the “less is more” approach to sermon construction. Research shows that retention decreases tremendously for each minute we go over 21 or 22 minutes in sermon length. Yikes! Preachers are the worst self-editors.

  3. lanewidick says:

    Yeah, the “Less is More” theory is one that is hard. As ministers, we spend a whole lot of our time in prep-work for a sermon, and selfishly at times we feel as if since we spent 6 or 7 days preparing, that the congregation can at least give us 30 minutes, but sadly, we don’t live in that time anymore where people will sit and listen that long.

    I like your way of wording that the sermon isn’t just teaching but as teaching that invokes a response of discipleship.

  4. Jason says:

    Yeah, 30 minutes is a long time. Even with a sitcom, you get 7 or 8 minutes of commercial breaks in between! Seriously, I wrestle with this. I always shoot for 21 minutes, but inevitably I end up closer to 25 or 26. But that’s an improvement from a year and a half ago, when I was AVERAGING 30 minutes per sermon. Even I fall asleep when I go back and listen to those lessons!

    If the sermon is just about information (rather than spiritual formation / discipleship), then I have no problem with outline preaching, three points and a poem, whatever. But teaching that evokes a response demands that we seek to connect the message to the audience in as many ways as possible. Too often, we’ve viewed the mind as the only door to the soul. I just don’t think that’s true.

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