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.