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When Flint Strikes Steel: An interview with Haddon Robinson on how preaching has changed in the last half century

One cold January night, I reached Haddon Robinson by phone in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he teaches at the southern campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. A professor of preaching, Robinson divides his time between Charlotte and the seminary's main campus in Boston.

Many preachers are familiar with Robinson from his book Biblical Preaching (Baker, 1980), a text used in over a hundred seminaries and Bible colleges across North America. In addition to serving as a senior editor for Christianity Today, Robinson's voice is heard on the Radio Bible Class, which is broadcast on more than six hundred stations.

Robinson's preaching, teaching, and lecturing all over North America have given him a good vantage point. So I asked him about the state of preaching today compared to ten or more years ago. Painting in broad strokes, Robinson sketches a panoramic view of the changes in preaching in the last half of the twentieth century. Some of those changes, says Robinson, are welcome; others are not.

—Emily R. Brink

RW: How do preachers see themselves today compared to a generation ago? Have preachers changed their image of what they do when they preach?

Robinson: In their sermons, preachers reflect the shift of authority in our culture. Over the last half century, the model of the preacher has shifted in at least three ways.

Back in the 1940s and before, preachers saw their role as that of evangelist: they proclaimed Christ to the uncoverted. The major way that people came to Christ in those days, believe it or not, was through the Sunday evening evangelistic hour and through summertime revival meetings—particularly in the Baptist and other non-denominational evangelical churches.

In the '50s, '60s, and 70s, the model of the preacher shifted to that of teacher. It was not unusual for pastors to have overhead projectors and actually teach a lesson. The sermon strongly resembled a lecture.

During the '80s and '90s, the model has shifted to that of therapist. We live in a therapeutic culture today, and preaching reflects that emphasis. Preachers today try to meet the emotional and psychological needs of the converted, who live in a secular culture. Preachers deal with people's problems.

How has the changing role of the preacher affected sermons?

Titles of sermons in the three periods reflect the different roles. In the 1940s, it was not unusual to see titles like "What Must I Do to Be Saved?" or "Heaven and Hell Are in the Balance." The purpose of the sermon was to get people to come to Christ.

When teaching became the focus in the following three decades, you would find titles like "The Doctrine of the Trinity" or "Law and Grace in Galatians."

The therapy model currently in vogue deals much more with problems: "How to Overcome Depression", for example, or "Building Better Relationships."

So sermon titles have changed over the years because the nature of preaching has changed. In the Reformed tradition in the past, the pastor either followed a schedule of doctrinal preaching (for example, the Heidelberg Catechism) or worked his way through a part of Scripture, focusing on the content of the passage.

Today the tendency in preaching is to be topical. So the preacher starts not with the biblical text, but with people's needs. He or she chooses a topic like "How to Deal with Conflict." But while the sermon draws on a Scripture passage, the body of the sermon often draws more content from psychology and counseling texts than from the Bible.

Is there any corresponding shift in another direction—back to Scripture, for example—in churches that have started to use the lectionary? I sense that some of the mainline churches are rediscovering the power of Scripture again.

I think you are right. After all, how long can preachers try to define all the problems people face? Pastors I meet in my traveling and teaching tell me how incredibly difficult it is to come up with a new problem every week, speak to it, and not sound like Reader's Digest.

I think pastors are also rediscovering that the Bible deals with fundamental problems people face in virtually every culture. So there may be a move back to raising some of the questions the Bible raises. It is not, at this point, a full-fledged move, but there may be a trend.

Have these changing models of preachers and sermons affected the authority of the sermon? What weight do sermons carry for hearers today?

I think that before and even during the '50s, the authority for the sermon rested in the preacher. People trusted the preacher to tell them what the Bible said. After the '50s, the authority shifted to the text, in the sense of the pastor saying, "Let me explain the Bible to you." This is the time of Billy Graham's famous use of "The Bible says. . ." That's not to say that before that time there was no concern about the Bible, but that concern wasn't reflected as strongly in the sermons. Although the sermons were often drawn from a passage, the preacher did not make a great attempt to really expose the listeners to the passage. Listeners took the preacher's word that his sermon was true to the text.

Today, the validation for a sermon tends to be within the hearer. In fact, David Buttrick's Homiletics makes no bones about it. The hearer is the seat of truth in a culture in which there are no absolutes. Listeners believe what appeals to them. So the preacher (even an orthodox preacher) makes a much greater attempt in a sermon to get the audience to agree that what he or she is saying is valid: "This makes good sense to you, doesn't it?"

We think of the Reformation as being theological, but I think we could also argue that it was technological. The technology of the printing press changed the way people thought. Television changes things too.

What effect have the media had on preaching and sermons?

People who grew up in the '40s and '50s and earlier are better able to handle sustained argument and to follow a logical sequence than a younger audience. I think the dominant influence of television has something to do with that.

TV has influenced us every bit as much as the printing press, which was a revolutionary invention. We think of the Reformation as being theological, but I think we could also argue that it was technological. The technology of the printing press changed the way people thought. Television changes things too.

When you think about the impact television has had on the sermon, you realize just how much influence technology can have. Consider these facts:

  • Sermons are getting shorter, thirty minutes or less. In fact, some divinity schools are suggesting twelve minutes.
  • Worship and liturgy—complete with numerous symbols—are given as much emphasis and more time than the sermon in most churches (due, in part, to the growing awareness that people worship as much through seeing or speaking or singing as through hearing).
  • Sermons are delivered with few or no notes by a pastor who stands out in the open instead of behind a large pulpit (more like Jay Leno or Johnny Carson).
  • Sermon content has moved away from lecture toward narrative conversation.
  • Sermons make greater use of biblical narrative and less use of the epistles.
  • Humor is much more prevalent in sermons.

The list could go on and on—and all of these changes are related in some way to the effect of television on our ideas about symbol and communication.

A preacher who stands directly in front of the congregation would tend to speak in a different style than one standing behind a pulpit. How have preachers changed their way of speaking?

Preachers of the past were often orators. Today, listeners do not sit still very long for a "preaching tone." The tendency is to move away from oratory and toward conversation.

Along with that move is a corresponding move toward narrative preaching, which permits the use of story. Television, which thrives on the use of image and incorporates the elements of conflict, contributed to people's desire for the narrative approach. People get more involved in narrative than in a deductive four-point kind of sermon.

Eugene Lowry plots his sermons like a play in his book Doing Time in the Pulpit. In fact, that's his basic point: sermons have plots. They unroll in a manner that is more natural to human communication. That means

  • they are more often inductive in development.
  • they are more often "first person" in perspective.
  • they are more often "narrative" in style and delivery.
What impact does that narrative, conversational approach have on listeners?

I think sermons today reflect a greater concern and respect for the listener. Preaching is viewed as dialogue rather than monologue. And the application of the Bible's message to our lives is central and not incidental to sermons.

Today's preachers have a better understanding of how emotions develop than the preachers of the '40s and '50s did. They're aware that their listeners are more than blank pages and that women are a major part of their congregation.

Preachers today also regard themselves more as communicators than teachers. I tell my students that I wish they had never heard about preaching a sermon, because that tempts them to pour the truth of Scripture into a certain mold. I encourage them to ask instead, "How do I communicate this to people so they can understand it and act upon it?" What's important is that the sermon communicate God's truth effectively so that the people listening understand it and have some idea of what to do with it.

Whereas the orator or the teacher is content-centered, the communicator is people-centered. Ask an orator to speak, and his first question will be, "What will I talk about?" Ask a communicator to speak and her first question is, "Who is my audience?"

There is a danger in both extremes, of course. The communicator may be so audience-oriented that she will bend the truth. The orator may be so focused on the truth that he ignores the audience. Obviously, what you would like to do is be true to the truth and be true to the audience.

Do you have some final wisdom to pass along to today's preachers?

I'd like to remind them that great sermons take place when flint strikes steel. When the flint of a person's problem strikes the steel of the Word of God, you get a spark, and the spark will burn. Some sermons are too "flinty": they're all problem, and not much Scripture. Others are all steel and no flint: they are strong on the Bible but stop short of challenging people's lives.

What we want is some combination of the eternal Word of God striking people where they live. Preachers who can do that have a better chance of reaching the audience today and in years to come.