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Thirty Years in Reformed Preaching

As Reformed Worship enters its 30th year, it is natural to look back and wonder what has changed since this publication began. My colleague John Witvliet can testify to the explosion of work in the area of liturgics and worship. The serious study of worship has gone from a relatively rare enterprise a few decades ago to a growing academic phenomenon. In addition to Reformed Worship, worship planners and pastors now have access to a mind-boggling wealth of resources.

In college and seminary, whenever I attended a church that had a really nice litany I would save the bulletin. Old bulletins collected in a manila folder labeled “Worship Ideas” were one of the few worship resources I could tap into back then! But not today, as the Internet contains a profusion of such items just a click away (including the wonderful online RW archives and the eBook version of The Worship Sourcebook).

But what about preaching? It has not undergone the academic revolution that worship has experienced. Preaching has long been a mainstay in academia, and if it is true that 30 years ago you could fill only a small bookshelf with all the books available on the theory and practice of worship, that was certainly not true of books about preaching. What preaching does have in common with worship planning, however, is that the sheer number of sermon resources has likewise exploded on the Internet. Websites vary wildly in quality, ranging from vast repositories where anyone can plop in a sermon (and no one exercises quality control) to sites that are more tightly managed for high-quality sermon ideas, textual commentary, and illustrations.

But has preaching itself changed in the last 30 years? Has sermon preparation changed? Has the content of sermons been altered from what was once common? I do not have research data that would allow me definitively to identify trends. But there are a few observations I can make that may be largely accurate, albeit not necessarily descriptive of all preaching. There are exceptions to everything I am about to write, but in general I would point to the following as trends.

A Shift in Homiletics

First, especially in Reformed circles outside of mainline traditions, preachers have caught up to the seismic shift in homiletics ushered in by people like Fred Craddock. Preaching in the mid-20th century moved from the old deductive “three points and a poem” style to the more experience-based, narrative style of the inductive sermon. This reflected, as Craddock noted, a shift in people’s perceptions of where authority was located. Whereas for a long time the authority of the sermon resided in the person of the preacher by sheer dint of his being the ordained person in a congregation’s midst, the upheavals of the 1960s meant that authority could not so much be asserted as earned. Authority was no longer beamed forth from the pulpit down to the people in the pews.

Instead, authority and authenticity were created in the space between the pulpit and the pews as the preacher displayed that he (or she) understood people’s common struggles and could speak the language of people who had doubts and hurts and real crises that accompanied them into the sanctuary each week. People respected the authority of the sermon and of the preacher when they sensed a living connection to the day-to-day realities that disciples of Jesus face in the modern world. The inductive sermon sounds less information-heavy, less didactic, less lecture-like than sermons of old, because more care is given to finding real-world connections to people’s lives.

When I attended seminary across the mid- to late-1980s, most Reformed seminaries were largely still teaching deductive-style sermons with a heady intellectual feel to them. Now seminaries are more apt to pay attention to homileticians like Craddock and Tom Long and Paul Scott Wilson, nurturing preachers who are still deeply rooted in Scripture and who have a well-exegeted text at the core of every sermon but who know that reality-based stories and appeals to common experience are what make people sit up and pay attention.

The Optics of Preaching

Second, but less positively, preachers today may at times be paying more attention to the optics of preaching than to biblical content. For a long time seminaries as good as taught that once you had your Bible text well exegeted, the sermon was 90% finished—tack on an opening or closing illustration and you were done. That was a bit too simple, and it became—for reasons noted above—a less viable way to preach as the 20th century went on, but at least it kept the Bible front and center.

But now preachers are tempted to spend less time on Bible interpretation and more time finding just the right images for the PowerPoint that will accompany the sermon. Or, since some of the more successful megachurch pastors seem popular on account of gimmicks and props and always having some tangible object people can take home to help them remember the sermon, pastors are tempted to spend more time perusing the aisles of Hobby Lobby for the right prop than poring over good commentaries that explore the biblical text. (I actually heard a well-known preacher recommend Hobby Lobby as a source for sermon ideas.)

It’s probably that doing good biblical study and finding the right image/prop are not mutually exclusive. But I have heard from pastors who have confessed that they have sometimes gotten lost in hours-long searches on Google Images at the expense of delving into Scripture.

Sermons Going Strong

Third, and more positively, preaching seems as important as ever. The predictions of the sermon’s demise in the face of video technology and dramas have been proven wrong. Preachers like Timothy Keller have demonstrated that cracking-good biblical work presented in sermons that also display a keen sense for the challenges of modern life can and do still hold people spellbound in the power of the Spirit. Sermons in many settings have grown from 20 minutes to closer to an hour, and no one is complaining when the messages are biblical and powerful.

Of course, it’s also true that the most popular preachers are on YouTube and are watched by people who then—inevitably but usually to the detriment of the local pastor—make comparisons to what they hear in their own churches come Sunday. But the fact that preaching remains a topic of tremendous importance in every growing congregation you can name testifies to the Spirit’s desire that preaching remain the best way for the gospel to be proclaimed and take root in people’s hearts.

In my office I have a box of sermons from my great-grandfather who graduated from Calvin Seminary in 1905. Each is handwritten in meticulous ink strokes. The messages are long on doctrinal definitions and biblical exegesis and pretty short on illustrations or references to current events. Also in that box are his small, pocket-size notebooks, filled with Greek words and scribbled notations on the meaning of each word and its relevance for various texts. He would no doubt be shocked to see how pastors go about this same task today. But wherever such work is done thoughtfully and prayerfully and with the Bible still front and center, maybe my great-grandfather would find the resulting sermons to still be on a clear trajectory of what he was up to a century ago.

This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/.