“What is the purpose of preaching?”
This is a question I was asked a number of times by my mentor and friend during our weekly meetings years ago. While I think it was a question intended to initiate thought on the topic, I also felt that it was a question that he too asked. Regardless, this question has stuck with me over the years.
I imagine that it is a question that many people would answer in different ways. The sheer volume of books that are about the topic indicate that there is no agreed upon one way or purpose behind preaching. I don’t even really feel that I know the answer to that question today.
While I don’t feel that I have what constitutes a complete answer, I have managed to come up with a few thoughts over the years.
The first of these thoughts is that a sermon is a reflection of life. What I mean by this is that a sermon should reflect the messiness of life. Far too often sermons I’ve heard tend to be prepackaged and engage life more from the vantage point of life as it should be, rather than life as it often is.
This can be done a number of ways in my mind. You can include stories from real life, both our own and from other sources (books, magazines, articles). Nothing reflects real life like a story from real life.
Even if you don’t want to invest the time in collecting stories, simply reading many of the stories in the Bible will present you with a picture that is not always an image of the ideal. Take the story of Abraham that I’ve been going through for some time. You have a story that presents a man of faith and trust in God alongside of doubt, lying, struggle, and selfishness. Simply making an effort to put the people of the Bible in the light they are presented can present a reflection of real life.
In addition to these, another way is to avoid overstatement, unless you’re trying to use hyperbole or a similar technique. I don’t think a sermon reflects life if we are making statements that don’t really reflect life, even spiritual life.I know Jesus employed hyperbole at times, so I think that’s fair, but too often I don’t think we’re really using hyperbole. We really believe some of the conflated statements that are placed within sermons, and that has troubled me over the years. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be difficult statements that come out of the Bible, we just have to be careful how we try to connect everything.
Moving on to my second thought regarding the purpose of a sermon, is that it leads more to God and the Bible than to answers. What do I mean by this? I’m simply meaning that too often sermons can come out as a list of what to do or not to do. Sometimes these lists can be answers that more reflect the person who is preaching the sermon than it does the conclusions (or sometimes lack of conclusion) that the Bible presents.
I think that the best sermons lead people to some answers, but maybe they lead to more questions than they do answers. I think in these cases the sermon itself doesn’t quench a thirst and hunger for God, but fuels it. Do we trust people to be able to wrestle with God and the text of the Bible? Or do we feel that we have to force feed the answers from the pulpit? Of course this often assumes that the one preaching has all the correct answers.
As I’ve already alluded to, most sermons that provide too many answers tend to be very moralistic in nature. It is more about doing the right actions and avoiding the wrong ones. As I’ve said elsewhere I worry that our focus on morality can hinder our focus on God and his grace. So continually hearing sermons on morality can too easily reduce our faith into rules to follow.
My third and final thought is that sermons will also bring light to the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is another phrase that can mean a number of things to different people. The way I’m using it here, is simply the work of God in the lives of the congregation: individually, corporately, as part of the larger local community, and beyond.
A sermon, in my mind, will seek to reveal God and his kingdom and challenge people to see God at work in the world around them. This is definitely connected to the first thought of a sermon reflecting life. If we adequately, by God’s grace, reflect life and reveal the kingdom of God, then we present the reality that God does really intervene in this world. He is present, even in ways we don’t understand, which is often the way God intervened even in the lives of those recorded in the Bible.
I think that the best sermons will try to give you glimpse of the kingdom of God within the messiness of real life, and have you hungry for more. It will challenge us to look beyond just ourselves as well, and see how God is at work building his kingdom around us. This moves us from simply trying to adhere to a moral checklist and challenges us to bring attitudes of grace, forgiveness, and humility into the world around us. That is a big challenge as I don’t think many of us do these things well naturally.
Those are my three ideas. As I said I doubt they’re comprehensive. They’re simply the best answers I’ve thought of over the last few years of thinking about this question. My thoughts are that the purpose of preaching is to reflect life, to lead us to seek God and His word more than simply seek after answers or morality, and finally to bring light to the Kingdom of God that is at work around us. Anybody else care to share what they think the purpose of preaching is? Feel free to share or to disagree with or add to my own thoughts.