Tim Schmoyer at Life in Student Ministry got me thinking recently. One of his (and my) favorite posts is his article 100 Blog Topics I Hope YOU Write About. And in that list of ideas for youth ministry bloggers is this nugget at #25: “Sermon presentations versus small group discussion Bible studies.” That got me thinking about why I do what I do. Our backbone event is built around the preaching of the Word. Preaching is central to our youth ministry and the essential core of my calling.
Then again, I don’t know that “versus” is necessarily the right word. There is a place for both small group discussions and sermon presentations in youth ministry, and both take place as a part of our youth ministry at Water’s Edge. But they aren’t the same, and – truth be told – if you told me I could only do one or the other, I would choose to preach.
I believe in preaching
Of course such a blanket statement then begs the question “why?”
I’m so glad you asked.
There is a unique and spiritual power that comes with the preaching of God’s Word. If you don’t believe me, all I need to do is point you to some of the greatest sermons ever preached. Take for example my favorite sermon of all time, Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” sermon.
And that’s just a small taste of it that has been edited together. (When it cuts to the crowd scene between “We aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around” and “Well, I don’t know what will happen now” it actually cuts out a good portion of the sermon. You can read or hear the full sermon at americanrhetoric.com.)
My favorite part actually comes earlier. In it Dr. King imagines what he would say if God gave him the choice about what era in history he would choose to live in. Dr. King thinks imaginatively from the time of the Exodus, to the time of his namesake Martin Luther and the reformation, to the time of Abraham Lincoln. And at each era he says “But I wouldn’t stop there.”
But I wouldn’t stop there. Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a away that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — “We want to be free.”
Someone might try to argue that this is a speech, not a sermon. But that passage is the heart of what true preaching is. It is perhaps the purest example of kerygma since Jesus himself announced “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” But more on that later. When you listen to this sermon, there can be no doubt as to the power of preaching.
But not only is preaching powerful, it is God-ordained. 1 Corinthians 1:18-21 speaks of this.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. (NIV)
Catch that? God was pleased, through the foolishness of preaching (the Greek does not distinguish between the act of kerygma and the content of the kerygma here) to save those who believe.
Lastly, I believe in preaching because that’s what I’ve been called to do. My personal vocation is to preaching. The one passage of scripture through which God most clearly speaks to me and says “Hey you, I’m talking to you” more than any other is 1 Timothy 4:9-16:
This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.
Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.
Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (NIV)
If it didn’t sound so corny, I’d call that my life verse. In it God speaks directly to my heart and says “Here, this is for you.”
Of course, that also means that I believe in teaching too. (After all, that was part of the threefold call — the public reading of scripture, preaching and teaching.) But while I’m called to both teach and preach, I understand that there is a difference between the two tasks.
A Tale of Three Words
Actually, it’s a lot more than three. In fact, Gerhard Friedrich lists over 33 New Testament words translated as “preach” in his article on kerysso in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. But while we’re talking about teaching and preaching, there are three words of particular interest to me.
didasko – I Teach
The New Testament talks quite a bit about teaching, and the word didasko is used most often to refer to that calling. And when it comes to teaching in the New Testament there are two things that primarily formed the subject of teaching. NT teaching centered on instructing others about the Scriptures, and about the teachings of Jesus Christ. The act of teaching took these authoritative foundations for faith and sought to explain contemporary circumstances in light of them. Teaching was applying foundational truths to contemporary reality, and its goal was understanding – understanding both the foundational truths and understanding contemporary reality in light of those truths.
kerysso – I proclaim
Kerysso and the related noun kerygma are perhaps the best known of the New Testament words for preaching. Together they occur 69 times in the New Testament and are more often than not translated preach(ing). But it is a fairly narrow term.
Kerysso refers to the task of a herald (Greek: keryx). And a herald has a specific task – to announce what the King is doing. As a result, the subject of kerygma is not doctrine, nor comfort, nor exhortation, nor any of the other things that preachers get up to talk about on Sundays. As Friedrich writes in the aforementioned TDNT article “Preaching [kerygma] is not a lecture on the nature of God’s kingdom. It is proclamation, the declaration of an event.” The subject of kerygma is always an event, because that’s what a herald does. She stands in the public square and proclaims, “This is happening and it’s too important for you to miss. So pay attention.”
And for Christian kerygma obviously the content of our proclamation is the Christ event. We herald what God has done, and what God is doing through Jesus Christ and his Body to redeem the world. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. the herald announces that this is a day of good news because “I see God working in this period.”
And given the fact that the subject of kerygma is an event, the goal of kerygma is not so much understanding as it is faith. In 1 Corinthians 2 Paul writes “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified . . . My message and my preaching [kerygma] were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. (1-2, 4-5, NIV)”
Paul notes the difference between teaching in order to create understanding, and preaching to inspire faith. The former is done on the foundation of logic and wisdom and the goal is to convince by creating understanding. The latter is based, as Paul says, in the power of the Spirit and facilitates faith. Faith is more than mere mental understanding – it is a trusting obedience and a willing participation in the event being proclaimed. The goal of kerygma is not only to understand what is happening, but to join in the event to which the herald points.
parakaleo – I ??????
It’s this word for preaching (or more accurately the related noun paraklesis) that Paul uses in the passage from 1 Timothy 4 which I quoted earlier. But this is a tough one to translate. No English word comes close to the range of meanings wrapped up in this single Koine term. The best I can do at translating this word into a succinct English phrase would be “I serve as a paraclete” that enigmatic word Jesus uses to describe the work of the Holy Spirit and which 1 John applies to the interceding resurrected Christ.
What exactly is a paraclete? Or, better yet given that it is a noun derived from a verb, what does a paraclete do?
Some translations use the word “advocate” to translate paraclete – as in a legal advocate. The verb parakaleo sometimes refers to calling out for help, and the paraclete is the one who answers that summons and speaks on behalf of the defendant in a legal proceeding. Technically, it is not the same thing as the defense counsel – there was another word for the one who offers legal advice to the accused – but rather as one who addresses the court on behalf of the witness. And while it doesn’t typically happen from the pulpit (save during the pastoral prayer) an essential part of true preaching is a pastor’s intercession on behalf of her people.
However, some translations use the word “comforter” instead. And while some preaching might feel like being smothered by a wet blanket, I don’t think that’s the type of “comforter” the translators had in mind. (So sorry, couldn’t resist the pull of a really lame joke there.) Instead the word parakaleo is used to refer to offering comfort and encouragement to those who are struggling. And this certainly can be accomplished through preaching.
When I think of preaching as comfort and encouragement, I’m drawn to Isaiah 40 which begins:
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins. (1-2, NIV)
I don’t know if your heart is stirred by that passage like mine is, but I hear God calling to me through those words. “Comfort my church. Speak tenderly to her. Proclaim to her that her sin has been paid for.” There are a lot of times that preachers beat their wounded hearers over the head with harsh words which only serve to break the bruised reed and smother the smoldering wick. And when that happens, God’s heart breaks, because He is calling for a prophet who will comfort (the Septuagint even uses a form of parakaleo here) His people. Part of preaching is speaking words of comfort and encouragement.
The third word sometimes used to translate parakaleo is exhort. In secular Greek it was used to describe the military leader mustering his troops and shouting words of command and encouragement to them. And sometimes that too is a picture of the preacher’s task. We call out to the church, “Wake up! Rise from the dead! Christ is calling you to action.”
In both of these senses of the preacher’s task, comfort and exhortation, the subject of preaching is a word from God. It’s not just an explanation of the foundational truths of our faith, it is God’s word for God’s people in this place at this time. It is grounded in God’s Word, but it flows from the preacher’s role as intercessor. As I plead for my people before God, and wrestle with His Word on their behalf, he speaks through me. Preaching is contextualized communication, far more so than teaching or writing which could be communicated to anyone, anywhere.
And it’s goal? This too is somewhat hard to put into words. The goal of paraklesis is to get it out of me. When I didasko my goal is to affect change in the hearer and bring about understanding. When I kerysso my goal is to affect (or at least facilitate) change in the hearer and call them to faith (which in the end is the gift of God, not by works – either theirs or mine). But when I parakaleo my driving motivation is not located in them, it is in me.
There is a Word I must speak.
Yes, I hope this Word will facilitate change in them. But that’s not why I speak it. I speak it because I must speak it. Like John on Patmos wiping the crumbs of scroll from the front of his cloak, I find the Word which I have been chewing on as I hold it in tension with the community for whom I have been faithfully intercedeing, the Word which I have been worrying like a dog worries a bone, is turning my stomach sour. It is churning inside me and it must be spoken. My primary goal is not to facilitate faith in my hearers, it is to demonstrate faithfulness to the Word entrusted to me.
But Why is Preaching More Important?
Again, I don’t know that it is. Preaching and teaching are both essential aspects of the pastor’s calling. Faith must be informed. The same Paul who stresses the absolute necessity of faith also pleads with God to fill the church he loves with all spiritual understanding (Colossians 1:9). The same Paul who calls Timothy to faithfully execute his duties as a preacher also calls him to watch his doctrine (didaskalia, literally that which is taught) diligently. However I think preaching is vitally important not only to the church but to youth ministry in particular for a few reasons:
- As noted earlier, true preaching is contextualized in a way that other forms of communication are not. I realize that faithful teachers intercede on behalf of their students no less than faithful preachers their congregants. But the Bible seems to indicate that in preaching there is a unique Spiritual power which communicates the living, acting Word to this people in this place in a wholly unique way. And our teens need to hear that contextualized Word just as much as our adults.
- God has, throughout history, ordained preaching as the way to exhort His church to action. Again, I’m not trying to suggest that God hasn’t ordained teaching too. But the preaching of the Word is the customary way God has chosen to speak to his people throughout the ages, and as a result God will probably still be speaking through preaching when my teens are in their Senior years. Therefore, if I can teach them how to listen to preaching in our youth ministry, I am equipping them to receive spiritual sustenance throughout their lives. Just as teaching them spiritual disciplines is a vital part of my role as youth pastor so that they can develop the habits necessary to carry their faith into adulthood, so to is teaching them to attend to the preaching of the Word. In fact, such attention is itself a spiritual discipline.
- Preaching, even more than teaching, is a call to action. Because its object is faith, not merely understanding, preaching drives home the “so what?” of Christianity. Preaching always seeks to answer the “What then shall we do?” And in a world in which Christianity has increasingly been reduced to a set of intellectual affirmations instead of a way of living in the world, this call to action is needed now more than ever.
Of course, there are drawbacks to preaching, especially preaching done poorly. We must be working hard to become better preachers, and we must find a way to help preaching become multi-sensory and experiential. But that’s the subject of later posts.
That’s what I think. What about you? I realize that this is written from the perspective of a youth pastor who’s primary call is to “preach the Word.” What about those of you who feel uniquely called to teach? What’s your take on this issue?