Changing Shape of Preaching

Preaching found at the end of the 19th century is far more alike with preaching found at the beginning of the 21st century.

Sermons in the late 1800’s were longer, more academic, more expositional and apologetic.  Preachers in the major churches of America were trained theologians who were also writers, scholars, and orators.  Their congregations may not be able to read, but they preached to them with the same intensity as if they were on a college campus.  Going to church to hear a sermon, in many ways, was like receiving a formal education.

During the revivalism of the 2oth century (1900’s), there was a major shift in preaching format and function.  Shorter, more fiery sermons became common place.  “Turn or burn” preaching was popularized with the advent of radio broadcasting which offered a pastor a chance to get on the radio and reach souls for Christ.  This translated into the methods at church as well.  Preachers felt the need to make their sermons more emotional, heart-bending, and persuasive in order for people to make decisions during the response time.  If decisions were up, baptisms up, conversions up, your tenure in the pastorate was safe.

This preaching style slowly started to give way in the 70’s and 80’s to application-oriented preaching.  Former youth ministers became senior pastors and brought with them sermons designed to be applied to every day living.  Four Steps to a Better Marriage.  Five Steps to a Financial Freedom.  The “sermon series” became all the rage as more and more congregations wove sermon topics into worship themes and experiences.  Advertising and marketing these sermons series to non-believers was an essential part of the seeker-sensitive movement.

And now at the beginning of the 21st century there is yet another shift taking place in many churches.  There is a stylistic move back to the late 1800’s as more and more pastors return to expository preaching.  Doctrinally sound sermons taking verse-by-verse or chapter-by-chapter in reaching a highly educated congregation.  Teaching the full counsel of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation is considered “edgy.”  Sermons are getting longer, more intellectual and theological, designed to prepare believers to be counter-cultural in a postmodern world.

There is one particular movement that shifts preaching even another degree.  The Emergent Movement has sought to create a dialogue in preaching, not merely a monologue.  Could this be the next shape preaching will take on?  Could the congregation actively participate in “real time” with the preaching ministry of the pastor?  Could a collective conversation replace a singular voice?

Preaching styles and methods are constantly changing.  There is not necessarily only one “right” way to communicate the Gospel and encourage believers in their faith.

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2 thoughts on “Changing Shape of Preaching

  1. Shane,

    Good, simple analysis of general cultural shifts in preaching in America over the past 200 years. However, I do have a couple of questions: Do you really think the emergent’s approach (Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Donald Miller, etc.) to preaching as dialogue fits the criteria for “right” preaching in a biblical sense? Is there a least common denominator for preaching that must be met and if so, what is it, and if so does emergent dialogue meet those?

    Inarguably, most of the Scripture is propositional [think OT law & NT epistles] (even the narratives and parables have propositional application: i.e.-repent, love your neighbor, etc.). You cannot proclaim propositions dialogically. They are not even dialogued in the pastor’s study as he prepares a monologue. The monologue is what God has said, he is the one that has spoken and thus, speaks.

    In your analysis, you left out a major shaper of preaching in America in the last 200 years, classic liberalism (Fosdick, et al). Ironically, he was calling for a more “dialogical” approach 100 years ago for this reason, he denied much of the propositional truth of Scripture. Here we are 100 years later and the emergents are that emergent, they are drudging up old arguments from classic liberals.

    Interesting food for thought you offer today. Blessings.

  2. One other thought…you ask “Could a collective conversation replace a singular voice?” The answer to that question shows the core fallacy in the Emergent Movement’s practical theology. IF the singular voice is the voice of the pastor, obviously a collective conversation would be better. But, the singular voice in biblical preaching is not the voice of the congregational shepherd, but the Good Shepherd. The singular voice is his, and preaching is only true preaching (the “right” way) if the main idea of the sermon matches the main idea of the text–if the voice of the pastor matches the singular voice of the text.

    So, the answerto the question posed about a collective conversation replacing a singular voice is a resounding “NO!”

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