Preaching matters because our God is a speaking God. Preaching matters because our God has a redemptive plan to transform hearts and lives through the spoken word that points listeners to Christ. Preaching certainly matters, and yet we can so easily drift into a pale imitation of what God intends. I know personally how the pressures of real-life ministry can squeeze the dynamic of preaching into a merely mechanical process. I understand how tempting it can be to lower my expectations and simply offer some good textual explanation garnished with some appropriate applications.
Christian preaching should be profoundly relational because our God is. That is why we start each preaching course at Union with a reminder that preaching involves a whole set of interconnected relationships. First there the relationship of the preacher with God. This is a vital relationship upon which to build the ministry of preaching. The preacher’s task is, in fact, a real privilege. The preacher does not simply go to the Bible and find a message to preach, but rather the preacher gets to go to the Bible and meet the God who reveals himself there. As Haddon Robinson’s definition of Biblical Preaching puts it, in the context of the preacher’s biblical study, the preacher derives a message that “the Holy Spirit first applies to the preacher, and then to the listeners.” This is a relational dynamic, not just an exegetical pursuit.
The second relationship is between the preacher and the listeners. This is a vital relationship, whether the preacher has a long-term ministry amongst that congregation, or even if the preacher’s connection is limited to that one sermon as a visiting speaker. The preacher’s privilege is not simply to convey truth, but to incarnate that truth and communicate it via a highly personal connection. It is when we lose sight of the importance of communication that great content can get lost in the dense foliage of a dull delivery. To not communicate as well as we can is to not love the listeners as much as we should.
The third relationship is between the listeners and God. This is the goal of our preaching. Whether we are introducing listeners to the gloriously good news of Jesus for the first time or building up believers by bringing them back to the wonder of God’s goodness, our goal should always be their relationship to him. They will not find life by simply knowing their Bibles and applying some life lessons. They need to be graciously invited to trust in the character of the God who reveals himself through the Bible, while praying that the Spirit of God will truly magnify Christ in their hearts and lives as they listen and then live in response to what is preached.
These three relationships make preaching such a dynamic and vital subject for us to study at Union. Preaching should never be a niche subject studied separately in a corner. Actually, preaching is where all the other studies should converge. The biblical studies, original language exegesis, theology, history, practical and pastoral theology all come together when we think about how to preach God’s Word to a congregation.
At Union it is our passion to produce graduates who are capable of handling God’s Word accurately and who are passionate about communicating it effectively to others. The Good News that we have flows from God’s generous heart and so should spill out from our hearts in all our ministries. Our approach is to combine the expected process of passage study and message formation with a pastoral concern to understand how people are changed by hearing God’s Word proclaimed – a Word inspired to offer redemptive transformation at every step. Our approach is to not just study about preaching as a subject, but to have students gain experience preparing and delivering messages, receiving feedback and growing as effective communicators of God’s Word.
This past week I was in a classroom on the Union campus listening to students deliver their final sermons in this year’s course. We were on the threshing floor as Ruth approached Boaz, alongside Ezekiel as he saw God’s throne, and ringside as Jacob wrestled through the night. They were not the easiest passages to preach, but they were preached to point us to God’s goodness and grace ultimately revealed in the person of Christ.
Preaching is never easy and there is always more for every one of us to learn. Nevertheless, at Union we believe that raising up theologically informed and pastorally motivated preachers is central to our calling. For the church to be healthy there must be a steady diet of healthy meals served up Sunday by Sunday. Very few of us achieve 5-star gourmet preaching, but it is the steady diet of healthy food lovingly served by caring shepherds that will bring long-term relational health in the church, and effective outreach by the church. Not only do our congregations need good preaching, our world does.
Peter Mead co-founded Cor Deo and is one of the pastors at Trinity Chippenham. He is Lecturer in Preaching at Union School of Theology and leads the Bible Teachers & Preachers Networks at the European Leadership Forum in Wisla, Poland. Peter blogs at BiblicalPreaching and is the author of Pleased to Dwell and Foundations (Christian Focus, 2014 and 2015).