I love preaching. I mean, I love preaching. I remember sitting in a worship service with my grandparents at a southern Ohio congregation and hearing the preacher deliver the sermon and, at the wise old age of 5 or 6, saying to myself, “That’s what I want to do with my life.” I preached my first sermon when I was 11 years old, received my first training in preaching following my sophomore year of high school, and read my first book on preaching before departing for college. In college, I took every preaching and speech course that I could, accepted every speaking opportunity that I could, and started preaching part-time before graduating. I now find myself in the wonderful position of being able to talk about preaching every day with students while continuing to preach on a weekly basis for the congregation I serve. For me, writing a sermon is essential to my spiritual formation and preaching is my act of worship to God. Yes, in short, I love preaching.
What Does “Preaching” Mean?
The apostle Paul asked, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14, 15, emphasis added, New Revised Standard Version). As someone with less than beautiful feet, this has been a comforting passage to me for a long time.
You may have noticed that I highlighted the word proclaim in both instances where it is used in this text. Our English word proclaim comes from the Greek word kerusso, meaning, “to proclaim” or “to announce.” Originally, kerusso was associated with the military and political spheres. A herald, one who was charged with delivering official proclamations, would kerusso on behalf of the king who was calling for taxes or the general who was proclaiming a victory. Connected to the word euangellion, from which we derive the English word evangelism, it was the job of the herald to spread the “good news” about military conquests or royal proclamations.
Jesus used the phrase often. In the opening chapter of Mark, Jesus stated the reason for his being sent to earth: “He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (1:38, 39). His mission was to preach. Dying on the cross was essential to God’s plan, yet, from Jesus’ own words, his purpose was to preach God’s grace, love, and mercy to humanity.
Nor did it not take long for this word to become central to the vocabulary of the early Christian movement. Chronically, the first use of the term in the New Testament appears in 1 Thessalonians 2:9: “You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.” Paul reminded his audience of his earlier work among them, pointing to the preaching of the gospel which led them to salvation through faith in Christ.
In his final letter to Timothy, Paul exhorted the young evangelist (and Timothy’s congregations in and around Ephesus) to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). And if you are wondering what message Timothy was to proclaim, Paul offered this explanation in his earlier letter to Timothy: “Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: Hewas revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit,seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16). Our message, our proclamation, then, is quite simple: Christ lived among us, died for us, was raised from the dead, and lives today to offer salvation to all!
What Does Preaching Do?
This sounds all well and good for a Wednesday night Bible study. But what does preaching mean in the life of contemporary Christian disciples? Based on Romans 10:14, 15 and other passages that contain the word kerusso (“proclaim”), there are three core elements to preaching. First, preaching communicates the gospel. It was in a sermon that I first heard the gospel message presented. I would imagine that you had a similar experience.
Second, preaching cultivates an encounter with God. In the proclaiming of the gospel, preaching sets the stage for us to encounter God in a real and authentic way. We who preach speak the sermon to those who have gathered. However, it is God who seeks to draw all those gathered into relationship.
Finally, preaching constructs a community. Preaching has long been the central practice of the church that is focused both internally and externally. In doing so, the community of faith comes before the communion table and the pulpit to hear words of grace and challenge—grace in being reminded of the relationship we have with God and challenge in being reminded that all who profess Christ as Lord are tasked with proclaiming the gospel.
A Concluding Appeal
Preaching is important and powerful. It is central to the church’s witness in the world, an activity that both defines us doctrinally and guides us practically. Yet, there are some who question whether preaching remains relevant. Some are wondering if preaching has had its time and if we should be looking at new ways to proclaim and share the gospel. It is more likely, however, that we are experiencing an anemia in theological conversation and proclamation, a time not when preaching is needed less but a time when preaching is needed more.
As a ministry professor at a Christian universtiy, I’ve witnessed a decline in the number of young people who are being encouraged to study for ministry. Many are opting instead for “in-house” training programs or secular degrees in communication or business administration. If the powerful witness of preaching is to continue, then, on behalf of my colleagues teaching in Bible colleges and ministry training schools from coast to coast, I implore you to send us your best and brightest. Without discounting the power of God’s Spirit in the lives of the faithful, history does show that true and lasting revival occurs when those serving the church are well-trained. If God had a better plan, I imagine God would have given it to us. For now, preaching is the best we can do. So “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2)!
Dr. Rob O’Lynn is Assistant Professor of Preaching and Ministry and Director of Graduate Bible Programs at Kentucky Christian University, as well as a lecturer in preaching at Johnson University. He is also the Senior Minister for the Beech Street Christian Church in Ashland, Kentucky.