What Is Preaching?
by Jess Hall, Jr.
Fundamental to any discussion of preaching is an understanding of what preaching is. Ask the Greeks and you will receive five or six words, each of which is translated “preaching.” A technical analysis of each provides the dryness of a mouthful of sawdust and the satisfaction of a plate full of lettuce. Attempting to feed the soul on such morsels undoubtedly accounts for one dictionary definition of preaching – “. . . to give moral or religious advice, esp. in a tiresome manner.”
What is preaching? “Biblical preaching is still that unique method by which God through His chosen messenger reaches down into the human family and brings persons into fellowship with Himself.” (Lloyd M. Perry, Biblical Preaching for Today’s World, Chicago: Moody Press, 1990, p. 19). Probably the most famous definition of preaching is that of Phillips Brooks, 19th century preacher and writer, who defined “preaching” with simple eloquence in his Lectures on Preaching: “Preaching is the communication of truth by man to men.”
- Preaching is communication. A preacher in the pulpit is no guarantee that preaching will occur. A preacher in the pulpit speaking truth is no guarantee that preaching will occur. Preaching occurs only when there is communication between the preacher and the hearer. Communication is derived from the Latin communis, meaning “common.” Thus, unless a “commonness” is established with the hearer – a sharing of information, ideas, and attitudes – preaching does not occur.
- Preaching is the communication of truth. Though it comes from a pulpit or from one who calls himself a preacher, if it is not truth, then it is not preaching. God’s preacher does not proclaim speculation. God’s preacher depends neither on entertainment nor on eloquence (though both may sometimes be appropriate). God’s preacher does not seek to convince men of his own cleverness. His message is grounded in and seeks to persuade based upon God’s truth, which alone can make man free.
- Preaching is the communication of truth by man. God could have formed his message in the clouds or framed his missive in the colors of the rainbow; he elected to spread his gospel through man. Thus, though sermons may be printed, preaching never is; though words may be spoken by one man over the air waves and heard by another, without the unfiltered impact of personality on personality, true preaching does not occur. Paul recognized that some ministries can only be accomplished in person. Indeed, even the reading of an inspired letter could not substitute. “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you also that are in Rome” (Romans 1:15). Preaching is the communication of God’s truth through God’s man, filtered only through a genuine love and a holy life.
- Preaching is the communication of truth by man to men. On any given Sunday most worshippers can probably pull something off the shelf and find something more sagacious and well presented than they will hear from the pulpit. Why, then, should they go to worship? Why not “meditate alone with God”? Phillips Brooks, whose definition of preaching we have used, answered well:
. . . [E]ven if preaching should grow obsolete, there would still remain reason enough why Christians should meet together for worship and for brotherhood. But even if we look at preaching only, it must still be true that nothing can ever take its place because of the personal element that is in it.
No multiplication of books can ever supersede the human voice. No newly opened channel of approach to man’s mind and heart can ever do away with man’s readiness to receive impressions through his fellow-man . . . .
Let a man be a true preacher, really uttering the truth through his own personality, and it is strange how men will gather to listen to him. (Phillips Brooks, The Joy of Preaching, Kregel Publications: Grand Rapids, 1989, p. 29.)