Why preaching, even in a post-Christendom context, should be more than teaching

In 1979, Fred Craddock sparked something of a revolution in homiletics with the publication of his book, As One Without Authority. He argued that preachers faced each week a congregation overly familiar with the themes and texts of Christianity. This familiarity actually hindered listeners in the preaching moment from hearing something startling and new, and a message that would demand more of their lives. Preachers, too, were more accustomed to delivering deductive sermons that reinforced what people already knew. They were preaching as ones with authority.

Craddock’s argument is primarily rhetorical, perhaps one built on pathos, or the needs of the audience. He suggested that sermons instead should move inductively, moving from problem to new realization, or to use Paul Jones’ terminology, from obsessio to epiphania. Craddock offered that this was only the way a sermon should move if the audience was overly familiar with Christian content. If, he suggested, the audience was unfamiliar with Christian stories and meanings, then preaching deductively would be the appropriate way to go. Preaching would serve its audience in this case by being more didactic. It should teach.

Fast forward to 2021 and we are indeed in an environment where the persons who fill our pews are less familiar with Christian stories and themes than they were in 1979, and by a long shot. Have we come to the point where Craddock’s advice about our audience means preaching should primarily function didactically? Many who think about homiletics have come to that conclusion. Some argue that Craddock’s abandonment of authority left the sermon to move from experience to revelation, but what is needed now is to recover that authority of revelation and move from doctrine to experience.

I know a lot of preachers who’ve made this shift, particularly in evangelical circles where the liturgy serves the sermon and not the other way around. I’ve been told, “I have people who don’t know the basics for one hour a week on Sunday. I’ve got to use the sermon to teach them.” In fact, I know many congregations who now refer to the sermon as “teaching time.” Sermons have gotten longer and power point addicted.

Craddock lived long enough to see this shift in American Christianity, but still resisted his earlier argument that the audience’s needs now called for a more authoritative presence in the pulpit. He was unwilling to go back. I will admit that I was cutting my teeth as a preacher in the bloom of the Craddock revolution. Preaching inductively was exciting and my listeners seemed to agree. I can’t imagine preaching any other way.

I want to suggest, though, that preaching inductively still should be the norm in American Christianity. I want to make this case less on a rhetorical basis, ala Craddock, and more on a theological basis. Or perhaps its fairer to say that I want to make a rhetorical argument based more on logos than pathos. That is, the very demands of preaching gospel require induction regardless of the makeup of the audience.

Ok, this is a pretty bold claim, let me see if I can justify it.

First, the aim of preaching should be gospel. By this, I don’t mean that preaching should be aimed only at the uncoverted. Rather, with Paul, I see gospel as being that which “you received, in which you stand, and through which you are being saved” (1 Cor 15:1-3). Gospel is both the basic rudiment of the faith and its surpassing wisdom. Gospel is not just what you give to people who are outsiders or new to the faith. Gospel is the logos (word of the cross) that continues throughout the Christian walk for those who are “being saved” (1 Cor 1:18). The Christian walk, in other words, is an ongoing process of salvation and this process moves in sync with what counts as gospel.

Clearly, by “gospel” I mean something more than a message about atonement or how individuals get saved. Rather, I mean something more like this: Gospel is the surprising news related to how God is ordering life in ways other than the ones given to us by the principalities and powers of this age. It is not a set of facts about which we are to make our minds (teaching), but an invitation to participate in the surprising and ongoing story of the reign of God (preaching).

In this regard, I like Charles Campbell’s work in The Word Before the Powers. Jesus’ own preaching is a word that confronts the powers that impinge upon all of our lives, whether we are believers or nonbelievers. Preaching serves the purpose of liberating us from ways of life to which we have become long habituated. To use James Smith’s language, preaching is part of the counter liturgy which allows us to recognize and resist the “secular liturgies” that make up our social imaginary.

The work of the gospel, then, necessitates surprise regardless of the audience’s basic orientation to the facts of the faith. We are, all of us, in need of what Alexandra Brown calls a “new perceptual awareness.” Jesus did this through parables, stories which frustrate our expectations, and in so doing leave the surprising possibility that the world might be other than what we have imagined. And this is always our need.

This “surprise” element of gospel (good news) shows up in some of my favorite texts that use the term with any specificity. In Isaiah 52-53, the prophet imagines that kings and other nations will be startled by the good news that the suffering servant is Yahweh’s chosen one and will seek repentance. In Mark, Jesus is introduced to us as the surprising one bringing the good news of God’s reign, coming out of Galilee just as John is imprisoned by Herod. “Repent and believe the good news!” is Jesus’ summons to the coming of the kingdom of God (Mk 1:14-15). Paul’s “word of the cross” is the surprising demonstration of the power of God, in contrast to wisdom of the rulers of this age who find the weakness of the crucified one a stumbling block (1 Cor 1:18ff, 15:1ff). At Pentecost, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” are startled to discover that they have had a part in crucifying the one whom God raised from the dead. Cut to the heart, they ask “what must we do to be saved?” (Acts 2).

This capacity to upend expectations, to subvert the way the world as arranged by other powers and kingdoms, to startle, is necessary for Christian proclamation to stay in the mode of “news.” This is the birthright of preaching, and it requires parabolic speech. It requires more than good information. It requires a word that surprises us into repentance.

Don’t get me wrong. I bemoan like all other teachers of freshman Bible courses the sad state of basic information about the Bible and Christian teachings in our churches today. We’d be better off with more teaching. And good preaching should teach a good many things along the way. But people suffer from more than a lack of good information, or even for “biblical principles for successful living.” They suffer from the ways that principalities and powers turn them into consumers or nationalists or “autonomous” individuals. They need God’s Word to be newsworthy, to disabuse them of their prior allegiances, and liberate them toward the kingdom of God. And in my experience this requires moments of surprise.

And so, this is why I think Craddock’s inductive approach to preaching still holds. Not for the sake of pathos, but for the sake of logos.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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4 Responses to Why preaching, even in a post-Christendom context, should be more than teaching

  1. Patti says:

    Mark, thank you very much for this important, helpful reflection on our participation with God. I appreciate you & your insight & clarity so much. And so, I am still thinking about the focused definition of logos as “word of the cross.” The larger idea that captures my imagination, which quickens the heart, is “for the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross.” This defines logos as alive & joins the idea of God’s desire to create a people for “himself,” who actively partners together with God, even as the new Life in Spirit has begun & continues past death. The idea that logos is primarily represented by the death without including the hope of it seems misleading & perhaps not properly representing or calling us to the enduring Life that is brought to us & shared in the world.

    • Mark Love says:

      Patti, of course you’re right on the big point. I think, however, that this doesn’t give Paul his due. First, the “word of the cross” is Paul’s shorthand for death and resurrection. It’s not that he doesn’t distinguish between the two, but he can gloss the whole thing with a reference to the cross. And this is because, for Paul, the cross expresses the life of Jesus. The cross refers to more than the specific death of Jesus, but has become a logos, a word, a symbol, that expresses the power of God. Put another way, participation in the death of Christ is participation in self-offering love which is the power of the coming age. In this way, the death of Jesus is expressive of life. One last point. In 1 Cor, the word of the cross (logos stauron) stands in contrast to logos sophia, translated different ways. The power of the coming new age is logos stauron, whereas logos sophia is favored by the rulers of this present age, an age that is passing away. Paul knows that his hearers prefer logos sophia, but God frustrates their expectations with this surprising gospel. I was trying to grab this contrast in the post without explaining it all.

      • Patti says:

        Thanks again, very much, Mark for this further explanation. I appreciate your elaboration on the cross & power, self-offering love & frustration of worldly expectations. Also, thanks for the reminder that our participation with God includes participation in the death of Jesus, which is the way to Life. The cross is a profoundly important, surprising symbol, which is not understood in its depth & breadth. Thanks again for more encouragement to ponder & live in this logos.

  2. Tyler Sirokman says:

    Good shit Mark, I’m taking notes.

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