Pondering what preachers preach

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What Mennonite Brethren pastors say about their preaching and what they actually preach

By Lynn Jost

I recently asked a group of Mennonite Brethren pastors whether they describe themselves as biblical preachers. Except for one who demurred because he prefers the moniker “teacher” to “preacher,” every one of the dozen or so respondents said they are or at least want to be a biblical preacher.

When asked to define “biblical preaching,” several pastors stated what we might think to be obvious—biblical preaching starts with choosing a biblical text. Some emphasized that biblical preaching must yield transformed lives. A leading preacher (and teacher of preaching) said that biblical preaching expounds, proclaims and applies a biblical text. He added that it is preaching aligned with the overall biblical message.

Another responded that the biblical preacher “seeks to sit under the authority and direction of the Scriptures, articulating as best she/he can what the text meant to the original reader/listener and then seeking to take that meaning and build a bridge to the local context in a way that accurately reflects what the original scriptures meant and how they are to inform, transform and direct our present life.” He added, “A message should be consistent not only with the text itself but the overall canon of Scripture.”

That’s what preachers say about preaching. How do we actually preach? To start answering that question, I asked MB Biblical Seminary alumnus Matthew Insley and MBBS student Amy Stone to review the bulletin archives of six U.S. MB churches to see what we could learn about preaching from their bulletins. Three churches were from the Pacific District Conference, two from the Southern District Conference and one from the Central District Conference. The results were presented at the Renewing Identity and Mission consultation at the Celebrate 2010 convention in July 2010. Here’s a snapshot of what we learned.

Who is preaching?
Bulletins report that the senior pastor is preaching less than he used to, down from 80 percent in the 1950s to 63 percent in the 2000s. Visiting preachers have consistently preached about one-fifth of the Sundays. Staff pastors preached more than 10 percent of the sermons in the 1980s and 1990s, but that number has declined to 6 percent in the 2000s. Preaching by women comprises less than .5 percent of all preaching in the churches surveyed, with a very slight increase from the 1970s to the present.

What are our favorite biblical texts?
Bulletins do not always report which text is to be preached. The text is reported in the bulletin 73 to 84 percent of the time in the Midwest churches studied and 40 to 55 percent of the time in the California churches studied. The epistles were the most popular biblical texts, with the Gospels running a close second. Seventy-three percent of the sermons come from the New Testament, 36 percent from the epistles, 30 percent from the Gospels and 5 percent from the book of Acts.

Old Testament historical books account for 13 percent of recorded sermon texts, Old Testament prophets nearly 7 percent, Psalms 4 percent, apocalyptic texts nearly 3 percent and Pentateuch and wisdom literature about 1 percent each. The dominance of the epistles (which comprise only about 8 percent of the pages in the Bible) was most pronounced in the decades of the 1970s and the 1990s when they comprised over 40 percent of all recorded sermon texts. In the decade of the 2000s the gospels exceed the epistles, about 40 percent and 30 percent respectively. When the Acts of the Apostles are included with the Gospels, they accounted for more than 45 percent of all sermon texts in the 2000s.

Church calendar
The researchers analyzed use of the liturgical calendar. Bulletins unfailingly reference Christmas and Palm Sunday and Easter—and Thanksgiving. There is a shift over time to increased attention to the church year: first Advent and later and less universally, Lent. Increasingly, Pentecost is noted as the day’s theme. The “Hallmark” holidays receive attention, notably Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Valentine’s Day. The Fourth of July and Memorial Day are celebrated in at least one congregation.

Conclusions
What does this mean? How can we learn from these findings?

1. We need to preach the whole counsel of God. Biblical preaching should include every part of the Bible, particularly the Gospels and the Old Testament. The recent trend to emphasize the Gospels is healthy.
Preaching primarily from any single genre tends to distort our understanding of God’s design. Neglecting the Old Testament truncates our understanding of God’s design as well as the saving work of Jesus. One way to increase use of the whole canon is to read the Bible as a story in six acts (creation/fall, God’s work in redeeming a people, exile, Jesus, the church, which is the part of the story in which we live, and consummation). As is true of stories generally, this story needs every one of the acts to give the full story. I would encourage preaching from each of these acts more than once each year.

The International Community of Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith may also provide a model for text selection. This confession is composed of a narrative and of a series of five statements about the church—people of the Bible, of a new way of life, of reconciliation, of covenant community and of hope. Using these categories could help us to balance the preaching.

We can also benefit from an explicitly biblical theology like the one articulated by Elmer Martens in God’s Design (deliverance, covenant community, knowledge of God and abundant life). Biblical theology includes the teaching of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, the Great Commission and the Greatest Commandments.

2. Sharing the pulpit is positive. Balancing the preaching of the pastor, other local preachers and guest preachers is good for congregants and for pastors. The growing number of voices reinforces the biblical concept of the priesthood of all believers. The move portends an act of self-care that will protect the mental and spiritual health of the pastor. An important discipling ministry of the local pastor could include gathering a group of prospective preachers for guidance in preparing, delivering and evaluating sermons.

3. I grieve the paucity of preaching by women and believe it needs to change. Scripture seems quite clear in indicating that, when women have adequate preparation, they speak prophetic words and teach.

4. Giving attention to the church year, particularly Lent and Advent, is encouraged. Recognition of pagan and national holidays seems to open the way to idolatrous syncretism.

5. Biblical preaching includes but goes beyond starting with a biblical text. Biblical preaching brings the preacher under the authority of the Bible. Biblical preaching, while proclaiming a single text, must be consistent with a thoroughly biblical theology. Biblical preaching creates a new imagination of the community that God is creating through Jesus.

 

Lynn Jost is dean of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and vice president at Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, Calif. This article is adapted from Jost’s presentation at the Renewing Identity and Mission Conference (RIM) held last summer as part of the 150th anniversary of the Mennonite Brethren Church. All papers presented at RIM are being published by Kindred Productions in the bookRenewing Identity and Mission: Mennonite Brethren Reflections After 150 Years, to be released in October 2011.

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