James Eglinton: How Preachers Can Make an Impact in a Post-Christian World

In post-Christian Britain—a culture where few people listen to any kind of public speaking, sacred or secular—Rev. Michael Curry’s royal wedding sermon succeeded in capturing the public imagination in a way that few had expected. For many Brits, the royal wedding’s most unexpected outcome was that a sermon, of all things, could spark a national conversation on race. “Who would have thought,” the response went, “that preaching could actually be engaging?”

At present, it seems as though preaching—in its quality and significance—is often held in low esteem, both within and outside of the church. The common reaction in the British media to Rev. Curry’s preaching is a good example of this. Reflecting on his sermon, one opinion writer in The Guardian noted quite frankly, “I had not expected to be moved.”

Within the Christian community it might be said that the internet, which offers us instant access to a small pool of exceptionally gifted preachers, has produced a general culture of dissatisfaction with preaching. Although few of our local preachers can preach at that superstar level, many of us nonetheless hold them to that unattainable standard. In 2018, it is common for Christians to be enthusiastic about one or two preachers, who are almost never their own pastors, rather than about preaching in general.

T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Preach has put forward that current day preaching is not particularly good, and that most churchgoers do not expect it to be. In his argument, the typical 21st-century sermon is a rambling, inarticulate, and unsuccessful attempt to say something that is somehow connected to the Bible. This is the case, he contends, because changes in modern media have made it exceedingly hard to form good preachers: today’s preachers have grown up ignorant of literature in a world that communicates by phone calls, text message, and slapdash emails. For the most part, those preachers never learned to read or compose texts with care, which means—Gordon believes—that they use language sloppily and find it hard to discern issues of greater and lesser importance in a text. Little wonder, then, should preachers hewn from that crumbling cultural rock struggle to understand Scripture and find themselves ill-equipped to preach in accurate, compelling language to advance an identifiable central point.

A century ago, the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck (1854–1921)—professor of dogmatics at the Theological School in Kampen and the Free University of Amsterdam and author of the widely read Reformed Dogmatics—grappled with a similarly negative set of views on preaching.

During Bavinck’s lifetime, the Netherlands underwent a process of rapid secularisation. Six years before his birth, a new liberal constitution had turned a society previously dominated by the mainline Dutch Reformed Church into a secular liberal state. Bavinck’s native environment was one where rival outlooks jostled for space and influence in the public domain. On the ground, this meant a proliferation of public voices speaking via different media. Political parties and newspapers emerged, state education was reimagined, and new kinds of public speakers—secular public intellectuals, novelists, and stand-up comedians—came to the fore.

Reflecting on this sudden abundance of public voices, Bavinck once wrote that, “In the present day there are more preachers outside than inside the church.” Faced with this flood of competition, Bavinck did not think that his period’s typical sermon fared well. The problem Bavinck identified in 19th-century preaching, however, had little to do with the average preacher’s literacy or articulacy.

19th Century Wisdom for 21st Century Preaching

A great deal of Bavinck’s writing on preaching—critical and constructive—could be brought into the present in more or less the same form. In response to those who hold their pastors to an impossibly high standard, for example, he warns against the dangers of becoming a connoisseur of fine preaching. To expect the homiletical equivalent of Michelin-standard food at every mealtime is “to find fault with the will of God, who only gives the glorious gift of eloquence to a few.” Listeners, rather, should be reasonable, remembering that the average pastor has a constant stream of tasks alongside preaching. A pastor who takes every part of his work seriously “cannot always be fresh and recent and new” in the pulpit.

In comparison to the Why Johnny Can’t Preach view that modern culture’s inarticulacy killed preaching, however, Bavinck’s writings on the paucity of 19th-century preaching provide a striking contrast.

Unlike today’s seminary professors, Bavinck could safely assume that his students had been taught to read and compose texts with care. In the 19th-century Netherlands, the average pastor’s high school education took place in a gymnasium, an educational stream centered on classical literature and languages. Even those who became pastors without first following a gymnasium education had to take general humanities classes—the propedeutic phase—for at least a year before starting theological study.

Bavinck’s most important text on preaching, the 1901 booklet Eloquence, is a good example of literary fluency in that culture: replete with references to classical literature, it regularly cites texts in a range of ancient and modern languages, assuming all the while that his students needed no translations. In turning seminarians into preachers, Bavinck took it as a given that they knew Plato, Shakespeare, and Goethe, alongside the great Dutch fiction and poetry of the day.

Despite the literary command common to those preachers, Bavinck was nonetheless critical of the general standard of their preaching: “Preaching is, at present, out of touch with the time and does not meet its needs.”

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Source: Christianity Today