Is Preaching in Trouble?

PREACHING is in trouble. Deep trouble. . .

-Worked in the Greater Sydney Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Australia at the time this article was written

PREACHING is in trouble. Deep trouble.

Stuart McWilliam, standing be fore the students of several Scottish theological schools to deliver the 1968-1969 Warrack Lectures, confessed "the awareness that there is, at this time, a widespread suspicion of preaching, a questioning of its value, a loss of confidence in its power." 1

Suspicion. Doubt as to its value. Diminishing confidence in its effectiveness. Preaching faces these siblings, followed into battle against her by their older brother, Indifference.

In 1958, 49 percent of the United States population attended a place of worship regularly each week. By 1970 attendance declined to 42 percent. But when the Gallup organization sampled the habits of another representative 7,543 adults in 1971, only 40 percent attended church. 2 If this trend toward defeat continues for the next twenty years, preaching in the church building will be extinct. Or at least the preacher will be haunted by the lonely echo of his voice resounding from empty pews.

Man's apathy to preaching was being lamented long before 1972, however. Edna St. Vincent Millay, born in 1892, penned vivid words about preaching, words that seem to grow in accuracy each year:

Up goes the man of God before the crowd;

With voice of honey and with eyes of steel

He drones your humble gospel to the proud.

Nobody listens. Less than the wind that blows

Are all your words to us you died to save. 3

Why is preaching in this deep trouble? There is no shortage of experts proclaiming their diagnoses.

Contemporary man is so trans fixed by the transcient toys his technology has manufactured that he fails to look up in recognition of his omnipotent Creator who "spoke, and it came to be." 4 Eric Mascall describes man's myopia in these words:

The enormous domination of present-day life by scientific technology has produced a psychological climate in which it no longer comes naturally to people to attend to those aspects of the world which manifest it as the creature of God. Ourminds have been conditioned to look upon the world as raw material for human manipulation rather than to contemplate it in an attitude of wonder. 5

"Liberalism is the villain, not technology," others declare. "No," another group shouts, "Neo- Orthodoxy has vitiated preaching by an even subtler removal of the authority of Scripture."

Men of mass media affirm this era of exploding information has no room for the monolog of preaching. "Let's replace the pulpit with the screen, preaching with dialog and discussion, the pew with the counselor's chair or the psychologist's couch," they cry. And researchers with cultured voices support them by observing that objective studies reveal preaching falls short of other teaching techniques:

Further darkening the name of preaching are the psychologists who offer convincing evidence that the speaker-audience relationship produces the least efficient learning. They tell us that a discussion group is a better way to learn, or a sound filmstrip, or motion pictures. 6

Or is the threatened demise of preaching due to man's growing concern with himself? As men deny special creation, decry supernaturalism, inflate the newness

and deflate the thenness of the Christian message, preaching has little appeal to them. The man in the pulpit may be relevant. He may even be an expert. But if his theology is really only anthropology, and his eschatology merely a word picture of the achievements of a global Better Government Association, why bother to listen? 7

Seventh-day Adventists admit preaching is in jeopardy. But they feel called to proclaim a challenge to optimistic notions of the perfectibility of the human order through man-made evolution. In deed, they believe their unique commission is described by the angel John saw "in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach." 8 Further, they are convinced the consummation demands a "testimony to all nations" through a gospel "preached throughout the whole world." 9

Survey Findings

During 1971, 105 persons responded to a "Survey of Methods Used to Secure and Maintain an Audience in Seventh-day Adventist Evangelism." These replies came from ministerial leaders in the General, union, and local conferences; from men reaching the masses with Faith for Today, It Is Written, the Voice of Prophecy; and from front-line evangelists widely scattered in North America and Australia.

Section VI of my questionnaire probed for the features that "aid most in maintaining an audience" during the evangelistic series. It is significant that those polled rated "Biblical, Christ-centered preaching" as first in importance.

The Adventist evangelist does not deny that every effective means for communicating truth should be employed. Many are the features that attract and help to build the audience, the survey revealed. Moving to those features with greatest applicability for holding the audience, the evangelists indicated that a carefully planned program that maintains the interest of Seventh-day Adventists is essential. Numerous ideas were mentioned. But two features outweighed all others in significance in maintaining attendance: "the visitation "program" and "Biblical, Christ-centered preaching." 10

The why and the how of effective visitation could well form the basis of another treatise, in that 82 per cent of the respondents rated it one of the two most important features for maintaining the evangelistic audience. But our present concern is the role of preaching within that spectrum of features that keep people coming. Eighty-four per cent of the evangelists polled rated preaching (along with visitation) as one of the two top options.

Hence it can be simply stated: although preaching is in trouble for numerous reasons, it remains our commission and our single most effective means of maintaining the evangelistc audience. Further, the preaching that keeps the evangelistic audience coming will most likely stimulate church attendance also.

Here we have a clear notion of where the emphasis in our evangelistic work should be placed. Use every legitimate means, but visit and preach above all things, is the directive.

Effective Preaching

The "role" of preaching is probably easier to state than the "how" to effective preaching. The brief suggestions are simply presented as worthy of consideration.

1. To be effective, preaching must be Biblical. It needs to be informed by every legitimate approach to the understanding of the Word of God. After the preacher has grappled with the questions of Biblical introduction, probed for the meaning of his texts with the tools of exegesis, examined them in the light of the church's mission and history, then he is ready to relate this truth to the whole message of Scripture. Finally, when all this is distilled to a clear and urgent truth in his mind, and translated into an experience in his own life, at last he is ready to be used of the Spirit to state this simply and fervently to his hearers.

It is altogether too easy to let the tools of Biblical research rust. The Hebrew I learned at Avondale College was too often forgotten under the busywork of the next twelve years of pastoral-evangelism. At the Theological Seminary, under the inspired teaching of the late Dr. Alger F. Johns, I purposed never to preach on an Old Testament passage without first wrestling with the words in which God initially inscripturated His truth.

But all this detailed Biblical research is like the structure of an ocean liner below the waterline. It gives stability, direction. But it is unseen. Woe betide the preacher who tries to infer his cleverness rather than humbly pointing to the One mighty to save.

2. Preaching to be effective must be Christ-centered. "In every page, whether history, or precept, or prophecy, the Old Testament Scriptures are irradiated with the glory of the Son of God." 11 This radiance attains even fuller explication in the New Testament. And the reason why Seventh-day Adventists exist is to focus the entire message of the Bible upon the God who is now, in Christ, causing His sanctuary to "emerge victorious." 12 We are convinced that the present work of Jesus is a "grand truth" and that when it is "seen and understood, those who hold it will work in harmony with Christ to prepare a people to stand in the great day of God, and their efforts will be successful." 13 Herein is an implied promise that the greatest days of preaching are still before the Advent Movement as it completes its global proclamation.

3. Preaching to be effective must be contemporary. It reflects upon the deep questions, the gnawing uncertainties, the defiant rebellions, the aching doubts, and the human needs of man in the present tense. Thus, for instance, the philosophic mind is met with approaches relevant to its frame of reference. The preacher places himself within the thought patterns of his audiences. He is acquainted firsthand with the dominant influences that affect their lives.

Preaching is not generally addressed to some elite segment of the population, but to a cross section of society. Hence it must meet the concerns of most people. One way of tabulating these is to study carefully the major media that are already successful in securing the interest of the potential audience. Of course this does not mean that we will follow their principle of compromise for the sake of gaining an audience!

Recently I surveyed the contents of one copy each of the following: Reader's Digest, News week, Life, and Time. More than seventy concepts received stress in these media. Some are major human concerns: children, family, marriage, security, happiness. Some are matters that fire the imaginative mind of man: drama, space. All have some relevance to the present generation, and all are in some way treated in the Word of God.

If the preacher is to be con temporary, he must know what is being said in the ivory towers— the educational institutions—and how this is being mediated over the air waves, through literature, and by the arts, to the men in the streets of his city.

To be contemporary, the preacher must be a sanctified behavioral scientist. How else can he place himself intelligently under the direction of the Spirit to function as a catalyst, creating change in human nature? Constant visitation enables him to shape his preaching to the needs, not just of mankind in general, but to the concerns of the very people before him.

This word from the pulpit will never embarrass the pew. But it is so specific, so related to the satisfaction of real needs, that it fits the individual listener as though tailor-made for him alone. On the screen of the preacher's mind there are constant flashbacks to the actual living conditions, hopes, fears, and temptations of the people before him. Thus his message is personal, not a one-to- many, but a one-to-one dialog. We have tried to say that effective preaching springs from a thoroughly informed and experiential knowledge of Scripture and Christ, plus an understanding of the men He came to save. Impelled by the Holy Spirit, such preaching will maintain the evangelistic and the church audience. Restless man will listen to one who remembers his place in the plan of God, and who with Richard Baxter (1615-1691) can reflect:

I preached as never sure to preach again,

And as a dying man to dying men.


1. Stuart W. McWilliam, Called to Preach: The Warrack Lectures 1968-69 (The Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 1969), p. vii.

2. Facts on File, 1972, p. 44.

3. Edna St. Vincent Millay in Masterpieces of Religious Verse (ed. by James Dalton Morrison, Harper and Brothers, 1948, New York), p. 168.

4. Ps. 33:9, R.S.V.

5. Eric Mascall, "The Scientific Outlook and the Christian Message," in Johannes Metz, ed., The Evolving World and Theology, Concilium: Theology in An Age of Renewal, vol. 26, (Paulist Press, New York, 1967), p. 125.

6. William D. Thompson, A Listener's Guide to Preaching (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1966), p. 16.

7. "Preachers today are threatened by a sense of departing, or departed authority," according to David Waite Yohn, The Contemporary Preacher and His Task (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1969), p. 105. For a comprehensive analysis of continental preaching and its problems, see Helmut Thielicke, The Trouble With the Church (trans. and ed. by John W. Doberstein, Harper and Row, 1965, New York).

8. Rev. 14:6.

9. Matt. 24:14, R.S.V.

10. The results of the survey are discussed in detail in Arthur N. Patrick, "A Survey of Methods Used to Secure and Maintain an Audience in Seventh-day Adventist Evangelism" (unpublished M. Div. thesis, Andrews University, 1972).

11. Ellen C. White, The Desire of Ages (Pacific Press, Mountain View, California, 1898), p. 211.

12. Dan. 8:14. The New English Bible. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1970. Reprinted by permission.

13. Ellen C. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 5, (Pacific Press, Mountain View, California, 1882), p. 575.

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-Worked in the Greater Sydney Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Australia at the time this article was written

August 1973

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