Preaching in context

Are we preaching the right message at the right time and place?

After a career as a military chaplain (most recently as Rear
Admiral and Chief of Navy Chaplains), Barry C. Black now serves as Chaplain to the United States Senate.

I thought you said he was a great preacher." My commanding officer's comments cascaded unexpectedly upon me.

A Distinguished Preacher Series brought to our academy top civilian pastors as guest speakers for our chapel services. These superb pulpiteers would sometimes ignore the fact they were preaching to military students. Instead of preparing sermons specifically for midshipmen, some preached messages that had been successful in other settings. More often than not, these sermons lacked something vital. The message, though profound, lacked relevance for its present context. My CO's words gently reminded me that our guest preacher's message had ignored contextual realities.

According to Fred Craddock, "a sermon, to be properly understood and to have its purpose fulfilled, has to be experienced in its context, or rather in its several contexts." 1 Most sermons fail to fulfill their purpose because preachers ignore the con text. Sermons that soar at the worship service may suddenly plunge in a different setting.

Preaching in context refers to the circumstances out of which preaching emerges. It means preaching the right mes sage at the right time and place. We shall consider five components of such a context: personal, cultural, historical, pastoral, and liturgical aspects.

Personal context

Effective sermons begin with a prepared preacher. Lloyd Ogilvie states that "nothing can happen through you until it happens to you, and you can only communicate what you're in the process of rediscovering."2 Personal context requires that ministers do not preach what they have not experienced.

Experiential knowledge presupposes that pastors possess a vibrant spiritual life. Spurgeon once said to a group of ministers, "It should be one of our first cares that we ourselves be saved men."3

This committed spirituality requires faithful and realistic labor. This means we work hard to be ourselves and not someone else. Imitation cripples far more clerics than it helps. Homiletical realists seek to fight with their own armor and are committed to being themselves. William Taylor says: "If one is to do anything effectively in the pulpit, or elsewhere, he must be himself. . . . There is something noble in a voice, but however excellent, an echo may be an echo, there is a hollowness and an indistinctness about it which gives it unreality."4 This commitment to genuineness brings its reward. Through our individuality we can reach someone whom our more gifted colleagues may miss.

Personal context includes another important dimension: prayer. Prayer produces power. More things happen because of kneeling pastors than standing ones. Spurgeon believed in prayer power. "I have not preached," he said once, "this morning half as much as I have prayed. For every word that I have spoken, I have prayed two words silently to God."5

Cultural context

Preachers must be aware of the cultural context. They must be sensitive to what is happening in society and the world. Bruce Larsen reports that modern culture is characterized by over-stimulation, desensitization, enervation, depersonalization, confusion, and preference for the nonverbal.6 Larsen points out the chief culprit responsible for this condition: "The aver age household has the television set on seven hours a day. The average young per son in our culture has spent 12,000 hours in school by the time of high school graduation and 15,000 hours in front of the television set. No previous generation has ever been so overstimulated by an unrelenting barrage of images, sights, and sounds."7

How can preachers make a difference? What can we do homiletically to influence a generation nourished with sound bytes and music videos? Larsen recommends a preaching that is pictorial, personal, practical, participative, and pointed.8

What does Larsen mean? Pictorial preaching moves from being too analytical to appreciating the narrative genre. Personal preaching orientates sermons toward individuals. Practical preaching stresses application. Participative preaching encourages dialogue. Pastors can invite congregants to repeat aloud parts of the sermon, or to say amen, or to suggest sermon topics, or even to critique the message. And of course, preaching should be to the point.9

The historical context

Historical context infuses preaching with power, reminding the congregants how God has worked in history. Familiarity with the lives and preaching of great preachers of the past provides a model in excellent and creative preaching. Such an exposure to a variety of approaches to preaching ensures that we are better equipped to meet today's challenges.

Gardner Taylor says:"Any preacher greatly deprives himself or herself who does not study the recognized masters of pulpit discourse, not to copy them but rather to see what has been the way in which they approached the Scriptures, their craftsman ship, their feel for men's hearts." 10

Taylor lists some of these great preachers: Harry Fosdick, Frederick Robertson, Arthur Gossip, James Steward, John Jasper, C. T. Walker, L. K. Williams, William Borders, Sandy Ray, John Jowett, Alexander McClaren, George Buttrick, and F. W. Boreham. We could add to the list: Justin Martyr, Augustine, Tertulian, Irenaus, Chrysostom, Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Baxter, Herbert, Wesley, Whyte, and Spurgeon. In addition, each generation produces its own great preachers.

The pastoral context

Most preaching happens in a pastoral context. Pastoral relationships influence what we say from the pulpit and how we're heard by our congregations. People who receive quality pastoral care will hear sermons differently than those who miss pastoral contact.

Our sermons should reflect a sensitivity to the needs of the people we serve. When Los Angeles exploded with racial violence, I had completed my sermon for the week, but it was impossible to ignore this pressing concern. I therefore rewrote my sermon, ensuring that it addressed the challenging realities of civil unrest.

Coffin argues that pastoral sensitivity and good preaching cannot be separated. He writes: "When a minister begins a week with the feeling he is 'preached out,' let him spend an afternoon... in going about from family to family and asking himself: 'What is the spiritual need here? What guidance or comfort or awakening or sharpening of conscience or enrichment in God ought this home or individual receive?'" 11

The liturgical context

The liturgical context has to do with the role of the sermon in worship. Worship is crucial in the life of a community. As William Temple wrote, "this world can be saved from political chaos by one thing only, and that is worship." 12

How does worship provide a context for preaching? First, it provides the occasion for preaching and the best atmosphere for proclamation. This does not mean effective preaching cannot happen outside of the community of faith. Street preachers can proclaim God's word outside of a formal worship context. So can youth. But worship provides a need-filled, spiritual, and reverent atmosphere where powerful preaching can occur. Second, worship can suggest important themes for preaching, particularly for those who observe the seasons of the Christian year. Third, preaching itself can become an act of worship, if we remember that worship includes an en counter with God, an understanding of Scripture, an affirmation of identity, and an assurance of empowerment. 13

From the Christian perspective, sermons provide the primary cognitive content for the liturgical context. A sermon is more than a literary or historical exposition of sacred literature or exhortation aimed at producing a certain behavior. Crawford is right when he observes that a sermon's ultimate content should be "an exposition of the Word, that is, Jesus, the Word from God."14 The "purpose of the sermon is to search for, discover, display, and apply those principles that are demonstrated through the grace of God that is in the Christ event, the exemplary life that Jesus lived, the teachings He gave, the sacrifice He made, and the eternal strength His resurrection provides." 15

Preachers can make this happen by taking into account personal, cultural, historical, pastoral, and liturgical contexts of preaching.

1. Fred Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985), 3.

2. Lloyd Ogilvie, "Highlights of the 1989 National Conference on Preaching," Preaching, May-June 1989,24.

3. David Otis Fuller, ed., Spurgeon's Lectures to His Students (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1945), 17.

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4. William Taylor, The Ministry of the Word( Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1975), 5.

5. Tom Carter, Spurgeon at His Best (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1991), 149.

6. Bruce Larsen, The Anatomy of Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1989), 39,40.

7. Ibid., 41.

8. Ibid., 43-45.

9. Ibid.

10. Gardner Taylor, How Shall They Preach (Elgin, 111: Progressive Baptist Pub. House, 1977), 63.

11. Henry Coffin, What to Preach (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949), 9.

12. William Temple, The Hope of a New World (New York: MacMillan, 1943), 26.

13. See Edwin Crawford, "Creating a Context for Public Worship," Preacher's Magazine, February 1990, 17.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., 18.


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After a career as a military chaplain (most recently as Rear
Admiral and Chief of Navy Chaplains), Barry C. Black now serves as Chaplain to the United States Senate.

July 1998

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