Preaching the cross to a postmodern world

The need to "preach in stereo" in the contemporary world

Timothy S. Warren, Ph.D., is professor of pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary, Rockwell, Texas.

In the preceding companion article, which appeared in the March issue of Ministry, it was shown that postmodern theology, hermeneutics, and homiletics argues that preaching "Christ crucified" so offends postmodern cultural and religious relativists that it should be abandoned.

In this final article of this two part series, we ask, How should cross-centered preachers respond?

First, we should not be ignorant. We must understand the postmodernist perspective. We must acknowledge genuine hermeneutical and communicational questions, concerns, and struggles. Not everything in postmodernism is evil or destructive. Much of it provides a necessary critique of modernist rationalism, from which we have drunk too deeply.1

Second, we should not be intimidated. The elitist academicians and recreational theologians carry the burden of alteration when they, abandoning the Scriptures and the classic creeds, demand a defense of your commitment to biblical Christianity. They, after all, have deconstructed the Scripture and reconstructed the ancient human-centered philosophy. God, however, does demand an answer and your submission to His revelation of Himself.

Third, we should not be idle. We must recover the effective means of preaching the Word of the Cross even to our postmodern, anti-authority, relativistic culture. We must continue to announce the revelation of the God of the Bible.

Yes, we must preach Christ crucified! The question is "How?" By being Word-centered and audience-focused. Word-centered/audience-focused preaching centers its authority in the Word, the Bible, but focuses its relevance on the audience.

Styles of preaching

Bruce Shelley and Marshall Shelley have compared "Truth [Preaching] as a Statement" with "Truth [Preaching] on a slant."2 I want to rework their terms and add another: Preaching in stereo, which is Word-centered/audience-focused.

The Shelleys have identified three dominant preaching styles within American evangelical Christianity over the past two hundred years. 3 Up through the turn of the last century, traditional evangelical preaching featured the revivalistic or evangelistic sermon, which favored stories, emotion, and entertainment. The goal was conversion, life change. D. L. Moody preached revivalistic sermons.

As the modernist-fundamentalist controversy spread, "preaching as a statement" preempted revivalist evangelism. The lecture, or apology, became the new model. The form was rational, orderly, and pious exposition. This commitment to defending and explain ing the Word helped "equip the saints" against theological liberalism. Although attempts to relate the significance of biblical truth to contemporary life were not overlooked, the major emphasis of "preaching as a statement" became understanding, in support of fundamental doctrine. Donald Grey Barnhouse, with his classic years-long expositions of books of the Bible, modeled "preaching as a statement."

In fact, this "preaching as a statement" was an appropriate form, given the context of the 1920s-1950s. I do not demean that style, which is still necessary and effective within the education program of the church.4 However, the cultural and theological situation has changed; so, then, must our preaching style. 5

Because of television and other image media, preaching shifted again. The influence of popular psychology and pastoral counseling intensified the transition to "preaching on a slant," which seeks to evoke feelings more than thoughts. The message, as well as the medium, is grounded in the audience. Preachers like Robert H. Schuller emphasize "personal experience and abundant living" in sermons that are "psychologically informed" and specifically "designed for a self-expressive, television generation."6

Much of the preaching that pours from both liberal and conservative pulpits today exploits this audience-centered/ audience-focused "preaching on a slant." Once the preacher discovers a "message" already there in the congregation, that "message" is pro claimed through an audience-focused medium. The medium of choice, for the past two decades, seems to have been narrative. And while we should not be troubled by audience-sensitive, narrative styles of preaching in general, we cannot allow the audience to determine the message.

Preaching in most of this century has not provided much better fare in either the liberal or the conservative pulpit. Prepositional statements, arranged in linear order, with deductive development, proof texts, and an admirable passion for truth but an indifferent attitude toward the audience represented and still represent Word-centered/ Word-focused "preaching as a statement."

Authority and relevance in preaching

When I call for Word-centered/ audience-focused preaching, I am appealing for an authority that is centered in the Word and a relevance that is both substantively and stylistically focused on a specific audience.

Think of a continuum. On the far right side is "Preaching as a State ment" the Word-centered/Word-focused lecture. The speaker lectures from the Word and about the Word. Any audience will do. Any audience could even be exchanged for any other audience. Application, if it exists, appears so generally as to be benign and appears as merely an appendage to the "real" message something about the Bible.

On the far left end of this continuum is "Preaching on a Slant" the audience-centered/ audience-focused talk. The speaker talks from the values, realities, and worldview of the audience. Authority resides within the audience. Special effort is made to speak "as one without any higher authority" but with all due audience sensitivity. The talk takes on the form of communication most common to and effective with this particular audience.

The Word-centered/audience-focused sermon resides within the middle ranges of the continuum. Revelation, that is, the Word, determines the message. Still, the particular audience remains strategically in focus, dictating the purpose, structure, images, applications, and other medium, or communication, decisions. This part of the continuum is "Preaching in Stereo." Both the Word and the audience gain a hearing. The Word brings authority; the audience brings relevance. Preaching becomes music in stereo.

Michael J. Glodo suggested the phrase "The Bible in Stereo."7 Glodo cogently argues that Jesus Christ is both the Word (John 1:1) and the image (Col. 1:15) of God. It was this conception of "Word/image" that caused Marshall McLuhan to reply, when asked whether the formula "the medium is the mes sage," could be applied to Christ: "Of course. That is the only case in which the medium and the message are perfectly identical." 8 Jesus lived and preached in stereo.

Three stages for preaching in stereo

I offer three strategies for Word-centered/audience-focused "preaching in stereo." You may have seen and heard these strategies before, even if they are yet to be applied widely and consistently in evangelical preaching.

First, we must preach the message of Christ crucified through the medium of induction. Kenneth Burke, the foremost rhetorician of the twentieth century, wrote that a preacher can reserve closure but just for a while; this can lead to a more intense satisfaction, because the desire for completion has grown over time. The audience is given only as much input as it needs, allowing it to participate in the development of the argument. When we preach deductively, "telling 'em what we're going to tell 'em telling 'em and telling 'em what we've told 'em," we can expect most audiences to close down after the first "telling." On the other hand, inductive preaching keeps them connected and encourages them to discover the conclusion.9

I wish I could preach as inductively as Churchill (or was it W. C. Fields?) who, when intoxicated at a party told a woman he detested, "You are ugly." To which she retorted, "And you are drunk!" "But," he responded, "in the morning, I'll be sober." She got the point.

Second, we must preach the message of Christ crucified through the medium of imagination. Stories, pictures, and images are the essence of effective communication. Long ago Quintilian recommended "images, by which the representation of absent objects (or ideas) are so distinctly represented to the mind, that we seem to see them be fore our eyes. Whoever shall best conceive such images, will have the greatest power in moving the [audience] ." 10 Most of us have abandoned the imaginative in favor of the logical, the rational. I am not suggesting that we now abandon prepositional preaching. I am suggesting that we show at least as much as we say.

When I want to communicate the need and benefits of, say, perseverance, I represent the Barcelona Olympics, where Derek Redmond, the pre-game favorite to win the 400 meters, hopped to the finish line after pulling a ham string on the back stretch and losing his chance for any medal, much less the gold." I tell how his father jumped out of the stands to encourage and help him finish the race just as Jesus will en courage and help us through life's race when we stumble but persevere.

Visualizing people and events takes time. But the showing must accompany, and ultimately subsume, the saying. 12

Third, we must preach the message of Christ crucified, that is the Word, through the medium of identification. We are not merely offering an apology for some apparently irrelevant doctrine or distant history. We are applying God's truth to real people's struggles and challenges, opportunities, and celebrations.

We must speak the language of the congregation. Burke urged, "You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea... identifying your ways with his." 13

The prophet Nathan, in 2 Samuel 12, modeled Word-centered/audience-focused preaching in stereo. God's message to David was "You have sinned, and there are mighty repercussions." The problem the preacher faced was that David's "inner reality" was out of sync with God's transcendent reality. David had told his friend Joab, "Do not let this 'thing' displease you" (2 Sam. 11:25, NIV). But the narrator records that "the thing David had done dis pleased the Lord" (2 Sam. 11:27).

In this classic clash between two worldviews, Nathan preached in stereo. He preached God's authoritative Word with shepherd/king relevance. He led David, inductively, to the right conclusion. He did so by imaginatively representing a "shepherd" image, with which David could identify. The medium carried the otherwise "unbearable" message.

Yes, there is no question about it, we must preach Christ crucified. But we must preach in stereo if we are to be heard in this postmodern world of ours.

This is the second of a two-part serial on
preaching Christ crucified to a postmodern,
Christless culture that denies the exclusiveness
and absoluteness of biblical Christianity. The
first part appeared in the March issue.

1 See David S. Dockery, ed., The Challenge
of Postmodernism: An Evangelical Engagement

(Wheaton.IlL: Victor Books, 1995) and Gene
Edward Veith, Jr., Postmodern Times: A Christian
Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture

(Wheaton, 111.: Crossway Books, 1994).

2 Bruce Shelly and Marshall Shelly, The
Consumer Church: Can Evangelicals Win The
World Without Losing Their Souls?
Grove, 111.: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 187.

3 Ibid., 188-197.

4 Ibid., 198.

5 For a defense of this "Preaching as a
Statement" style of what some call "exegetical"
preaching, see Walter C. Kaiser, "The Crisis in
Expository Preaching Today," Preaching, 11
(September-October 1995) 2: 4-12.

6 Shelly and Shelly, 196.

7 See Dockery, 148-172.

8 Ibid., p. 161.

9 Kenneth Burke, Counter-Statement
(Berkeley : University of California Press, 1931,1968),
30-34. See also Fred B. Craddock, As One With
out Authority
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971,
1979) and Ralph L. Lewis with Gregg Lewis,
Inductive Preaching: Helping People Listen
(Wheaton, 111.: Crossway Books, 1983).

10 M. F. Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory
(London: George Bell and Sons, 1896), 1:427.
11 Kenny Moore, "Ode to Joy," Sports Illus
trated (August 17,1992), 26,30.

12 See Warren W. Wiersbe, Preaching and
Teaching With Imagination: The Quest for Biblical
(Wheaton, 111.: Victor Books, 1994)
and Gary Smalley and John Trent, The Language
of Love
(Colorado Springs, Colo.: Focus on the
Family, 1988, 1991).

13 Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950,
1969), 55.

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Timothy S. Warren, Ph.D., is professor of pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary, Rockwell, Texas.

May 1999

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