At Least A Minor Study in History?

As those who preach, we have a whole raft of subject areas worthy of our study.  Central, in my estimation, is the ongoing engaged and dynamic personal study of Scripture.  We also must be studying the people to whom they preach, what they struggle with, their life experiences, how they think, etc.  Then there are numerous other areas of study, some of which might motivate you to buy books and read, others of which might only serve to cure insomnia.  But what about the subject of the history of preaching?

I know some reading this are avid readers of biography, church history and even preaching history.  I am also sure that some are definitely not.  Here’s a brief quote on the subject from David Larsen, writing in the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society:

The history of preaching can encourage our hearts (as in the providential appearance of significant Biblical preaching in the most unlikely places and at the most unexpected times) as well as warn us about the perils and pitfalls which surround the practitioner of the craft at all times. Our times call for the wise and judicious balance which attention to history provides.

So for those less inclined to the history of preaching, where to start?  There are several (often multi-volume) series of books that address the subject directly.  Yet in many cases they, like most historical writing, tend to focus in one area, but remain blind to another.  Perhaps the best place to start is with biography of a preacher you find intriguing or encouraging – a Spurgeon, Sibbes, Luther or Edwards.  Perhaps it would be worth getting David Larsen’s A Company of Preachers and starting there.

One thing seems clear though, to ignore the past would be naive and might condemn us to repeating errors unnecessarily, or perhaps to leave our hearts weakened by missing the blessing offered by some of these great preachers.

(Here is an accessible starting point – take a look at this introductory article to Richard Sibbes that was just posted over on theologynetwork.org – click here)

A Rather Poignant Visual

Apparently we live in an age where people need the visual.  The visual is not only on our televisions in the evening, but on the screen in front of us all day at the office, and now on the screen in our hands as we commute in the train.  We are bombarded by the visual everywhere we look.  Apparently this is so patently obvious that self-appointed experts in “people today” are always quick to point out that people need something visual during the sermon too.  After all, something that is only heard has little to no chance of being remembered, according to the same experts.

Consequently it is equally obvious, to these experts, that the only way for preaching to succeed today is by use of powerpoint.  I suppose we could express deep appreciation that God has blessed us to live in the only generation with such capability!  In reality, people have always valued the visual, in every culture, in every age.  So was it unfair to only allow the invention of powerpoint in these last days?

I don’t intend to negate the value of powerpoint or similar software here.  I would graciously point out that in the business world, in education and apparently, even in the military, there has been a pulling back from powerpoint in recent years (especially in the final third of presentations where there is nothing like face-to-face communication for the final thrust and appeal).  Powerpoint can be used well in preaching, I believe that, even if I haven’t often seen it.  Rather than unthinking commitment to powerpoint, I would urge us to ponder David Larsen’s warning over triangulation in communication.  Technology is not bad, but it can so easily move sermon-time into circus-time and show-time on the one hand, or into over-intellectualization and de-emotionalization on the other.

Believe it or not, this is not a post about powerpoint.  It’s a post about the visual.  Preaching has always been a visual as well as audible communication form.  Two important ways spring to mind:

1. As we preach the Word, images form. Good preaches paints pictures in the heart of the listener.  They hear what we say and they see what we mean.  Better, they hear what God says and see what He means.  They enter into the narratives, they see the truths, they see themselves living out the reality preached.  Good preaching is full of images, irrespective of our use of powerpoint.

2. As we preach the Word, they see us. This is nothing to get excited about in a vain sense, but it is powerful.  Far more powerful than any clip art or projected photo.  Despite well-intentioned prayers before sermons, listeners do see the preacher, and that is part of God’s design.  Truth through personality.  God’s message through His messenger.  We communicate with our words and tone, but also through our body language, gesture, expression.  We communicate with our words, but also with our lives.  We are, as David Larsen put it, a rather poignant visual.