The last Sunday of October is Reformation Sunday – a time to look back on one of the “great reversals” in the history of the church, to use Phyllis Tickle’s term, the ripples of which we still minister out of today.
But, at the same time, Reformation Sunday is also an opportunity to look ahead and consider ways in which the witness of the church might continue to be strengthened by strategically addressing ministry beliefs and practices for greater faithfulness.
One such area of church practice that is in constant need of review is that of preaching.
Continual reformation is needed because preaching is the primary means by which the church’s witness is circulated today, and it was also the main avenue by which Reformation ideas in the 16th century were best able to take hold.
Any serious analysis of the Reformation acknowledges preaching as the springboard that launched the beliefs and practices that have changed the face of Christendom to this day.
Granted, many of the Reformers were prolific writers, and Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press a century earlier made it possible for them to disseminate their views more widely.
But it was the pulpit that lit the fire of inspiration for reform, and many of the individuals associated with the Reformation employed preaching as a way to provide fuel for that fire.
Most of them preached daily, and it was not uncommon for Martin Luther himself to preach four times a day.
Therefore, if we are to consider ways by which we might bring about needed change in the church today, it seems reasonable that preaching would be a place to begin.
What was it about the preaching of the Reformers that was so inspiring? Historians of preaching have noted several innovations that made the pulpit the primary locus of reform. Among these innovations were:
â— The centrality of Scripture with emphasis on exposition as the guiding focus on the sermon
â— An elevation of grace as the dominant theological principle of preaching
â— The recognition of the hearer as a vital party in expressing the application of the sermon to everyday life
In short, Reformation preachers drew upon the biblical text to call for dependence upon divine mercy to restore the witness of the church as a purifying influence in a corrupt and immoral day.
Is there any wonder that preachers continue to look back at the Reformation homiletic for help and hope in the face of the challenges they must contend with today?
As we move toward this year’s Reformation Sunday, how might we allow our pulpit forebears to spur our rethinking on how we speak to our day?
Certainly, we can’t go wrong preaching the Bible and underscoring grace. Those principles apply every day.
But perhaps a place where we can think more creatively is the Reformation-inspired recognition that the congregation matters and our preaching will always suffer whenever we neglect them.
First, if today’s attention spans are shorter, then it stands to reason that our sermons should probably be shorter, too.
People today have access to staggering amounts of information, a fact that causes one to switch interest from one matter to another, often back and forth.
The contemporary preacher simply doesn’t have the time to develop a sermon theme as previous generations did and, therefore, needs to be even more focused in arranging the sermon’s content and length.
A second needed innovation in preaching today is a recovery of narrative.
People now communicate through story, a reality that virtually everyone offering products and services recognizes and builds their communications strategy around, except preaching, which still seems locked in predominately explanatory approaches.
Using story doesn’t mean that we have to ignore reason or instruction; it only means that we couch our thoughts in story form because that is how people seem to receive them best.
Lastly, preachers would do well to consider how our sermons might result in real transformation, both individual and structural.
While such a consideration has always been a concern of committed preachers, what has changed is the expectation of listeners that the message matters in a material way.
People look for impact today and only give their time, energy and attention to that which makes a difference.
Preachers must not overlook this reality and plan accordingly. We sell our congregations short when we do so, and also, more tragically, the Gospel.
Every age has its unique challenges. Without question, Reformation preachers met theirs through an innovative and inspiring pulpit.
The challenges of the 21st century may be different, but now as then, preaching offers the best means for addressing them, with the hope that the church might be better able to be and do all that constitutes true faithfulness, which surely is the aim of all worthy reformation.
Doug Dortch is the senior minister of Mountain Brook Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.