For many years I wondered why Paul called preaching “foolishness” in 1 Corinthians 1:21. Preaching is the glorious means by which the Spirit saves and sanctifies sinners, the method by which the Lord builds his church. So how could he refer to it as folly?
After preaching for a couple of decades now, I’ve come to understand Paul’s paradoxical descriptor a bit better. I think he refers to the “foolishness of preaching” because the world sees it precisely that way. No surprise there.
Here’s what is surprising: Christians have sometimes viewed preaching the same way—as foolishness that should be abolished. The reformers fought to recover preaching as the central act of Christian worship after centuries of sacerdotalism in the Roman Church. In more recent years, other sermon substitutes have been suggested in Lord’s Day worship: drama, storytelling, music, interviews, art, videos and other new technology, the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper (again), and more.
I think C. S. Lewis lands close to the answer in The Screwtape Letters when Uncle Screwtape gives the young tempter, Wormwood, an ingenious strategy for distracting believers: Use their penchant for boredom against them.
Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing. The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart—an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. . . . Now just as we pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty.
Christians are easily bored. We tend to lose confidence quickly in methods that don’t produce swift, measurable results. Thus church history is, in part, a narrative of orthodoxy contending with theological and methodological novelty for first place in believing hearts. And often, the devilish activity focuses on messing with the preached Word.
Surely a man standing before a gathered group, preaching the Bible for 30 minutes to an hour each week, cannot accomplish much, we’re told. But therein lies the foolishness: a steady diet of Christ-centered, Scripture-saturated expositional preaching is exactly what sinners need to become more and more like Jesus. It may not look like much, but it’s everything.
And it should remain the centerpiece of corporate worship for at least three reasons.
1. The Bible bristles with preaching and preachers.
Preaching is the overwhelming witness of Scripture as the means of communicating the words of God. If Scripture is the church’s regulating principle—and most Christians throughout the history of the church have believed it is—then this is really the only reason we need for keeping Sunday mornings sermon-centric.
Moses preached God’s Word to God’s people, giving two lengthy expositions/exhortations in Deuteronomy on Israel’s covenant obligations. Ezra, in Nehemiah 8, took up the Torah and led Israel in “reading from the Law of God clearly, and gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8). He read and taught the Word before the assembled people, who “answered ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground” (Neh. 8:6). God’s Word drove worship.
Jesus preached the most famous sermon of all in Matthew 5–7. Peter and Paul thundered forth with some of the most powerful sermons in history as recorded in Acts. The church was birthed in Acts 2 through gospel proclamation. And then there’s Paul’s charge to Timothy, a timeless admonition for all preachers: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Martyn Lloyd-Jones summarized the point well: “The primary task of the church and of the Christian minister is the preaching of the Word of God.” Scripture makes this view plain. So the real question the church must answer here is, “Has God really said?”
2. The preached Word is God’s ordained agent of transformation.
God has ordained the preached Word, working in unison with the Holy Spirit, as the method by which he turns mortal enemies into adopted sons. In Romans 10, Paul asks, “How are they to hear without someone preaching?” He answers: “So faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (v. 17). How then is the Word of Christ to be proclaimed? By the foolishness of preaching on the lips of weak clay pots known as preachers. Yes, we are weak, but he is strong, and God’s work done God’s way brings him glory: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7).
One of the most powerful illustrations of the creating power of God’s Word is located in Ezekiel 37, where God tells the prophet to speak to the dry bones so they will live: “O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD” (Ezek. 37:4). Immediately the bones come together. God breathes into the formerly dead, and “they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.” His proclaimed Word brings life—saving and sanctifying life—where formerly there was only death.
Yes, we’ve become a visual culture, but Christianity is a verbal faith. Don’t let the visual eat up the verbal.
The preached Word has always been God’s agent of awakening. The Reformation recovered the centrality of preaching in worship; it didn’t invent it. The early church featured powerful preaching through men like Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, and Athanasius. And later, preaching spawned the First and Second Great Awakenings through Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley, along with scores of lesser-known men.
As technology has improved, the call for alternatives to preaching has seemingly grown louder. But technology has always served gospel proclamation; it hasn’t replaced it. Would anyone argue that Gutenberg’s printing press was anything less than a massive revival for the preached Word? Radio took the sound of preaching to the masses. Television brought it into our living rooms. There are a wealth of sermons and edifying resources available on the internet, and I’m grateful for the way God’s used them to stir up a love for sound doctrine in so many. Nevertheless, preaching remains the central act of Christian worship.
Technology will change again and again. If we replace preaching to “keep up with the times,” then our worship will, by necessity, always be changing. But Scripture never permits us to make that change.
3. The otherworldly nature of the church is seen clearly in preaching.
God calls his church to be unlike the world. The world should never be able to explain the church. We gather on Sundays from every conceivable socioeconomic background, race, region, country—black, white, Asian, Hispanic, rich, poor, tall, short, athletic, non-athletic, rural, urban, suburban. And we gather to hear a book proclaimed that was written thousands of years ago. All of God’s “ordinary” means of grace are countercultural, and preaching is no exception. He designed it this way so he alone would get the praise.
To say we should dump preaching in favor or drama, video, discussion, music, or anything else is to misunderstand the nature of the church and her work. In bringing us into his church, God calls us out of ourselves. Statistics show that the average American adult spends 10 hours a day connected to media; are churches wise to accommodate that trend? Wouldn’t it be better to call us away from our smartphones and tablets for two hours each week (out of 168) to hear a word from the Lord?
Genuine Christian worship is not an experience that can be simulated (or replaced) by any manmade thing, no matter how ingenious. Yes, we’ve become a visual culture, but Christianity is a verbal faith, so we must not let the visual eat up the verbal.
Preach the Word
I trust that those calling for the abolition of preaching mean well, but to say preaching needs replacing strikes me as more audience-driven than Word-driven. To say preaching is outmoded seems to deny the deepest need of the human heart—rescue from sin and self—and to affirm the primacy of felt needs and preferences. To argue that mediocre preachers should be replaced by slicker, savvier communicators, or something better and perhaps stronger, is to forget that God’s strength flows through the unlikely conduit of human weakness (2 Cor. 12:10).
As Screwtape told his nephew, we are easily horrified by the Same Old Thing—unless that thing centers on us. The Jews of Paul’s day demanded signs and the Greeks clamored for wisdom, but Paul gave them what they really needed:
But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Cor. 1:23–25)
Sinners have always needed transformation through God’s Word faithfully proclaimed. That hasn’t changed. And Scripture itself makes this priority number-one for the gathered church. Why would we dare give God’s people anything else?