This is a cross-post from Tim Keller’s blog at Redeemer City to City.
When Lloyd-Jones says that people still will come to hear preaching in our contemporary culture, he adds two qualifications—or you might say he has two underlying assumptions. He says: “The answer is that they will come, and that they do come . . . when it is true preaching. This may be slow work . . . it is a long-term policy.”
First, he says, it must be “real preaching,” and he later explains that this means preaching done by someone who is gifted to speak to larger groups. And that is a rub. As someone who taught preaching in seminary, I know that only a fraction of the students coming through seminary show promise of having such gifts.
There are indeed many “incarnational” approaches to ministry that do not require a gifted speaker, and we should use them all. In fact, I would argue that in a post-Christian culture, preaching will not be effective in the gathered assembly if Christians are not also highly effective in their scattered state. In our times, people will be indifferent or hostile to the idea of attending church services without positive contact with Christians living out their lives in love and service. Therefore the incarnational “dispersed” ministry of the church is extremely vital and necessary.
Nevertheless, it is a mistake to argue that people in our society will not come to hear “real preaching.” The fact is that, even in a very post-Christian city, if the preaching is of high quality, people will be brought and will come back. They will be shocked at how convicting and attractive the gospel message is, and they will feel like they’ve never really heard it before (even if they have been raised in a church).
Is that all that the Doctor meant by “real preaching”—done by someone who is gifted? No, there’s more. During a convalescence after surgery in 1968, he visited the churches of many of his ministerial followers to hear them preach, but was distressed by much of what he heard. In response he said, “Once evangelical preaching was too subjective—now it is too objective.” (From Iain Murray,“Raising the Standard of Preaching” in Lloyd-Jones: Messenger of Grace, 99ff.) In their concern to avoid entertainment and story-telling, their preaching had become too intellectual; it now addressed only the mind “and not the whole man” (105). He went on: “We have got the curious notion, ‘It’s the doctrine that matters,’ and ignore this. With the message we have got, it is tragic if we can be cold, lifeless, and dull” (106).
In other words, though Lloyd-Jones often warns against being too adapted to the culture, in the end the Doctor argues strongly that preaching must not be dry and intellectual but profoundly life-related, that the preacher’s tone must not be affected and “parsonic” but genuine, passionate, and transparent. If you listen to the Doctor’s evening sermons in particular, you learn that he was always referring to current events and intellectual trends, often expounding Scripture in order to answer the questions posed by the culture. So the preaching must not be just a “running commentary” or an overly cognitive explanation of the text, but must have shape and passion and connect forcefully with the heart and life of the congregant.
But the Doctor’s assurance that “people will come” rested on two assumptions. First, that it was “real preaching”; second, that “it is a long-term policy.” He means an effective preaching ministry takes many years of hard work. Americans, of course, are impatient and don’t like to hear this. But he is right, and I’d add that it takes years of work in two regards. First, it requires the creation of a community, a body of believers who understands not only how to profit from real preaching themselves, but who know how to leverage it in their own ministry to their friends and neighborhoods. The Doctor begins to address this, but not enough for my satisfaction. Second, it requires many years and hundreds of sermons before preachers become as good as they have the capacity to be. Some of that means the preacher staying put and becoming involved enough in the lives of the people and city so as to be able to address their questions and issues well from the Scripture. Some of that means coming to understand the Bible well enough to always make it clear. Some of it means years of repentance and prayer that creates an increasingly holy, transparent character.
In conclusion, I believe that Lloyd-Jones has made his case. I too am willing to affirm the “primacy of preaching” though I think there are many conservative evangelicals who take that to mean that preaching is essentially the only thing a minister has to do and everything else takes care of itself. That is a disastrous mistake. A man who is not deeply involved in personal shepherding, evangelism, and pastoral care will be a bad preacher. A man who can’t lead his church well, forming it into a cohesive community, will find (as we noted above) that his church can’t really benefit from his preaching. To say that preaching is primary in the church is correct. To make it virtually solitary in practice is not. Some will say that the Doctor made this mistake in his own ministry, and they may be right. Thirty years from now, if anyone cares, they’ll be able to point out my glaring errors, too. And yours. For now, I hope more people will accept and embrace what the Doctor has to say about the importance of preaching in our time.