Distinguished Preachers Discuss Preaching in Today’s Postmodern Culture
“It doesn’t matter if they’re inside the church or outside the church or have never even heard any preaching—everyone has an opinion about preaching,” says Mark Labberton, occupant of Fuller Seminary’s new Lloyd John Ogilvie Chair of Preaching. “That gives me a lot of healthy trepidation about teaching in this discipline that I think is so important, but which is also challenging and changing.” How, then, might the next generation continue to speak God’s transforming truth as we move into the future? This question was the topic of the Preaching and Culture Making symposium held at Fuller’s Pasadena campus Monday, April 20, sponsored by the Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching at Fuller’s Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts.
The symposium featured comments from some of today’s most dynamic preachers from the U.S. and internationally, including Lloyd John Ogilvie, James Earl Massey, William Willimon, Renita Weems, Peter Storey, Ken Fong, and Jana Childers, in addition to Mark Labberton. Andy Crouch, noted author of Culture Making (InterVarsity, 2008) and senior editor at Christianity Today International, moderated the evening, and members of the audience were encouraged to participate in the discussion by submitting their own questions to the panel.
Participants discussed the ways preaching has changed in recent decades. “The most obvious difference is that issues of gender have changed since I started ministry in the 1980s,” explained Renita Weems, biblical scholar and elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “Today there are certain kinds of battles that I as a female preacher don’t have to fight. It’s a much more nuanced kind of battle now.”
Jana Childers, dean and professor of homiletics and speech communication at San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS), believes that in some subcultures the styles and goals of preaching have also evolved. “When I first came to SFTS, we desired our graduates to preach literate, thoughtful sermons,” she noted. “By that we meant analytical and thorough manuscript sermons—something akin to a respectable, dignified lecture. Now my syllabi say I expect my students to preach lively, dynamic, biblically faithful sermons.”
Moderator Andy Crouch emphasized the importance of images in our postmodern culture as the root of other important changes in the art of preaching. Some preachers, like Ken Fong of Evergreen Baptist Church in Los Angeles, are finding it increasingly necessary to use images to capture the meaning behind the texts about which they’re speaking. “People will remember the image and therefore remember the whole point I’m trying to make,” said Fong. “It’s just how I now try to craft a sermon.”
Additionally, the panel explored issues such as the prevalence of distraction in our culture, the interaction between preaching and politics, the need for authenticity and humor, differences in preaching among various subcultures, and the importance of preaching that proclaims truly good news to people both outside and inside the church. While 21st-century preaching may look and sound different from the preaching of the past, the symposium highlighted the continued importance of a good sermon in the edification of the Church.
“Adult, sophisticated, postmodern people rarely change significantly in their lives. And preaching has almost zero capacity to make people change,” said Childers. “But the Holy Spirit has often chosen to use the preaching that people have offered up, and that’s the Holy Spirit’s prerogative."