Creating Conversation: Preaching and the Mission of God

David Fields is more convinced than ever about the value of preaching – with several caveats.

Creating Conversation is a weekly editorial, curated by the Centre for Missional Leadership (CML), which gives opportunity for people to speak about issues they believe are vital for the church in Vancouver.  

One of the goals of this weekly article is to spark dialogue – and action. We invite you to join the dialogue here on the Church for Vancouver website.

We also invite you to use the article as a discussion starter with your small group, church staff, friends and your neighbours. Thanks for participating in the conversation!

It’s true: my Baptist / broadly evangelical tradition can tend to be a bit heavy on preaching. The typical, monologue approach, where one person can dominate the gospel discourse within a community, is open to some fair critique.

For example, preaching in this mode might encourage the passivity of the rest of the community, or leave the sense that one either accepts the message as delivered (or not!) without the ability to dialogue, question, or engage more deeply with the preacher.

More still: there might be an implicit sense that the preacher / pastor is the professional, and therefore the rest of the community simply receives instruction but is essentially disempowered for gospel discourse within their workplace, neighbourhood, family network or the marketplace.

In this mode, preaching doesn’t nurture a missional identity of a community or equip the church for ministry in the ‘other-six-day’ spaces of the real world.

And yet, after 16 years of full-time pastoral ministry, I’m convinced more than ever that preaching matters. I’m convinced that the public reading of Scripture and the announcement of the news of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension and present reign needs to be heard afresh each week.

But I’m also convinced that the nature of the Bible as a document of mission gives us pause to consider some key features of what shape that preaching must take. Our current setting, what can be described as ‘post-Christendom,’ requires us to rethink what it means to speak this message of hope into a skeptical, even cynical-to-the-Christian-faith world we now inhabit in the late-modern West.

Missionary and theologian, Lesslie Newbigin, says it like this: “The weekly gathering for worship is by far the most important thing we do.”1 That’s a big statement, especially from a missionary!

Michael Goheen elaborates: “Worship is the central calling of the church partially because it gives the people of God their focus and direction in the whole of their lives; from worship the whole life of the church flows, and in worship the whole life of the church finds its true end. Getting our worship right, therefore, must be our top priority.”2

Our top priority? More big statements. But that’s not all. Goheen goes further to say that preaching deserves a special attention, since preaching is “a powerful means by which God’s people may be nurtured and empowered for the missional call.”3

The function, or “primal task” of preaching, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, is “the narration and nurture of a counter identity.”4 Preaching has the potential to reinterpret the self-understanding of the people of God and their place in God’s world and mission. The function Brueggemann describes, however, is not automatic.

Commenting on Brueggemann’s statement, Barry Jones chides: “Sadly, the most esteemed preachers of our day are often not the ones preaching . . . provocative, countercultural sermons but those who have mastered the art of making Christianity palatable to savvy religious consumers.”5

Jones’ comment may be overstated, but his point pushes the question: what does preaching look like that is both faithful to God and takes seriously our present setting? How would we approach preaching that will nurture a counter-identity; that will equip the community of faith to join God’s mission?

And I want to take this one large step further: how could preaching also connect with those non-Christian neighbours who are interested in exploring Christian faith?

My forthcoming book, Preaching and the Mission of God: Faithful Witness After Christendom (Wipf & Stock), is my attempt at answering those questions (and a few more to boot). I begin by rooting an understanding of what we are doing when we preach within a specifically missional reading of Scripture.

Stephen Holmes says it like this in his forward to the book:

The conviction that underlies this book is that the Bible, the church, and so preaching, are each irreducibly missional. The Bible is not just the record of God’s age-long plan to bring the kingdom so that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, but is in large part the notes and conversations of the prophets and apostles called and sent to carry out that plan.

Every book in the New Testament is written in moments snatched for the purpose by active missionaries. We make no sense of it if we do not read it as a fundamentally missional document.

If it’s true that the Bible is a document of mission, given to us by the God who is a missionary (and I think it is), what would that mean for the way we understand the task of preaching, and go about preparing sermons that accord well with that task?

Preaching within this frame will set the main text within the larger story of God’s saving actions in Jesus, will centre on who Jesus is and what Jesus does to save and renew those who trust in him, and will prepare God’s people to live in distinctive ways and engage God’s mission in the other six-day spaces.

All that sounds like quite a weight to place on preaching. Fair enough. The rest of the book goes on to describe the ‘how,’ and does so by drawing particularly on the way Paul ministers to non-Jewish audiences in Acts.

It goes into detail, drawing on how Paul’s ministry in Athens (Acts 17) where we find five implications for contextualized gospel proclamation. From Paul we learn to:

1) employ appropriate patterns of speech for the context;
2) gain familiarity with the culture(s) we engage;
3) connect with our culture without capitulating to it;
4) offer an epistemological challenge (help people examine why they believe what they do to better consider the truth claims of the gospel); and
5) give opportunity for appropriate response.

Each of these areas is discussed, and the implications for preaching are drawn out in this section of the book.

For example, the first area – employ appropriate patterns of speech – means speaking in culturally accessible ways, enabling the church community to learn, by example, appropriate ways to explain the hope of the gospel when they are asked by their friends and neighbours to give a reason for their hope (1 Peter 3:15).

As Ross Hastings wisely comments:

Preaching is not reserved for the public teacher but is the essence of what all God’s people do as they articulate the shalom they have entered, and as they explain their nonverbal missional endeavors.6

Preaching the good news every Sunday, then, seeks both to reach the unbelievers who are listening-in and are undecided about Jesus, and to inspire and prepare God’s people to articulate the good news in their neighbourhoods and workplaces.

Preaching sets the example, not only of the content of the gospel, but also of appropriate ways to speak of God. Preachers model appropriate lines of argumentation and courtesy for those we speak to – or we model the opposite.

Now, if you are anything like me, you might think: “That all sounds nice. But can you show me a picture? What does that really look like?”

After offering a set of tools for preparing sermons with missional intent, the book then has three example sermons from three different preachers that offer a diverse picture of what this could look like: one from myself, one from Stephen Holmes (St. Andrews University, UK), and one from Miriam Swanson (Director of Fusion USA, a campus ministry).

Preaching still matters. It isn’t everything, but it does deserve special attention. And part of that attention means thinking, as carefully as we can about what exactly we are doing when we read the Bible, when we preach the gospel – and how we, as preachers, are empowering the community we serve to live with faithfulness to God in a world that desperately needs to know the news of Jesus.

Perhaps this book can help deepen or sharpen your thinking about those questions, or can help equip those on a church preaching team, or others in your community to be better equipped to participate with God in God’s mission?

Some questions to consider: In your view, does preaching still matter? Why or why not? Does it deserve this ‘special attention?’ How does the way we conceive of the Bible impact how we think about the task of preaching? How do you typically think about the task of preaching? Does it include a sense of evangelizing non-believers as well as equipping the Christian community for mission? Why or why not?

1 Lesslie Newbigin, The Good Shepherd, quoted in Michael Goheen, A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011), 202.
2 Michael Goheen, A Light to the Nations, 202.
3 Goheen, 204.
4 Walter Brueggemann, Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles (Louisville, KN: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 12.
5 Barry Jones. Dwell: Life with God for the World (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2014), 153.
6 Ross Hastings, Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for the Re-Evangelization of the West (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012), Loc. 2371 of 4119.

David Fields is lead pastor of Summit Drive Church in Kamloops, BC, where he has served for 16 years in just about every pastoral role. His doctoral research focused on hermeneutics, mission, and preaching at Acadia. He has a passion for helping people follow Jesus and equipping the church.

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4 comments for “Creating Conversation: Preaching and the Mission of God

  1. Greatly appreciate this article. Thank you. I wonder if you address the idea of dialog versus monolog in preaching in your book. I lead a small mission where, when we gather, we talk together about a topic or text which i prepare. Rather than a preached sermon, it looks more like a guided Bible study with real life rabbit trails. . . .

    • Hi Nicole, thanks for taking the time to read and respond to the article! I love the sound of how you do a guided discussion / Bible study.

      I don’t address the idea of dialogue in preaching within the book directly, yet the bigger concepts (a missional reading of the Bible, what ‘faithful witness’ means etc.) and what they mean for preaching would spill over easily into something like your setting.

      Doug Pagitt has a book called Preaching in the Inventive Age that argues for dialogue in preaching, basically to the exclusion of what the calls “speech-ing” (which is intended to be a derogatory term for monologue preaching). I disagree with that element of his argument, as I think that a monologue was practiced in the early church and continues to have a place in Christian worship. I do think there are great ways to host dialogue approaches to learning and hearing God in community, but that does not need to exclude more ‘formal’ sermons either, where one person takes the time to exegete a text, within the flow of the biblical story, and from that announce the news of Jesus.

      In our setting (there are about 1,000 people engaged in our church community in some form or another throughout the week, and can have up to 300 people one of our two services), we find small (4 – 19) and mid-sized (20 – 70 or so) groups to host those dialogues. I do think that the main arguments of my book would be helpful for anyone hosting discussions in a group setting, and conversations even at a one-on-one level.

      Blessings on your ministry!

  2. Thanks for this provocative piece, David, and I look forward to some deeper discernment in reading your book. Your call to reformulate our understanding of preaching resonates with the invitation to be constantly reformulating our understanding of how best to show up as ambassadors of our Creator’s forgiving and reconciling love revealed definitively in the living Word, Jesus of Nazareth.

    This lies, in my opinion, at the core of being Canadian Presbyterian at our best. What seems hinted at, but not fleshed out, is the reconceptualization of preaching as part of a broader and longer conversation about being God’s people in and for the world. How would we reform our communal spiritual disciplines – welcoming, worshiping, learning and serving – to cultivate more of those transforming conversations, like the midrashic tradition does in Jewish communities?

    Looking forward to seeing how others imagine things and how those imaginings challenge even more deeply our current understandings of missioning and preaching for justice and peace with kindness and humility.

    • Hi Brian, thanks for engaging with the article! You are right to say it’s ‘hinting at’ what it means to be God’s people in and for the world. The book goes into some detail about those types of questions (ecclesiological), but certainly does focus more on the specific task of preaching that is a part of that important question.

      I particularly like Ross Hasting’s book Missional God, Missional Church for the ecclesiology component (which you may be familiar with, but other readers of this may be interested to check out – the reference is in the article above).

      As for the other spiritual disciplines component, which is so key for us, I often recommend Barry Jones’ book Dwell: Life With God for the World. He does a fabulous job of connecting the ‘breathing life’ of the church, as he calls it.

      The ‘inhale’ of spiritual discipline and worship, and the ‘exhale’ of mission. Again, you may be familiar, but for any reader who is not, that would be a great starting place that brings together spiritual formation and missional engagement (I reference that in the article as well).

      I like your idea of creating spaces for more ‘midrashic’ conversation. Our LifeGroups are encouraged to use our discussion prompts to discuss the messages, and our young adults groups eat around tables, take some time to learn, but then engage in a discussion format after dinner together. That has been a wonderful practice for us.

      Curious to know in what ways that might work out in your context? If you’ve tried to create spaces for discussion?

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