stereotypes in the popular mind of the 21st century characterise the
Christian Church. One is the picture of a group of robed clerics (women
are expressly excluded)
clustered round an altar participating in elaborate rituals and swathed
in a cloud of incense. The other is of a fiery preacher, haranguing a
quaking or rejoicing congregation from a pulpit or stage "six feet above
The former image
is most closely connected with the Catholic party of the Christian Church;
the latter with the Protestant party. Yet both groups place preaching at
the heart of the Christian ministry. Preaching as a ministry is not
confined to the ordained. If the clergy don't do their preaching, lay
The roots of preaching as an activity go back far
beyond the boundaries of human history. Our very earliest evidence
indicates an art already sophisticated and central to even the most
Certainly by the time of the Greek and Roman
cultures the art of speaking (rhetoric) was an essential part of a
gentleman's education. Apuleius in the second century says that at a
The first cup is poured for us by the litterator who begins
to polish the roughness of our mind. Then comes the grammaticus
who adorns us with varied knowledge. Finally it is the rhetor's
turn, who puts in our hands the weapons of eloquence.
Rhetoric as the art of persuasion was tuned to a fine pitch in the
Roman Empire and so on through into Europe of the very recent past. It
was equally prized in other cultures. The author of the Acts of the
Apostles (17.19) relates how Paul in Athens attempted to speak in the
public square where many a debate would have taken place. Paul's
preaching in Athens failed - but we don't know if that was because he
wasn't skilled enough or because his hearers lacked interest in his
At any rate, Paul seems to have been eloquent enough a
speaker to persuade many in Corinth and elsewhere to become Christian. He
certainly was reputed to have talked for a long time on occasion - in one
case, long enough for the unfortunate Eutychus to go to sleep and fall to
his death out of a third storey window (Acts 20.9). His letters clearly
contain the message of his sermons, no doubt preached over periods of
But the length of Paul's speech or sermon (as we would today term
it) would not have been unusual for the time. In Southern Africa today,
many cultures are only a generation away from a purely verbal means of
communication. Paul's culture, unlike those of Africa, had writing -
though that was confined to a very small proportion of the population. In
both cases, the spoken word was accorded a degree of respect much greater
than that given by the communication-overloaded cultures of modern times.
To this day, sermons in some African churches can last for hours, replete
with repetition and great detail.
As scholars emphasise, the gospels are
essentially a type of preaching. That is, each contains a vision of Jesus
derived from a particular Christian region in the years between about 70
(Mark) and about 110 (John).
From the earliest days of the Christian
Church, then, preaching during gatherings and worship rapidly became the
norm - as it had been in Jewish communities and many other places of
(pagan) worship throughout the Roman world. In Roman political life, the
rhetorical debate took the place given today to the highly professional
image building of political parties through radio and television.
two millennia, the Church has gradually developed a substantial practice
of preaching. But expert preachers existed only in the more educated
strata of the clergy until quite recent times. In the average congregation
the sermon would have been more like an extended homily than a well
constructed, sophisticated sermon.
In Europe before the 17th century,
for example, homilies were produced for the use of poorly educated clergy.
In 1547 a Book of Homilies was produced in England for the use of
disaffected and semi-literate clergy. It consisted of twelve simple
homilies, each about a theological or ethical matter. A second book of
twenty-one homilies followed in 1571.
But it was the Reformation which
brought the sermon proper into full bloom. As the new churches moved away
from elaborate ceremonial practices, so the art of preaching the "Word of God"
became more and more central. Just as Catholic churches have the altar at
the center of focus in a building, so many Protestant churches placed the
pulpit at the center.
Preaching as the proper function of a clergyman
rose to its zenith as education became more common. By the 19th century in
the Western world, preaching was important enough for many thousands of
books of sermons to be published and avidly collected and read by many.
Today, preaching must take its place in a world bombarded by political and
commercial messages through the media - from print to the most recent
arrivals, the internet and the mobile telephone. Mass media preaching
reaches millions wherever Christians are willing and able to pay the steep
costs of buying television and radio time. Otherwise, today's preachers
speak to relatively small numbers as they gather in church for worship.
Nevertheless, there remains a sturdy body of theory relating to preaching
as an essential facet of the Christian life. A typical outline might
propose three aspects to preaching:
Exegesis It is the preacher's duty to expound a
biblical text from either the Old or the New Testament or, in the case
of the Catholic Church, an official church doctrine. The meaning
expounded should be that of those who first wrote the text or who
originally experienced the Word of God in their trailblazing
Interpretation The next step is to ensure that the
original meaning is translated into the concepts and terms of those
who are listening to the sermon. The underlying understanding is that
the original meaning is not bound by culture but is in a real sense
eternally applicable to all people everywhere.
Application The final step is for the
preacher to relate the message to the contemporary situation of his
hearers. How are they to apply what they hear in a culture which is
very different from that in which God first revealed his will?
Perhaps understandably, as the media have taken over the attention of
the average Western citizen, so have Christian claims for preaching
grown larger. In many churches, only the foolish preacher will time his
services and sermons to coincide with a popular television program or an
important sporting event. To compensate, many clergy insist that the
sermon remains more important than the mass media.
And as the pews
have emptied in Europe, so have trainee clergy been given ever more
grounding in the practices of preaching in the wake of far reaching
theological claims. John Stacey writes that
... [preaching] has been seen as part of God's eternal action ...
as means of God speaking and acting in an almost totalitarian fashion
so that there is nothing more momentous and decisive than preaching
(Karl Barth) ... so that ... those who believe can be saved (Rudolf
Bultmann) ... as the essential action of the church, renewing its life
as it proclaims the kingdom (C H Dodd). 
Having said that, there have been a number of clear trends in
preaching since the eventful decade of the 1960s and the subsequent
domination of preaching by the mass media:
- The sermon has remained an integral part of both Catholic and
Protestant worship in the West (in the East it has never had quite the
same pride of place). But it has become much less prominent. Sermons
are, by and large, much shorter than ever before. In some
congregations, the sermon is now often supported by
computer-generated graphics projected onto a screen. In more
adventurous types of worship a short homily may even be supported by
brief events such as a choreographed dance or short dramatic scetch.
In many churches, the sermon has taken on some of the
characteristics of entertainment. Huge congregations of many
thousands will listen to a preacher as he or she paces the stage and
strings together a number of biblical quotations and emotional
exhortations - interspersed by music and singing. The audience is
encouraged to respond through exclamation and movement. The emphasis
of such sermons is primarily to influence hearers. Teaching is a
relatively minor part of the preaching.
Tele-evangelists are those who pay large sums of money to buy
time on otherwise completely secular mass media. If the costs are
high, so are the potential financial rewards, for the sermons are
peppered with appeals for donations to fund the broadcasts. Analysts
of the style and content of these sermons tend to be somewhat
scathing about the tenuous connections between traditional
Christianity and their emotional and sometimes manipulative
A minority tends to altogether abandon or sideline sermons in
their traditional form. They maintain that the top-down nature of
the sermon is essentially paternalistic and that the average person
today prefers to negotiate meaning through discussion and sharing of
personal experience. The time given to sermons in the past is
replaced by group work after, or even during, worship sessions. This
format enshrines the traditional aims of combining teaching and
persuading through the medium of a sermon.
What of the future of preaching? Will it survive and strengthen as an
essential tool of the Church - or will it gradually succumb to the blast
of sounds and sights which increasingly unite the global community?
Only time will tell, of course. And the tides of cultural change are
extremely slow. Even now there is a large gap between the Western world
and the slowly awakening cultures of Africa. The latter may have to
first go through a phase of sermonising before it must face the
challenges which so stress Western Christianity in the 21st century.
Bishop John Spong has tried to envision a Church of the future
. He suggests that it will embody a number of characteristics
which we can now only glimpse on the cultural horizon:
There will be a shift from traditional theism to a more
world-focused, natural understanding of Jesus.
Guilt will no longer be used to persuade or drive people into the
arms of a protective body of the faithful. Instead the emphasis will
be on a corporate search for experienced truth and ethics based on
life rather than doctrine.
In place of ritualised worship and rites of passage will evolve a
caring, supportive community characterised by mutual acceptance
rather than tribal boundaries or exclusive claims.
If Spong is even moderately correct, the sermon is clearly going to
either disappear completely, or persist in a modified, attenuated form.
It will become more of a dialogue than a monologue. Preaching will have
to prove itself in a forum where hearers can and will contest a point or
deliver their own contradictory testimony.
In short, preaching is already in the workshop waiting to be
remodeled and reshaped into something radically unlike anything before.
 Quoted by Jerome Carcopino in Daily Life in
Ancient Rome, Penguin, 1964
 In A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press, 1983
 A New Christianity For a New World, HarperSanFrancisco, 2002