We asked 5 Pastors from Richmond, Virginia, each with different backgrounds and traditions, to weigh in on Christian preaching, where it's at and where it's going.
It's a fascinating time in the life of Christian preaching as you have several things coming together at one time: The continued secularization of Western culture and Biblical illiteracy, the polarization of almost everything (theologically, politically, etc), the advent of digital technology and the mass availability of the best preaching in the world today with one swipe of a finger.
How are these pastors thinking through these realities in real time as they seek to make disciples of Jesus?
1. What’s the thing you’re most broadly excited about in Christian preaching today?
ERIK BONKOVSKY, CITY CHURCH OF RICHMOND: The thing about Christian preaching that excites me most is Jesus. And He is present and at the center of so much preaching, from a variety of traditions and in a variety of contexts. I am encouraged deeply by sitting under preaching from styles however different from my own, insofar as they help me to see the great Face of faces, Jesus.
ERIN ROSE, EAST END FELLOWSHIP: I’m excited about the variety of voices that are preaching - this isn’t new, but it’s something I’m becoming increasingly aware of. The Spirit of God speaks to his people in all different kinds of ways, and each preacher is a unique vessel. I definitely think that’s cool.
CHRIS BARRAS, AREA 10: I think I’m most excited by the the fact that despite all the changes in technology and attention spans and things like that…preaching still works. There is still power in the spoken word and God’s word creatively communicated still moves people. God is still at work through preaching in His church.
KEVIN GERMER, CHRIST PRESBYTERIAN: Generally, I’m excited that people are still preaching the gospel and that the triune God of grace is still using preaching to draw people to himself and form us into the likeness of Jesus. Preaching, of all things! His power is still made known in our weakness.
DAVID BAILEY, ARRABON: I’m excited that I’m hearing more people talking about contextualization in preaching. From my experienced, about 15 years ago it seems like the primary people who were talking about contextualization in preaching were missionaries. Today, it seems like more people who have a ministry calling here in the United States are thinking about contextualization in preaching to a more diverse society.
2. What’s the most cringe-worthy thing happening in Christian preaching today?
ERIK BONKOVSKY, CITY CHURCH OF RICHMOND: One thing I’ve noticed in Christian preaching today (I likely first noticed it in my preaching) is the repetition of the phrase, “Isn’t this interesting?” Whenever I hear that phrase, I cringe. While it may not seem like a big deal to indicate ‘interesting’ dimensions of Biblical texts, that phrase is symptomatic of approaching Scripture that is more about critical reading than gospel transformation. The Bible isn’t merely a compendium of ‘interesting facts’ to be mined; it is God’s living Word which holds the power of salvation itself.
ERIN ROSE, EAST END FELLOWSHIP: I haven’t seen this everywhere, but I’ve seen some preachers with a powerful gift of rhetoric deliver a sermon that will get a congregation emotionally charged and then financially manipulate the crowd. The congregation will be asked to “sow a seed” in order to get some blessing that the preacher says will come from God. That kind of stuff grinds my gears.
CHRIS BARRAS, AREA 10: When pastors are just trying too hard to be cool and end up not being themselves. We all have a built in gauge for phony so please…pastors…be yourself. If you are funny, be funny. If you are a good story teller, then tell good stories. If you are boring, maybe look for a different way to use your skills than in the pulpit. (If you don’t know if you are boring- ask a middle schooler.) The gospel of Christ is too important to bore people with it.
KEVIN GERMER, CHRIST PRESBYTERIAN: I cringe whenever I hear sermons that highlight and emphasize what we must do for God more than what God has done for us. And I cringe whenever I recognize the impulse in me to create and preach this kind of sermon. Messages like these can motivate in the short-term, but they’re ultimately crushing.
DAVID BAILEY, ARRABON: In some circles, people hail expository preaching as the only way to be faithful in preaching. Faithful exegesis is essential for faithful preaching, but the method of expository preaching is for a particular culture. Once a text is understood, there should be flexibility in discerning the best method of communicating the text to the community in which the word is being proclaimed. Cross-cultural communication is complex, so there should never be a one-stop shop approach.
3. Different traditions of Christianity preach in different ways. What’s a tradition different than yours you’d like to learn from and why?
ERIK BONKOVSKY, CITY CHURCH OF RICHMOND: There are many different preaching traditions from which I have lots to learn. Lately I’ve been helped particularly by the narrative style of preaching. Trained in classic historical-grammatical expositional homiletics, I am learning to see 'story’ as an important resource for effective preaching. Emphasis on narrative arc (in novels, podcasts, TV shows, and other media) teaches me how better to communicate the unchanging truth of God to people who live fundamentally through meaning-shaping stories.
ERIN ROSE, EAST END FELLOWSHIP: I grew up in a African-American Apostolic church; I actually think I’d like to learn more from that tradition. There’s a cadence and authority in the delivery of a Black preacher’s sermon that’d I’d like to grab hold of. Many black preachers are able to preach at a high theological level while simultaneously making you want to leap for joy at the good news of the Gospel.
CHRIS BARRAS, AREA 10: I would like to learn more from the storyteller type preachers. I can tell a story, but some people can REALLY tell a great story and do a good job of using inflection and pace and timing to really connect with the congregation. I would like to learn more about that.
KEVIN GERMER, CHRIST PRESBYTERIAN: I think more in terms of learning from different preachers who have skills I lack. I want to incorporate more story-telling into my preaching, and I can’t tell a good story to save my life, so I’m trying to learn from others who do that well. A powerful narrative can capture the imagination in ways a traditional three-point sermon can’t.
DAVID BAILEY, ARRABON: I grew up in a topical style of exhortation preaching that was “led by the Spirit." Everyone who preached in my church were faithful people who embodied the Scriptures better than some of my friends with seminary degrees. In many cases, these sermon topics wouldn’t be rooted in a particular text and the preacher would go through the Bible reading a compilation of Scriptures that proved their point. Personally, I’m not wired a way where I get a lot of out of this preaching style. When I learned about biblical theology and expository preaching, it helped me to be able to root a “topical sermon” within a biblical narrative of Scripture. Now when I preach, I’m taking all of these experiences and I’m asking myself, “What is the story of this Scripture?” and I’ve learned that if you preach the story of Scripture then people will remember the connection of the text.
4. What role do you think preaching plays in the work of your local church?
ERIK BONKOVSKY, CITY CHURCH OF RICHMOND: A lay leader at our church once said, “Preaching is about 5% of the work of the church.” I’m thankful for that comment because it gives perspective and keeps me humble as I think about preaching. Nonetheless, in our tradition, it’s hard to over-emphasize the role of preaching. The sermon is the one weekly time where the church as a whole attends to God’s Word together. It is not me (or another pastor) sharing our best ideas from the last week. It is nothing less than the announcement of God’s good news attended by the Holy Spirit, from which flows individual and corporate discipleship
ERIN ROSE, EAST END FELLOWSHIP: I think preaching is pretty formative for our community, but I don’t think it fully outweighs other aspects of worship. Singing prayer, communion and responding to the Word are equally important to the the preached word; they aren’t just starters or space fillers for the "main event."
CHRIS BARRAS, AREA 10: Preaching is the most important work I do in the church, because it touches the greatest number of people and it has the power to inspire and rally the people around a great vision. As our church has grown I find myself blocking out even more time for preaching than I used to. Choosing my words carefully for sermons is important work. It also sets up my pastoring by giving me connection points with the congregation.
KEVIN GERMER, CHRIST PRESBYTERIAN: My prayer and hope is that the Lord would use preaching to help us remember, experience, and celebrate the grace of Jesus week after week, and so be changed. I think this actually happens!
DAVID BAILEY, ARRABON: I preach in a lot of different places, but each place tends to have the same economic and educational culture, even if they are diverse racially or economically. At our church, it’s one of the hardest places to preach at because it is racially, ethnically, economically, and educationally diverse. It is very difficult to find an illustration that works well for the PhD congregant...and the congregant who doesn't have a high school education. It’s difficult to find an analogy that resonates with the affluent congregant and the congregant who is economically unstable because of substance abuse. It’s difficult to do, but when we do, we are making a statement that the Gospel is good news to the poor among us as well as the rich young ruler. Preaching in our community helps us to see the gospel displayed in this way.
5. The explosion of digital technology lets people choose from literally thousands of podcasts, including some of the most gifted preachers alive today. They can live-stream services and just sit in bed in their PJ's and watch their favorite preacher. What currently stands out about both the gift of technology and the challenge of technology as it relates to preaching?
ERIK BONKOVSKY, CITY CHURCH OF RICHMOND: Undoubtedly, the rich treasury of resources available via technology offers incredible value to the church. It enables discipleship and promotes understanding of gospel through the wide and democratic availability of excellent resources. I have two concerns, however: 1) how technology (re)shapes our understanding of ‘preaching’ and church so that preaching becomes just informational (listening to sermons 1.5x speed to cram in more data) rather than transformational; and 2) how technology threatens hyper-local preaching, that is, preaching that requires familiarity faith and exegesis of congregations, as well as biblical text. Podcasts and celebrity pastors simply can’t preach locally like those preachers in the local context, who have come to smell like their sheep.
ERIN ROSE, EAST END FELLOWSHIP: I think it comes down to how we help people understand the nature and purpose of the church, and how people's own spiritual growth is dependent on being in a real, flesh-and-blood local church (ie: other local committed Christian committed to participating in the mission of God together). Spiritual content and information is good. But it's limited. I listen to a fair amount of podcasted sermons a week, outside of what I may be preaching or what someone else in our preaching team is doing. But that's an additive. It's nowhere near as powerful and important as the preaching happening in our local context.
CHRIS BARRAS, AREA 10: The gift of technology for the church is that it has never been easier to get the message of Christ out to the masses. This is mostly a blessing for preaching as the message can be recorded and have an impact outside of the walls of the church. Another benefit is that the ubiquity of great preaching online has raised the bar for many of us who preach in the local church. The downside is that people think that its all just purely content to be consumed and they can get the content, but miss out on being part of the community. Avoiding the church by just listening to a sermon in bed in their PJs is missing the point of the biblical community.
KEVIN GERMER, CHRIST PRESBYTERIAN: Podcasts! lol.
DAVID BAILEY, ARRABON: I think a gift of technology is that people can learn more about the Scriptures from some of the most gifted preachers in the world. This is a great thing, but the great challenge is that we can often think that we know something because we can cognitively articulate something. The standard of true knowledge in the Bible is that we don’t “know” something until we are “doing” it. It’s the embodiment of practice that is the true test of knowledge. If we are listening to podcast all of the time, we can outpace our knowledge base with our ability to learn new practices of embodiment.
BONUS !!!! Finish this sentence: 20 years in the future, I hope one of the defining aspects of Christian preaching will be ______________ .
ERIK BONKOVSKY, CITY CHURCH OF RICHMOND: Preachers who believe what they are saying with every fiber of their bodies. (As Pope Francis has said, "What is essential is that the preacher be certain that God loves him, that Jesus Christ has saved him and that his love always has the last word.”)
ERIN ROSE, EAST END FELLOWSHIP: Demonstrations of spirit and power - like Paul talked about. I really hope that preaching doesn’t devolve into “talks” or sagely suggestions for the upcoming week, but that preaching would be a vehicle that God would use to make scales fall out of eyes, convict people of sin, and tell of the great joy of knowing Jesus and being his disciple.
CHRIS BARRAS, AREA 10: That it is consistently Biblical. The temptation to tell people what they want to hear, rather than what the text really says is a real temptation. Over time our churches will suffer for not really diving into the word of God and doing the hard work of learning it.
KEVIN GERMER, CHRIST PRESBYTERIAN: an utter lack of therapeutic self-help and a deeper, more radical commitment to proclaiming the grace of Jesus.
DAVID BAILEY, ARRABON: Measuring success by how well we faithfully contextualize and exegete the text, and how well our listeners embody the message.