Preaching has fallen on hard times. So suggests a report out of Durham University's College of Preachers. The British university's CODEC research center, which aims to explore "the interfaces between the Bible, the digital environment and contemporary culture," conducted the study to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the College of Preachers. The report is not very encouraging.
As Ruth Gledhill of The Times [London] reports, "Sermons, history shows, can be among the most revolutionary forms of human speech. From John Calvin to Billy Graham, preaching has had the power to topple princes, to set nation against nation, to inspire campaigners to change the world and impel people to begin life anew."
Indeed, preaching is the central act of Christian worship, but its great aim reaches far above merely changing the world. The preaching of the Word of God is the chief means by which God conforms Christians to the image of Christ. Rightly understood, true Christian preaching is not aimed only at this earthly life, but is the means whereby God prepares his people for eternity.
Yet, you wouldn't know this if you judged the importance of preaching by its place in many of today's congregations. Gledhill observes, "In many churches this most vibrant of moments has withered to little more than 20 minutes of tired droning that serves only to pad out the gap between hymns and lunch."
The withering of preaching is not uniform in all congregations and denominations. Evangelicals were most enthusiastic about preaching, while others registered less appreciation for the preached Word. Interestingly, Gledhill reports that "Baptists and Catholics were also more enthusiastic about the Bible being mentioned in sermons than were Anglicans and Methodists."
The Anglicans also expressed a desire to be entertained, rather then educated. The Rev. Kate Bruce, Fellow in Preaching and Communication at the CODEC center, said that "in a culture which values entertainment and likes stand-up, over a quarter [of respondents] said they want preaching to be entertaining, too."
Well, they will have to be quick about the entertainment. Many Anglicans indicated that they wanted the sermon to be less than ten minutes long. As Gledhill remarks, they might be willing to allow up to twenty minutes "if there was no 'waffle.'"
Perhaps the biggest question raised by the report is why so many British churchgoers (96.6%) said they "look forward" to the sermon. Ruth Gledhill comments:
In their report the Durham researchers admit to puzzlement that so many people looked forward to the sermons, and confess that more work was needed to find out why.
The report questions whether people look forward to the sermon so much for the content, the engagement, the entertainment, the theology or simply that it gives them time to switch off.
Time to switch off? According to the report, Britain has only 3.6 million "regular churchgoers" out of a population of over 60 million. That is, only about five percent of Britons even attend church services on any regular basis. Evidently, many of those who do attend "look forward" to a very short message from a preacher that entertains them.
England, of course, is the nation that once gave us preachers the likes of Charles Simeon, Charles Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Now, with the rare and blessed exception of some faithful evangelical churches, preaching has fallen on desperate times.
Some observers of British life now estimate that in any given week Muslim attendance at mosques outnumbers Christian attendance at churches. That means that there are probably now in Britain more people who listen to imams than to preachers.
This raises an interesting question: Is the marginalization of biblical preaching in so many churches a cause or a result of the nation's retreat from Christianity? In truth, it must be both cause and effect. In any event, there is no hope for a recovery of biblical Christianity without a preceding recovery of biblical preaching. That means preaching that is expository, textual, evangelistic, and doctrinal. In other words, preaching that will take a lot longer than ten minutes and will not masquerade as a form of entertainment.
Time and time again, God's people have been rescued by a recovery of biblical teaching and preaching. The right preaching of the Word of God is the first essential mark of the church. As the Reformers made clear, where that mark is absent, there is no church at all.
The study conducted for the College of Preachers is interesting, if also frightening. But little is gained from asking confused people what kind of preaching they want. The faithful preacher takes as his first and most sacred responsibility the charge to give the congregation the preaching it needs.