1. Pastor, Church, and World
2. Cultural Contexts of Ministry
3. Bible as Scripture
4. Introduction to Theology
5. Missional Church
6. Congregational Leadership
7. Christian Worship
So Christian Proclamation
Preaching took on a character and prominence after the Reformation that was myopic in function and disproportionate to its effectiveness. We can of course imagine it as anemic before the Reformation, but it comes to take center stage for the thinkers of the Reformation. If before it was word and TABLE, now it becomes WORD and maybe table every once and a while.
Worship went left brain, so to speak. The word of the Lord now becomes a cognitive set of propositions to believe. Most humans don't primarily work this way. We are physical, emotional creatures. The more senses we have involved in something, the more powerful the experience and the more we remember it. Sitting and hearing a set of ideas, whether in the classroom or the pew, is the least likely to have any lasting impact on us.
Thus the rise of narrative sermons that take more the form of a story. Thus the rise of all sorts of object lessons and creative activities that get us participating in the message or worship. And of course there were the American Great Awakenings that heavily involved the emotions, the altar call. Then there was charismatic worship that might involve "speaking," laughter, running the aisles, shouting, falling, and so forth.
I forgot what the current attention span is said to be--is it 7 minutes. I personally think that a sermon that goes much over 20 minutes is wasting its time, especially if it is primarily in the form of conveying information. As in the classroom, the lecturer may pat him or herself on the back for covering more material, but the students will only take about 10% of it with them.
I suspect that a well rounded preaching ministry will include a well rounded variety of forms and shapes--some narrative, some topical, perhaps some exegetical. Some should teach, some should encourage, some should correct, all should aim at facilitating "the word of the Lord." Craddock once said that a sermon needs to have an address, meaning it should land the plane at the airport in front of you. But there is probably a place for general truth as well. Most of the time, however, a plane that only circles the airport does not deliver anything.
The word of the Lord comes from God. God speaks in many different ways. He speaks directly. He brings experiences. We as Christians believe that he has especially spoken through Scripture. Scripture is a sacrament of revelation that catalyzes God's speaking to a congregation. God speaks through it.
We have had a tendency to objectify the revelation of Scripture and forget it is a window through which God "speaks" to us and we see God. The Bible gives witness to God and Christ. It is not an end in itself. To focus on the Bible in a way that does not point beyond itself to the Word of God and to the Father of our Lord is to have an improper focus.
Not only that, but the polyvalence of language has regularly allowed the preacher to pretend that his or her words are obviously the word of God. Because we can make words mean different things, we are able to pretend that our pet ideas and agendas are the word of God. A fool with no wisdom or understanding can come to speak with the authority of God.
We are also wont to miss the distance that can exist between the revelatory relationship in the Bible between God and an ancient audience and God's relationship with us. "God said it; I believe it; that settles it for me" can end up leading us not to eat a cheeseburger in Israel because "Do not boil the kid in its mother's milk." The inability of many Christians to read the Bible in context has led to all kinds of oddities in the history of interpretation.
In terms of the way our congregations experience it, good preachers are generally born, not made, but any preacher can improve. Some people, though, are not good communicators and never will be. But perhaps they are great administrators or pastors. And most importantly, they can be faithful. Like worship, because we are human beings with certain characteristics, it is just the case that certain forms will have more effective results than others.
Few people these days will engage their audience as well reading from a manuscript. But, then again, not everyone can speak fluidly with an outline or memorize enough to do well without anything. Certainly a sermon that started with a manuscript will generally go smoother even when the manuscript is not used in the actual preaching.
God of course can speak regardless of the preacher and regardless of what the preacher might say or do. But what makes for good content is wisdom. The difference between simply reading the Bible and preaching, beyond the most important element of the Spirit, is what the preacher says and does. The key to good content to fill this gap is wisdom. Some people are built to have wisdom. Some people bring wisdom because of their wealth of experience. Some preachers do not have wisdom, but they can share the wisdom of others.
Preaching over time should cover the whole council of God and the whole text of Scripture. Again, it is more important to cover the whole truth about Christ and God than to cover every text of the Bible. Scripture points beyond itself and is not an end in itself. But it is ideal that a pastor over time cover the whole text of Scripture. The pastor who does not pay attention to the texts and topics s/he preaches will almost always repeat the same pet texts and topics over and over again. This is the value of the lectionary.
If I were to have one bottom line piece of advice to a preacher it is to "know thyself." It seems to me that the vast majority of preachers cannot distinguish well between their own preferred or inherited styles, between their own ideas, and the prophetic goal of facilitating a word from the Lord. We need to learn how to get out of the way. We must decrease, divine encounter through the word must increase.