I’ve never really been comfortable with the evangelical emphasis on preaching sermons, and never quite understood why we make so much more of this form rather than of other forms of teaching. It seems to me that the emphasis on preaching (that is, ‘preaching’ understood as ‘pulpiteering’, as opposed to private and personal ministry through, for example, conversation or Bible study groups) is hard to sustain from the New Testament.
So I was heartened to pick up Richard Baxter’s old but still revolutionary work The Reformed Pastor recently to discover that he agrees with me. He makes this sharp and relevant observation about ministry through conversation (or, as he calls it, ‘interlocution’):
I hope there are none so silly as to think this conference is not preaching. What? Doth the number we speak to make it preaching? Or doth interlocution make it none? Surely a man may as truly preach to one, as to a thousand. And… if you examine, you will find that most of the preaching recorded in the New Testament, was by conference, and frequently interlocutory, and that with CHN one or two, fewer or more, as opportunity served. Thus Christ himself did most commonly preach.1
Baxter gets around the difficulty I’m thinking about by redefining preaching as something that you do as easily with one as with a thousand, and with dialogue or without. RH Mounce makes a related point in his article on ‘Preaching’ in The New Bible Dictionary:
The choice of verbs in the Greek New Testament for the activity of preaching points us back to its original meaning. The most characteristic (occurring more than sixty times) is kerysso, to ‘proclaim as a herald’. In the ancient world the herald was a figure of considerable importance … A man of integrity and character, he was employed by the king or State to make all public proclamations. Preaching is heralding; the message proclaimed is the glad tidings of salvation. While kerysso tells us something about the activity of preaching, euangelizomai, ‘to bring good news’ (from the primitive eus, ‘good’ and the verb angello ‘to announce’), a common verb, used over fifty times in the New Testament, emphasizes the quality of the message itself. It is worthy of note that the RV has not followed the AV in those places where it translates the verbs diangello, laleo, katangello and dialegomai by ‘to preach’. This helps to bring into sharper focus the basic meaning of preaching.2
This excerpt assists us in seeing Richard Baxter’s 1656 comments in their correct context. The AV, which Baxter almost certainly was using, uses ‘preach’ more often to translate words like dialegomai (to reason or discourse) or diangello (publish abroad).
So Baxter is not decrying the value of preaching, but following the AV by applying the word ‘preach’ to a broader range of activities (such as a one-to-one conversation).
Mounce’s excerpt also highlights the wide New Testament vocabulary that revolves around conveying God’s truth to others: it’s not just public heralding or proclaiming (or ‘preaching’), but also includes evangelizing, announcing, speaking, declaring, dialoguing (or possibly disputing, arguing, reasoning, or debating), not to mention plain old didasko—teaching. Each of these speaking activities (and more) comes with dominical and apostolic authority and precedent. There is a wide range of possibilities for authoritatively communicating the divine and inerrant word of God to our hearers (which, incidentally, includes the humble task of being a writer—another piece of authoritative communication that the New Testament authors seem to have found time for!).
I recall that Klaas Runia makes a virtually identical point about the New Testament vocabulary of ‘teaching’ in his book The Sermon Under Attack, which came out of his 1983 Moore College lectures. But do you think I could lay my hands on my copy of Runia’s book while I was writing this? In fact, I have just wasted 20 minutes of my life looking for it. No way would Richard Baxter approve of that. There’s gospel ministry to be getting on with, and here am I trying to footnote!