Yesterday I saw one my oldest friends for the first time in a couple of years and had a great day walking, talking and catching up.
One question he asked took me by surprise: do you still believe in the efficacy of preaching? He went on to explain that the reason that he asks is that although he is very committed to regular exposition of the Bible, week in, week out in his church and that he believes the Bible is the powerful word of God, nevertheless he was struggling to point to much gospel transformation, life change, increasing passion for God, willingness to walk sacrifically by faith or spirit of worship and adoration in his congregation as a result of the biblical preaching.
That raised an obvious question: is it him not doing it right, is it them not receiving it right, is it the act of preaching the Bible not being transformative for some reason, or is it something else? I resonate with the question because I regularly meet people who sit under the sound of biblical preaching in churches who manifestly don't seem to grow as worshipping, witnessing disciples as a result. Nor, in some cases, even in knowing much about the scriptures and biblical doctrine.
The additional question the discussion raised for me is not whether I still believe in preaching (I do), but what do I believe preaching is and does? What does it achieve - and what doesn't it?
I want to make one simple contention. Preaching is a critical and vital part of the work of any biblical church. Correctly understood, preaching is mostly heralding the gospel - that is, proclaiming to the world that doesn't yet follow Jesus to come and be reconciled to God. Teaching for Christians is chiefly not heralding but edifying, so that believers live out the gospel, particiapte in the purposes of God in the world and make more disciples. Note, growing in Christian maturity is not about receiving and mentally acknowledging the correctness of the teaching, as if in a lecture. No, maturity is about living out the call fo Christ to make disciples and to show God's redeeming love and compassion to the world. You can sit under all the church sermons you like and be just as immature at the end as at the beginning if all you do is passively listen.
So here is my contention: preaching, though critical, is not in itself sufficient. It isn't sufficient for people getting to know the scriptures and it isn't sufficient for people growing in maturity. It is an important part of the diet, but not the whole thing.
We are starting a series in Numbers at our church. After the introduction last week quite a selection of people asked me for help and training on principles for how to apply the Old Testament themselves. I was delighted. In the words of the old adage, if you give a person a fish you feed them for a day, if you teach them to fish you feed them for a lifetime. I think the same holds true for a lot of up-front preaching in church - it is the equivalent of giving a person a fish rather than teaching them to fish. The preacher does the feeding, the individual doesn't necessarily have to learn to do it themselves. More, the preacher in most instances can't tell whether the congregation are learning to do it for themselves through the preaching, because in the upfront monologue there is no feedback mechanism. You can't tell if what you are teaching is actually being received and learned in order to be acted on. For that to happen the preaching needs to be accompanied by discipling people in the scriptures so that they can feed themselves. Preaching is additional to this, not a replacement for it.
If preaching isn't sufficient for getting to know the scriptures, neither is it sufficient for growing in maturity. You grow in maturity by living out the gospel. That depends on taking - or being given - opportunities to actually live, love and speak for Jesus wherever possible. Preaching can encourage this, but in itself it doesn't make it happen. Indeed if people think they are growing in maturity simply because they are growing in knowledge by hearing preaching (or think they are when they are hearing preaching even they aren't growing in knowledge!), then similarly they will substitute sitting in church, receiving upfront teaching, for growing in God. Once again preaching becomes a substitute or replacement for growth.
This may sound a little shocking to biblical Christians who believe in the power of God being experienced when the Bible is preached: it can become a holy-looking substitute for Christians actually living out the gospel. A churchy activity, expected every week but not lived out. Furthermore so much time can go into preparing a good sermon that no capcity is left to train people to feed in the scriptures for themselves. In the same way as too many Bible studies given the impression that the desired end result is knowing more (rather than living out the gospel and adoring God), so those who think the end result of preaching should be a knowledgeable congregation are likely to discover a percentage who simply don't grow no matter how much accurate exposition you throw at them.
(As an aside, preachers also need to be very wary of justifying their practise to themselves thus: "I am convinced that the preaching of the Bible is used by God to bring gospel transformation. Therefore it must be happening even if I never see any evidence at all. It is simply happening invisibly." Of course the difficulty is that you don't know whether it is or not, but your framework simply justifies you in never asking hard evaluative questions about what you are doing. God clearly does work when we don't see evidence, and sometimes we need to labour for years before seeing any results. But to justify that he only ever works indiscernibly because we never see anything is a tail-wagging-the-dog argument).
Just like with a baby it isn't the quality of the food you channel their way that makes a person grow. It is whether they digest it.