29 Dec 2012

What is the value of “doctrinal preaching” in the church today? And how should one go about it? Those were questions I had the opportunity to investigate a few months ago.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to serve as the “conference preacher” for the Arkansas Annual Conference session this past summer in Fort Smith, AR. My task was to preach the Sunday evening and Monday evening worship services. I was excited, of course. But it was a daunting task as well. There were a lot of my fellow Arkansas clergy colleagues in the congregation with a lot more wisdom and experience than me. Many of them are among the men and women I most admire in ministry and pastoral leadership.

The reason I was asked to preach by Bishop Charles Crutchfield was largely because of a new role I have in the conference as our “Wesley Scholar.” So I took that reason to heart. I am not the most accomplished preacher in our conference by a long shot, and I don’t have the decades of service that many of my colleagues do. But I have committed myself to a form of ministry and scholarship that seeks to connect the contemporary church with the vital heart of the Wesleyan tradition. I spent several years training for that task academically in a doctoral program at Duke Divinity School, and I have been teaching in the area of Wesleyan studies for some time (first as a graduate student and now as a professor at Memphis Theological Seminary). What I ended up asking myself was this question: “What would it be most important for a preacher who is also an academically trained Wesleyan theologian to offer to an annual conference?”

The answer I came up with was to develop two sermons that would attempt to capture key Wesleyan doctrines and present them both with reference to their biblical foundations and their relevance for contemporary ministry. This is what I consider to be “doctrinal preaching,” and it is not the kind of preaching you hear most often in churches today. In most Methodist settings, you are apt to hear what is called “inductive preaching,” which is a narrative preaching style that tries to get at the heart of a Scripture passage by telling stories that illustrate the meaning of the text from different angles. Another common style of preaching that can sometimes be heard in Methodist settings is expository preaching, where a Scripture passage is interpreted very carefully in almost line-by line fashion (and often illuminated with reference to other, connected passages of Scripture). And yet another preaching approach that is seen more often nowadays is topical preaching, where sermon series are developed around biblical themes or themes of Christian discipleship and preached over the course of several weeks (e.g., a series on the Ten Commandments, or a series on the Apostles’ Creed).

The justification for doctrinal preaching, in my mind, is that it puts the contemporary preaching task at the service of a broader historical tradition and that tradition’s interpretation of the Christian faith. The “tradition” here is actually a “community,” nothing less than an expression of the Christian church as it has existed across both space and time. Doctrinal preaching as I began to think about it in my preparation to preach at annual conference would accept that we in the present have much to learn from our ancestors about the interpretation of the Bible and the core elements of faithful discipleship. And doctrinal preaching would also stand against the liberal individualist temptation to think that faith is about each of us figuring out what we want to believe in order to gain a sense of self-authentication. In short, doctrinal preaching, I came to believe, ought to be about reinvigorating the meaning of doctrine as “sacred teaching” vital for the present, which has been handed down to us by the saints who have gone before us.

This was my thought process, anyway. I want to share the results of one of the two sermons I preached at the annual conference, which the folks at Good News Magazine were kind enough to run in an edited version this past autumn. But let me mention a couple of things beforehand, particularly for preachers who read this with interest. First, I don’t see the kind of doctrinal preaching as being at odds with any of the preaching styles I mention above (inductive, expository, or topical). In fact, I think my own use of it incorporates inductive and topical elements in particular. In that sense, doctrinal preaching is more of an approach than a style, although I write that without having thought through the terminology as much as I might want to do. For what it is worth, I also don’t think it falls into the trap of “deductive preaching,” at least as that might be seen as deciding the issue beforehand and then reading one’s theological view into the text (or ‘stacking the deck’ homiletically). The reason for this is that the doctrine one would preach is not something arrived at individually; it is rather the received testimony of the church dogmatically codified in both an historical and ecclesiastical sense. Doing the homiletical work of presenting such doctrine in the preached word still requires a great deal of biblical exegesis, and it requires a fair amount of investigation into the tradition’s engagement with the doctrine in question as well.

Second, I want to push the notion of doctrinal preaching as the best way toward doctrinal renewal in the church generally. When I wrote on doctrinal renewal a few months ago, I got this response from a reader on this website: “Help me to understand how such a doctrinal renewal would take place, Andrew. Since the church currently takes a casual attitude toward doctrine and largely ignores the extensive doctrinal standards of the UMC, how would it be possible to get back? Should pastors and Bishops be tried for heresy, for example? How many? I am certainly not opposed to ‘doctrinal renewal.’ i just don’t see the path from here to there.” I think many people think of doctrinal renewal in unfortunate, black-and-white terms — as if our options are either doctrinal laziness or a new inquisition! Preaching doctrine seeks a much different path; namely, the path of faithful shepherding by those entrusted with the care of flocks.

With that out of the way, feel free to check out an edited version of the sermon I preached on the doctrine of assurance with the title, “Memory flashes and the knock of Jesus.” [That is the title the magazine gave it; I had originally titled it, “The Power to Become Children of God.”] You can find the published version of the sermon at this link. The other sermon I preached at annual conference was entitled, “Pressing toward Perfection,” and it was on the doctrine of Christian perfection. As anyone familiar with Wesleyan theology will know, the doctrines of assurance and perfection loom large in Methodism over the past 300 years. They are key aspects of how we understand salvation.

6 Responses to An Exploration into Doctrinal Preaching
  1. No. The greatest recorded growth in the Christian faith in the USA was during the time of the Second Great Awakening and after.

    Charles G. Finney, the great evangelist of that period, took a clear stand against doctrinal preaching and I believe he was correct. Learning doctrine is not the same as learning the practices of the faith. it is not the same as discipleship. But, it gives the illusion of discipleship. Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up. Doctrine is important but secondary. Scripture, prayer life and service come first.

    He had sen the deadly effect of doctrinal preaching in the Calvinistic churches of his era.

    Finney believed that doctrinal preaching hardened the heart against God. I think that is what it is most likely to do.

    • Craig — Thanks for your thoughts. I think where I would want to push back a little bit is in thinking that somehow learning doctrine and living into the practices of the faith are opposed to one another (or even mutually exclusive). I would rather suggest that the one supports the other. You mention Scripture, prayer life, and service, and I think those are all three good examples of “means of grace” that are supported by a wholehearted embrace of doctrine. For instance: taking the Scriptures to heart helps one to see the way in which the doctrinal core of the Christian faith is really made up of the most important Scriptural teachings; and exploring the depths of the doctrine of the Trinity moves one to prayer and adoration; and coming to understand the atoning sacrifice of Christ helps to move one into sacrificial service in the world. These are examples that came to me while reading your comment. Granted, they need to be taught in such a way that the doctrine matches up with the discipleship. But when doctrine is taught well, I’d suggest that that is exactly what happens.
      [FYI, I’m not sure what your first comment about Christian growth in the U.S. was in response to. I don’t know if there was another comment that was deleted by the author before I was able to see it, or whether you are alluding to something in my original post.]

  2. Andrew,

    I was so glad to see this post. We preached through a catechism in 31 weeks last year in my congregation. Bread and butter doctrinal preaching from September to Easter. I probably saw more pastoral opportunities out of that season in preaching than in any other. I laid out our topics (i.e. doctrinal foci) for each of those weeks: http://teddyray.com/2012/12/10/preaching-through-the-catechism/ I’d love any of your thoughts.

    Also, I disagree with Craig on this – and with Finney on many things. Doctrine – and doctrinal preaching – is not just about the head. If it doesn’t move the heart and hands, I think the problem is more likely in its explication and explanation. I’ve seen doctrinal preaching soften many hearts to God, and I think it has far more chance of lasting revival than Finney’s approach.

    • Teddy — The catechetical preaching series sounds fantastic. I’ll check out the schedule on your website. I imagine it was the kind of thing that would be extremely helpful in any Methodist congregation. And for the record, I think your comment about the importance of the manner of explanation when it comes to doctrine is absolutely right. I don’t think Craig’s comments about doctrine hardening the heart are necessarily the case at all, but the difference is all about how it is preached and taught. The students I teach in Methodist history, doctrine, and polity classes at my seminary most all represent what I consider to be a renewed interest in the role of doctrine in the life of the church by the present generation. They have seen milquetoast Methodism all their lives, and they have caught a glimpse of the power of Methodism in its early generations. To them, the version that is captivating is not in doubt.

  3. IF doctrinal preaching means “making people parrot the propositions that make up our foundational beliefs” then we might have to acquiesce to those who see it as impractical or contrary to healthy and evangelistic ministry. But we need not take doctrinal preaching to mean that. I count myself to be a doctrinal preacher. I’ve been preaching doctrinally for years. Yes, I know, I never pastored a megachurch. I never managed to get crowds of thousands. These factors may be taken as proof that preaching doctrinally doesn’t work. So allow me to apologize.

    First, one way I frame my goal in preaching (and ministry in general) is “to help people become willing participants in the ongoing story of Jesus.” My account of doctrine (found here in detail: http://www.amazon.com/Recovery-Doctrine-Contemporary-Church-Philosophical/dp/0918954800/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1356836025&sr=8-2&keywords=recovery+of+doctrine) is that it is what equips us to live out that story. Doctrine, as it identifies the characters, the plot and the setting, identify the story for us, how it has progressed thus far, and how we can take up our current roles. Since I take “willing participation in the story of Jesus” as what Christianity is about, I cannot but be a doctrinal preacher.

    Second, although Wesley was pragmatic, pragmatic considerations (does it work?) are inadequate to evaluate the prospects of doctrinal preaching. As with pragmatic philosophy, the question “Does it work?” always invites the response, “Work to what end?” Doctrinal preaching allows us to consider the possible ends. When we neglect doctrinal preaching we become blind to the ends, too often giving in to the ends offered by competing stories. These competing stories are so believable they are hard for us to question. They include, “The story of America,” “The story of the economy and prosperity,” “I have the freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness as I define them,” etc.

    One of the competing methods is what I call “wisdom preaching.” I admit that people hunger for wisdom. In our age that has cast wisdom & morality aside (in favor of laws & legalism) while making, on another level, every person a law unto themselves, we even lack COMMON sense. We don’t know how to do marriage, parenthood, finances, etc. Wisdom preaching is desperately needed. Preachers like Rick Warren & Andy Stanley are really good at this kind of preaching. I like their work. Again, I’m convinced it’s needed. BUT: wisdom is parasitic on doctrine. We see that in the OT itself. Israelite wisdom looks a lot like Egyptian and other ancient forms of wisdom. What’s the difference? The story – the narrative – the action of God in history that provides the context of the lives of the people.

    From another angle, Christian Smith has introduced the label “Moral Therapeutic Deism.” Some of our preaching styles support this narrative. God is (only) love, only out to help us. God’s the Great Therapist in the Sky. If Smith is correct, this style of preaching/church may work in the short term, but it’s not building disciples that last. Jesus sent us to bear fruit – fruit that lasts.

    So I’m with you, Andrew. We desperately need doctrinal preaching. That’s not to say – by any means – that purely doctrinal preaching is all we need. We need the doctrinal preaching to contextualize the wisdom & other forms of preaching that are also needed.

  4. I agree for the Church in so many places is theologically underfunded and particularly in the area of applying doctrine to church health. With all of the books about church health, only three approach it theologically.

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