An Exploration into Doctrinal Preaching
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.