What is Preaching? Where do preachers come from? The Church. Where are preachers made? The Church. Preachers leave the seminary to take their place where? The Church. Preachers are set apart by the church for ministry. Preachers have been entrusted with a ministry that does not belong to them but belongs to Christ and is given to the whole church.

My career has been dedicated to asking the question, “How do people learn to preach?” I could just as easily ask, “How do people learn to swim?” To both questions, the short answer is: “They just do.” Yet, realistically, people don’t “just do it.” They must “figure it out,” to “get the feel” of preaching or swimming for themselves. Both tasks are more easily and safely negotiated if they are not undertaken alone. Preaching is not a solo performance.

Comparing preaching with swimming can be instructive on several points. An understanding of principles in physics, kinesiology, and aquatics is essential for learning to swim. The understanding called for, however, is embodied knowing. Well-organized conceptual schemes of theoretical information are relevant, but they don’t help in the water until absorbed into swimming behavior that has become almost “second nature.” Even a total recall of principles and propositions, per se, will not keep a would-be swimmer afloat. Mental memory must somehow be translated into muscle memory. Preaching too involves embodied knowing.

While I could easily begin this guide with how to preach, instead let me begin with more essential questions. What is the “what” of preaching? Or, more accurately, the “who” of preaching? To begin that discussion, let me ask, “What is the purpose of preaching?” There are many wonderful and healthy answers.

Tom Long in Senses of Preaching describes the common scenario of a preacher shaking hands with congregants in the foyer after the Sunday morning sermon. What do you hope people will say? Long goes on to ask what Augustine (Book IV, On Christian Doctrine) would want congregants to say. Long bases his discussion on XII.27 “Therefore a certain eloquent man said, and said truly, that he who is eloquent should speak in such a way that he teaches, delights, and moves.” Then Augustine added, “To teach is a necessity, to please is a sweetness, to persuade is a victory.” Augustine would like, as we all would, to hear “That was a nice sermon” (delight). But even better, Augustine would like, “That was a nice sermon. I learned something today” (delight and teach). But if the parishioner would say, “That was a nice sermon. I learned something today. I am going to do something about it” (delight, teach, and persuade). Long suggests, then Augustine would be satisfied. What is the purpose of preaching? Long would ask, “What difference does the sermon make in the week ahead?” Of all the positive and wonderful ways to answer the question, “Why Preach?”–We preach because preaching is a theological act that persuades people to embrace a divine relationship with God.1

I chose theological witness as my governing center for preaching because theology is the largest word I know to embrace the breadth, and depth of God and God’s way in the world. In one sense, I am speaking of a witness to the holistic nature of the Christ event that includes the incarnation of God in flesh, the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus’ reign on the throne at the right hand of God, and God’s second advent that culminates in new heavens and new earth.  And, in the same sense, I am speaking of a witness to the holistic nature of the Trinity that begins in perfect fellowship, creates, redeems, and sustains until all are brought into God’s perfect fellowship in the eschaton. Theology includes love and Gospel. Theology includes Christology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology, Anthropology, Soteriology, and Eschatology. Theology also includes other precise and particular ways that any passage speaks the living Word of God. For example, that Word of God might be beatitude, lament, silence, story, parable, diatribe, doxology, imprecation, and so on and so forth. And as Scripture is a witness to God, so too is the preaching of Scripture. Theology is a big word with lots of space. The word “theology” is my answer to the question, “What is the ‘what’ of preaching?”

1 Tom Long, Senses of Preaching, Atlanta: John Knox, 1988. For more insight about the theological purposes for preaching see Jana Childers (ed.), Purposes of Preaching, St. Louis: Chalice, 2004.