A wave of US and UK preachers have begun to make moves away from traditional expository preaching. But do they represent innovative new ways of reaching people, or a disastrous abandonment of the only way to communicate the gospel?

In the States, there have been all sorts of moves away from traditional preaching in the last few years – from the offbeat, personality-focused monologues of Rob Bell and Erwin Raphael McManus to Ed Young of Fellowship Church in Dallas, who uses short films in place of sermons.

Over here, too, people are looking for new ways to bring Bible passages to life. One British minister has developed a style of talking in the first or second person. Another focuses on more imaginative visual aids than the traditional PowerPoint or OHP – appealing to the other senses by using food in different ways while he preaches.

While in some churches the old style sermon remains, in others it is being replaced or revamped. People are trying to re-imagine their preaching for this generation.

Why re-imagine?

Our culture is ever changing, in particular with the way we receive our information. There are signs of philosophical and linguistic change all over the cultural landscape: Once upon a time, going to hear a preacher’s lengthy leacture was what passed for Sunday’s entertainment.

These days, lessons are interactive, and people do their Bible readings on their BlackBerrys in the morning rush hour. Everything has speeded up. Towards the end of his ten years in office, Tony Blair suggested that the 24 hour news culture has forced politicians to produce more reactionary sound bites than considered thinking. These changes could have implications for the way we communicate the Christian message. “We must continually be looking for ways to connect the never changing gospel with our ever changing cultures,” says Krish Kandiah, executive director: churches in mission at the Evangelical Alliance. “If we don’t, we run the risk of not being heard.”

So how do Christians speak into this? Some think the days of the traditional 20-50 minute sermon should be long gone as people are not used to being told what to think and there is less respect for traditional authority figures (think about tabloid media attitudes to teachers, police or politicians for example). But others see this as caving in to post modernism, and see preaching a traditional sermon as the most powerful way for people to receive the good news. The fact that it has become counter-cultural only adds to its effectiveness.

So what should be done – ditch the sermon, keep the sermon or revamp the sermon?

“Preaching has come to a desperate state where we are now on borrowed time,” says Cris Rogers, lead pastor of Soul Survivor Harrow. “Communicating the gospel isn’t dead but the traditional forms may well be. We need to put to death the monologue and be re-inspired with two-way communication. I don’t think we have the liberty not to be creative anymore.”

Rogers does this through appealing to the senses, physically giving people some salt or water if that’s what he’s talking about, or cooking a bacon sandwich while talking to bring an explanation of food laws in Acts to life. “Jesus had his illustrations right there where they were touchable. Yet when we preach so often we simply show a photo or describe a situation. What if we did what Jesus did and actually had the thing that was the illustration there for them to touch, smell or taste?”

In some ways, youth workers are streets ahead of church leaders on this issue, having already recognised that there are issues with preaching a traditional sermon to a group of teenagers. “I do not consider preaching to be the most effective way to communicate a message or get to the roots of an issue,” says Hannah Burton, a youth worker from Cambridge. “For me, youth work requires a different type of skill - informal education, which is admittedly riskier than preaching because the young people get to talk back to you and express how they feel! In my opinion, preaching does not allow freedom to interact creatively or the opportunity for young people to express their own opinions. I would also argue that it could prevent young people from working out their faith for themselves, if they are simply told what to think. I foresee this current generation having discussion groups on a Sundaymorning (or even on a Saturday night) rather than sitting in rows and listening each week to a traditional preach.”

For others, though, attempts at making our communication more ‘relevant’ risks diluting the gospel message, and the sermon is just as effective as it always was. “Speaking in the language of the day is obviously vital, but the obsession with being relevant is a sacred cow that needs slaughtering,” says Phil Greenslade, senior tutor at CWR. “Our job is not to make the Bible relevant to the people but to make people relevant to the Bible.”

Greg Haslam, minister of Westminster Chapel, agrees: “Change does not mean we have to find totally new ways of communicating (dialogue, drama, video, puppets, mime, sketches, or wider used of the arts or creativity). All of these have a place, I’m sure, but they cannot substitute for what the best preachers and preaching can do in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

He says that calling preaching dead is “a dangerous lie that Satan’s propaganda department devised and circulated and that too many people have already bought into. “Romans 10 makes clear that people cannot believe without hearing the message, and the message can only be heard if it is preached – it comes to them through good preachers.”

Other people think that the sermon in its current form does still work, but it needs revamping. “[Preaching is] not dead, but sick – possibly in a coma,” says Claire Page, trainer in communications and voice training at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. “Certainly the church’s way of teaching is very different from the way children and adults learn in other contexts, except for the university lecture, and think what percentage of the population listen to those! The sermon is, in fact, a very efficient method of getting information over – or can be, but it needs resuscitating.”

Some say that sermons can still be effective, not least because while culture might have changed, people essentially have not. “It is quite possible to exaggerate the changes about how we receive information,” says Richard Littledale, minister of Teddington Baptist Church. “Our communication receptors have not changed so much as human beings, even if we are used to browsing information in a different way. Human speech, well conceived and expertly delivered, can still be utterly captivating. Preaching will not be dead until speaking is dead.”

How do we re-imagine?

One of the consequences of even talking about creative preaching is that many already overworked preachers suddenly feel under even more pressure – that they are not being relevant, they are not living up to the latest craze from America, they don’t know how to put together a short film or rip a You Tube video…they are not creative enough and so they are not effective…On the other end of the scale, people can get so caught up with gimmicks that the focus on the message is lost.

So how can we stimulate creative preaching in our churches, encourage people to try new things without causing them undue stress, or getting everyone so caught up in gimmicks that authenticity disappears?

“Creativity does not always mean flashy PowerPoints or purposemade videos,” says Jim Partridge, one of the leaders of King’s Church, mid Sussex. “A simple use of a flip chart in preaching can add massive amounts to people’s understanding of what you are saying.”

“If we think that re-imagining the sermon is simply a case of harnessing modern technology and graphics, then we have missed the point,” adds Littledale. “No one should attempt to be creative with those tools until they have tried to be creative without them. In other words, our first port of call in the quest for re-imagined preaching is our vocabulary rather than our computer.”

“There are times when less is more,” says Roger Standing, tutor for mission, evangelism and pioneer ministry at Spurgeon’s College. “If in the balancing of the competing demands of leading a church we don’t have time, or if our fellowship doesn’t have the resources, or if we are just not that creative, that’s ok. We need to be the best that we can be.”

For Phil Greenslade: “Forget PowerPoint and film clips – these are already passé. We need passionate preachers who will study more and read more. The more you take the time and trouble to go back into the historical context of what was written to someone else at another time and place in history, the more the Bible leaps off the page at you – you don’t have to try and make it relevant.”

Real re-imagining

Nonetheless, while relevant preaching does not have to mean spending two days in front of your computer editing a short film, there are things you can do to reassess, or re-imagine, your own preaching, week by week, starting with being re-inspired by the preachers of the New Testament:

1. Think about your aims before you start

“For me the ultimate aim in preaching is a spiritual one,” says Standing. “What does God want me to say? So, as I approach the text, as I do the exegesis, as I begin to shape what I’m going to say this prayer remains at the forefront of my mind, “Lord, what do you have for us here?” “The first aim must be humility – to seek God’s authentic word in the quiet place, and to deliver it in the sacred space of worship,” says Littledale. “The preacher must also aim for honesty – so that a message is never delivered which sounds good but rings hollow. Preachers must also approach the preaching task with expectancy – if they don’t expect God to speak, why should anyone else?

2. Think again about your audience/context

Take some inspiration from Jesus’ and Paul’s awareness of who they were speaking to. “Both Paul and Jesus preached in other contexts and exemplified a flexible approach,” says Standing. “If Paul is preaching in a Jewish community he uses their common knowledge of the scriptures for what he has to say. In a Gentile context, as when he was in Athens, he changes his approach and uses their spirituality, culture and arts as a means of communicating the gospel.” So, says Partridge, ask yourself: “Who is sitting in the congregation? How is this message relevant to them? How are people going to be able to apply what I am saying? How can I explain a particular point using an illustration that will make sense to the people listening? What difference does this message make to people on Monday morning?” “I try to think about three groups of listeners – hostile non- Christians, receptive seekers and mature Christians,” adds Kandiah. “How will each of them benefit from my sermon?”

3. Use new illustrations and locations

“My inspiration comes from Jesus’ wonderful manner of preaching on what he had to hand,” says Rogers. “It was while walking across a lake or a field or standing by fishermen that hefound his inspiration. As a church leader in London I need to translate Jesus’ illustrations into the high rise of South Harrow where fishing and farming aren’t visible. But these illustrations are translatable into the life of a Londoner.” “Preaching [in New Testament times] took place outdoors a lot of the time, in the in-between spaces – like the temple courts – not the actual holy of holies,” adds Page. “It happened walking from one place to another, on mountains, on water. It happened through discussion, through heated debate, and through letters shared around between churches. So, room for ideas there.”

4. Work as a team

“Note the method of operating in ministry teams of gifted preachers in the book of Acts, so that no one person had to do it all,” says Haslam. “Paul rarely chose to work alone, he travelled with others like Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, Apollos, etc…since he knew that he didn’t have all the gifts necessary to build churches and support them later entirely alone, in his own estimation (1 Corinthians 3).” This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to find the budget to employ a whole other person. You could take time to listen to other preachers, in particular those from other generations and church types. Try iTunes for downloadable sermons. You can also find other people – people that you trust but who won’t always agree with everything you do – to give you regular feedback and critique your sermons. And your team of course, means the congregation too. “I think we need to create a culture where preachers and learners goad one another on to more vibrant discipleship,” says Page. “That means the minister taking the lead in adding to the communication skills of the preaching team – no-one else is going to make it happen – and working one to one with people can be the best way because then they feel safe to try new things out. But it’s important to engage the rest of the church in listening actively – and turning around that Sunday lunchtime critique. If they are getting on with applying what they’ve been inspired to do, they’ll be more constructive and considerate of people who are trying to become better preachers.” Phil Greenslade: “Congregations must be weaned off the idea that they are there to be entertained, and so weaned off trivialities, sound bites, clichéd exhortations and warned that their eternal destiny is at stake through inattention!” Haslam: “Ministers need to be received well as a messenger of God. [Congregations] should honour God’s messenger and also honour God who sent him.”

5. Expect your preaching to change things

“Treat your listeners as learners in the school of transformation,” says Page. “Don’t let them be passive.” “The worst thing anyone can say to a preacher is that a sermon was ‘nice’,” says Partridge. “I am hoping that my sermon’s aren’t ‘nice’.” His aim, he says, to stir and challenge, to confront and encourage and to lead to change. So why not risk being unpopular and do the same?

Additional reporting by Tom Wade

Recommended reading

Communicating for a change by Andy Stanley I believe in preaching by John Stott Preaching to the baptised by William Willimon Finding the plot by Roger Standing Preaching for the unchurched in an age of entertainment (Grove Evangelism series, also Roger Standing) Stale bread – a handbook for speaking the story by Richard Littledale Preacher’s A-Z by Richard Littledale Krish Kandiah’s evangelistic sermons are available to buy in the form of the books Lifeswap – finding the life you’ve always wanted and Destiny

Preaching – get inspired

The Proclamation Trust is holding a preaching week for theological students in conjunction with Oak Hill theological college from 8th - 11th June in North London. To book and for more information, log on to www.proctrust.org.uk

September 2009 sees the Durham International Preaching Conference take place. Bishop William Willimon will be speaking at the event, to be held from Monday 14th to Friday 18th September. Sign up at: www.northalabamaumc.org

If you fancy running an event at your church on the topic of preaching, but don’t feel equipped to run it, then contact the College of Preachers (www.collegeofpreachers.co.uk/ seminars.html). They offer the seminars either as public events, open to preachers of all denominations, or as part of a training programme organised by a local denomination group.

www.preaching.com offers a range of resources, including a bimonthly magazine, podcasts, book reviews, community forums and newsletters, all with the focus of preaching the Christian message. An exhaustive back catalogue means that you could easily lose a few hours searching the website and getting good resources and learning good tips and tricks.

If you’re looking to do some accredited training in preaching, but have little studying experience, then the Open Bible Institute could be what you’re looking for. Their courses can be taken in ten weeks (though it is also possible to spread the work over much longer) and cost £30 per course www.open-bible-institute.org

If attending a course or training day is impractical for you, then Willow Creek offers CD/Mp3 downloads of past teaching events. If you sign up to become a WCA member, you’ll have access to message transcripts and Mp3s from Willow Creek messages, as well as past conferences on preaching by John Ortberg and ‘How to share the gospel without weirding people out’ by Donald Miller www.willowcreek.org.uk

New ideas

Stories: Mark Roques from WYSOCS firmly believes that it is through storytelling that preaching can come alive. “Telling stories baptises the imagination and demonstrates practical ways that God would like the world to look like,” he says. “Giving earthy life stories can open scripture and make it real for you. For example, if I were to preach on Mark 12 (the greatest commandment), I would tell the George Cadbury story. Cadbury illustrates perfectly what it means to love God and your neighbour.

If I was preaching on ‘seek ye first the kingdom of God’, (Matthew 6:33) I would tell the George Muller story. The key point is that people grow in faith when they hear about God busy healing and restoring his fallen creation in lots of different ways. Stories build faith and they build understanding.” Rocques has put together a storytelling course with the stories above and many more. It is available from WYSOCS or directly from Mark at mark.roques@ntlworld.com. It costs £40 and is an excellent resource.

Movies: A church in Luton has been using Hollywood to convey the Christian message in its services. St Mary’s in Luton has run the series ‘Movies @ Mary’s’ for a number of years, with guest preachers picking a Hollywood film to speak on. Using film clips in a service may not be a revolutionary new tool, but instead of using a clip to prove a point, ‘Movies @ Mary’s’ uses a film to direct the flow of the sermon, either showing three clips and speaking about the themes, or showing the whole film and then preaching about it. Films that have been shown and preached on include The Dark Knight, Groundhog Day and War of the Worlds. If you’re looking to show films in your church, you may need to obtain a license. www.wingclips.com has a huge selection of film clips and the themes relating to them.

Performances: Dave Jenkins from Swansea has travelled Great Britain performing theatrical monologues of biblical characters. Each monologue, inspired by the biblical text, is linked together by a background narration which helps the audience journey through the Bible, as the story of God unfolds from Genesis to Revelation. The Word Made Fresh is an extremely entertaining and inspiring event, suitable for young people and adults who go to church, and those who don’t.

Jenkins’ unique gift for humour helps the audience relate to characters like Noah, Moses, Job, Peter, Thomas and Paul as they may well have been, honestly dealing with the situations and obstacles they had to face as they sought to live for God. For more information on booking Dave Jenkins, email dave.Jenkins@lcf.biz