Lloyd-Jones on the Problem of Preaching

I recently was asked to write a short essay on D.M. Lloyd-Jones' book of lectures Preaching and Preachers which Zondervan is slated to re-issue in 2012. This afforded me an opportunity to re-read the book and to discover that I had been more helped and shaped by it than I had remembered. Most of what I discovered would not fit in the essay and so I decided to spread a bit more of it out in some blog posts.

The first thing that struck me was how this nearly 70 year old Welsh minister (called "the Doctor" by his followers), lecturing in 1969, could have anticipated and addressed so many of the questions surrounding preaching that we are wrestling with in our own culture today. During the post-World War II era in Britain, there was a growing resistance to the older idea of the "primacy" of preaching. Previously it was considered the single most important thing that the minister of the church did. However, by the mid-1960s, there were many in the UK arguing that the era of the pulpit was over and that other things must displace it because preaching—and certainly traditional preaching—was no longer the most effective way for the church to reach people.

In his first lectures the Doctor recounts all the reasons and arguments for the move away from preaching. World War II had given Europeans a suspicion of great orators (think of Hitler himself.) As time had gone on there was more and more suspicion of words and "texts." There was less and less trust that language can communicate meaning. Also, television and radio had changed people's attention spans and created an appetite for informal, intimate speech, not oratory. In a post-Christian culture, there was also an increasing suspicion of all authority, especially religious authority. How, it was asked, could you expect modern people to come out and listen to someone, usually physically standing above you, doing a monologue without any opportunity for response or argument? They certainly would not come on their own, and if they were dragged there they would be bored or offended by all the pontificating.

Lloyd-Jones then lists the various proposals for what the church should do. Some who had lost faith in preaching sought to change it. It became marked by showmanship—more emphasis on stories, on direct appeals to the emotions, and to the creation of spectacle. (He pointed to Henry Ward Beecher of Brooklyn as a prototype.) Others insisted that preaching should be replaced or at least supplemented heavily with "new media" (which in Lloyd-Jones' time meant television and radio.) Still others proposed that preaching should not be so central to worship—that liturgy and artistic expression should come more to the fore. Also there were criticisms that churches had become mere preaching centers, not communities, and greater emphasis needed to be made on social services to the community and on counseling. Finally, the Doctor said there are those who taught that the only hope for the churches was essentially to abandon their current form. Christians should disperse, they said, throwing themselves into serving the community, addressing people's personal and social problems. Then, when Christians did have gatherings, they should be small and characterized by dialogue and multi-voice conversations.

What is so striking is how all of this discussion that happened 40-50 years ago in Britain has been happening in the U.S. over the last 10 years. In Lloyd-Jones' day the call was that "preaching won't work with modern people" and today it's the same claim with regard to postmodern people. In his day the charge was that preaching had to keep up with the television age, and now it's a call to adapt to an internet age. But almost all the proposals for how preaching must adapt are basically the same. Therefore, the Doctor's response and critique of them is very relevant. We will look at them in the next post.