Lloyd-Jones on the Permanence of Preaching

Many voices were saying in D.M. Lloyd-Jones' day that the older approach to preaching was too monological, information-driven, inspirational, and authoritative. Today that same charge is being made. Today's critics have in mind not only the older traditional forms of expository preaching (think James Boice and Charles Stanley) but also the newer, inspirational, practical talks of "seeker-driven" spectacle churches.

Postmodern people, they argue, are deeply skeptical about authority and "salesmanship." Preaching that reaches postmodern people will almost not be recognizable as "preaching." It will be quiet, sincere, dialogical conversation rather than authoritative monologue. It will be more highly metaphorical and narratival than logical. It will not be intense, charismatic or high-energy. Also, it will be much more about how to live as a Christ-follower in the world according to the reign of God than about doctrinal and spiritual propositions that must be believed. Yes, it will center on Scripture, but the speaker's credibility will not lie in his expertise in the Bible per se, but on his personal experience of how the text has shaped his life. Also, the preaching will be just part of the whole liturgy, not the centerpiece. (For an example of a proposal for this kind of preaching see "Preaching in the Missional Church" by Ervin Stutzman.)

I think it is intriguing to see how much alike these newer objections to preaching are to the older objections (see Part 1) that were fielded by The Doctor in his 1969 lectures at Westminster Seminary, published as the book Preaching and Preachers. Lloyd-Jones believed that by and large the objections were wrong-headed, that expounding the Word of God to gathered assembly is a permanent feature of Biblical ministry. It is not something that can be discarded when times change. It should continue to be as central to church ministry in the present age as it has been in the past. His criticisms of all of these objections to the primacy of preaching are trenchant and, I think, compelling. But before moving on to them, first a word of warning.

As I re-read his book I realized that his views by no means have won the day. The objections to classic preaching have largely been accepted and people are scrambling to find alternatives. I think most young leaders who would pick his book up today will find it completely out of step with any of the last several books they may have read on preaching. And yet here I am, after twenty some years in the middle of New York City, a postmodern city by any definition, having been deeply shaped by the Doctor's definitions and prescriptions for preaching, and they have borne much fruit here. So if this advice has proved effective in the middle of NYC, why are so few people taking it? So why are so many people going in a different direction with preaching? Why aren't more people listening to it?

If you move beyond these posts and read the Doctor's book—as I hope you will—you will quickly see one possible reason why people have not followed him. Dr. Lloyd-Jones makes a host of dogmatic assertions about very specific practices. He believed strongly that the pulpit should be physically above the listeners, that the minister should wear a robe, that he should not make many personal references to himself nor use much humor. He believed that the preacher should not announce his texts and topics ahead of time. (He was that loathe to cater to people's interests and "felt needs.") He thought it was abominable to plan out exactly what your texts and topics would be months in advance. (That did not give enough space for the leading of the Spirit.) He was also opposed to having his sermons recorded (though he reluctantly agreed to it eventually.) He believed that large preaching services (Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Friday night) really would carry virtually all the "freight" of the church's ministry. He frowned on small group ministry and had few other ways for the church to gather as a community or do discipleship and instruction. As it turned out, in the end his church was too preaching-dependent and after his retirement the church experienced a crisis.

I've come to the conclusion that Lloyd-Jones's basic theses about the nature of preaching have not been followed in the U.K. nor here in the U.S. largely because of his own dogmatism on details and also because so many of his followers did not seem to know how to extract the Doctor's particular methods and personal tastes from the broad lines of the argument he laid down. That argument is, I believe, successful and crucial for us in our times. So I will turn to it in my next post.