Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Preaching: Lost in Translation

(This post is a re-post from a now-dormant group blog. Some have found some of these ideas helpful in their contexts.)

The concept of preaching has become highly distorted manifold ways. One source of this distortion is the English rendering of the word “preach” in place of several different Greek words. “The Greek New Testament, however, contains 54 uses of eunggelizo (“evangelize”) and, by way of comparison, 61 uses of kurusso (“preach”). In current practice these are both translated synonymously as “preaching.” The English reader is not able to make a contextual analysis of the intended meaning of the term—as he always reads 115 uses of the word “preach.” (Johnston, Thomas P. “Toward Translating “Evangelize” as “Evangelize”, 93) Nate Krupp explains this occurrence:

“There are five Greek words that have all been translated into the English word ‘preach’ and all similarly mean ‘herald, publish, announce, proclaim, tell’ the Good News. All of the instances where these Greek words are found in the New Testament are in the context of announcing the Good News to the lost and are not found in the setting of the believers’ gathering. Preaching is to take place out where the lost are: door-to-door, the streets, the market place, the fields, the highways and by-ways.” (Nate Krupp, God’s Simple Plan for His Church)

If preaching is properly understood as proclamation focused on the lost, then preaching in the church body must undergo revision. As it is commonly practiced in most churches today, preaching is really a persuasive speech by one considered a professional. For some preachers this is the perfect platform for polemics. Bonheoffer observed this proclivity: "Does not our preaching contain too much of our own opinions and convictions, and too little of Jesus Christ?" (Bonheoffer, Cost of Discipleship, 36). Other preachers are content to entertain or offer pleasant possitivities to their parishioners. And others earnestly desire to communicate God’s truths to believers, but are forced into the formulaic and static medium of the sermon. Preaching among believers in the New Testament is not necessarily from a pulpit, it can be dialogical as seen by the use of dialegomai to describe Paul is in the synagogues ‘discussing’ his faith (Acts 17:2; 18:4) and among believers at Troas (Acts 20:7). In Acts 20:7 dialegomai is often translated as preaching, but that is not an accurate translation connotatively. ‘Preaching’ now connotes a monologue delivered, whereas dialegomai is more often used in the sense of conversing or discussing. Secular business author, Peter Senge notes a similar practice among the early Greeks:

“To the Greeks dia-logos meant a free-flowing of meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually. Interestingly, the practice of dialogue has been preserved in many ‘primitive’ cultures, such as that of the American Indian, but it has been almost completely lost to modern society.” (Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 10)

There is no question that Paul is teaching the gathered believers, but it is a difference between ‘speaking at them’ and ‘speaking with them’. It seems that the New Testament emphasis has more to do with teaching than preaching. Even the concept of teaching has been skewed by changes in the educational system since the industrial revolution. Wolfgang Simpson challenges us to consider the aim of teaching in the New Testament: “The goal of the teaching is not increasing knowledge, but helping people to obey and serve God and His purposes (Rom. 1:5).” (Simpson, Houses That Change the World, 83) One church planting manual directs us to the notion of learning from teaching:

“We evangelical Christians tend to emphasize the importance of good teaching. This is missing the point. The essential is that people are genuinely learning and applying Scripture to their everyday lives. Statistics show that we learn far more by actively participating than by hearing alone. Scientists tell us that we remember 20% of what we hear, 50% of what we see and hear and 70% of what we hear and see and then say ourselves. In house church, we have the opportunity to involve everyone. In New Testament times, teaching was far more interactive; for instance, the word used for Paul’s lengthy teaching in Ephesus is the word ‘dialegomai’ from which we get our word ‘dialog’ (Acts 20:7). Jesus tells us that we are to teach new disciples to obey His commands.” (Church Planting Handbook, 116)

The emphases in Scripture on character formation and learning Scripture presents a significantly different image than what is commonly practiced today. This is not to say that the form of preaching that has become so pervasive today should not exist. It has a place, but it should have refocused goals for truly nurturing the believers.

How did we get to this point of place such importance on a monological sermon delivered by professional clergy? It has often been stated that the Reformation movement left a few things unreformed, among them was ecclesiology. The churches of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli inherited many structural aspects of the church from the Catholic Ch. Rigid worship, hierarchical decision-making were not challenged like views on salvation, use of the vernacular, and meaning of Holy Communion.

“Protestants, with the exception of ‘High Church’ Anglicans and some Lutheran churches (for example, the Swedish Lutheran Church), have tended to hold a ‘lower’ notion of church in theory, but in fact they too have often been quite concerned about the church’s visible structure and polity. In any case, Solle says that Protestants express this perspective by putting undue emphasis on the importance of proclamation and preaching in the church, to the neglect of action in the world and the development of true community.” (Bevans and Schroeder, Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today, 41)

In fact, John Calvin campaigned hard to make the sermon the central point of a church gathering (replacing Communion). While the Reformers attempted to eradicate the distinction between the clergy and laity, they also sought the preaching of right doctrine. The insurance of right doctrine demanded a preaching office (die reine Predigt), thus once again reinforcing a bifurcation of clergy and laity. “Yet, in fact, contrary to the theory of fundamental non-distinction, it encouraged the practical recognition of a secondary status of the ‘laity’ in comparison with the ministry, the breeding of an attitude of passivity in the laity as a whole, the accentuation of the significance of ‘office’ (das Amt) and its leadership.” (Kraemer, A Theology of the Laity, 66) “Its counter-effect was that the laity gradually got into and, generally speaking, accepted the position of the ‘ignorant’, the spiritually non-adult.” (Kraemer, A Theology of the Laity, 66)

Please hear me when I say that I am not against “preaching” or feel that it is wrong. I do question whether it should be our default form of discipleship. If our focus is on helping people grow in the image of JC, then our methods of discipleship must reflect that. It is my belief that to accomplish this, great levels of interaction will be necessary. Less monologue and more dialogue. Perhaps even less talking and more active ministry with discipler and disciplee side-by-side good newsing (“preaching” in your translation) a world that does not yet know Him.


tech.samaritan said...

Very good. I have had this "feeling" about preaching for a long time, without the ability to express what it was that seemed odd. It is this quote "..the laity gradually got into and, generally speaking, accepted the position of the ‘ignorant’, the spiritually non-adult." that tied much of my dissenting ideas about general church-ness together. The passive congregation, the professional speaker, and the slow spiritual growth.

Not a very articulate comment, I know, but thank you for the post.

M Crane said...

Thank you for the comment. I sense that there are many that have had the same "feeling", but have not felt valid in voicing it. The English language translations are confusing on this.

And, your comment was as articulate as it needed to be. Ultimately, we want to foster spiritual growth.

Jason said...

Diddo and bull's eye. We met in houses for 10 months and then gathered publicly, which was okay. Except that we pushed the default of preaching, which led to a passive stance of the group. We are already having to push back on the notion on what "preaching" really is and that Sunday is not the main mode of discipleship. What to do with the other 164 hours of the week? Eye brows went up when I said, "It is not my job as a pastor to give to you what you can give to yourself." Always exciting. Always a mystery, this thing we give our life to.