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Home School Of Preaching A Review: Lloyd Jones and the Primacy of Preaching

A Review: Lloyd Jones and the Primacy of Preaching

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Lloyd Jones and the Primacy of Preaching

From Tim Keller's Blog - Aprill 2011

Let's survey Lloyd-Jones's answers to the objections in his day to the importance of preaching.

The Doctor points out how in Acts 6 the church faced a crisis over the support of widows in the early church. The ministry of mercy to the needs of the poor in their community was quite important and necessary. But notice why the apostles put some new leaders over it. They did it so they could devote themselves to "prayer and the ministry of the Word" (Acts 6:4 ). That was the primary thing, and that was what the apostles, the main leaders of the church, had to give themselves to. The Doctor points to Jesus' own ministry, especially to places where, under pressure to do more miracles, he says that what he came primarily to do was preach (e.g. Mark 1:38 ). Jesus' miracles were wonderful—they helped people with disease and suffering—yet what reconciled people to God was belief in the message and work of Jesus.

The Doctor argues this forcibly. It is good for the church to help people with their suffering and need—through social service and counseling—but the one thing that the church can do in the world that is unique is to reconcile people to God through the gospel. That takes words, a message, explanation, exhortation, not just compassionate deeds.  He points out that in the UK it was after times of revival, when millions of people became Christians through the gospel, that hospitals, labor unions, and all sorts of social legislation arose. The church's primary duty is to preach the message of grace that motivates and empowers people to be salt and light in the world.

Dr. Lloyd-Jones effectively dismantles the idea that watching a video or listening to an audio of a sermon is as good as coming physically into an assembly and listening to a sermon with a body of people. It is obviously a good thing if a person who never hears or reads the Bible listens to the recording of a good gospel message and is helped by it. But the Doctor argues that people experience the sermon in a radically different way if they hear it together with a body of listeners and if they see the preacher. Watching on a screen or listening as you walk detaches you and the sermon becomes mere information, not a whole experience. There is a power and impact that the media cannot convey.

The Doctor takes on the idea that preaching should not be about "truth propositions" of Biblical doctrine but rather should describe practically how to live as a Christ-follower in the world. The trouble is, he says, that may mean you are preaching morality and ethics without the Gospel as a basis—and that simply will not work. If you tell someone to "live a life of service to others in accordance with the values of the kingdom of God" that will not change them in the core. Hearing a message like that will not lead them to weep and cry, "my chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed thee." The life-transforming, paradigm-shifting message of the gospel requires lots of teaching about the nature of sin as well as the character of Christ's redemption and the difference between grace and works and the nature of faith. All of these things are "truth propositions."

He also makes the case that, paradoxically, the preacher has greater credibility if he doesnot preach mainly out of his own experience, but shows that the message has come out of the Word itself. Instead of saying, "here's my experience, and this is how the Bible played a role in it," the preacher should say, "this is what the Bible says, and it actually contradicts my desires and intuitions, but I'm showing it to you because this message is from God, not from me."

The Doctor's basic case has been made. Preaching must convey the truths of the gospel as the basis for all Christian practice. It must arise out of the Biblical text to show that the message is from God. It should be heard in person in an assembled community. And preaching "sets up" everything else—it creates regenerated agents of justice in the world, it provides the material with which Christians counsel and disciple one another and which equips believers to share their faith with others.

But Lloyd-Jones has one more objection to tackle, and it is the biggest one. It is a pragmatic one and it goes like this: "nowadays, people simply won't come to hear 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.

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.

Tim Keller - 2011


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