Preaching in the Wilderness: The Challenges of Communicating the Christian Faith in A Secular Culture

David Smith

Nearly thirty years ago the great German theologian­-preacher Helmut Thielike published a book with the title, The Trouble with The Church - A Call for Renewal. The first chapter bore the heading 'The Plight of Preaching' and opened with these words: 'Anybody who keeps in mind the goals which the Reformation once set for itself can only be appalled at what has happened in the church of Luther and Calvin to the very thing which its fathers regarded as the source and spring of Christian faith and life, namely, preaching.'

Thielicke's analysis of the problems facing preachers in the modern world has lost none of its cogency and relevance with the passing years. Many ministers will discover their own frustrations and dilemmas accurately described here: 'The pastor has the feeling that he is performing this ministry almost to the exclusion of any public notice whatsoever. And as he drives and runs about, carrying with him the commission to proclaim a message that would revolutionize life, he may be oppressed... by the thought of the tremendous contradiction between the claim and the promise of the message and ... by the utter immovability of the deeply rutted tracks in which he must move.' (Thielicke: 1965,1).

Thielicke mentions the reaction of a fellow theologian who bemoaned the absence from church of academics from other faculties. 'But when the sermon is over, I usually say to myself. What a good thing that none of them was there!' Modern preaching has 'decayed and disintegrated' to such an extent, Thielicke says, that it is 'close to the stage of dying.' Doubtless he would agree with a more recent writer who, having examined preaching from the perspective of communications science, makes the pungent observation that 'the sermon hangs on, shorter perhaps, but oblivious to the difference it doesn't make' (Bluck: 1989,32). The question which must be considered here concerns the causes of the crisis facing preaching. In particular we must ask whether there are factors peculiar to the modern world which make 'the ministry of the Word' especially difficult at the close of the twentieth century?

External Pressures - Preaching in a Changed Cultural Context.

At the end of the 1960s Francis Schaeffer warned Evangelicals that they would need to do 'a great deal of heart-searching as to how we may speak what is eternal into the changing historical situation.' Massive shifts within Western culture had left the churches stranded as sub-cultural minorities alienated from a generation shaped by a consistently secular worldview. 'In crucial areas' Schaeffer said, 'many Christian parents, ministers and teachers are as out of touch with many of the children of the church, and the majority of those outside, as though they were speaking a foreign language' (Schaeffer: 1968,94).

Unfortunately, these words fell on deaf ears ­especially among those most deeply committed to the 'ministry of the Word.' As we approach the close of the twentieth century, the cleavage Schaeffer detected between historical Christianity and contemporary Western culture has widened into a chasm, with the result that his prophetic call to mission can no longer be ignored.

It seems to me that we need, as a matter of urgency, to attempt to understand 'the changing historical situation' which provides the context within which the Word must be preached today. We must ask the question posed by the Dutch missiologist Verkuyl, 'what kind of day is it today?' The context within which we must preach the Word is plainly different from those in which Calvin, Whitefield, Spurgeon, or even Lloyd Jones, did so. How has it happened that churches have been left stranded as sub-cultural islands and preaching has become confined to the circle of those who 'speak the language?'

In attempting to answer this question I want make use of a number of insights derived from the discipline of the sociology of religion. At the beginning of this century the classical sociologists Max Weber and Emile Durkheim suggested that changes of a revolutionary kind were occurring within modern, industrialized societies. Both men recognised that the cultural shifts taking place in the modern world raised questions of critical importance for the future of humankind: Weber saw rational thought and the growth of the 'bureaucratic mentality' leading to the 'disenchantment' of the world, but instead of hailing this as a sign of progress (as an earlier generation had done) he viewed the erosion and marginalisation of religion with alarm. Weber predicted that twentieth century people would find themselves locked in an 'iron cage' of rationality which might threaten all meaningful human existence. (Weber, 1985, 182).

Weber's gloomy prognostication describes all too accurately the course taken by modern culture: 'Secularisation' is the term used by sociologists to identify this process. For Bryan Wilson secularization represents the major transformation of religion in the modern world. Wilson discusses the cultural consequences of this development with undisguised anxiety and pessimism: 'The erosion of the traditional culture of western society has been in progress, unevenly and spasmodically, for a considerable time. We have been learning or half-­learning how to live without a culture, or with the rags and tatters of an earlier culture still clutched about the parts of us that we least care to expose... It may well be that an integrated culture is now a thing of the past in the West (and perhaps throughout the world)... We know no moral order to give meaning to our social order. We have lost faith in the vision of a cumulative and progressive culture which cherished the products of the human spirit, elevated man's humanity, guarded the inheritance of past societies, and rejoiced in the widening prospect of the richer inheritance of posterity' (Wilson: 1979, 112,115).

It must be said that not all sociologists accept Wilson's analysis; indeed, his definition of 'secularisation' has occasioned fierce debate. Nonetheless, the passage quoted touches a number of themes which are heard often, in discussions of the crisis facing contemporary culture. The collapse of a shared sense of conviction concerning the purpose of human life, the absence of any agreed foundation for morality, and the erosion of hope, resulting in a sense of the absurdity and tragedy of human existence, are recurring subjects of modern intellectual debate.

Moreover, the assessments offered by sociologists are paralleled by the yet more anguished depictions of modern life on the part of writers, artists and musicians. Albert Camus. one of the most honest and courageous of all modern writers, saw the tragedy of post-Christian man in terms of the ancient myth of Sisyphus. Having stolen the secrets of the gods and put death in chains, Sisyphus was condemned to push a rock up a hill endlessly, only to watch it repeatedly roll back again. So, Camus said, modern man has paid a terrible price for his freedom; like Sisyphus 'his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing' (Camus: 1975, 108). This note of despair has become pervasive in modem culture; it can heard in the music of composers as different as Vaughan Williams and Shostakovich and is reflected in the bleak canvasses of European artists like Picasso and Edvard Munch. Perhaps nowhere is the desperate loneliness of modern people more movingly portrayed than in the work of the American painter, Edward Hopper. His 'Nighthawks' is a terrifying picture of the lostness of people in the industrialized, urban wilderness.

Earlier in this century, as it became evident that the churches were losing their grip on the British population, the residual influence of the Sunday School movement provided a shared context of ideas, making possible the assumption that the masses absent from worship at least knew their Bibles and understood the gospel story. Thus, provided outsiders could somehow be coaxed back into the churches, there was no fundamental problem of communication. Surely no preacher worth his salt today can make such assumptions? Welsh rugby crowds no longer know how to sing hymns, the masses at Wembley recognise a cultural relic when they hear one and hoot their abuse at 'Abide With Me', and even in the leafy suburbs of south-east England (or in the Celtic fringes of the Scottish Highlands) the realities of secularisation have become inescapable.

However theories of secularisation which assumed the demise of religion have been found wanting. Whatever is happening to religion in the modern world, it does not appear to be dying out! Indeed, the very crisis created by the emptiness and spiritual aridity of secularism seems to have spawned a bewildering variety of new quests for transcendence, the growth of non-Christian faiths, a surge of occultism, the kaleidoscopic variety of mystical quests which are lumped together by the title of 'New Age'. At a time when giant superstores increasingly take on the appearance of churches (perhaps thereby revealing Mammon as the most powerful of all post­-Christian idols) modern people can select whatever brand of belief takes their fancy from the supermarket of religions offering consumer satisfaction.

What are the dangers facing preachers within the context just outlined? There is a temptation to turn inwards, to direct ministry solely to the task of the nurture of the 'little flock.' Preaching can too easily become a purely internal affair, employing the language and idioms understood within the church and making minimal contact with the wider culture. This tendency is increased when the work of the minister insulates him from the realities of a secular world within which the members of his congregation must live day by day. When not in the pulpit, many conscientious ministers are to be found in the study preparing to preach, or in the homes of their flock engaged in pastoral visitation. Contacts outside this restricted circle will include fraternals of ministers where one meets with those who are 'like-minded' - thus increasing the problem. Doubtless many pastors can identify with the frustration of a well-known minister who, so his wife informed me, often looked out from his study window with longing at a road-sweeper pushing his barrow along the gutter and said, 'I wish I had his job.'

Ministerial isolation from the concrete realities of life in contemporary society can lead to a type of introspective preaching which leaves even the most faithful members of the congregation struggling to discover connecting links between what is heard from the pulpit on Sunday and the demands of life in the world throughout the week. Listening to sermons one often wonders whether preachers have the slightest idea of the ethical dilemmas facing the businessmen in their audience, or whether they appreciate the intellectual doubts which may be troubling teachers or students who have encountered modern critics of theism, or how far they are aware of the massive pressures which the youth culture creates for the teenage sons and daughters of their members.

I suggest that preparation for preaching in the context of the modern world must involve not only a concern with correct exegesis and exposition of the text of Scripture, but an appreciation of the realities of our culture and the peculiar challenges and temptations with which it confronts Christians. Pastors must not only speak to the people in their congregations, they must also listen to them. Of course, the problem discussed here raises serious questions concerning the training of preachers. Those of us with responsibility for the preparation of people called to a ministry of preaching at the close of the twentieth century must ensure that our students know both the Word and the context in which it is to be preached.

We have always recognised the importance of specialised training for men and women called to minister in cross-cultural mission among people of other faiths in exotic locations. Yet everywhere across the United Kingdom today there is need for ministries which equip churches for mission in a post-Christian culture. Perhaps there is also a need for the re­training of preachers whose ministries have been shaped by patterns of study which provided them with valuable exegetical skills without ever dealing with apologetic or missiological questions, or introducing them to the basic principles of effective crosscultural communication. The preaching of the Word must be related in powerful and imaginative ways to the concrete realities of a fragmented, pluralist and post-Christian culture.

Somehow the ecclesiastical debris of a ruined Christendom which, like a containing dam, prevents the waters of Life from irrigating the deserts of modernity, must be cleared away. One further insight from the discipline of sociology may be of help to I in understanding the pressures faced by preachers] the modern world. Since the European Enlightenment the dominant intellectual tradition in the West has excluded God and the supernatural from what is generally accepted as 'knowledge'. Deism placed God at the outer edge of the cosmos, a 'First Cause' retained in order to plug the remaining gaps in scientific knowledge and explanation. From here it was a short step to a totally empty and silent universe and Nietzsche's declaration of the 'death of God'. Religious truths which had once operated at the he of European culture now became marginal; indeed, they were no longer accorded the status of 'truths' all, becoming instead merely the private beliefs of t minority of people who found them comforting and reassuring. Meantime, quite different 'truths' move into the public realm; politics, law, economics, education, all now began operating apart from absolute moral principles and without regard to the biblical message proclaimed by preachers.

It is precisely at this point that Christians face a painful dilemma; if preaching retains the concepts and language of the pre-modern era it risks complete marginalisation, but if it begins to seek relevance by adaptation to the ruling ideas of a secular world, it is headed toward extinction. The American sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, describes the two options as 'Defence' or 'Accommodation' (1977, 175).

We are back at the point at which this discussion began - Thielicke's observation that pastors find themselves exercising their ministries 'almost to the exclusion of any public notice whatever'. The crucial question, it seems to me, is whether it is possible, in the specific context of a pluralist culture, to construct an effective apologetic faith which does not involve capitulation to secularism? It must be clear by now that accommodation of the classic liberal kind is a path that leads theology into an abyss; it is literally suicidal.

At the same time, the kind of conservatism which leaves the gospel locked firmly within a ghetto cannot be an option for those who take Christ's summons to mission seriously. To continue using the language and idioms of the nineteenth century (or, even worse, the sixteenth century) when preaching in the context of our nihilistic age involves an abdication of our Christian responsibility to communicate the Word of Life to those who most need to hear it.

As Thielicke observes, those who are content to transmit 'the conventional and familiar, unchanged and undigested' are actually guilty of laziness and unfaithfulness. Laziness, because the labour of interpretation and translation is hard work and it is 'never done without abortive trials and breath-taking risks'; unfaithfulness, because merely to repeat old phrases is in fact to give people stones instead of bread. Fortunately, there are clear signs that Evangelical theologians are beginning to engage in 'a patient effort to think through major questions of Christian belief in relation to significant theories and compelling practical needs of the modern world' (Noll and Wells: 1988,6, 7).

Internal Pressures - Preaching in a Changed Ecclesiastical Context

Analysts of modern culture are agreed that the 1950s and 60s witnessed changes in British society of a radical and far-reaching kind. Amid unprecedented prosperity, when it seemed that a never-ending economic expansion was one of the givens of life in modern society, there occurred what has become known as the 'expressive revolution'. One commentator describes this as 'a long and concerted attack on boundaries, limits, certainties, conventions, taboos, roles, system, style, category, predictability, form, structure and ritual. It was the pursuit of ambiguity and the incarnation of uncertainty' (Martin: 1981,25). Western people declared their freedom from the stifling restrictions of traditional thought and morality; the boundaries between 'right' and 'wrong' became fluid and appropriate behaviour was to be determined by the 'feel-good' factor rather than by any external ethical codes. Indeed, subjective feelings now became enormously important, words like 'experience' and atmosphere' cropped up again and again (BBC radio sports commentators frequently invite us to 'listen to the atmosphere'!) Ideas which had been in circulation among an intellectual elite since the beginning of the twentieth century now began to permeate popular culture.

Inevitably these changes began to be reflected in various ways in the churches. David Bebbington has pointed out that many aspects of the charismatic movement are symptomatic of a cultural ethos that 'stressed immediacy (and) the human capacity for instant heightened awareness' (Bebbington: 1989, 232). By shifting the centre of gravity in contemporary Christianity away from objective truth and toward subjective experience, the charismatic movement mirrored trends within society as a whole and can be described as a religious expression of cultural modernism.

However, the cultural shifts of the 1960s sparked widespread reconsideration of inherited patterns of life and worship within all the churches. At the close of the decade Francis Schaeffer published The Church At The End of the Twentieth Century - a book in which he warned Christians that the Church must stop debating the issues of yesterday and prepare herself for 'the real changes that lie ahead' (Schaeffer: 1970,97). Ray Stedman's Body Life urged the development of patterns of congregational fellowship which would facilitate the growth of Christian community, and Michael Griffith's famously titled Cinderella With Amnesia presented a similar case to a British readership. All these books focused attention upon the shallowness and inadequacy of the koinonia in modern congregations and called for radical reform in the structures of church life, in forms of worship and for the repudiation of inherited concepts of ministry. In New Wineskins: Changing the man made structures of the church, Howard Snyder asked 'What if there is something basically wrong with the traditional concept of ministry in the church?'

Like many others at this time he concluded that received patterns of ministry which required pastors to act like spiritual superstars were indeed fundamentally flawed and unbiblical. Ministers too often created bottlenecks preventing the development and exercise of a whole range of spiritual gifts within the congregation. Snyder summed up the concern of all the authors mentioned above when he wrote, 'It is time to go back to the Word to find a biblical ecclesiology, a biblical concept of the church compatible with the new stirrings of the Spirit in our day'. Taken to an extreme, the 'Body-Life' movement described above could lead to a form of subjectivism which resulted in hostility to a preaching ministry and a devaluing of the authority of the written Word itself.

Os Guinness has described this capitulation to modernist culture quite brilliantly in his The Gravedigger File. Christian faith, he says, has lost its intrinsic value and taken on an almost purely instrumental value. It is prized for what it does rather than what it is. Sadly, the form and content of much contemporary worship, the appeal to self-interest in a good deal of modern evangelism, and the pervasive subjectivity and hedonism found in recent literature, indicates that large sectors of the Evangelical movement have been shaped by the spirit and values of consumer society. It goes without saying that such an environment is hardly congenial to biblical preaching.

If however, the 'Body-Life' emphasis has been distorted in the manner just outlined, a retreat to the traditional status quo cannot be the correct response. The fundamental re-evaluation of the doctrine of the church, of the nature of ministry, and of patterns of worship which began in the 60s has provided a welcome opportunity to recover lost and neglected biblical insights. The challenges presented by a changing culture do have to be faced if churches are not to be locked into patterns of life and practice which result in their dismissal as the cultural relics of a bygone era. As crosscultural missionaries know well, questions arising from the encounter between the gospel and cultures very often open our eyes to aspects of the biblical record which had previously been overlooked or ignored. It would be surprising if the challenge of mission in the context of modern culture did not lead to reform as we discover neglected aspects of the apostolic model of the church.

In this respect we can surely be thankful that certain inherited notions of 'ministry' have been challenged recently. For too long the church has resembled a sporting event in which twenty-thousand people desperately in need of exercise come to watch twenty-two men desperately in need of rest! We must acknowledge, I think, that pastors have sometimes understood their role in a manner which has prevented the development and exercise of a rich variety of congregational gifts. While new patterns of worship involving the recognition of varieties of gifts may bring pressures on preaching, they are also capable of liberating pastors to fulfil their true function in teaching the Word of God. To be set free from the need to pretend that one is omnicompetent is both a relief and a step toward a more truly biblical pattern of ministry.

The utilisation of congregational gifts in worship, in specialised ministries among children and youth, in counselling and a range of caring activities, and in administration, will enable the preacher to devote himself to 'the word and doctrine'. It will also mean that more time can be spent interacting with a world that is in such desperate need of the truth; thus the ministry of the Word may begin to address the real issues of contemporary life in a manner that could lead to a genuine revival of biblical preaching.

Another aspect of contemporary culture which creates great pressures on preaching today relates to the tendency to give visual methods of communication priority over the spoken word. The increasing dominance of technology in modern life and the effect this has in the fields of communication and education poses a real threat to the 'ministry of the Word'. Jacques Ellul has focused on this problem frequently, pointing out that the proliferation of computers and robots involves a serious risk of 'dehumanisation'. Ellul warns that the increasing expansion of technology may reduce words to mere 'utilitarian ciphers' and, referring to the use of computers in education (and, one could add, in our children's bedrooms), he comments, 'The domination of the computer will complete this work of mental destruction' (Ellul 1989, 28).

Nonetheless, here too we must be careful that a legitimate concern to preserve the centrality of the Word does not lead us to ignore some very real challenges to those who wish to communicate with modern people. Again there are helpful insights to be drawn from the experience of crosscultural missions. Among tribal peoples Christianity has often been criticised as 'too cerebral' a religion and as a faith which restricts its blessings to the literate. The charge has some substance in the light of the practice of certain Protestant missions. Yet Scripture itself testifies to the employment of a rich variety of forms of revelation; prose and poetry, sermon and song, symbol and parable.

The written Word, like the incarnate Word, is wonderfully adaptable and reflects the grace of the God who, in Calvin's phrase, 'prattles with us in an awkward and common style'. The Bible provides us with clear precedents for elective communication to pre-literate societies. What then of the challenge facing us today in making the Word known to people who increasingly appear to belong within the category of the post-literate? This is surely a 'pressure' on preachers which those who seek to be faithful will have to face.

It is impossible to deal with contemporary pressures in ministry without, finally, considering the dangers confronting the preacher as an individual. Cases of ministerial burn-out or of serious moral failure are now so common as to absolutely demand that we give attention to the pressures on the minister. In an age like ours, pastors are likely to face acute problems, from the obvious moral dangers peculiar to those who find themselves placed in positions of trust, to intellectual doubts which, for very obvious reasons, a pastor may attempt to suppress, or the constant danger of slipping into a routine which conceals an ever-increasing spiritual dryness at the core of one's own being.

The psychologist Erich Fromm describes the way in which emotionally disordered people frequently become dangerously dependent upon a professional person seeking to help them, regarding a doctor or therapist as someone with 'magic' powers.

Preachers, by virtue of the public nature of their work, may easily become the focus of such disordered longing and expectation; they will need great wisdom and caution when, in the privacy of study or vestry, they counsel people who are inclined to invest such hopes in them. This is a 'contemporary pressure' on the ministry of the Word we dare not overlook. It also compels the question (especially urgent in relation to traditions of independency), 'Who pastors the pastor?'.

Let me conclude, as I began, with words of Helmut Thielicke. When all is said and done, the distrust of Christian preaching is ultimately to be located in the fact that 'the man who bores others must also be boring himself.' Thus, Thielicke says, the trouble with modern preaching 'lies deep in our actual spiritual condition, in a pathological condition of our spiritual existence... As long as we have not conquered this 'sickness unto death', which is seated in our unconvincing Christian existence and nowhere else, all secondary remedies are meaningless and restricted to very innocuous symptom therapy' (Thielicke: 1966, 18-19). So let us be more than conquerors.


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This article first appeared in Frontiers, Summer 1997, and is used with permission. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without prior permission from the original publisher..

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