The Witness of Preaching

In Thomas G. Long’s, The Witness of Preaching he describes three images of preachers and preaching to answer the question, “What does it mean to preach?” A preacher is a herald, a pastor, and a storyteller/poet.

The preacher as herald.
This image of the herald conveys the idea that the preacher is not as interested in the audience’s felt need or even her own theological inclinations. She is more interested in proclaiming the voice of God. The preaching event is about being faithful and not effective. A herald preacher trusts in the power of the Word and not in his rhetoric, delivery, illustrations, or expressiveness. The goal is to “Get the message straight and speak it plainly” (Long, 22).

There is much to be appreciated about this image. Yet, one criticism is that if you lean heavily on this image at the scrutiny of others then you may be blind to the fact that it runs counter to preaching and prophesy delivered by the prophets and Jesus.  The biblical writers used rhetorical devices and imaginative language to describe the oracles of God. They were not only concerned about what they said but how they said it.

The preacher as pastor.
The image of the preacher as pastor moves from focusing on the word of God to focusing on the people of God. The pastor places herself in the shoes of the audience and wants to know how the audience will receive the message. “What is it like to be the hearer?” “How can I help them to understand the principles of God’s word?” A pastor preaches not primarily out of the needs of the text but the needs of the hearer. A strength of this preaching image is its practicality and relatability between the audience and the text. When the pastor preaches, the good news really feels like good news.

A weakness of the pastor image of preaching is that its focus on the needs of the audience can develop consumers and not followers. This is evident in dissatisfied church folk clichés like, “I’m just not getting my needs met.” And, “The pastor is not feeding me.”

The preacher as storyteller/poet.
This image is focused on the literary and artistic expressions employed in storytelling by the preacher. People who lean heavily on this image have no trouble describing preaching as an art. Proponents of storytelling believe it to be the perfect blend of both the images of the herald and the pastor. Narrative and poetry are the natural literary devices found in scripture. Modern day preaching and theology describes the Bible as a story, and its common theme is referred to as the metanarrative. A strength of the storyteller is its balance between the accuracy of the text and the needs of the hearer.

A weakness of narrative preaching is that the biblical writers do not always tell stories. If a preacher limits himself to storytelling he may limit the passages that he chooses to preach.

Yet, there is a fourth image of the preacher that is the focal image in Long’s book.

The preacher as witness.
The image of preaching as witness brings new meaning to the authority given to a preacher. It is not that the preacher is smarter, has more faith, is more Christ like, or more theologically trained than everyone in his congregation. This is not what gives him authority. He is seeking a word from God each week on behalf of the church. The preacher is sent by the church to God’s word because the word is God’s faithful witness. After encountering God through his word the preacher returns to preach a gospel that is bigger than his faith. He testifies of the good news of Christ.

The strength of this image is that it holds the strongest characteristics of the prior three. It is the truest image of preaching according to Tom Long.

My imaging.
I probably carry the images of herald and pastor with me into my sermon prep and preaching event. I am working to include storytelling to my weekly sermons. The description of witness preaching as being sent by the congregation to receive a word from God is intriguing to me. Even though I may not have ever chosen to describe my ministry with that language, I embrace it.

May my preaching be a faithful witness of the gospel of Jesus Christ for the sake of my church and the world.

What image of preaching resonates with you as a listener? As a preacher?

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Jovan preaches for the Littleton Church of Christ near Denver, Colorado. Visit here to listen to sermons preached at the Littleton Church. 

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