By “preaching” in this post, I’ll be referring to any practice similar to a lecture at a church gathering.
I’ve been wondering lately where the church tradition of weekly (or some other regularly scheduled) preaching originated. Preaching in the New Testament is proclaiming the death, resurrection, and lordship of Christ to unbelievers in public places. Among the church, the primary transfers of knowledge were informal gathering, reading the apostles’ teachings, and confrontation of sin and error.
So how did preaching come to mean lecturing on the Scriptures to those who already believe? My conjecture is that as Christianity became first acceptable and then the majority religion, the problem arose of how to pass on knowledge of the scriptures to the multitudes of new converts. Copies of Scripture were scarce, and many people were illiterate. To overcome these problems, there arose a technology whereby a few people studied those rare manuscripts, then publicly read and explained them. The technology was abused, then again put to good use, and today is becoming obsolete. The practitioners of this technology gave it the term preaching.
Many of the new attendees in the suddenly successful Christianity were cultural converts only, not interested in discipling and being discipled in the manner shown by the apostles. Church leaders, under political pressure to enroll everyone in the new religion and tempted by pride to maintain power and influence over so many, ignored the more challenging parts of the New Testament (“If anyone would be my disciple, let him take up his cross…”). The apostles’ model demands changing priorities and being vulnerable, things unregenerate people are not fond of. What our hard hearts and world-conforming minds do understand is religious piety – we want to change ourselves and pay our own penalty when we mess up.
Thus we see the roots of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy: religious rituals, overseen by professionals, teaching that a man’s standing before God is mainly that man’s responsibility. Part of the ritual was a reading from Scriptures (or other church writings) in Latin, the language of Rome – even in places where that language wasn’t understood by the attendees.
The reformers of the 16th century rightly criticized this obfuscation of Scripture, and began reading and teaching it in the local languages. At a time when many were illiterate and almost none had access to books or even a Bible, renewed public reading and exposition was very important and did much to spread the gospel. It also returned most Protestant churches to a doctrine of salvation as an unmerited act of grace and gift from God.
The Reformation removed two of the four problems with Catholicism mentioned above, but by and large continued the traditions of ritualistic gatherings and professional clergy. At the time, a clerical class seemed necessary, and indeed a large number of well-studied teachers was needed because of the limited communications available.
Like lamplighters of the 19th century, preachers played an important role in churches that were dedicated to learning from Scripture. But as they did with lamplighters and many other careers, modern tools are shrinking the need for professional Christian lecturers. I think this is one of the few positive lessons to learn from mega-churches: a lecturer (or preacher if you will) can address 10,000 or 10 million as easily as 10. In addition, most believers in developed countries are literate and wealthy enough to afford Bibles, books, and commentaries, or at least an internet connection to access all those things online.
So in light of modern technology, do churches need to simply disband and send everyone home to their iPads? Heaven forbid (seriously)! The blessings of modern communications should mean we have more teachers than ever; every mature believer can be and should be able to teach. Not everyone will have the gift of being able to comfortably address crowds, but the most effective teaching springs from every day experiences that lead to all of us asking questions and answering them from Scripture.
However, I think every household of believers should seriously consider whether hiring full-time teachers or ministers is the best use of the resources that the Lord has entrusted to us. If we hold to the truth, we can be sure that those who only have an “appearance of godliness” will leave and take their donations with them. What will remain will always be enough to carry out the Father’s mission, but it will not sustain unnecessary traditions of men. I don’t think that paying people to prepare lectures is forbidden by Scripture, but neither is it commanded, except perhaps as part of supporting godly elderly men who are past working age (1 Timothy 5:17-18). And I think it is unhealthy to promote the idea that “regular” believers can outsource their good works to professionals. Visiting the sick, imprisoned, widowed, and orphaned is commanded of all disciples.
Listening to a studied, intelligent individual present a thorough explanation of a passage or topic is interesting, instructive, and has its place in learning the Scriptures. Thanks to modern tools, the church needs far fewer of these individuals and that frees up time and money to spread the gospel.