Fifteen hundred years ago, the emperor of Rome built a tomb for his beloved sister. The small building was designed in the shape of a cross with a vaulted ceiling covered with mosaics of swirling stars in an indigo sky. The focal point of the mosaic ceiling was a depiction of Jesus as a shepherd surrounded by sheep in a green paradise. The mausoleum of Galla Placidia still stands in Ravenna, Italy, and has been called by scholars “the earliest and best preserved of all mosaic monuments” and one of the “most artistically perfect.” But visitors who have admired the mosaic in travel books and on postcards will be disappointed when they enter the mausoleum. The structure has only tiny windows, and what light does enter is usually blocked by a mass of tourists. The “most artistically perfect” mosaic monument, the inspiring vision of the Good Shepherd in a starry paradise, is hidden behind a veil of darkness.
But those who are patient, who endure the musty darkness and claustrophobia, will be rewarded. With no advance notice, spotlights near the ceiling are turned on, illuminating the iridescent tiles of the mosaic, but only for a few seconds. One visitor describes the experience: “The lights come on. For a brief moment, the briefest of moments—the eye doesn’t have time to take it all in, the eye casts about—the dull, hot darkness overhead becomes a starry sky, a dark-blue cupola with huge, shimmering stars that seem startlingly close. ‘Ahhhhh!’ comes the sound from below, and then the light goes out, and again there’s darkness, darker even than before.” The bright burst of illumination is repeated over and over again, divided by darkness of unpredictable length. Each time the lights come on, the visitors are given another glimpse of heaven, and their eye captures another element previously unseen—deer drinking from springs, garlands of fruit and leaves, Jesus gently reaching out to his sheep who look lovingly on their good shepherd. After seeing the mosaic, one visitor wrote: “I have never seen anything so sublime in my life! Makes you want to cry!” We live in a dark world. Our hearts long for goodness, beauty, justice, and peace, but they are often hidden behind the shadow cast by evil and sin. This is why preaching is so necessary. Whenever the kingdom of God is proclaimed, it is like a bright burst of light. In those brief moments, the shadows recede and we are given a glimpse of a world behind the darkness. It is a sublime vision that reorders our perception of reality and leaves us hungry for more. Illuminated Glimpses This understanding of preaching, the unveiling of an inspiring vision of God’s kingdom, is not the one I’ve always held. I was formed to think that the primary purpose of preaching was instruction. This view of preaching expects the informed, articulate person behind the pulpit to teach the congregation divine truths and skills. The pupils are then expected to bury these seeds of biblical knowledge away in their brains where in time they germinate into godly values and behaviors, although few people seem surprised when they don’t. In Dallas Willard’s V.I.M. model of spiritual formation, he differentiates three parts: vision, intention, and means. Instructional preaching falls under the third component—means. It teaches people the methods through which they can obey Christ. These “how to” sermons usually have clearly articulated, often alliterated, application points relevant to one’s life. I never questioned this “preaching as instruction” view until I stepped behind the pulpit myself. What I discovered disturbed me. Despite my hours of preparation, thoughtful use of visuals, and tangible takeaways, most people retained very little of the nutritious content offered to them. Like my lactose-intolerant son who spat up every ounce of milk we gave him, how would people thrive if they couldn’t retain biblical knowledge? How would they live differently? What I have since discovered is that lecturing a passive audience for 20 to 40 minutes, what Doug Pagitt calls “speeching,” has been repeatedly proven to result in a very low retention of content. Likewise, adult education experts testify, along with a multitude of unregenerate pew sitters, that passive learning rarely transforms values. Does this mean we should abandon instruction in the church? Of course not. After all, we are commissioned to teach people to obey everything Christ commanded. It simply means traditional preaching is not the best medium for skill training and instruction. But preaching is wonderfully designed for the prerequisite component of Willard’s spiritual formation model—vision. Preaching this way will not always have the end goal of application, but rather inspiration. As Willard says, “It’s the beauty of the kingdom that Jesus said was causing people to climb over each other just to get in.” Only after people have a vision of God (the love, beauty, justice, and power of his kingdom) will they be ready to intentionally seek and employ the means to experience him through obedience—an aspect of spiritual formation that occurs most effectively in smaller settings through the medium of relationship. Preaching to inspire rather than instruct is a differentiation we see in Jesus’ own ministry. The Greek word for “preach” (kerusso) means to announce. This is not the same as the word for “teach” (didasko), meaning to instruct. In Mark’s Gospel we learn that Jesus came “preaching the gospel of God” and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus’ preaching was a revelatory act. He announced the kingdom. He turned the lights on so people could see the kingdom that lay “at hand” just behind their present darkness. Even Jesus’ most celebrated and lengthy sermon was intended more to inspire than to instruct. The Sermon on the Mount paints a vivid image of a life lived within God’s kingdom—a life that does not lust, lie, or manipulate; a life full of love, charity, and prayer. But the sermon includes very little “how to.” Jesus’ purpose is to reveal the kingdom; to illumine a sublime vision of a life in intimate communion with the Father. Early in the gospel narratives, Jesus sends his new apostles out to proclaim the kingdom. Have you ever found that odd? These fishermen and tax collectors understood so little, and later chapters show the magnitude of their ignorance. Would you have put one of these guys in the pulpit? But Jesus does not send them to “teach” (that command comes after his resurrection). Rather, he sends them to “preach.” Teaching requires proficiency with a set of knowledge—knowledge these men did not yet possess. But preaching is different. Announcing the kingdom only requires one to have seen and experienced it. It’s the difference between announcing that Flight 544 from Cleveland has arrived (kerusso), and teaching people the aerodynamics that enabled the aircraft to land (didasko).
Understanding the difference is crucial. If we see the purpose of preaching as primarily instructing, then it will be confined to an individual exercise; a responsibility granted only to the most biblically educated, articulate, and proficient in the congregation. But if we believe preaching is primarily the announcing of the kingdom, unveiling a vision of God’s glorious reign and our life in it, then the responsibility to preach cannot lie solely with the pastor, but with all of God’s people—even ignorant fishermen. Smells Bells Standing elbow-to-elbow with a herd of visitors in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia is not a pleasant experience. In the darkness odors become more acute. The ancient tomb smells, well, like an ancient tomb. Combined with the overly perfumed, and often sweaty, tourists it creates a memorable olfactory experience. With neck craned gazing into the darkness one prays for the lights to come back on so the sense of sight can overpower smell in the brain’s circuitry. The more perceptive in the crowd will know when relief is imminent. Just prior to the lights coming on a metallic “click” will resonate from the wall. Many Italian churches have a box along the wall for donations. But in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia the metal box offers an additional service. Inserting 300 lira, about a quarter, will trigger the spotlights. This explains the unpredictable periods of darkness. The inspiring vision of heaven that everyone has endured darkness, odors, and one another to see is revealed only when someone in the crowd contributes a coin. If the purpose of preaching is illumination—the unveiling of a vision of God’s kingdom—why do we limit that responsibility to only one person in the church? Why not allow others to drop their coins into the box for the encouragement and edification of the whole group? Surely a single mother, or recovering alcoholic, or teenager who has experienced God’s reign can give us a glimpse of the kingdom as well. They too have coins to give. Teaching may be the domain of the spiritually mature, but preaching belongs to the whole body. How the Body Preaches One way this happens in my church is a 10- or 15-minute segment of our Sunday gatherings we call “Offerings of Worship.” People in the congregation are invited to stand and share a story, a prayer, a passage of Scripture, a song, or a piece of art—anything they wish to give as worship to God and encouragement to the body. The moments of silence can be awkward and uncomfortable, equivalent to the stretches of darkness in Galla Placidia’s mausoleum (minus the odor). But then a coin is dropped, someone stands, and the lights burst on. Kathy holds back tears as she explains that both her mother and father are fighting cancer. Juggling her own young children and caring for her aging parents has been one of the most difficult things she’s ever faced. She shares about her father’s profound faith in Christ; the peace and joy he exudes even during cancer treatments reminds her that Jesus is always with her and will never leave her. As Kathy sits down Bill immediately rises. “Let’s pray for our sister,” he says. He leads the congregation in blessing Kathy. Michael, a nine-year-old in the second row, stands. He has a congenital disease that causes his bones to fracture easily and makes playing with other kids dangerous. “I’m new to the church,” he says timidly. “I came with the Bradshaws, they’re my neighbors. My family can be pretty difficult, and I just want to thank God for the Bradshaws. They’ve been really good to me.” Michael shows everyone a picture he’s drawn of himself with the Bradshaw family. Paul, a middle-aged professional, stands and shares about the addiction he’s struggled with for decades—the darkness, despair, and guilt that plagued his soul. But the unwavering love of God, his wife, and other men in the church have guided him to sobriety. He’s not sure about the future, but each day he’s learning to believe that God accepts him as his son. Timothy, an immigrant from China, stands with his Bible open, reading in Mandarin. No one in the congregation has a clue what he is saying. After a few minutes he pauses and begins again. Through his heavily accented English, I am able to discern Psalm 1. When he finishes, Timothy closes his Bible and his eyes and begins singing a spirited Mandarin rendition of “Amazing Grace” with his arms lifted up. By the second stanza the whole congregation is singing along in English. Before I ever reach the platform, the congregation has already seen glimpses God’s kindness to a struggling mother, his hospitality to a marginalized kid, his healing to an addict, and his grace that transcends culture and language. The lights have already flashed numerous times. The veil of shadow that people experience all week has been pulled back, if only briefly, to reveal the beauty behind it. What more can I possibly add? Like everyone else who has “preached” this Sunday morning, I stand from among the congregation—one more person with a coin to drop to reveal God’s kingdom. I ascend the platform with a Bible to tell a story of God’s work in ages past and to help the congregation see that same God at work today. With this understanding the sermon ceases to be the “main event,” the part of the service everything has been leading up to, and instead becomes one way among many the darkness is dispelled and reality reordered. I may have come slightly more prepared than Kathy, Michael, Paul, or Timothy, and my content might be drawn more from Scripture than personal experience, but my purpose is the same—to enrapture my brothers and sisters with the beauty of God and his kingdom, inspiring them toward faith and good works. What they may not realize is that they have already encouraged me. Sunday morning is anything but worshipful for many pastors. We are so preoccupied with the details of the service that calming our souls and communing with Christ is nearly impossible. But hearing how others are encountering God, seeing his power in their lives, and catching a glimpse of his kingdom through their preaching has taught me be a sheep again, and not just a shepherd. Open Source Preaching? The idea of opening the congregation to unrehearsed testimonies and sharing terrifies some pastors, and, to be fair, we’ve had our share of strange occurrences. Additionally, in very large churches this kind of community expression is unworkable—one reason we have championed planting “accessibly sized” congregations. But there are other ways to move preaching away from an individual exercise toward an expression of Christ’s body. In recent years we have been shifting steadily away from a single preacher toward a team approach. Part of our motivation has been practical. Having multiple congregations and wanting to develop new speakers have been factors, but a team approach has other hidden blessings. I was sitting next to my wife on one of those rare Sundays when I had no official responsibilities. The associate pastor was preaching when my wife leaned over to whisper something in my ear. “No offense,” she said, “but I love it when Ron preaches.” “Why,” I asked, “because you get to sit next to me?” I put my arm around her shoulder. “No,” she replied, rolling her eyes, “because when he preaches I really sense his passion for the lost.” She was right. Ron spent most of his career as a missionary; he lives and breathes mission and he is a gifted evangelist. I can preach faithfully about evangelism, but when Ron talks about it, there is an added power—the lights burn more brightly and illuminate that aspect of God’s character more fully. Through him the body is inspired toward mission more effectively. The New Testament tells us that Christ has given some to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. And other passages highlight the diversity of gifts given for the edification of the whole body. But when only one person’s gifts, function, and personality are given expression in our gatherings, or if Sunday is seen as the private domain of teachers, we limit the vision of God and his kingdom people experience. Because many of us, both in leadership and in the pew, have been conditioned to equate ministry with preaching, any radical change to the pulpit ministry may prove impossible, or at least highly dangerous. Thankfully, pastors seeking to make their preaching an expression of the body can take several rudimentary steps in this direction. John Ortberg encourages preachers to assemble a group from their congregation to function as a sermon preparation team (see page 38). In this way, when the pastor stands on the platform to deliver the message, the sermon represents the work of a community of Christ’s people. While I don’t have a research team, the principles are at work. Every message I write is read and reviewed by a trusted friend in the church before it’s preached. As one who shares my purpose in preaching, he is able to offer helpful suggestions that enable me to preach more effectively. Working with him on a sermon is a simple discipline that helps me do my ministry in community rather than alone. Opportunities abound on the other side of the preaching event as well. Many churches have adult classes to discuss and apply the content of the sermon. The advent of the Internet, podcasts, and blogs opens all kinds of possibilities. We are currently rebuilding our website to allow the preaching pastor to interact with members on Sunday evenings. The conversation will allow the body to contemplate responses and dig deeper into the ideas raised on Sunday morning. We hope to bridge the vision of the sermon with the application to individual lives. A similar, although less technological tool, is what we call “Sermon 2 Small Group.” Each week a small-group curriculum is created based on the vision presented in the sermon. Those who may not feel prepared or confident enough to share in a worship gathering may express their experience of God in these more intimate settings. Groups talk about the vision presented in the sermon, what they saw of God and his kingdom, and explore ways to apply that vision. During some seasons of the year, particularly Advent and summer, similar guides are created for parents and children. Like tourists standing in the mausoleum in Ravenna, many congregations may be unaware of the sublime beauty all around them. Preaching doesn’t have to be merely instruction. First we need to have the darkness of the world rolled away and a vision of God’s kingdom illuminated before us. This responsibility to inspire does not lie with the pastor alone, but with all of God’s people. If we welcome the body into the pulpit, to drop their coins into the box and illuminate the kingdom for us all, the preacher and people alike may marvel at what is revealed. Skye Jethani is associate editor of Leadership and teaching pastor at Blanchard Alliance Church in Wheaton, Illinois. Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal.