How Preaching Participates in the Mission of God: a book review

Books on preaching are of two varieties (at least!). Some books focus on method and creative presentations for the preaching moment, others focus on the content and purpose of preaching. Books on the Missional church follow the same pattern. Some books are pragmatic, offering ideas about ‘new ways of being church’ in the community. Other authors focus on the conceptual framework of ministry shaped by our relationship with the missional God. Of course practical authors hope they are rooted in good theology and conceptual authors see practical application of their ideas, but they have different starting points.

When Patrick Johnson, pastor at Frenchtown Presbyterian Church and adjunct professor at Princeton Theological Seminary decided to tackle both topics–preaching and the missional church–he tackled the conceptual side of both, offering a theology of preaching and mission. The Mission of Preaching: Equipping the Community for Faithful Witness is conversant with the discipline of homiletics and  the missional thinkers who have framed the contemporary discussion, people like Newbigin, Bosch, Barth and the Gospel in Our Culture Network (GOCN). He  is thoughtful about how preaching serves God’s mission and where it fits in the larger context of the church’s witness of Christ. Johnson is suggestive of ways to be more intentionally communal and formational through preaching.

Johnson’s four chapters represent several conversations about preaching and mission. In the first three chapters, Johnson discusses preaching as witness, the witness of Christian community and the witness of missional congregations.. Chapter four forms a nexus, connecting the early conversations and offers a ‘missional homiletic of witness.’

Chapter one examines three different approaches to preaching, from three authors, who each see the function of preaching as witness: The Witness of Preaching by Thomas Long, Preaching as Testimony by Anna Carter Florence and Confessing Jesus Christ: Preaching in a Postmodern World by David Lose. Each of these authors argue that witness is the most appropriate way to understand what a preacher does, though they diverge in their theological commitments, assumptions and points of emphasis. Long places witness alongside other images of preaching, outlines how the preacher bears witness, and places preaching within ‘the context of Christian community’ (4!), Florence repositions homiletic authority on ‘the structure of testimony’ (as opposed to education, ordination and training. (50). Lose offers an analysis of the epistemological challenges to preaching from post-modernity, adds to the idea witness the concept of confession (communal understanding o the gospel) and places preaching within the context of the church’s multifaceted witness (61-62). Johnson closes the chapter with six questions raised by his examination of these three authors and highlights their various answers: (1) What or who is the object of the preachers witness?; (2) By what criteria should one assess the faithfulness of the preacher’s witness?; What kind of witness is scripture?; What of ordination?; In what ways does the congregation bear witness?; and How does the witness of the preacher relate to the witness of the congregation?

Chapter two examines the witness of the congregation through the lens of Barth’s Church Dogmatics (IV,3.2). Barth saw bearing witness as the function of all that the church does. He therefore placed preaching under the larger category of Witness. The church witnesses through praise, preaching, instruction, evangelism, mission, theology, prayer, the cure of the souls, producing exemplary lives, service, prophetic action and fellowship (96-103).  Johnson observes that for Barth, “witness is not a way of preaching, but preaching is a way of witness” (103). Barth helps missional preachers move beyond their individual role in preaching to seeing how the act of preaching connects to the mission of the church and calls the church to orient itself toward the world it is called to reach.

Chapter three focuses on the witness of missional congregations, using the patterns of missional faithfulness described in Treasure in Clay Jars edited by Lois Barret for the GOCN (Eerdmans, 2004). The eight patterns are: discerning missional vocation, biblical formation and discipleship, taking risks as the contrast community, demonstrating God’s intent for the world, dependence on the Holy Spirit, pointing toward the reign of God, exercising missional authority. Johnson walks through each of these patterns drawing out the implications of how missional preaching helps contribute to and give shape to each of these elements in the life of the church.

Finally chapter four draws all of these various conversations together. This is longest chapter of the book and in it, Johnson gives his definition of a ‘missional homiletic of witness.’ He begins under the sub-heading ‘preaching’ and gradually adds more detail until his heading offers a full definition of what he is calling for:

Preaching Confesses Jesus Christ Through a Missional Interpretation of Scripture . . . to Equip the  Community for Witness in the World. 

Johnson builds on the thoughts of all the thinkers he previous profiled, as well as interacting with other recent proposals for missional preaching (such as Al Tizon’s Missional Preaching).

Johnson believes that the preacher has a crucial role in aiding and equipping the church for mission; however, his conclusion draws out several practical ideas from his study. First, he urges congregations to take seriously the idea of communal preaching (a shared ministry of preaching in the church). Because preaching is about bearing witness to Christ’s ongoing (and finished) work, the ordained ministry is not the authoritative voice for the community but one who points to Jesus and his mission. This would mean that one of the tasks of the preacher would be to nurture other preachers in the community, believing that no, one person has all the necessary gifts and insights to prepare the whole church for holistic mission (219). Secondly Johnson focuses on the necessary focus on Jesus Christ as the content of preaching, and a missional hermeneutic of scripture which explores God’s mission for the world (220,221). Johnson also reiterates again how preaching is just one component of the church’s multiform witness.

As a solo pastor and primary preacher at a small church, I found much of what Johnson says insightful and suggestive. I believe in the necessity of biblical preaching and think it is formative and missional but I have been uneasy with the way the preacher’s voice (on any given Sunday, my voice) is privileged over and against others in the congregation. Seeing with Johnson (and Barth) that preaching is just one aspect of the church’s witness is helpful . I also appreciate the hermeneutic lens of mission–reading the Bible with an eye for God’s mission and seeking ways to exhort the congregation to participate in it. Probably the most challenging aspect of Johnson’s proposal for my context, is the communal preaching component. I think I agree with Johnson that this is a good goal to move to, but the culture of my church has been that the called pastor delivers the message. Sermons from occasional members of the congregation or visitors are the exception rather than the rule. A good amount of groundwork would need to precede a move in that direction.

This is a demanding read, examining a large swath of practical theology and systematics. It obviously will be useful reading for a preaching class or seminar at a seminary level; yet this book will also be read fruitfully by pastors, preachers and lay ministers. I give this book four and a half stars and recommend it for anyone who cares about the mission and proclamation of the church.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

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