Patrick W.T. Johnson. The Mission of Preaching: Equipping the Community for Faithful Witness. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015. See here to buy the book.
Patrick W.T. Johnson is a Presbyterian pastor who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary. The back cover of The Mission of Preaching
asks a question: “If the church in the West now lives in a
post-Christian context, how should preaching look different?” The book
tries to explore what Christian preaching should look like in a Western
world where many people are spiritual but not religious, and where
postmodernism questions the existence of objective truth.
Johnson interacts with a variety of writers and thinkers. One
thinker believes that people giving testimonies should replace the
traditional model of one trained pastor giving a sermon every week.
Another proposes that pastors meet regularly with a preaching group so
that their sermon preparation is more of a communal exercise. Then
there is Karl Barth, who emphasizes that preaching should be about
confessing Christ to the world, and encouraging people to serve the
world, with which Christ has already been reconciled.
What does any of this have to do with a post-Christian context or
postmodernism? Well, Johnson is interacting with these things,
sometimes favorably, and sometimes not so favorably. Some
postmodernists would be against one pastor hogging the show and would
tend to prefer people telling their stories over one person dogmatically
proclaiming the “truth” that everyone should supposedly accept; perhaps
they would also focus more on serving others rather than trying to get
one’s doctrine right. Johnson appears to be open to some of this, in
that he is for pastors working in community and allowing people who feel
called to give testimonies. He is not for dispensing with pastors,
however, plus he favors Christian communities sticking with a
traditional confession of Christian faith.
I would say that, for Johnson, Christians can respond to
postmodernism and post-Christianity by modeling a loving Christian
community, and by focusing on how the Word of God calls people to
mission, inviting those who want to go deeper to do so. I would also
say that Johnson wants to acknowledge that there is a lot of
subjectivity and preferences out there, and yet he desires to hold on to
some truth—-Christ and the importance of mission—-rather than allowing
preaching to become a consumerist exercise of entertaining people and
making their needs the primary focus of attention.
The book could have provided more specifics. What are examples of
the mission in which Christians are supposed to participate? There was a
lot in the book about the importance of mission, and how mission should
be about Christ and not just random acts of kindness, but I wondered
what mission was supposed to look like, for Johnson.
Still, the book did have a lot of excellent discussions. Johnson
mentions the point that pastors can preach more effectively if they know
people in their congregations and the context of the congregation. I
have found that to be true for me, though I wonder how a megachurch
would follow that advice. Perhaps it could do so by having the pastor
meet with small group leaders, and through reflection about how the
church is relating to the needs of the community.
Johnson talks about how a pastor who doubts the faith can still
preach the faith: essentially, the pastor can do so by viewing himself
as part of a larger whole, as one preaching the creed of a historical
community. I appreciated Johnson addressing this question, and I
myself, in preaching sermons and wrestling with doubt, have sometimes
felt carried by my sermon, like I am part of something larger than
myself, preaching to myself as well as the community.
Johnson also discusses the issue of Sabbath, which he seems to regard
as Sunday, and how observing Sunday can alienate Christians from
certain activities, and yet can provide them with opportunities to
testify to others about their faith. I grew up and spend part of my
adult life observing the Saturday Sabbath, and that alienated me a bit
in a Protestant small town that observed Sunday and scheduled activities
on Saturday. It was interesting to read about Sundaykeepers who
wrestled with similar problems.
If you are looking for a how-to manual on preaching or an apologetic
attempt to refute postmodernism, this book may disappoint you. But the
book does have interesting thoughts.
Intervarsity Press sent me a complimentary review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.