Appendix B: The Scope of Preaching and Evangelism

Proclaiming Christ Today
by Norman Pittenger

Appendix B: The Scope of Preaching and Evangelism

Most of us agree that the preaching of the gospel of Christ is to be distinguished from the teaching of the Christian faith, in the sense of a structure of belief, instruction in theology, and the presentation of the principles of Christian ethics and the technique of the life of devotion. This does not mean, however, that preaching the gospel, proclamation of the Word of God, must necessarily follow one single narrow line -- namely, the simple assertion from the pulpit, made over and over again, that Christ is Lord and that he is that One in whom true God acts supremely and decisively for the wholeness of men. Indeed, in the foregoing chapters, especially where we discussed the relationship of preaching to the "given" world in which men live, and some of the problems which we face today in the business of preaching, the effective proclamation of the Word of God was presented as one relating that which God does in Christ to the whole range of human life and experience, to real men in their actual need, to the concrete situations in which our contemporaries find themselves, and to the particular problems which they face today.

Thus we may say that a proper sermon can begin almost anywhere, and may be developed along almost any lines, provided that its ultimate starting point is Holy Scripture, in which the record and witness to the gospel are found, and that its final point of reference is always the Lord Jesus Christ, declared to be the Son of God with power. Some sermons may be expository in nature; they may take some passage or passages of Scripture and show how in them the Lord is declared. Other sermons may be drawn from what used to be called, in homiletics classes of thirty years ago, "the life situations" in which men find themselves, where the analysis of this or that problem which our fellow-men must face will lead directly to the gospel as having its star-ding relevance to the situation. Still again, a sermon may be related to the liturgical action in which it is set; for example, a sermon preached in the course of the celebration of the Holy Communion may take its rise from the Christian action of worship and go on to show who it is that is being worshiped, why he is being worshiped, and the consequences in human life that flow from such worship. There is, then, a great variety of patterns. What binds them together as proclamation of the Church’s gospel about Jesus Christ is that in their deepest intention they bring about a meeting of Christ and his people, and that they expect a response in decision, in action, in faith, in obedience, in adoration, in love. And of course, they may have different secondary intentions. To give one example, we may on occasion proclaim the Word of God with the specific purpose of securing that Christ’s people shall be more faithful, penitent, and regular in their use of the sacramental opportunities which Christ provides in his Church for their growth in grace. But whatever may be this secondary intention, the sermon must have as its primary aim the setting-forth of Christ, the reality of his grace, and the need for a full personal response to him in one fashion or another.

We hear much today about evangelistic preaching. Either inside the church building or outside it, the Word of God must be proclaimed now and again with the specific purpose of winning to Christ those who are not yet in any real sense disciples. But this kind of preaching is not the same thing as the Sunday-by-Sunday declaration of the Lord by response to whom the Church lives. It must have a different orientation from the Sunday preaching in the pulpit, given in connection with the action of Christian worship. It is preaching in a very special way and with a very special intention, for it is concerned to win converts to the Lord Jesus Christ, to awaken faith in those who do not have it or to quicken it when it is dead or dying, to refresh those who have become weak in their response to the gospel and have dropped out of the Church or are at best nominal members. Its purpose is to gather in the lost, to convince the doubtful, to increase by our feeble efforts the number of those who, we hope and pray, will become loyal and active participants in the regular life and worship of the Church of Christ.

Evangelistic preaching, then, to be genuinely effective, must center in one or other aspect of the total Christian proclamation, with the use of every honorable device and every respectable technique to drive that aspect home to the hearers. Such preaching is likely to be somewhat selective, in that the evangelist is hardly able to cover the entire range of the gospel’s message and corollaries. He must concentrate on the aspect of the gospel which may meet the needs and illuminate the situation of his hearers, showing, from this initial point of contact, how the Lord whom we preach brings help to those who know themselves to be in need of God’s grace and how it may bring them into that wholeness of life which it is Christ’s will and the Church’s responsibility to make available for all the sons of men.

Evangelistic preaching is always predicated on the conviction that men and women are in fact in need of God’s grace -- which is only another way of saying that they are sinners. But this does not mean that such preaching must dwell overmuch on the evil in men; rather, as it seems to me, the preaching is to be focussed primarily on God and his salvation which is the divine answer to the evil in men. To preach the gospel in a truly evangelistic fashion means to try to win men for Christ, not simply to convince men that they are sinful, poor, lonely, and needy. We may start from this latter fact, true as it is; but we must not concentrate on it. We are to put the emphasis on the truth that in Christ there is "plenteous grace. The acceptance of the fact that apart from him and from the grace of God in him, men do not have, and cannot have, that fullness of life which it is God’s intention that they should have, will then be the starting point for their coming to want the forgiveness, the gracious help, and the new life in Christ which the gospel offers. This means that the center of the proclamation remains, what it must always be, Christ our Lord as that One in whom true God acted for man’s wholeness; the center of our preaching cannot be an unhealthy and morbid concentration of all our attention on the sin and weakness of men. Once again, we need above all to emphasize the positive, convinced that its attractiveness will bring men to Christ.