How do we judge the effectiveness of preaching? It’s a question that’s of obvious interest to preachers. And it’s also a question that’s at the heart of the ubiquitous discussions amongst the laity about who is, or isn’t, a good preacher.
Some time ago I read through Bruce Winter’s Philo and Paul Amongst the Sophists. It’s a very persuasive argument for a background to the problems in the Corinthian church in the sophistic movement of the first century. The Sophists valued rhetoric and presentation above all else in their speaking, and the hearers too would judge the relative merits of the Sophists by this same criterion.
So, when Paul is at pains to point out that he didn’t arrive in Corinth with a message delivered by ‘cleverness of speech’, he’s distancing himself from a sophistic culture which was represented amongst the Corinthian Christians. Similarly, the parties at Corinth (‘I am of Paul, I am of Apollos…’) was a reflection of the tendency to follow and identify with a particular sophist, not necessarily because of the content of their declamations, but simply based upon their style. The sophists were not merely concerned with the style of their speech, but also with their appearance (which might connect with 2 Cor 10:10). Sophists were keen to present themselves outwardly as exemplars of style to the masses. In one case cited by Winter, Epictetus, who is unimpressed by this superficiality, berates a young student of the Sophists for plucking the hair from his body and being concerned about the way in which the hair on his head is set.
How do modern attitudes in the church compare with the attitudes of the Corinthian Christians? To start with, it’s definitely a familiar phenomenon to find preachers judged on their rhetorical power. But, as Paul is at pains to point out, that is a very poor way to judge the effectiveness of a ministry (1 Cor 2:4,5; 4:20). The measure of effective preaching is not how elated we feel when we sing the final hymn or when we are leaving the church. It is how we feel six months or six years later, when we are able to judge the cumulative effect of a ministry in our lives.
And there are implications for us as hearers. If we approach sermons looking for a ‘hit’, a ‘rush’, a ‘high’, looking to be thrilled, our listening might not be conducive to understanding and learning. And there are implications for preachers. If we are looking primarily to thrill the congregation, then that might not be an approach geared to effective teaching and learning. Are we, as hearers, listening in order to grow towards maturity? Are we, as preachers, teaching in such a way as to produce these outcomes amongst our hearers?
And as for the outward appearance… Some preachers have to run just to stand still with some congregations because they’re not wearing a collar (or because they are); because they’re not wearing (or are) a tie, or a suit, or jeans! In the contemporary church there is a tendency to judge a ministry, especially a preacher’s ministry, in terms of oratory, or personality, or even appearance, or perhaps in terms of new people coming into church drawn by that oratory or some other aspect. However, the true test is one of results, not of the instant gratification of an adrenalin hit or a spiritual high, or of the fickle measure of bums on seats, but by the solid, nitty-gritty of effective teaching leading to spiritual growth across the board: new Christians and more established Christians both growing to be mature, effective Christians.