It was to a church, struggling with theological and ecclesiological tensions, that Paul first described the practice of preaching as ‘foolishness’ (1 Corinthians 1:20-2:16).
He called preaching ‘foolish’, because Greek philosophy was at that time communicated through a self-conscious form of oratory and public discourse. Surely, if the mysteries of the divine and the human were ever to be communicated, it should be done in a spectacular and flamboyant way?
Yet, according to the foremost apostolic preacher of the first century, preaching was to be the chosen communicative method of disseminating divine truth. Paul proclaims this foolish practice is greater than the wisest communicative practices offered by humanity.
Preaching as evangelism — ‘preaching the gospel’ — is, fundamentally, scriptural. When Jesus began his earthly ministry, he became a preacher of the gospel; immediately preceded by John the Baptist, another preacher of repentance (Matthew 3:1).
Jesus’ ministry largely consisted of travelling from place to place preaching the gospel (e.g. Luke 9:6). Apostolic preaching was a ‘narration of the life and work of Jesus, with a defence of his resurrection … followed by a call to repentance and faith in his name’ (Merrill Tenney). Jesus called his disciples to this task in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15).
Preaching as evangelism was continued by the early church, starting with Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2), and became the established pattern of gospel ministry. It runs through the book of Acts, from the Samaritan mass evangelism of Philip and through much of Paul’s ministry (Acts 9:20; 16:10).
Paul teaches in Romans 10:13-15: ‘For whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?
‘And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: how beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!’
Even as, after the first century, institutional Christianity grew, there were still traces of preaching as evangelism. In the time of early Constantinian orthodoxy, men like Patrick and Augustine held it as paramount in winning pagan converts.
It was continued by the orders of friars (largely led by Francis and Dominic), during the Protestant Reformation, and during the Pietist movement under Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke
The Pietists, in turn, influenced the evangelistic preaching missions of the Moravian missionaries, who influenced the evangelical awakenings in America and Britain and the ministries of George Whitefield and John Wesley.
The Salvation Army and Brethren movements in the nineteenth century helped to consolidate preaching as evangelism. The twentieth century provided a plethora of preachers who used preaching as direct evangelism — preachers such as Billy Sunday, W. P. Nicholson and, perhaps the most well known preaching evangelist of the modern era, Billy Graham.
Preaching has maintained a clear historical line from the beginnings of the church age until the present century. However, it is today being derided by the more ‘progressive’ Christianity of the ‘emerging church’.
With the particular theological/missiological slant of Lesslie Newbigin and David J. Bosch, along with the contemporary teachings of Brian McLaren, Rob Bell and Peter Rollins and a heavy reliance on postmodern appreciation, the emerging church wants to see an end to preaching as evangelism (Darrell L. Guder, Missional church; W. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1998; pp. 103-109).
The emerging church elevates cultural consideration over any possible offence of the cross and prefers an ‘attractive’ approach, informed by the culture rather than Scripture.
But we should maintain the practice of preaching as evangelism in the twenty-first century. The biblical foundation alone gives sufficient warrant, however counter-cultural it may be. The stamp of God is on the practice.
Interestingly, when the final two witnesses of Revelation 11 finally appear, they will come preaching, prophesying and testifying; preaching is actually supra-historical!
God has revealed this practice is divinely chosen. It supersedes cultural considerations and promotes a methodology that supernaturally penetrates the hearts and minds of sinners in every age of the church.
This ‘foolishness’ is the means by which God has chosen to communicate the greatest story ever told — the death and resurrection of the Son of God to purchase the redemption of sinners the world over. As Paul asked, ‘How will they hear without a gospel preacher?’
The author is an Army Scripture Reader with SASRA in Gutersloh, Germany