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.