Powerful Preaching: Fleming Rutledge’s Parchman Lectures

Fleming Rutledge recently delivered the Parchman Lectures at Truett Divinity School located at Baylor University on the theme “By the Word Worked: The Unique Power of Biblical Preaching.”  I recently had the opportunity to watch the first two lectures which are available for public viewing through the Parchman Lectures Media Library.

In the second half of the first lecture, Rutledge incisively identified four trends that weaken the power of contemporary preaching, before positing five counter-affirmations about the power of the preached word.  In what follows, I’ll attempt to summarize her important observations, in the hope of encouraging interested readers to watch the lecture itself.

The four trends that Rutledge identifies as weakening the power of contemporary preaching are:

1.) Preachers have forgotten how to be theological.  This concern has become a central focus in my own teaching and writing ministry.  In many ways, Rutledge’s other trends can be understood to be the outworking of this development.  The anthropological turn in preaching leaves preachers with much to say about human potential and possibility, but very little to say about God.

2.) Many sermons today depict an all-loving, all-embracing, but largely passive God who is the object of our religious search.  This is evident in the way that the hortatory and therapeutic have now eclipsed the revelatory in contemporary sermons.  Preachers speak in terms of our spiritual journey, rather than the God who comes to find us.

3.) The “Jesus Keyrgma” has replaced the “Christ Kerygma.”  I might be inclined to be a bit more cautious about the terms used here, as they could reinscribe the modern division between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith that Rutledge has no interest in promulgating.  However, her point is well-taken, in that in many sermons Jesus stands as a moral exemplar (and often one who merely serves to shore up ideological convictions we already hold on prior grounds) and not the incarnate Word who brings healing to the cosmos through his redemptive self-offering and reign.

4.) Sermons tend to be timid and lack urgency.  This is particularly on display at the end of many sermons that end with the whimper of exhortation rather than the bold proclamation of promise.

In the face of these erosive trends, Rutledge puts forward five counter-affirmations:

1.) The Word of God is, above all, powerful.  Our faith and very existence are predicated upon the three words, “And God said.”

2.) God is the subject of the verbs in a truly biblical sermon.  I first heard this from Fleming Rutledge over a decade ago and I continue to hear these words rattling around inside my head whenever I am preparing to preach.

3.) God is active in the world.  Rutledge sees this as the largest area of dispute between theology which is biblical and that which is merely liberal.  However, I’m afraid much evangelical preaching has similarly devolved into human beings talking about themselves in a loud voice.1

4.) A robust Christology is at the heart of powerful preaching.  The temptation to read the teachings and ministry of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels in anthropological terms can only be overcome by proclaiming the full identity of Christ the incarnate Word as attested to in John, Hebrews, the writings of Paul, and the Synoptics themselves.  The teachings and ministry of Jesus are not discarded, but rather placed within their proper theological context.

5.) The Word of God is urgent.  The congregation must know that the preacher is convicted and convinced by what they are proclaiming and the congregation has an important role to play in upholding its pastors in this task.

  1. See, for example, my critique of Andy Stanley’s homiletical method in “A Tale of Two Stanleys” in Stanley Hauerwas with Robert J. Dean, Minding the Web: Making Theological Connections (Eugene: Cascade, 2018), 292-309.

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