The functions of good preaching

May 22nd, 2022

It seems simplistic at first to ask what a preacher does. After all, preachers simply preach. They discover, develop, and embody sermons. What else is there? The answer only raises other questions. What is a sermon, and what does a sermon do? More to the point, even though a single sermon cannot do too many things all at once, the practice of preaching does much more than any single sermon could accomplish alone. The sermon this week may do something very different from what the sermon does next week. Preachers need to pay attention to this fact. Shortsighted focus on one sermon at a time will miss the most powerful potential for preaching: its repeated, over-time, and holistically shaping force.

We begin our search for preaching’s functions in the same place that we began our search for preaching’s aim, in the most influential preaching textbook in history. The ensuing history of preaching and preaching theory will fill in the gaps many discern in Augustine. Though Augustine does not use the precise language of function, his assumed functions for preaching become clear with a close reading. The first function of preaching for Augustine is a therapeutic one: healing.

Therapeutic preaching has become a loaded phrase in homiletics since the mid- to late twentieth century.[1] Therapeutic preaching is now decried as trivializing the gospel or diminishing God to a reverse projection of our human needs. God is a nice God who wants us all to be nice and who is there for us if we ever have need.[2] These concerns are valid and crucial today. Yet for Augustine, none of the baggage of cheap pop psychology with which Western culture now has to deal weighs him down. Neither does highly anthropological nineteenth-century liberalism concern him. To be sure, his God was not reduced to a loving parental figure asking us to be nice. Though I must admit, being nice would be a good step toward love for some people of faith. Rather, medicinal metaphors seemed particularly appropriate to him given the healing metaphors used throughout Scripture.

For Augustine, the healing function of preaching emerges from the activity of God. Augustine therefore explores how the Wisdom of God healed humanity by coming in the flesh.[3] God accomplished this healing by first of all being sufferer, medicine, and physician in the same person. Jesus Christ is both the balm and the hand applying the balm with full empathy since he suffered the sickness we have suffered: human frailty in all its forms. Second, the triune God accomplished this healing by fitting the cure to the wound “curing some of them by their likes, some of them by their opposites.”[4] Augustine in this section is laying theological groundwork for human care and skill in teaching and preaching Christian doctrine. As a good doctor educates a patient, so this therapeutic function blends into the didactic. Preaching functions therapeutically by attending to the needs and hurts of fallen humanity in order to meet needs and heal wounds with the proclamation of the gospel. In this way preaching heals. Insofar as many Christian contexts around the world continue to report physical healing following on the heels of preaching and teaching faith, it must be mentioned that perhaps preaching pays an occasional and unpredictable healing role in even more literal ways.[5]

The second function of preaching discernible in Augustine is the didactic function: teaching.[6] The title of the text De doctrina christiana clearly indicates Augustine’s view of preaching and teaching. Teaching and preaching in Christian contexts are inextricably interwoven. Above all else, as will be explored below, the Christian orator is to be clear, to be easily understood, and to promote the teaching of the rule of faith as expressed in the whole panoply of scripture.[7] Preaching is didactic, a process of educating the nonbeliever, the immature believer, and the mature believer in those elements of Christian doctrine that are most appropriate to their ongoing pilgrimage toward God.

When I offer these thoughts in preaching courses and conferences there is occasional resistance to the idea of preaching as teaching. For some, this comes from exegetical decisions that divide two words in scripture that most often show up together, preaching and teaching.[8] For others, the division is a protection of the turf of Christian education and spiritual formation. Christian education teaches after all. The early Christians did not divide so neatly between preaching and teaching as we do. Upon reflection you might find that most of your favorite teachers and preachers have moved fluidly back and forth between those two. When speaking of God, it is a timid teacher who never proclaims and a shallow preacher who has nothing to teach. For preaching, teaching is only one function. For Christian education, it is certainly a central one.

Third, preaching performs a soteriological function: saving.[9] Augustine not only connects the incarnation in general with preaching in general but also quotes 1 Corinthians 1:21 to give a soteriological function in specific to his particularly incarnational theology of preaching: “to save those that believe through the foolishness of preaching.”[10] The embodiment of the gospel in the person of the preacher, no matter how ridiculous it may seem, to redeem and reconcile the listener to God.

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Augustine follows the Johannine description of eternal life beginning with the love of God and neighbor in temporal life. This is eternal life. Preaching saves humanity from the love of things, which are to be used, and the use of that which is to be enjoyed. Preaching saves humanity from the love of false gods masquerading as ultimate ends. Preaching instructs, delights, and moves humanity toward the ethical love of neighbor as anyone “to whom an act of compassion is due” and “who can fail to see that there is no exception to this, nobody to whom compassion is not due?”[11] Augustine builds this argument on Paul’s summation of the Ten Commandments into the love of neighbor in Romans 13:9-10. As a result, he can state: 

Anyone who thinks that the apostle was not here giving commandments to all people is compelled to admit something totally absurd and wicked: that Paul thought it no sin to violate the wife of a non-Christian or an enemy, or to kill him or covet his property. If this conclusion is absurd (dimentis), it is clear that all people must be reckoned as neighbors, because evil must not be done to anyone.[12]

For Augustine, then, the practice of preaching exists for the sake of fulfilling the double law of love using the proclamation of the gospel to worship God with the hope of healing hearts, teaching minds, and saving souls from idolatrous attachment. Augustine claims that doxology is the key in which the song of preaching is always sung. The hope of the preacher is that others might begin to sing their own lives in the same worshipful key. To aid this transposition from idolatry to doxology in neighbor as well as herself the preacher seeks to heal, to teach, and to save using words that remain inadequate to these tasks but with faith that God promises to infuse these with grace. 

St. Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, wrote from a place of undeniable privilege and power. Though his preaching often spoke of the need to love and tangibly serve the poor, the outcast, and the downtrodden, this makes many suspicious of his ability to see clearly the gospel that was always particularly to and for the poor. The critique is that though Augustine was aware of the scriptural call to take care of the poor and to seek justice in an unjust society, those issues never operated in the forefront of his mind in his theological constructs. Though these critiques are at times too extreme, they are not wrong. Unless one assumes that Augustine subsumes the poor and outcast underneath the functions of teaching, healing, and saving it is a relatively absent concern for his preaching theory. As a result it is necessary to learn from the remainder of homiletical history something that is missing in the functions of preaching if healing, teaching, and saving are all that is envisioned. 

At the end of Augustine’s posthumous reign as preaching professor supreme the mendicant friars of St. Francis of Assisi are perhaps the first and strongest voice to make justice in service to the poor a central concern of Christian preaching. This concern is not as dominant in the reflections on preaching reformers such as Martin Luther or John Calvin give.[13] Neither does it find a foothold in the extravagant rhetorical flourish of the French or continental preachers in the 1600s until the revival of con- cern for the poor emerged in preachers such as Bossuet.[14] In the 1700s, preachers such as John and Charles Wesley, George Whitfield, and other like-minded ministers pressed regularly for a concern for the poor and the oppressed of society.[15] In the 1800s, abolitionist movements in Europe and the Americas conceived of preaching as a vehicle for the liberation of the oppressed.[16] Homiletic theorists of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century have consistently highlighted the need for the proclamation of mercy and justice from the pulpit.[17] As a result we need to add to the three functions of preaching a liberating fourth: freeing. 

The functions of preaching do not live in the cages of these categories. Though a single good sermon might be primarily didactic, it most likely has at least traces of one or more of the other functions as well. There are some aspects to these functions to consider before moving on. First, the functions of preaching are better understood as overlapping zones or modes rather than discrete cages of function or content. A single sermon may serve two functions well, but rarely will every sermon emphasize all four. A sermon that functions primarily to teach should be careful to at least consider the other functions to be sure it is not weakened by their absence. Many sermons lack primarily a sentence or two, here and there, as a tip of the hat to the other functions of preaching. Just a sentence allows the listener to wait for another day for what their heart is longing to hear more deeply. 

Second, the whole picture of preaching requires attendance over time to these four functions. A preaching ministry that avoids teaching for fear of boring the listener has slipped into entertainment-minded modes. A preaching ministry that across time avoids the liberating function of the gospel for political or pragmatic fears may need to call into question the validity of the other functions as well. Though a particular preacher on a particular day cannot be expected to achieve all of these functions, the practice of preaching in a community of faith across time can be. Wise ministers will insist preaching do so. 

Other Christian practices teach, heal, save, or free. So how is it true that these are what preaching does best? It is also true other Christian practices seek to send a doxological community into the world. It is the end phrase of the aim of preaching that clarifies how preaching does these things best. It is through the proclamation of the gospel. The overarching aim of the practice of preaching must interface with the overarching aim of worship or Christian education to be sure. And no practice is the only practice that accomplishes what that practice accomplishes. Yet every practice accomplishes what it accomplishes, and aims for what it aims for in its own unique way. The way of preaching is the proclamation of the good news. 

Even when the attempt to send is met with resistance and apathy, when the community is not accepting, when the worship of the preacher is not matched with the worship of the people or vice versa, if the gospel has been proclaimed, then there is reason to celebrate. Proclamation of the gospel then is not only a means to the end but also a part of the end itself. Proclamation of the gospel is not only part of the aim as a primary means but also the defining characteristic of each of the functions. The good news is what is taught; the good news is what rescues; the good news is what heals; and the good news is what sets us free. If the good news only saves us in a limited sense, then our good news is too small. Often a key critique of a preaching practice over time is not that there is no gospel but that the gospel is too narrow. The domesticated or radicalized, otherworldly or humanistic, shallow or intellectualized gospels are all only partial gospels. 

What does preaching do best? Preaching sends a doxological community into the world by proclaiming the gospel in ways that teach, heal, save, and free. No single sermon can encompass all of this. For that matter, preaching does not seek to fully accomplish its own game on its own power. The practice of preaching regularly teaches us to engage other Christian practices. The practice of preaching regularly gives us the medicine that heals our soul through other Christian practices. The practice of preaching saves us from addictive attachments and replaces them with Christian practices. The practice of preaching prompts people to engage in things such as hospitality, generous giving, face-to-face relationship, reconciliation, peacemaking, and more in order to truly send a doxological community into the world funded by the gospel. 

When I think of the aim and functions of preaching I am most often reminded of preaching movements in places other than the culture and nation where I live. The bi-vocational pastors in impoverished communities who give up pay in order to have a week of learning to preach and teach better inspire me. They do not make a virtue of necessity, asking all other pastors to be bi-vocational. Neither do they give up virtue because of difficulty. The pastors who wade through waist-high waters in typhoons to have a chance to share the good news that has transformed their hearts encourage me. More than the individuals it is the fact that the worshipful missional energy is what characterizes the community of pastors and congregations of which they are a part. They worship in simple church buildings, turning people away for the sake of fire code. These preachers invite those waiting to get in to the next service. There are open-air worship spaces where people gather not just weekly but often nightly in the equatorial heat for singing, praying, and preaching. These are communities of worship who are the greatest source of belonging, hope, food, and clothing, and they are the best network for employment and opportunity people can find. They do not just bring good news to the world; they are good news to the world.

For Reflection:

  1. Toward which of the four functions of preaching (teach, heal, save, or free) do you most naturally gravitate? From which of the four functions of preaching do you most naturally pull away? Why?
  2. Run through the last year of preaching experience in your mind. Do any one of the four functions of preaching dominate? Are any missing? How would you describe the distribution of the functions in the preaching experiences you have had (both preaching your own and engaging in others’ sermons)?


This article is excerpted from Practicing the Preaching Life by David B. Ward (Abingdon Press, 2019).


[1] See Kenda Creasy Dean’s helpful analysis of survey findings on adolescent faith in Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). Her study offers insight for preaching to youth and young adults from Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton’s research in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). It should be mentioned that the youth of this study are now adults at the time of this writing. There is no empirical evidence or logical reason to assume their faith is substantively different simply by the passing of more years under the moral therapeutic deism of the preaching and teaching of the church culture that raised them.

[2] For an insightful critique of therapeutic preaching in the twentieth-century sense, see David Buttrick’s “A Fearful Pulpit, a Wayward Land” in What’s the Matter with Preaching Today, ed. Mike Graves (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), esp. 40–42.

[3] Augustine, De doctrina christiana, 1.13.12 through 1.25.15.

[4] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson Jr. (Indianapolis, IN: Hayes Barton Press, 1965), 9–10.

[5] My friends in India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Haiti, Nigeria, Nepal, and other locations indicate the opposite of typical Western Christian views of healing. According to them, many local communities consider a pastor who has not seen healing appear through his or her ministry an imposter. Westerners often celebrate diversity verbally but reject diverse perspectives such as these.

[6] For a description of catechetical preaching as a type of preaching that teaches throughout Christian history, see Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: vol. 5, The Biblical Period (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 13–16. The teaching function of preaching is a much larger category that subsumes the catechetical type described by Old.

[7] Augustine, De doctrina christiana, 4.8.22.

[8] Scriptural authors often use variations of didasko and euangelizo. Parakaleo, kerusso, and katangello are also used where preaching is the translation (pointing to the multiple functions and tones of the practice of preaching). For examples of the connection, see the narrative of Jesus’s teaching in the synagogue in Luke 4, in which proclamation is his central purpose. See also Acts 15:35 and 28:31, though examples abound.

[9] Here Augustine is usually thought to be in line with what Old titles “Evangelistic preaching” in Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures: The Biblical Period (pp. 9–13). However, salvation for Augustine is not merely conversion but formation or salvation from “perverse contracts,” bad habits, and evil character (Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 19). As a result, he may be more in line with the view of preaching David Buttrick outlines in Homiletic: Moves and Structures, in which the church through preaching is understood as the “ones being saved in the world” (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 41. Buttrick’s understanding of salvation is not merely eschatological in scope and neither is Augustine’s.

[10] Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 13 (1.12.12).

[11] Ibid., 23 (1.30.31).

[12] Ibid., 23 (1.30.31–32). Parenthetical Latin is added.

[13] In spite of a lesser focus on justice in direct reflections on preaching in Luther and Calvin’s writings, it is clear their preaching acted to liberate oppressed persons, pressing for justice with incredible courage. Both Luther and Calvin were outcasts and ecclesial/political refugees. Indulgences were likely opposed primarily because of the gross injustice of the practice, not only the theological absurdity. Calvin’s preaching has been recently highlighted as unflinchingly focused on justice when the exposition of the text led him to do so. See Andrew Thompson Scales, “Justice and Equity: Calvin’s 1550 Sermon on Micah 2:1” (paper presented to the History of Homiletics Workgroup, Academy of Homiletics, Dallas, TX, December 2017).

[14] Jacques B. Bossuet, “On the Eminent Dignity of the Poor in the Church: A Sermon by Jacques Bénigne Bossuet,” trans. Edward R. Udovic, Vincentian Heritage Journal 13, no. 1 (1992): 37–58.

[15] Old calls John Wesley the “Protestant Francis of Assisi” in Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, 5: 111.

[16] An accessible introduction into some of the unexpected sources of fervor for justice and mercy is found in the revised version of Donald Dayton’s classic work Rediscovering an Evangelical Heritage: A Tradition and Trajectory of Integrating Piety and Justice (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014). Here the Evangelical roots in justice-focused ministries are made clear. This makes the labeling of “Evangelicals” in current discussions troublingly two dimensional, defining Evangelicals by their least desirable parties.

[17] For a beginning orientation to the numerous works that inform this conclusion, see the following: Walter Brueggemann, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012); Kenyatta R. Gilbert, The Journey and Promise of African American Preaching (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011); Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, Prophetic Preaching: A Pastoral Approach (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010); J. Philip Wogaman, Speaking the Truth in Love: Prophetic Preaching to a Broken World (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).


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