When I was in seminary, I learned one of those ten dollar words that mean something to the art of being a pastor. That word is proclamation or its even more fancy Greek version,κήρυγμα or kerygma. Kerygma means preaching. When a pastor gives a sermon, he or she should be participating in proclaiming or kerygma.
But while preaching is kerygma, it isn’t everything. Kerygma has a larger meaning; it’s about telling a story, telling a specific story. The ethical teachings of Jesus had to be placed in a context. The early Christians found a way to tell the story of Jesus and they called it, the proclamation or kerygma. This is how theologian C.H. Dodd described it:
According to the evidence of the New Testament, the earliest exponents of the Christian religion worked out a distinctive way of presenting the fundamental convictions of their faith, in a formula which they called “the proclamation. The Greek word here is kerygma. Our translators of the Bible commonly render it “preaching” but in its current implications at the present day the word is misleading. Kerygma properly means a public announcement or declaration, whether by a town crier, or by an auctioneer commending his goods to the public, or by the herald of a sovereign state dispatched on a solemn mission, to present an ultimatum, it may be, or to announce terms of peace.
The Christian “preacher” thought of himself as an announcer of very important news. He called it quite simply “the good news,” or in our traditional translation, “the gospel. ” It was this “good news” that was embedded in the “proclamation”, the kerygma. It was essentially a public announcement of events of public importance.
Dodd goes on to say that the proclamation could be recovered from the New Testament and the proclaimation had a purpose; to be confronted by the living God:
The form and content of the proclamation, the kerygma, can be recovered from the New Testament with reasonable accuracy. It recounted in brief the life, and work of Jesus Christ, His conflicts. sufferings. and death. and His resurrection from the dead; and it went on to declare that in these events the divinely guided history of Israel through long centuries had reached its climax. God Himself , had acted decisively in this way to inaugurate His kingdom upon earth. This was the core of all early Christian preaching, however it might be elaborated, illustrated, and explained.
The preacher’s aim was to convince his hearers that they were. indeed confronted by the eternal God in His kingdom, power, and glory; that they, like all men. stood under His judgment upon what they had done and upon what they were, and that this judgment was now immediate and inescapable; further. that those who would put themselves under God’s judgment would, through His mercy. find an opportunity open to them to enter upon a new life; that actually, as a result of these facts which they proclaimed, a new era in the relations between God and man had begun.
Those who responded to this appeal and placed themselves under the judgment and mercy of God as declared in Jesus Christ, became members of the community, the Church, within which the new life could be lived. These members were then instructed in the ethical principles and obligations of the Christian life. This course of instruction in morals, as distinct from the proclamation of the gospel, is covered by the term “‘teaching,” which in Greek is didaché.
This order of approach, first the proclamation, then the beginning of instruction in morals, first kerygma, then didaché, seems to have been thoroughly characteristic of the Christian mission; it is precisely this order, first kerygma. then didaché, which we have seen to be general in the New Testament writings.
So proclamation wasn’t just saying something to say something. It was about telling a story, THE story and connecting it to the lives of those around them.
So proclamation is about speaking something. It isn’t something that can be achieved without words. Which means that the old saying attributed to St. Francis (but really isn’t his words), ““Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary,” might not actually make sense.
Now, most mainline Christians love this passage for one simple reason: you don’t have to talk about Jesus to people. You don’t have to look weird or like those evangelicals down the street. But as evangelical theologian Ed Stetzer said in a 2015 article, preaching the gospel is about preaching about the saving work of Jesus. Since Jesus is the gospel, we can’t really “live out the gospel,” but instead have to announce the gospel:
The gospel is not habit, but history. The gospel is the declaration of something that actually happened. And since the gospel is the saving work of Jesus, it isn’t something we can do, but it is something we must announce. We do live out its implications, but if we are to make the gospel known, we will do so through words.
He goes on to say that proclamation is the central task of the church (which means it isn’t just the job of the pastor):
It appears that the emphasis on proclamation is waning even in many churches that identify themselves as evangelical. Yet proclamation is the central task of the church. No, it is not the only task God has given us, but it is central. While the process of making disciples involves more than verbal communication, and obviously the life of a disciple is proved counterfeit when it amounts to words alone, the most critical work God has given the church is to “proclaim the excellencies” of our Savior.
So, why am I talk about proclamation at this moment?
Because it has implications for some of my work outside the pulpit and because this is a major weakpoint of mainline churches.
Communication, about who we are and what we do is not a very prominent mission within mainline churches. There are some bright spots among the Lutherans and Episcopalians, but for the most part the task of communication is not considered very important.
About 10 years ago, things were different. The birth of social media breathed new life into the task of communicating. Positions were created that were communications-focused. Conferences were held to help churches become more tech savvy. But then, all of this stopped. It might have been the Great Recession, but all of the sudden, it wasn’t so important to have a good website or effective social media presence. Positions created a few years prior were cut with churches and middle judicatories putting the task of communications on already burdened administrative assistants or volunteers.
The thing is, mainline churches have long thought what was important is what we do, not what we say. Except, if we don’t tell people why we are feeding the homeless or why we are taking part in this protest, then people don’t know we are doing this because we follow Jesus. They will assume you are just nice people.
The fact of the matter is that we are called to preach the gospel. NOT be the gospel; that’s something onlyJesus can do. NOT live out the gospel, because again, Jesus. We are called to preach the gospel and since we don’t possess the power to speak telepathically to people, we have to say something.
In a sermon I preached at a Presbyterian Communicators Network meeting in North Carolina in 2008, I said that being church communicators mean looking out to see what God is doing in the world:
Whether we are communicators at the church, presbytery, synod or General Assembly level, this is our charge: to find out what God is up to in the world, to be empowered by the Spirit to tell the story of healing and love to a world that desparately needs to hear it.
But most churches and middle judicatories don’t act as if this is such an important task. Most churches ask an admin to do it, if they have the skills. The same might go for middle judicatories.
Evangelical churches have tended to be light years away from mainline churches when it comes to communications. But they also tend to be better at proclaiming the gospel. I might not agree with how it is done at times, but they do show they have the skills to make sure their social media sites, webpage and newsletters are proclaiming the gospel message.
Historically, mainline churches weren’t very strong with communicating the gospel, because culture was soaked enough with the faith that we didn’t have to. But those days are gone and it’s time to focus on how to learn to preach the good news through communication as well as other methods.
Because we have to preach the gospel and we need to use words.