Should We Preach Like a Prophet,… or Like an Apostle?

The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, Executive Director

She preached a sermon she thought HAD to be preached. So much was going on in the world around her with the presidential election, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the pandemic that she couldn’t stay silent.

Several weeks later we talked about the congregation’s response: “I don’t get it. I really didn’t expect the backlash I got. A few emails told me how brave I was, but man… the nasty ones were nasty! One member just left a note on the church door that said, ‘I don’t come to church to hear that stuff. I’ll be looking for a new church.’”

I asked her a question I’ve been asking a lot of pastors who’ve had similar experiences: “Was that a prophetic sermon?” “Yep,” they all reply. Then I follow up: “So why are you then so surprised to suffer a prophet’s fate? I mean, there’s a reason they usually lived in or ran to the desert. Why is it surprising to be treated like a prophet after preaching prophetically?”

They always push back: “Aren’t we supposed to preach prophetically?” “No,” I answer. “I think we’re called to preach apostolically.”

What’s the difference? Ever since Walter Breuggemann published his great book, The Prophetic Imagination, forty years ago, pastors have been trying to preach prophetically. I completely believe there are times when prophetic preaching is necessary, but even in the Bible it was a mostly an ineffective form of preaching. The sermons are remembered fondly but were received harshly. Jesus and the apostles offered a different kind of preaching that was more effective and transformational than the prophets’ preaching.

Apostolic preaching is the kind of preaching you find the Book of Acts. It’s not radically different from prophetic preaching. There’s definitely a “truth-telling” aspect of apostolic preaching, but there are also significant differences. Apostolic preaching is grounded first in trusting relationships so that the truth is said among those who feel like friends and family, rather than being like truth bombs dropped amidst a congress of foes. The apostles built up community and compassion first, and then encouraged change and transformation. They shared together, ate together, sacrificed together, prayed together, discerned together, and were healed together. Their preaching reflected those relationships.

Second, apostolic preaching is grounded in shared stories and shared experiences. Peter, for example, shares his message about Jesus after the amazing experience of Pentecost. He grounds his sermon in their shared history, showing them how it is a natural outgrowth of the Jewish story. Phillip preaches to the Ethiopian eunuch by sitting beside him and talking as a friend, showing how faith in Christ is rooted in the Hebrew story.