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KARL BARTH AND A MISSIOLOGY OF PREACHING
 

Our life is like the journey of a wanderer through the night;
and each one, advancing slowly, knows: deep sorrow is his plight.

Karl Barth was quoting from a well-known Swiss song as he made his opening remarks to the inmates in a Swiss prison. He continued his sermon, saying:

Each one! Sorrow is your plight, and so it is mine. We suffer here within the walls of this house, and so do the people of this city, even of the whole world. Behind the sorrow of each individual there lies the sorrow of a world in disorder. There also lies the sorrow of man as he is: not good but living in misery.
 

The preacher and the audience were from two different worlds. What a contrast of spiritual, educational, and social backgrounds! The preacher was Professor of Theology at Basel University; the audience, inmates in the city prison. But with few words Barth was able to enter the situation of his audience and speak to their needs!

Barth earned the reputation of being a preaching theologian, one who translated the profundity of the gospel into the simplicity of preaching. He was a theologian by title, a pastor by heart, and a missionary preacher in actual ministry.

Ironically, when I came to seminary in the United States, I had resolved I would never read Barth again. During my seminary years in Korea, Barth had strongly influenced my theological thinking. But my subsequent church planting experience had left me to disappointed with an abstract theology that seemed irrelevant to the needs of real people. I became aware of the tension between theology and proclamation.

I also became aware that effective preaching was not just biblical exposition but missionary communication, and, while there must be a deep understanding of the Bible, there also must simplicity in communication. With the motivation to seek a missiological understanding of preaching, I came to Fuller, saying good bye to Karl Barth along the way. I wanted no more sophisticated theological language understood only by seminarians, but rather a theology that would serve the evangelistic proclamation of the gospel.

But in a class of mission theology I discovered Barth's Credo was a required text! The professor even told us, "Karl Barth was a missiologist of his day." Karl Barth- a missiologist? I was puzzled. Yet, reading Karl Barth from a missiological perspective and encountering his as an evangelistic preacher has given fresh insight as I seek to understand missionary proclamation.
 

A. Brief Biography

Although many seem to not recognizing it, Karl Barth was very cross-cultural person. He was a Swiss who spoke both French and German—and English occasionally. He began his Christian ministry as a pastor in Switzerland, taught theology in Germany, then in Swiss, and preached occasionally for a French-speaking congregation. He was very devoted to mission to Eastern Europe by correspondence with pastors in those countries. He also mentored many church leaders in Southeast Asia by correspondence.

In addition to these, Barth was a missionary preacher to his own culture. He described a nominal society as a mission frontier, and he himself was in the forefront of outreaching ministry, especially to those inside the prison wall.

Karl Barth was born and raised in the tradition of the Swiss Reformation. His father, Fritz Barth was teaching at the Evangelical School of Preachers in Basel when Karl was born May 10, 1886. Three years later Fritz Barth was called to Berne to become professor of church history and New Testament exegesis. It was natural, then, that Barth would develop a strong interest in theological study in his early formative years.

At the age of eighteen Barth began his theological studies at Derne under the direction of his father who passed on a thorough grounding in Reformed theology. Although his father stood for a more orthodox position against developing liberalism, Barth himself came under the powerful influence of liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack in 1906. This influence dominated his thinking for the next ten years.

Upon the completion of his studies in 1909, Barth spent two years as an apprentice pastor in Geneva. Then he moved to Safenwil in north-central Switzerland to become a pastor in the little village in 1911. He was twenty-five years old. Geoffrey Bromiley remarks that at that time Barth had little message to preach except the Christianized culture so well expressed in Harnack's What is Christianity?

During his ten years as pastor in this little country village Barth went through all the agonies of heart, mind, soul that finally led to a change in theological position. Bromiley observes, "Experience in the pastorate quickly produced a sense of incongruity between commission and performance. Liberal platitudes answered neither the demands of his calling nor actual problems in his parish." During these ten years we see Barth giving his attention to preaching- to the problem of the content of the message that, Sunday after Sunday, is the heavy responsibility of the one commissioned to enter the Christian pulpit.

Barth taught theology in Gotting Munster and Bonn, Germany between 1921 and 1935. While there he challenged Harnack, contending that Harneck¡¯s scientific theology is only a preliminary to the true task of theology, which is identical to that of preaching. With the rise of Adolf Hitler, Barth emerged as one of the Confessing Church leaders who sought to resist the Nazi encroachments. He expressed his theological position regarding this in the Barmen Declaration of 1934.

Deprived of his chair at Bonn, he returned to Switzerland, and from 1935 to his retirement in 1962, he taught theology at Basel. While working on his Church Dogmatics during this period, he had a hidden ministry of frequently conducting worship at the main prison of the city. There he preached with touching simplicity the gospel of freedom to a large congregation of inmates. A collection of his sermons, Deliverance to the Captives, is moving testimony to his preaching ministry to this particular group. It is also testimony how one's missiological understanding of preaching can help us to present our profound gospel message in a way it can be easily and clearly understood by the unchurched people.
 

B. Barth's Mission Theology

The Christian community is by nature a missionary community whose evangelistic mandate is to proclaim the Kingdom of God in the world and to the world. From his reading of Matthew 28:19, Karl Barth declares: "Sending or sending out to the nations to attest the gospel is the very root of the existence and therefore the whole ministry of the community."

In his theology of the election of the community, Barth convinces us that the Christian community has been chosen out of the world for the very purpose of performing for the world the service which it most needs—for the missionary task of witnessing to Jesus Christ and summoning it to faith in Him." The Christian community is a body of Christians who are essentially witnesses. The community is comprised of those who hear God's word of atonement in order to represent it to others. It is a missionary community in that it does not exist only for Christians, or for its own sake, but for non-Christians as well. Indeed, it exists for the sake of the world reconciled in Christ to God. In every age and situation the church community stands in definite relation to the world around, that is, non-Christians.

With Barth it is impossible that the Christian community as the missionary people of God should pass by those who are without as the priest and Levites passed by those who had fallen among them. All those who are without are waiting for the helping action of the Christian community. Whether they are aware of it or not, their whole being and striving and existence utters the cry of the Macedonia: "Come over and help us" (Acts 16:9). This is true of every man and woman, since none can evade what God is and has done for him or her in Jesus Christ and what it is appointed that he or she should know in His Word. Therefore: "Behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already—not in four months but already—to harvest" (Jn. 4:35). This is why the community has the commission for the missionary task in this world. It has no option but to follow the saying of Jesus to His disciples in Mark 6:37, "Give ye them to eat," and therefore to give hungry men and women what they need.

The true community of Jesus Christ does not rest in itself. It exists as it actively reaches beyond itself into the world. It acts and works within it. The true Church can never cease wholly or basically from activity in the world. In every respect, even in what seems to be purely inner activity like prayer and the liturgy and the cure of souls and biblical exegesis and theology, its activity is always ad extra (to those who are on the outside). It is always directed extra muros (in an outward direction of its boundary) to those who are not, or not yet, within. It is recognized as the true Church by the fact that it is engaged in this venture of obedience. The world exists in self-orientation; the Church in visible contrast cannot do so.

For Barth, each individual is responsible for its actually being a missionary community. Mission is of vital importance if they look with longing eyes beyond the existing boundaries of the Christian world for new people. Every Christian is a missionary in the sense that he is a brother who is in royalty to the brethren whom he already had looks out among those who are not yet brethren. (1961:505).

Indeed, Barth has a lot to offer for our cross-cultural vision. The Christian community has the vocation to take the gospel message to the nations or to unreached people groups. As the community is obedient to the command, it engages in foreign missions. The community is an acting subject in foreign missions. Otherwise, it is not the Christian community. In this chapter, however, I want to focus on his emphasis on the context of nominality as a new mission frontier, which has a significant implication for the mission of the Church in the twentieth-first century.

Perceiving the nominal segment of "Christian" society as a mission field. Barth employs the term "non-Christian Christendom" for what we might call "the context of nominality." He depicts the universal presence of nominal Christians as following:

Since the dawn of the post-apostolic period, and then more clearly in the Middle Ages, and in the earlier as well as the later modern period, there has always been this as it were non-Christendom, and it no doubt exists also even in the sphere of the so-called younger churches of Asia and Africa.

These kind of men and women are among those who need to hear the gospel preached not just as a theory but as an evangelistic message relevant to their life-needs. They are Christians only by name—even though they might have heard the gospel—but have no participation in the cause of the community. Those countless nominal Christians are undoubtedly the immediate neighbors of the community as the assembly of committed Christians. In this context, "The concern of evangelization is precisely to sound out the gospel on the shifting frontier between true and merely nominal Christians" urges Barth.

Barth invites us to reorient our preaching as a missionary proclamation—as an evangelistic address when ministering in this context of nominality. In addressing our evangelical messages, his suggestion includes delivering our sermon in a way it become relevant to the felt-needs of the audience—to those who are within the Christian community in theory but not in practice. We are, therefore, to proclaim freedom rather than propagating a law, to preach the promise of life rather than threatening with the terrors of hell.
 

C. Barth's Missiological Understanding of Preaching

In his missiological understanding of preaching Karl Barth raises the fundamental issues of preaching as a missionary proclamation. For example, he accentuates the element of evangelistic address in a missionary preaching. Traditionally, geographical advance or cross-cultural thrust has been considered as a primary factor of a missionary preaching. But it is not necessary the case with Barth. He has no intention to make a distinction between preaching in general and missionary preaching.  With him, the very neighborhood of a local congregation can be a mission field. He helps us to understand preaching as a missionary proclamation whether it is implied to the context of ¡®domestic mission or foreign mission.
 

C. 1. A Mission Theology of Proclamation

One might wonder how a great theological mind as Karl Barth would be so devoted to the preaching ministry to those who were on the margin of the society. Yet, out of these challenging situations he found opportunity to shape his mission theology of proclamation. His theological reflection for missionary proclamation—that is, proclaiming the divine Word of Grace for effecting acceptance, conversion, and redemption—had led him to write books such as The Word of God and the Word of Man.

The mystery of preaching is that it is at once the Word of God and the word of man. Preaching has to be the Word of God because the message comes from God, because it is God's message of grace and pardon, and because it is God who Himself speaks the message. Yet, it has to be also the word of man because it is human speech spoken by God's herald.

On the ground of this understanding Barth defines that: (1) Proclamation is human speech in and by which God Himself speaks like a king through the mouth of his herald; (2) Proclamation is meant to be heard and accepted as speech in and by which God Himself speaks; and (3) Proclamation is the message of divine pardon, therefore, the eternal gospel. In a word, proclamation is a missionary communication of the message of divine grace.

The missiological issue in question is, then, that the preacher is a messenger between a biblical text and contemporary context. With Barth, the preacher is more than a messenger. He views preachers or ministers as priests (Geistliche) who mediate between God and men by hearing God's answer and their answering the question of men. Hence, "Not until our preaching arises from need will our work become a mission. Mission alone can legitimize preaching."

Arnold Come observes that it was the practical problem of preaching Barth faced that formed his theology:

Barth's whole unique theological formulation had its origin and rise from the specific problem of the sermon. He tells us that the theology he had been taught appeared less relevant as he was confronted each week with the needs of the people on the one hand, and Bible on the other, and the task of bringing the two together in the sermon. Out of this torment came his commentary on Paul's Epistle to the Romans, and a new theological era was born.

Theology for Barth has not only its origin but also its goal in the problem of preaching. Formulation of Christian faith into documental statements cannot be an end in itself. Theology does not replace the Bible or revelatory event in which God speaks his own words to people.

From his own ministry experience Barth expresses the specific minister's problem, that is, the sermon which theology alone does not address:

I sought to find my way between the problem of human life on the one hand
and the content of the Bible on the other. As a minister I wanted to speak to the people in the infinite contradiction of their life but to speak the no less infinite message of the Bible, which was as much of and riddle as life. Often enough these two magnitudes, life and the Bible, have risen before me (still rise) like Scylla and Charybdis.
 

How can a preacher get close enough to life of the audience, and yet get equally close to the biblical text? While Barth struggled to pursue both of them, he perceived that there is an ongoing tension between closeness to life and closeness to the text. The message of the text must be the Word of God for the audience in their contemporary context. His recognition of this problem of preaching had opened the way to his missiological understanding of preaching.

We need this missiological understanding of preaching because we mediate the eternal Word of God to ever-changing world. Again, we want use the phrase, a missiological paradigm of homiletics, primarily in the sense that the task of a preacher is to bring the gospel message to audience in their unique situation, in their particular place and in their particulate time. This is why, as Charles Van Engen declares, missiology continuously attempts to interface reflection and action. He states, "It is a critical reflection that takes place in the praxis of mission. It occurs in the concrete missionary situation."

Barth has a theme that parallels Van Engen's "reflection and action"—"explication" and "application." For Barth reflection on the Word of God does not take place in a void. It takes place at the transitional point between explication (observation) and application (assimilation), between the understanding and the practice of the Scripture. He argues: "Preaching is not to be explication alone. It may not be limited to expounding with no regard for the hearers. Every sermon must also take the form of application. An exposition, no matter how true to the text, will die away ineffectually in a vacuum, if there is no possibility of a responsive echo from those who hear it." To this effect, Barth accentuates the need for the contextualizaion of preaching, especially when addressing evangelically, so "that they [the audience] come to see its crucial application to them, that so far as any human word can do so it pricks their hearts (Ac. 2:37), that it brings them to realize that the reference is to them."

Now, returning to our question, "How can a preacher get close enough to life of the audience, and yet get equally close to the biblical text?", The following excerpt from Barth's sermons illustrates how he translated the profundity of the gospel into the simplicity of preaching. The text reads, "By grace you have been saved!" and his audience is the inmates in a Swiss prison:

We are all great sinners. Please understand me: I include myself. I stand ready to confess being the greatest sinner among you all. Sinners are people who in the judgment of God, and perhaps of their own consciences, missed and lost their way. We are such sinners, and we are prisoners. Believe me, there is captivity much worse than the captivity in this house. There are walls much thicker and doors much heavier than those closed upon you. All of us, the people without and you within, are prisoners of our own obstinacy, of our many greeds, of our various anxieties. We are all sufferers. We spend our life in the midst of a whole world of sin and captivity and suffering.


But now listen. Into the depth of our predicament the word is spoken from high: By Grace you have been saved!  To be saved does not just mean to be a little encouraged, a little comforted, a little relieved. It means to be pulled out like a log from a burning fire. You have been saved! We are not told: you may be saved sometimes, or a little bit. No, you have been saved, totally and for all times. You? Yes, we! Not just any other people, more pious and better than we are, no, we, each one of us.

Barth expected good preaching to be plain and simple. What preachers should not do is any display of doctrinal erudition. Rather, they should see biblical truth as they unfold in actual experience. Christian truth is always new when it is set in the context of daily life. We are to preach as the people we are: in a history, on the way that the Bible takes with us. Christian truth is constantly won afresh in history. We must preach as the ones we are today."


 

C. 2. A MISSIOLOGY OF COMMUNICATION

Barth is well aware of communication barriers between the pulpit and the pew, between the church and the world. His missiology of preaching seeks to overcome those barriers through exposition that brings the biblical text alive in a contemporary situation. H e states, "Preaching is exposition, not exegesis. It follows the text but moves on from it to the preacher's own heart and to the congregation."

C. 2. 1. Preaching as Person-to-Person Communication

Since preaching is not a monologue, but an interactive communication between God and the preacher, between the preacher and the audience, Barth's missiology of communication has a special emphasis on knowing the audience from personal interaction. This will suggest unexpected ideas and associations that will be with the preacher as he or she studies the biblical text and will provide "the elements of actuality, the application of his text to the contemporary situation." Preaching is addressed not to humanity in the abstract but to the living, breathing man of today, whether within the Church or still outside it. The context of a sermon is "the concrete situation of the audience's earthly condition with all its life problem." As he puts it: "The people we address are people with all kinds of anxieties and needs. It is in this concrete situation of their that the call of Jesus Christ comes to them as people of the present age. Neither preacher nor congregation must be viewed as an abstract entity."

In Barth's missiology of communication personal identification is a crucial step toward the contextualization of preaching. The preacher needs to humbly recognize him or herself as "belonging" to the congregation, as one with the people of God. Barth says, "The preacher must never feel superior to the congregation, but see that he is set within it as one who must also simply hear the Word of God again and again." He goes on to emphasize, "Recognition of this situation of the preacher is the prerequisite for the proper application of the Word."

Barth warns against the danger the preacher addressing the congregation from a standpoint outside it instead of becoming one with it. The preacher has no right to feel "set on high" because of his knowledge of theology. Rather he or she should consciously strive to stay on the level of the people.
 

C. 2. 2. Preaching as Cross-cultural Witness

With Barth, We have seen preaching as communicating God's revelation in human words, as person-to-person communication. And very importantly, Preaching is a cross-cultural communication in the sense the message is transmitted from one sub-culture to another. Thus we should not assume that a worldview shaped within a clergy culture is necessary the same with the one from a non-clergy culture.

A good Bible exposition alone would not produce a good preaching unless it is interpreted into the language the audience can understand. How can we translate the profundity of the gospel message into the simplicity of preaching? "Adapt the message to the congregation," says Barth. He believes that life involvement or incarnational life style will perfect the contextualization of preaching. The preacher needs to genuinely love the congregation– with a love that expresses itself in an incarnational life style. The preacher will love his congregation and feel that he is one with them. His or her constant thought will be: "These are my people and I long to share with them what God has given to me."

One of the recurring themes in Barth's model of the contextualization of preaching is "entering into the situation of the audience." The preacher needs to live the life of the congregation, knowing the same struggles, hearing the questions, walking alongside. A preacher does not have to be the wise sage of the people, but he will continually be concerned with their questions and struggles. Barth emphasizes this because it is his practice to reread the Bible in the situation of the audience. Barth goes a step further to state that preaching involves a life message. The validity of the preacher's message will most clearly be seen in the way that preacher lives.

The following important step is a concern for relevance. After reading the biblical text with the worldview of the biblical writers and rereading it in the situation of the audience, this question should follow: What demands does the contemporary situation make on the preacher and his or her congregation? Together they share a historical experience; the words of the preacher must be relevant to immediate preoccupation of his hearers. A preacher is not a hermit dwelling apart. Across the historical gaps between the biblical writers and the contemporary audience, the preacher's task is "to cause the testimony presented in the text to be heard." "Purely historical material is relevant only insofar as it forms part of the testimony. In preaching, it is necessary to follow the direction of the text and relate it to our own times," says Barth.

This is why Barth emphasizes originality in preaching, as it will contribute to making biblical exposition relevant to a contemporary audience. What he implies by the originality in preaching is the freedom to express in or translate into one's own words what has revealed to the preacher from his or her exposition of the Bible. The vital communication issue we have here is that preaching does not end in exegesis. The preacher's calling is to bring the biblical message in a particular place and time. "Address my own speech," says he. "I myself am now called upon to be a witness who will remain biblical but will not be stuck fast in exegesis.  From the very first sentence, preaching must be addressed to the people with central communication out of the text." In short, Barth accentuates originality in preaching because the preacher is a real person of flesh and blood, with a personality and a history and a background of his or her own, whom God has laid hold of in the actual situation in which he or she is placed."

 

D. Conclusions and Applications

Karl Barth was a missionary preacher primarily in the sense he sought to bring the good tidings of the gospel to people on the margin such as prison inmates, to awaken faith among those in the shifting boundary such as nominal Christians, and to proclaim the gospel of redemption to those who are still outside the Church. Despite his great theological fame, he always wanted to find himself as a preacher. As a preacher he always found himself standing in a mission frontier. This understanding of missionary preaching has implications in contemporary world mission. In the New Testament era, missionary preaching involved proclamation of the gospel to an audience outside the Christian faith.

From Barth's model of contextualization of preaching with his emphasis on entering into the situation of the audience, I have found two implications of missionary preaching. One is for the need of the contextualization of the Protestant mission preaching in Russia, the other is for a fresh understanding of missionary preaching.

Right after the door of mission to Russia opened in September 1990, a great mission movement to Russia arose among Korean churches. By the summer of 1993, it was estimated that already a half thousand Korean missionaries were present in Russia—with some of them in other former Soviet Union countries. In those days, mission churches had been growing very.

Now, the picture is somewhat different. The remarkable growth is no longer what we read from the mission reports and we often here that Russian Christians in mission churches are dwindling in numbers. One may list a variety of factors of changing mission environments such as the New Religious Law. But let me summarize what I have observed from my research and analysis. At first, Russians had two basic needs apart from economic needs. One was a spiritual need for faith, the other for new identity after the collapse the communist system. Russians are seeking for new identity, which has to be found from what has their historical roots. If the Protestant mission churches were going to pay attention to their need for new identity, there is a clear reason to develop a contextualized model of preaching in Russia rather than implanting the western (or even Korean) way. I believe this gives at least a partial explanation of the current challenging issues in Russia.

Now, the second implication we find is that we may rediscover the biblical sense of missionary preaching for the "domestic mission." With Barth we see that missionary preaching involves preaching as the one who is sent to the audience. What Barth reminds us is that every preacher has this missionary call to enter into the situation of the audience as we prepare the message and preach. It invoices the re-reading the Bible in the situation of the audience.

Though I am far from being a matured preacher, I may still find one illustration of it from my own experiences. Years ago I had the privilege to preach in an evangelical church in Russia for a period of time. Sitting together in their life situation, but bringing to them the divine Word of Grace, I preached there not as an outsider, but as the one sent by God to belong to them. Before I preached, I reread the bible and there was a fresh revelation from my text. Then, I saw how my expository preaching became relevant to the need of each person of the congregation despite our cultural differences. Moreover, when I had a fresh revelation of my text in their situation, I could preach in simple language instead of theological jargon. There I witnessed that those spiritually hungry souls were so eager to hear even the preach from Asia. The need for the Word of God ministry is simply so great in Russia.

Ironically, when I preached from the same text in my earlier ministry in Korea, my audience was not very attentive, nor was my message so relevant to their felt-needs. But when I came back to Korea, I applied to that preaching context what I learned about the missiological understanding of preaching in Russia. What followed was the very enthusiastic response from my audience, which was quite a new experience to me in the same pulpit.

This is how I became aware of that there are factors that define missionary preaching other than the element of geographical distance or cultural differences. Following Barth, I want to suggest a missiological understanding of preaching in reading the text with the worldview of the biblical writers and rereading it in the situation of the audience so that the Word of God preached by the words of man becomes relevant and accessible life-giving message. With Barth, we want to response to this missionary call "to proclaim to the world the free grace of God and the hope which this carries with it." Yes, we have this call to missionary preaching wherever we are sent to announce the Kingdom of God.

"And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How Beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" (Romans 10:14-15)
 


  © This copyrighted article by Dae Ryeong Kim (March 2000)  is from the second chapter of "Footprints of God: A Narrative Theology of Mission" (CA, Monrovia: MARC).  This is Dr. Charles Van Engen's new editorial work and Dae Ryeong Kim is a co-author of the book.