A Comparison of Pentecostal Preaching with Early Church Letter-Writing

by Rev. Dr Adam White
5th May 2016


The importance of the role of preaching within Pentecostalism is beyond doubt. Lee-Roy Martin notes, “The phenomenal growth of Pentecostalism is a direct result of effective Pentecostal preaching and the life-changing effects of that preaching.”[i] Pentecostal preaching, like the rest of the Sunday service, is an act of worship. During the sermon, both the preacher and the congregation worship God, and at the same time, the delivery and the reception of the Word of God generate worship, resulting in community transformation. Generally speaking, Pentecostal preaching is characterised by its engaging style and presentation.

A Pentecostal sermon will typically draw upon various forms of multimedia and the latest technologies as well as the charisma of the preacher. This is certainly true of our movement today, but historically, has been part of Pentecostalism from the very beginning. Pentecostalism was born and grew up alongside innovations in mass communication technologies like radio and television, and, for the most part, these new innovations were optimistically embraced and became key for quality preaching, so that now in the 21st century ministries are streamed live over the Internet or viewed on YouTube. This is in some ways a unique characteristic of the movement, but as we will see, finds precedent in the first Christian preachers such as Paul.


Paul was in many ways an innovator. Throughout his ministry he embraced and adapted to his particular needs contemporary forms of communication, in particular, the letter. A letter like Romans, for example, is not just a written document for the purposes of outlining the gospel, it is also an innovative use of the most modern means of communication. It is in every way a product of its culture, but in some ways, also ahead of its time. For Paul, the letter was the most effective means by which he could sustain his fledgling communities. The majority of the early Christian community would have been illiterate, reflecting their largely illiterate culture. This meant that the first Christian preachers and leaders had the task of solidifying and strengthening a community of people who were largely illiterate; such a task required new and creative ways to achieve this, while still working with the technology available to them.

Ancient Communication

A common practice amongst ancient authors was the performance of their literary works at public or private gatherings; auditors would then purchase copies of these works for later performances by a professional reader.[ii] This emphasis on the performance of literature was an important part of the culture. Reading in the ancient world was not experienced as a silent scanning, mainly mental activity. It was a performative, vocal, oral-aural event. The reader recited, with vocal and bodily gestures, the text that one usually memorised.[iii] Christianity emerged in the midst of this world and was quick to adopt the practice of performing literary works. Letters of encouragement and instruction were written to communities all over the Empire, not to be silently studied, but rather, to be read aloud and performed before the gathered congregation. These letters were an innovation on the standard Graeco-Roman letterform, and at the forefront of this innovation was Paul.

Paul the Letter Writer

Paul appears to be very conversant with the literary techniques of his culture. His letters show all the hallmarks of a literary person, but at the same time show unique innovations, beginning with their length; in fact, when it comes to the length of Paul’s letters,[iv] he was in many ways peerless, as the table below shows:


Author Shortest letter (words) Longest (words) Avg. length (words) All extant papyrus letters (14,000) 18 209 87 Cicero 22 2,530 295 Seneca 149 4,134 995 Paul 335 7,114 2,495


These long letters are one of the unique features of Christianity; however, the real innovation was in the content and style of the letter itself.

The General Purpose of the Ancient Letter

Ancient letters were related to oral communication—to a dialogue or everyday speech.[v] Letters served as a means of communication in the absence of the sender.[vi] Letters typically fell into two broad categories, the first being the personal correspondence between friends or family,[vii] written to maintain relationships.[viii] These letters served as a surrogate for the writer’s absence. The second kind was the official correspondence to or from government official, business relationships, etc,[ix] written to substitute for a speech that in other circumstances would have been delivered in person by the sender. Paul’s letters appear to resemble both of these kinds. In one sense, Paul is an intermediary official in a divine organisation representing a higher authority, namely, Christ.[x] At the same time, Paul’s letters betray characteristics of a personal letter, namely, the familiarity and tenderness with which he addresses his recipients. Moreover, as with both kinds of letters above, Paul’s letters served as surrogates for his absence. For Paul, the unique nature of his congregations, combined with the often-prohibitive geographical distance, required such types of communication. However, Paul was not afraid to bend the rules on how the letter should be written; this was true at a macro level, and is also apparent at the micro level as well.

The Typical Structure of a Letter

An ancient letter always opened and closed with a formulaic set of greetings and prayers. The standard letter opening began with a prescript or salutation that contained the sender, the recipient, and a greeting, following the formula: X to Y, Greetings.[xi] This greeting might be followed by a prayer, a health wish, or thanks to the gods.[xii] After this came the body of the letter, followed by the closing, which would usually end with the word “farewell”.[xiii] Paul would typically expand and modify all of these elements depending on the particular purposes of the letter. To the standard sender section he might add “(called) apostle” or “servant” or both depending on the context of the letter.[xiv] Looking at the addressee, Paul’s letters were all addressed to large congregations. Here in particular, Paul’s letters are unique. Unlike the typical letter that is only addressed to the individual, Paul’s letters were communal letters addressed to ecclesiae or to house churches to whom he ministered in an authoritative capacity.[xv] Paul’s letters also expand and customize the standard Greek greeting. In an ancient letter, the standard greeting that follows the sender unit is “greetings”. Paul, however, drastically expands this to “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. The thanksgiving sections of Paul’s letters are also a unique adaption. In rhetorical terms, they function as a capitatio benevolentiae designed to attract the goodwill of the reader/listener, making them more attentive and receptive; they also functioned as a form of index, indicating the content or key topics of the letter to come.[xvi]

When we turn to the body of Paul’s letters, we see that they draw upon various subgenres of ancient letter writing. For example, throughout the Pauline corpus we find the letter of friendship (e.g. 2 Cor 5:3; Col 2:5; 1 Thess 2:17; 2 Cor 1:16; 1 Thess 3:6–10). There was the paraenetic letter (e.g. 1 Cor and 1 Thess), intended to exhort a person towards something or dissuade them from something else.[xvii] There was the letter of advice, designed to give advice in various situations (e.g. 1 and 2 Cor).[xviii] There was also the letter of introduction or recommendation (e.g. 2 Cor 8:16–24; Philemon). Many more could be listed, but already we see that Paul is not afraid to adapt and modify to his own purposes all available means of communication.

But there is another side to his letters, one that further sets them apart from anything else at the time. While Paul’s letters clearly served the purposes of a formal letter, they also functioned as speeches, designed to be read aloud to the gathered community (cf. 1 Thess 5:27; Col 4:16), many of whom were unable to read themselves.[xix]


As speeches, Paul’s letters make considerable use of a variety of rhetorical methods and devices, including the three main branches of ancient oratory: judicial, deliberative, and epideictic.[xx] Standard letters in the Graeco-Roman world were generally associated with the epideictic division of rhetoric.[xxi] Paul’s letters, however, combined all three of these in various degrees to communicate his message.[xxii] All of this for the purpose of performance.

As noted already, texts were produced to be read aloud in a communal setting.[xxiii] Ancient letters were written as a representation of speech to be performed by a trained lector. This person became the mouthpiece that would allow the audience to read the letter for themselves. They were meant to represent the voice and persona of the author; their task was to re-enact and bring to life the original performance of the text through facial expressions, gesticulations, and vocal inflections,[xxiv] all considered essential parts of effective communication. During the performance of the text, the variety of sound patterns would assault and provoke, sooth and delight the audiences.[xxv] This process of reading aloud re-animated the words and secured the sense of the Paul’s presence in the room.[xxvi]

In summary, we can see that Paul was able to draw upon the communicative resources available to him as well as to improvise and adapt these to his own needs. By adopting Graeco-Roman letter models for Christian purposes, Paul in fact created a new genre or sub-genre.[xxvii] Paul recognised the ministerial needs confronting him and adopted, moulded, and devised a communicative form equal to the challenge. The freedom that Paul used in adapting and transforming the available epistolary models encouraged the transformation of people’s lives and at the same time grounded them in a new kind of stability.[xxviii]


In conclusion, we can see that Pentecostalism shares a fundamental similarity to the early church. Not only is it similar in its oral nature, it is also similar in its innovative use of modern media. Pentecostals, like Paul, use preaching as a means of community formation and maintaining social cohesion. But as we have seen in this study, the Pentecostal practice of adopting modern communication tools and technology to do this also aligns it with the earliest Christian practices. We, like Paul, recognise the value of communicating to a modern audience with modern techniques, and the results speak for themselves.


About the Author: Rev Dr Adam White is the Program Director for the Master of Theology and a lecturer in New Testament studies at Alphacrucis College.



[i] Lee Roy Martin, ed., Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Preaching (Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2015), 7.

[ii] Ibid., 90.

[iii] Botha, Orality and Literacy in Early Christianity, 91. Cf. Jeffrey E. Brickle, “Seeing, Hearing, Declaring, Writing: Media Dynamics in the Letters of John,” in The Fourth Gospel in First-Century Media Culture, ed. Anthony Le Donne and Tom Thatcher (London: T & T Clark, 2011), 17.

[iv] Table cited in E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2004), 163.

[v] Witherington, The Paul Quest, 89; Samuel Byrskog, “Epistolography, Rhetoric and Letter Prescript: Romans 1.1-7 as a Test Case,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 65, Epistolography, Rhetoric and Letter Prescript (1997): 27; Lars Hartman, “On Reading Others’ Letters,” Harvard Theological Review 79, no. 1–3 (1986): 138; John L. White, “Saint Paul and the Apostolic Letter Tradition,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 45 (1983): 439; Dewey, “Textuality in an Oral Culture: A Survey of the Pauline Tradition,” 51.

[vi] Botha, Orality and Literacy in Early Christianity, 60; White, “Saint Paul and the Apostolic Letter Tradition,” 439.

[vii] Sean A. Adams, “Paul’s Letter Opening and Greek Epistolography: A Matter of Relationship,” in Paul and the Ancient Letter Form, ed. Stanley E Porter and Sean A. Adams (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 36.

[viii] Cf. Cicero, Ad Fam. 30.1; Ad Att. 10.1; 14.1; 30.1.

[ix] Adams, “Paul’s Letter Opening and Greek Epistolography: A Matter of Relationship,” 36.

[x] Ibid., 29.

[xi] Philip L. Tite, “How to Begin, and Why? Diverse Functions of the Pauline Prescript within a Greco-Roman Context,” in Paul and the Ancient Letter Form, ed. Stanley E. Porter and Sean A. Adams (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 67.

[xii] Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, 20; William G Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), 14.

[xiii] Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, 20.

[xiv] Ibid., 21.

[xv] Stirewalt, Paul, the Letter Writer, 9.

[xvi] Murphy-O’Connor, Paul the Letter-Writer, 62; Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, 22; Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity, 31–32.

[xvii] Ibid., 94.

[xviii] Ibid., 107–109.

[xix] Stirewalt, Paul, the Letter Writer, 14.

[xx] Murphy-O’Connor, Paul the Letter-Writer, 66–68; William W Klein, Craig L Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Nelson, 2004), 432.

[xxi] Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, 27.

[xxii] Forbes, “Ancient Rhetoric and Ancient Letters: Models for Reading Paul, and Their Limits,” 148.

[xxiii] Joanna Dewey, “The Gospel of Mark as an Oral-Aural Event: Implications for Interpretation,” in The New Literary Criticism and the New Testament, ed. Elizabeth Struthers Malbon and Edgar V McKnight, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 109 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 145.

[xxiv] Brickle, “Seeing, Hearing, Declaring, Writing,” 17–18.

[xxv] Ibid., 19.

[xxvi] Stirewalt, Paul, the Letter Writer, 16.

[xxvii] Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity, 21.

[xxviii] Stirewalt, Paul, the Letter Writer, 116.