I recognize that this site is read by people in a variety of countries, so what I write in this post may not be equally relevant to all. In the contexts where I do most of my preaching, in the west, there are many changes taking place. One is the level of biblical knowledge. Here’s a quote from Craig Loscalzo in Apologetic Preaching (p24):
We can no longer assume our preaching takes place within a more or less “Christian” culture. The great narratives of Judeo-Christian belief, the pivotal stories of the Bible’s characters, the events of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ either are not known or do not carry the meaning-making significance they did for previous generations.
There are many implications for preaching in this reality. For example, we should be careful about passing references to biblical stories as “illustrations” in our messages – what use is an illustration that the listeners don’t understand? We should be careful about assuming people understand background to the text we are preaching. We should be wary of going “over their heads” by aiming too high and not laying down the basics (but at the same time not merely offering diluted fare).
While there are many implications that come from the lack of biblical knowledge, theological awareness, and Christian thought, there is one main implication that stands out. Let’s finish Loscalzo’s paragraph (and translate the national reference to our own, if it fits):
Biblical knowledge, Christian doctrine and theological reflection must be presented and re-presented from America’s pulpits – yes, even to American Christians.
In calling for pastors and preachers to take up their apologetic mantle as theologians for the church, Loscalzo makes a passing comment that I agree with wholeheartedly. Let me quote first, comment second.
Whether by intentional design or by default we pastors have relegated our task of being a theologian to some unknown entity while we spend our energy on matters that someone else in the church could better handle. In other words, too many pastors spend their time organizing vacation Bible school while neglecting Karl Barth [ed. insert your theologians of choice here]. Too many ministers aspire to be better managers of church programs. Many pastors have their hands in every administrative pot in the church. Every committee action must have their stamp of approval. These pastors micromanage everything from the church’s budget to Wednesday night suppers to the selection of wallpaper for the nursery. No wonder churches languish from theological malnutrition. The one charged with feeding them persists in obsessing over matters that they could delegate to abler hands.
What is true in terms of theological reading, reflection and output is equally and overlappingly true of Bible study, reflection and output. I remember one pastor I was influenced by encouraging me to always break what I do into four categories, and then delegate one of them. Probably sound advice. What do you do? Whether or not you’re a pastor, or in full-time ministry, or in secular employment . . . considering the work you do in the church, what do you do? Four categories? Which one can go? What can and should you delegate? Squeezing bible, theology, apologetics, etc., is too great a price to pay to keep your finger in all those pies.
Is it possible to preach mystery in an age of information, hope in an era of skepticism, confidence in a time of doubt, truth in a climate of relativism? The ultimate question becomes, can we preach Christ in a postmodern world? My answer, of course, is yes. My suggestion is that it’s time to apologize for God.
This is Craig Loscalzo in his Apologetic Preaching, page 22. Strong stuff. In case you are worried by that last line, let me quote a bit more:
Far too many pulpits have been, for too long, apologizing – that is, making excuses – for God. Timid sermons that dismiss the sticky issues of Christian faith, sermons that water down the demands of the gospel, pabulum preaching pleasing to people’s ears but unable to offer transformed lives will be transparent to the skeptical lenses of postmodernity. . . . Apologizing for God means apologizing for God, not making apologies for God. In other words, it means making a case for the gospel in all its scandalous reality. Apologizing for God means rightfully reclaiming the apologetic role of the pulpit for the cause of Christian faith.
I agree with this. But I am also wary as I write this. I’m wary because too often it seems that a move toward apologetics is somehow a move toward theology, philosophy, academia, but somehow also a move away from the Bible. By no means! The Bible is inherently apologetic. Our apologetics are our attempts to speak for God into this world, but the Bible is God’s Word spoken into this world. Let us not feel stirred to our apologetic role and thereby drift even slightly from expository preaching. Preach the Word, God’s Word, preach it with an emphasis on its relevance to your listeners – so that the scandalous reality of the gospel can shine into darkness of the contemporary milieu!
Craig Loscalzo, in his chapter on postmodernity and preaching (in Apologetic Preaching), looks back on preaching under modernity and describes it in this way:
The modern pulpit was steeped in a reasoned homiletic, marked by point-making sermons, alliterated outlines and a third-person descriptive logic. Sermons of the modern era often talked about God, about the Bible, about life, viewing these matters like specimens under a microscope. This pulpit philosophy, saturated with rationalism, focused on factual knowledge as the sole medium for communicating religious truth. . . . For modern pulpits, faith often became unwittingly a synonym for rationalism. In Tom Long’s estimation we thought we were the children of Abraham but discovered we were merely the children of Descartes.
Quite a description! Some of us are blissfully unaware of postmodernity (neither every preacher, nor every local community is yet thoroughly beyond modernism). However, whether your community is showing signs of the shift or still stuck in the 1950’s, it’s important to hear Loscalzo’s description. What is abundantly clear here, wherever we may stand on the issues of postmodernity and its impact on our listeners, this description of preaching under modernity is anything but an ideal to which we should long to return.
You could probably list concerns about postmodernity, most Christian readers can. Hopefully you could also list opportunities that it presents to us as the church. But lest any of us simply dig in to fight against postmodernity, let’s not hold a rose-tinted view of what has gone before. As well as recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of what is coming, let’s also recognize strengths and weaknesses of what we may be leaving behind. It was not a golden age to which we must seek a return. The Bible, of course, is not anti-rational, incoherent or unthinking. Yet it is not merely rational. It goes much deeper. So must our preaching. While some may seem to check their rationality at the door, let’s not fight for rationality at the expense of every other aspect of the human soul’s functioning.
I just started Apologetic Preaching (Proclaiming Christ to a Postmodern World) by Craig Loscalzo (do you pronounce that the way it looks – anyone know?) In the first chapter Loscalzo enters the arena of defining and engaging with the broad issues of postmodernity. In the process he writes of the fear of many contemporary preachers.
This fear comes from seeing other churches successfully growing, while seeing apathy, lethargy, and empty pews up close. It is a fear of pushing too hard or demanding too much. It is a fear of being labeled as narrow-minded by colleagues, by the media, by academics they have studied under, or by intellectuals in their church. Their ecclesiastical vocabulary, in its progressive state, is now purged of terms like sin, judgment, immoral, evil, righteousness, faith and commitment. They fear offending sensibilities or being stereotyped on either the religious right or left. He writes, “we have become so hypercautious that our sermons at best offend no one and at worst merely bore.” (p12) What’s more, a fear of being irrelevant leads to nothing more than mundane chatter.
Obviously he’s writing about other preachers and not us, obviously. Of course. Clearly. Without any doubt. But rather than get defensive, why not ask God to show us if any fear has crept into our preaching ministry?
Yesterday I was reflecting on Dr John Lennox’s concerns as Christians add fuel to the fire of Richard Dawkin’s faulty logic. Faith, by his definition, is knowingly trusting in something which cannot be proven – believing against reason. Yet Lennox yearns for people to understand that the faith is always a response to fact, and the Christian faith is firmly founded on trustworthy facts – not least the resurrection of Jesus. Yesterday I shared his concern over the “leap in the dark” language used in some Christian circles as a very poor explanation of faith. Today I’d like to share his second concern.
2. An over-emphasis on faith as a gift given from above. Now it would be very easy for some readers to dismiss this, or to get into a theological slanging match. I certainly don’t want to take sides or position this site on one side or the other of the debates this touches on. Whether we agree with his own position or not, I think we must engage with Dr Lennox’s concern. Could it be that an over-emphasis on faith as a gift received is inadvertently undermining the truth that Christianity is founded on fact, not least the fact of the resurrection of Jesus? Could it be that internal theological debates undermine the presentation of the gospel to a culture now influenced by new atheism? Could it be that irrespective of our stance on the so-called “free-will” debate, that we need to consider underlining, rather than undermining, the facts on which our faith response is built?
We preach the faith. We preach for faith. Obviously there is much to ponder in a world influenced by a whole smorgasbord of thinking, from the clear to the fallacious and deceptive.