Discernment Danger

You have probably heard the old adage: “bank staff learn to identify counterfeit money by handling the real thing.”

I suspect we have a growing problem today. Actually, several.

1. Too many of us don’t think counterfeit money exists. Actually, I am not thinking about money. I am referring to ideas and agendas. Too many of us are shockingly naive. We have a vague notion that there is sin in the world, but still we assume that nobody could have ulterior motives as they deal in words (at least, not ones that are not immediately obvious to me). If you question the standard media or cultural narrative on any issue then you run the risk of being dismissed for believing conspiracy theories or being classified as a bigot or nutcase. Hold on, assuming the media or culture has no motivation to push anti-God, anti-Christian, or anti-truth agendas is about as crazy as suggesting nobody has any motivation to make or use counterfeit money! This world is full of lies and it cannot be the job of Facebook or Twitter to guide us into all truth.

2. Too many of us spend too much time handling “funny money.” Again, I am not thinking about money. I am referring to social media, mainstream media, Hollywood/entertainment media, news, etc. If we believe it is all neutral and trustworthy, we will become eerily unaware when our values are molded into the shape of this world, rather than being transformed by the renewing of our minds. How easily we can give hours each day, tens of hours each week, to a cultural indoctrination program that we don’t really believe exists. Is it time to take stock and stop feeling so impervious and maybe even being so arrogant?

3. Too many of us spend too little time handling the real thing. You might prefer this post to be about handling money, but that is not at all what I am writing about! I suspect that one of the big problems in our world today is that too many of us who know God and the truth of His Word are too distracted by the communications of this world to really soak in God’s Word. What this world needs is not primarily for us to be constantly active on social media, thoroughly conversant with every news story or knowledgeable about every movie (all of these may have some value, of course). What this world needs is men and women who are strangely soaked in God’s Word, “divines” if you will.

I know which of these three points has convicted me. Which is on target for you? If you aren’t sure, start with number 1.

Your Culture and Your Preaching – Part 3

So our culture tends to show in how we preach.  We may accept that premise, but so what?  In part 1 we introduced the subject, and in part 2 we listed five ways our culture will be showing.

What should we do about it?  Here is a six-step action plan…

1. Write an initial list of your assumptions.  What comes to mind when you think of a typical preacher from your culture?  It is good to have a starting point so that as you think and research further you will see what you have learned.  Maybe start without any real categories, just what seems obvious to you.

2. Start to analyze your culture using categories.  In the last post I listed five: self, authority, confidence, humour and emotion/passion.  You might also consider organizational style and clarity (in respect to sermon content), use of visuals and expectation of the audience to read during a presentation, body language, smile and facial expression, and more.

3. Triangulate a new vantage point.  This is especially hard if you have only lived and attended church in one culture.  But it is still possible.  Select a culture that is not your own, but you have some awareness of … for example, most British Christians have some exposure to podcasts and speakers from the USA.  Listen to some good examples (not the extreme stereotypes that people like to use to dismiss “everything American” but preachers that you can enjoy and appreciate), listen not only to benefit from their preaching, but also to try to identify what makes their preaching distinctly American (or whatever culture you select).  Obviously there are always caveats, three white conservative evangelical preachers will help you to spot some common traits, but you will have missed the massive tradition of African-American preaching, etc.  You are not doing this to generalize or to label, but rather to gain a vantage point for your own culture.

Do the same with a culture you are not familiar with.  For instance you might find a handful of examples of preachers from a third continent.  Be careful not to just watch a handful of preachers with a different ethnic background who also live, study and preach in the USA or the UK – the distinct differences will be reduced by their assimilated context.  A totally new culture can give you the culture shock of unfamiliarity that will help this process.

Once you’ve started to recognize some commonalities in these two other cultures, making notes for your own use, then try step 4:

4. Watch your own culture from the vantage point of step 3.  Maybe find a handful of preachers from your own culture and watch them.  How do they differ from what you observed in the two cultures of step 3?  Be careful not to just feel at home and simply affirm them as generically good preachers.  Recognize that they have strengths and weaknesses from their culture.  Maybe having had a dose of a different culture or two you can start to spot some idiosyncrasies that may not be so helpful after all?  If you only see positives in your own culture, then go back and repeat step 3!

5. Ask questions. Sometimes you can gain a lot of ground quickly by just asking someone who is from outside your culture but will be honest enough to answer your question.  This will be more helpful after doing some good thinking yourself.  If you just jump to this then the benefit will be reduced, but it is still worth doing, especially if that person is in your church and you are preaching to them regularly.

6. Evaluate and adjust.  The more thoroughly you do steps 1-5, the more likely you are to take stock and start to make some adjustments.  This will involve not only understanding more of what is stereotypical in your culture, but also evaluating what traits you personally reflect from that culture, and thinking through who your listeners are too.  If they are from different cultural backgrounds, then that creates some obvious opportunities for adjustment.  But even if everyone in your church is saturated in your own culture, there may still be cultural idiosyncrasies that you could choose not to reflect in order to strengthen your communication.

Maybe you have travelled and become more aware of your own culture? Maybe you are ministering outside of your home culture? What other categories might you add to what has been mention in this short series

Your Culture and Your Preaching – Part 2

Yesterday we began the series by flagging that your preaching is probably more influenced by your national culture than you tend to realize (click here if you haven’t read part 1 already, it will help to make sense of this post.)

Here are some aspects of our preaching that may be more reflective of our culture than we realize:

1. Self.  How much of ourselves do we inject into the talk, and how do we speak about ourselves?  How comfortable do we feel telling stories about ourselves to support what we are saying?  Do we assume our listeners want to hear about us because we are the one speaking, or are we further down the continuum that assumes our role is to point them to the subject at hand rather than to the person stood before them?

2. Authority.  Do we tend to take the stance of the celebrity expert, or the authoritarian scholar, or use the indirect authority of gentle encouragement?  It is not just whether we speak with authority or not, but how that authority is wielded.  This is about whether we are more direct or indirect, instructive or suggestive, bold or subtle.

3. Confidence.  Related to authority is the issue of confidence.  Do we tend to show confidence when we speak, and is our confidence (or lack of it) usually more focused on subject matter, or on ourselves?  What can seem confident and humble in one culture can be heard as arrogant and aloof in another.

4. Humour.  Even though every person’s sense of humour is highly personal, there are cultural cues in our use of humour too.  What can have one crowd guffawing with laughter can easily leave someone from another culture wondering what all the fuss is about.  Some cultures value personal wit, others leave all humour to the experts, some cultures thrive on scripted stories, but others will naturally find such staged moments tiresome.  Self-deprecation will be another ingredient that shows at differing levels in different cultures.

5. Emotion/Passion.  Some cultures generate more public speakers with flare and enthusiasm, others are much more reserved.  While many will joke about their own cultural stereotypes, what shows in preaching is not always so obvious – in fact sometimes it can go in the opposite direction (I can think of some cultures known for being at one end of the continuum and yet generating many preachers who seem to reflect the opposite end of the scale!)  How does enthusiasm show, and in what element of the message does that energy become manifest?

These are just five categories of cultural influence on our public speaking.  What would you add to the list?

Your Culture and Your Preaching – Part 1

Last evening we sat down as a family to watch the first part of a training course that we want our teens to experience this summer.  It was very helpful.  And it was presented by someone from a different culture than the one we are living in.  Some of the differences were striking, but I wonder if the presenter might only have a limited idea if asked what was peculiarly typical of his culture.

One of the benefits of living in a foreign culture is that it gives you eyes to see your own culture of origin more clearly.  Our culture is like the water a fish swims in – it is all around us and affects everything, but we tend to be oblivious to it.

As preachers we work to know the world of the Bible and the world of our listeners, and maybe we think about our own world in respect to the inner landscape of our own lives that help us to recognize where we might be inclined to push an issue harder or avoid it altogether.  But I suspect a lot of us preachers remain fairly unaware of how our preaching and communication reflects our own culture.

Culture is made up of a series of overlapping categories that shape us and the way we communicate.  We are influenced and shaped by our family of origin, our education, our local area of upbringing, subcultures we choose to identify with (political, entertainment, music, special interests, etc.), national culture and even global-regional cultures (i.e. Latin America, or North America, or even Western vs Eastern).

And yet, while we are all individual in the profile of our various sub-cultural influences, still we tend to reflect the broader categories more than we realize. Even with clothing neutralized, vocabulary filtered, physical features blurred and accent removed, I suspect we might still be able to identify a speaker as being typically British or American or Australian or Italian or Polish or South African or Japanese or Brazilian, etc.

Tomorrow I will list five ways in which our culture tends to influence how we speak.  The following day I will list a plan for growing in awareness of this and hopefully improving our speaking as a result.  In the meantime, feel free to comment with things that come to mind when you think about how people tend to preach in your culture (probably better not to comment critically about other cultures though!)


I just finished my Journey Thru John – one highlight per chapter through John’s Gospel.  Here’s the link in case you want to take a look (notice the slightly indirect invitation and that I didn’t make bold assertions about the life-changing truths in these brief videos?  Actually, it feels slightly awkward to mention them at all.  That’s my culture showing…)


Why State Ideas Explicitly? – Part 2

Here’s the question again:

Since our culture is shaped by the communication of implicit and pervasive ideas, and much of the Scriptures use a narrative communication with ideas implicitly conveyed, are we communicating effectively when we state explicit ideas in preaching?

Two more thoughts:

Generally speaking, explicit statement of the idea is necessary if people are to have any chance of getting it. I’ve seen it time and again in preaching classrooms.  The preacher knows that the class will be asked what the main idea of the message was, so they try to exaggerate it, repeating it until they feel almost embarrassed to do so any more.  Then when the group is asked for it (knowing they would be asked and some looking for it throughout the message) . . . many fail to give the preachers idea accurately!  It is scary as a preacher to realize how easily people miss the main idea, even when we are explicit.  So we need to consider how to communicate that idea effectively.  Generally this means repetition, emphasis, etc.  Sometimes a better way is more subtle, but strong through subtlety (as in an inductive message – less repetition, but more impact).  Moving deliberately away from explicit statement of the main idea without a very good alternative strategy and plan seems like homiletical folly.

This question does raise a valid issue. Not only do we need to think about the explicit main idea of our message, but we need to consider our implicit communication.  How can we reinforce the main idea through implicit means during the sermon?  What other values and ideas are we conveying implicitly in this or any sermon?

Is it right to state the main idea explicitly?  I think it is.  But this does not call us to simple formulaic approaches to idea repetition.  It calls us to wrestle with our entire preaching strategy as we seek to convey the true and exact meaning of the biblical text with impact in the lives of our listeners.

Why State Ideas Explicitly?

A while ago I was asked a very perceptive question:

Since our culture is shaped by the communication of implicit and pervasive ideas, and much of the Scriptures use a narrative communication with ideas implicitly conveyed, are we communicating effectively when we state explicit ideas in preaching?

I think a question of that depth requires a better answer than I am about to give, but perhaps this post and the next can challenge both our theory and practice.  A couple of thoughts in lieu of a full-orbed answer:

Preaching is different since listeners cannot soak in it. I would suggest that the pervasive influence of our culture is a soaking influence.  People are constantly and gradually bombarded with messages about life, reality, meaning, self, beauty, satisfaction, money, sex and so on.  This “implicit” pounding continues moment by moment, day after day.  Then we stand on a Sunday morning and hope to counter with truth from God’s Word.  From one perspective, it is hardly a fair fight!

Culture, Bible and Preaching all influence both implicitly and explicitly. While the question recognizes the implicit nature of communication in both culture and the Scriptures, it fails to recognize that all three use both implicit and explicit communication.  Culture is implicit in the communication of the general main ideas of the world, but when “soaking” is not possible, it can become very overt.  An ad campaign that will be seen many times can be subtle, but witness also the numerous explicit “big ideas” communicated daily in advertizing, film, music, etc.  According to Robinson, the Bible communicates eight or ten big “big ideas” repeatedly throughout the canon.  Spend a life soaking in the Word of God and those ideas will mark you deeply.  Yet each passage also conveys its idea more directly – with language, propositional statements, images painted with words, even narratives that leave a mark on the reader (whether or not the reader bothers to try and put exact words to the idea that has been presented therein).  Preaching also communicates both implicitly and explicitly.  Over the years, listeners who soak in your preaching will be marked by implicit messages and attitudes conveyed in your preaching – attitudes toward God, toward truth, toward the Bible, toward people, etc.  Yet we also make explicit that which the listener should not miss – the idea of this passage, presented to us today.

Tomorrow I will add a couple more thoughts in response to this question.