A Classic Contrast Revisited

In Between Two Worlds (I Believe in Preaching), John Stott contrasted the typical weakness in more liberal churches from the weakness in the preaching in more conservative churches.  One connected with the audience, but had no rooting in Scripture.  The other started with Scripture and built straight up to heaven, without ever touching down.  Timothy Ward’s book Words of Life revisits this contrast.  Allow me to paraphrase:

Some churches aim to give hope and inspire faith, but do so by proclaiming a Christ different from the Christ presented in the New Testament.  This is achieved by honouring the purpose of a text without being shaped fully by the content.  (Incidentally, this also happens in more conservative churches where a particularly elevated value is given to passion and emotion.)

On the other hand, some churches are driven by content, but seemingly unaware of the purpose for which that content was communicated.  In the more conservative churches there is a tendency to see the preacher as primarily a “Bible teacher.”  True biblical preaching should neither by-pass, nor settle for, faithful exegetical and doctrinal instruction.

Let me quote Ward’s conclusion to the section: “Properly faithful biblical preaching involves the preacher deliberately seeking to fashion every verbal (and indeed physical) aspect of his preaching in such a way that the Spirit may act through his words in the lives of his hearers, ministering the content of Scripture in accordance with the purpose of Scripture.” (p165)

Without wanting to critique Stott’s great book in any way, I have to admit I am really excited by what Ward has done here.  Scripture is not just a repository of truth which the preacher must purposefully land in the lives of the listeners.  The preacher’s task includes sensitivity to the original author’s purpose (or intent) as well as content, which must be effectively and sensitively communicated to the contemporary listeners.  What Stott would probably affirm (and I’m not checking the book, so he may overtly state this), Ward does overtly state.  Preacher, in your passage study, be sure to recognize the author’s intent as well as content.  Then preach so as to appropriately do what the passage did, as well as saying what the passage said.

“The Spirit is again graciously present in the preached message, if what is preached now is faithful in purpose and content to what he once inspired.” (p.165, italics original)

The Theology Bridge

When we think through the expositional process, we are really concerned about three stages.  The first stage is understanding the text (exegetical).  The final stage is producing the sermon (homiletical).  The link between the two is the bridge in John Stott’s metaphor (in Between Two Worlds).  The bridge is the theological abstraction process.  In Haddon Robinson’s book you’ll find reference to the exegetical idea, the theological idea and the homiletical idea.  You could equally refer to the “at that time” – “timeless” – “at this time” progression of the stages.  This basic concept is important to grasp.  In order to accurately preach the message a passage today, we have to first consider the timeless theological abstraction of the main idea.  Here are a couple of questions to consider as you move from the exegetical to the theological stages of the process:

1. What does this passage say about God? Whether God is mentioned directly or not, every passage should be considered and preached theocentrically.  The Bible is God’s self-revelation, and since He doesn’t change, the timeless truth of a passage will relate to God in some respect.  This does not mean that the passage is stripped of human interest, but that God is recognized as the key character, whether or not He is mentioned in those specific verses.

2. What does this passage say about humanity in relation to God? Throughout the Bible we see humanity interacting with God.  Some respond with faith, others with self-trust.  Some love Him, some hate Him.  Bryan Chappell refers to the Fallen Condition Focus that can be observed in each text.  In respect to a fallen humanity’s response to God, contemporary listeners will always have a point of connection.

3. Where does the teaching of the passage fit in the flow of progressive revelation? It is always worth thinking through where the passage sits chronologically and progressively in God’s plan of self-revelation.  Technically I suppose that asking this question in the exegetical stage of the process might lead to presenting the meaning of a text in a way that the original readers could not have understood it.  Nevertheless, contemporary readers have to understand a passage in light of the whole canon.  Whether the broader understanding needs to be emphasized will depend on the particular passage and audience.

We study the text to understand what the author meant at that time (exegetical idea).  We abstract the timeless theological truth of that idea (theological idea).  Then we shape our presentation of that idea for our particular listeners at this time (homiletical idea).

Excessive Abstractions and Principles Too General

Preaching an ancient text to a contemporary congregation will usually require some level of abstraction.  To preach an ancient instruction simply as it stands is to present a historical lecture, rather than a relevant presentation of inspired truth.  Some preachers simply say what is there and effectively offer historical lecture.  Other preachers abstract from historical specifics to timeless abiding theological truth, but end up preaching vague generalities.

To grasp what Robinson calls the “exegetical idea” and move through the “theological idea” to get to the “homiletical idea” is not easy.  The end result needs to be clearly from the text or the authority has been lost.  Yet the end result has to be specifically clear in its emphasis on the relevance of that text to us or the interest is lost.  One temptation is simply to play it safe, perhaps too safe.

What I mean by that is that we might derive a general, borderline generic, principle from a passage and move from historical explanation (often curtailed) into general application of this general principle.  Was the message true?  Yes.  Biblical?  Yes.  Relevant?  I suppose so.  Life-changing?  Probably not!  Sometimes it is a fear of fully engaging the text that can lead to this “generic” preaching.  Other times it is a fear of fully engaging the listeners that leads to it.

John Stott’s metaphor of the preacher as bridge-builder is helpful here.  The best preaching will not only touch both the world of the Bible and the world of the listener.  The best preaching will be firmly rooted, planted, engaged with and connected to both worlds.  Let’s not preach vaguely biblical abstract generalities.  Let’s really preach this text to these people!

John Stott’s Paradoxes of Preaching

I’ve seen this list in various forms, but just in case you haven’t seen it before, here’s John Stott’s list of the five paradoxes of preaching:

1.    Authentic Christian preaching is both biblical and contemporary
2.    Authentic Christian preaching is both authoritative and tentative
3.    Authentic Christian preaching is both prophetic and pastoral
4.    Authentic Christian preaching is both gifted and studied
5.    Authentic Christian preaching is both thoughtful and passionate

Stott concludes his article with this important observation:

Our adversary, the devil, is the enemy of moderation and balance.  One of his favourite hobbies, I’m persuaded, is tipping evangelical Christians off balance.  If he cannot get us to dny Christ, then he will be happy if we distort Christ.  Instead I want to encourage the read to develop what I call B.B.C. – Balanced Biblical Christianity.  Let us seek to combine these truths that complement one another, and let’s not separate what God has united.  For it is in these paradoxes that authentic Christian preaching is to be found.

As we look over these five paradoxes, where do we see the balance missing today?  Too much tentative preaching?  Too much reliance on gifting alone?  Too thoughtful without passion, or too passionate without thought?  I suppose it is different in each culture, each denomination, each church.  But it is worth the effort to think through where we might be becoming unbalanced.

Sources on Technology and Preaching

The site received a comment from Greg, who is in the DMin program at Talbot – preaching cohort. His thesis is allowing him to research “The Effects of Advanced Technology on Expository Preaching.” I’ve taken his questions and integrated them into this post, allowing us all to think about the issue, as well as offering help to Greg.

I suppose in thirty years’ time Greg’s grandchildren may be laughing at what he called “advanced technology” – remember the revolution caused by the Overhead Projector (the ones with transparent sheets on top)? Nevertheless, technology is changing rapidly and it is making a difference in the world of preaching. Now we think nothing of listeners reading along in their Bibles (depending on the church), but before the advanced technology of Gutenberg, that would have been unthinkable.

Here’s a quick comment from me on the issue (not for Greg’s sake, but so that this is actually a post rather than just a request). I think we shouldn’t resist technology as if our previous experience is somehow “the right way.” At the same time, we shouldn’t dive in with technology just because we have the option.  How many poor messages have you heard with powerpoint, just because it was “the new thing?” My mind goes back to some posts I did on powerpoint and preaching – powerpoint on purpose, as well as one of the very early posts on what you want them to remember, oh, and a couple on movie clips – here and here, and I really liked Boyd-MacMillan’s critique of the anti-monolog brigade here.

But Greg’s questions, can we help him out?

1. Any suggestions on recommended reading for this subject? Books or journal articles? (Currently reading or will read, Hipps – Flickering Pixels, Ong – Orality and Literacy, Blackwood – The Power of Multisensory Preaching and Teaching, Stott – Between Two Worlds, Hunt – The Vanishing Word, Levinson – Digital McCluhan)

2. Anyone regularly using technology in their preaching (PowerPoint, Media Shout, Pro Presenter, Video Clips, Multi-site, Video Venues, Texting, etc.) that has an opinion on how valuable you think your technology is to your preaching, I’d love to hear about your experiences

Greg gave his email address, but I wouldn’t want him getting hundreds of new spam emails as a result of this.  So please answer his questions on the site as a comment.  If you want to contact Greg direct, just mention this to me and I’ll send you his email address.  Let’s share thoughts for each other’s benefit, and answer these questions for Greg’s benefit, then hopefully in the long run his DMin can be for all our benefit!

Final words to Greg – Thanks all and blessing on your work in the pulpit!

The Battle of the Pulpit

Greg Haslam’s opening chapter of Preach the Word has been my food for thought in these days.  He writes about the battle raging over the pulpit.  Since the church expands primarily through preaching, the enemy will obviously target this part of the ministry.  So we have a barrage of popular opinion that people can’t concentrate on the spoken word any more, that they need entertainment and fun.  In response, so much preaching is like firing corks from a pop-gun, or endless repeaters from paintball guns – lots of smoke, but no fire.

Here are John Stott’s words quoted to energize the preacher:

“In preaching, God is bringing to each person’s notice what holy Scripture has made publicly and permanently available, so that His timeless word comes to timely announcement, so that people believe the message and commit to the Saviour it announces.”

Earlier Haslam points out that the term homiletics can carry the sense of saying the same thing as something outside of yourself.  So?  So through preaching “we should be saying the same thing that God would say in a given situation.”

Later in the chapter he quotes William Willimon in respect to preaching, “Call it a burden, call it a privilege, a duty.  You know that it is worthy of your best talents, worthy of a lifetime’s labour and dedication.  On any Sunday you can give it your all and still know that the Word deserves more.  It is no small task that the Church has set upon your shoulders.  Being called to preach the gospel, you can do no more than to promise as long as you have breath and there is someone to listen, then by God’s grace you will give them the Word.”