Preaching Trends

We need to be aware of preaching trends.  Like all trends, they come and go over time, influencing some while leaving others untouched.  Trends can be overt and in your face, or subtle shifts that sweep people along unawares.  For instance, D.A. Carson writes concerning the current focus on preaching narrative:

The current focus on narrative preaching has rightly broadened the older emphasis on discourse passages from the Bible.  If it helps us better handle all the genres of Scripture faithfully and responsibly, it will be to the good.  If it merely tips us from one cultural preference (viz., discourse) to another (viz., narrative), we have not gained anything.  Indeed, because narrative is intrinsically more hermeneutically “open” than discourse, the move may merely contribute toward moving us away from truth.  How much better to remain faithful to biblical truth yet simultaneously focused on Scripture’s existential bite. (Preach the Word, 185.)

This quote helpfully points out several truths about “trends.”  (1) A trend is neither good nor bad in itself, it should be evaluated as part of the broader picture of church ministry.  (2) A trend may be justifiable on one level, but may bring with it side effects or net results that are more sinister. (3) Potentially sinister net results do not automatically disqualify a trend as worthy of our consideration.

Let’s be neither shallow homileto-fashionistas, jumping from one pulpit bandwagon to the next, nor stubborn traditionalists unwilling to learn, thinking we know all we need to know, and committed to increasing irrelevance.  We need to be aware of preaching trends.  We need to be discerning.

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Build Confidence in the Word

John MacArthur writes about the clarity of the Bible in his chapter in Preach the Word.  Let me quote him here – not new information (I hope), but important information well worthy of our pondering:

The student of Scripture need not fear that its message is unknowable.  Rather, he can rejoice in knowing that God revealed himself and his plan of salvation in a way that men can understand.  Not only does the Scripture repeatedly claim that God revealed what is written within its pages (over 2,000 times in fact), it also describes itself as that which gives light (Ps. 119:105; 2Pet. 1:19a), is profitable (2Tim. 3:16-17), explains salvation (2Tim. 3:15b), addresses common people (cf. Deut. 6:4; Mark 12:37; Eph. 1:1; 1Cor. 1:2), can be understood by children (Deut. 6:6-7; Eph. 6:4; 2Tim. 3:14-15), and should be used to test the validity of religious ideas (Acts 17:11; cf. 2Cor. 10:5; 1Thess. 5:21-22). It is the truth (John 17:17) that sets men free (John 8:31-36).  Thus, to deny the clarity of Scripture is to call into question not only the Bible’s own self-claims, but also God’s ability to communicate clearly.

Let’s make sure these truths are fresh in our hearts.  It’s easy to begin with strong confidence in the Word, only for it to fade over time.  Is it time to refresh and renew our understanding of and commitment to the clarity and power of God’s Word?

Let’s also make sure we don’t undermine our listeners’ confidence in the Bible.  There are certainly parts that are harder to understand, the Bible itself acknowledges that (2Pet. 3:16).  But the main message of the Bible is clear for any who will read it . . . so let’s encourage them to do just that!

Smooth Preaching Doesn’t Mark

I like this term, “smooth preaching.”  I was just reading about it and resonating with the thought.  Peter Jensen uses the term in his chapter on the role of the seminary in the training of the preacher.   (Preach the Word, p216.)  He writes, “There is a variety of smooth preaching that replicates what it sees as the main theme of a text but does not bring to the surface anything in the text that surprises, contradicts, creates tension.”  It is the kind of preaching that rushes too easily to conclusions or fails to spot the points of stress in a text.  It is dull preaching that dulls the Word of God.

I suppose some might wish that someone would publish a book, perhaps a New International Textual Stress Points Commentary, or a Passage-By-Passage Jagged Edge Guide.  But in reality, there is simple no better way to avoid such smooth preaching than this – spend significant time dwelling in a text, wrestling with the text, allowing the text to wrestle with you, opening your own heart to the text, leaning so close to it that it can draw blood.  Close and personal encounters with God’s Word will bring the Bible into real conflict with sin in our lives.  It will expose and challenge our pride, anger, doubts, motivations, attitudes, habits, tendencies.  If we keep texts at arms length, then we will preach smooth sermons.  If we handle texts only briefly before preaching the obvious, then we will preach smooth sermons.  If we really prayerfully vulnerably wrestle with a text, and lose, then we will be in a better position to preach sermons with the textual edge bared to make its mark.  The Word of God does cut, but smooth preaching will only conceal that edge.  Smooth preaching doesn’t mark.

Adjust Agenda?

Yesterday I quoted from JI Packer’s chapter on Charles Simeon in Preach the Word.  I wanted to finish quoting the paragraph since it is provocative and perhaps helpful:

The motive behind his almost obsessive outbursts against Calvinistic and Arminian “system-Christians,” as he called them, was his belief that, through reading Scripture in light of their systems, both sides would be kept from doing justice to all the texts that were there.  Be “Bible-Christians” rather than slaves to a system, he argued, and so let the whole Bible have its way with you all the time.  Whether or not we agree that such speaking is the wise way to make that point, we must at least endorse Simeon’s “invariable rule . . . to endeavour to give to every portion of the word of God its full and proper force.” (Packer, in Preach the Word, 147-148.)

Perhaps you might substitute a different theological label into his quote, but still I think the point is helpful.  It is naive to think that we can simply preach the Bible in a theology-neutral way.  However, there is a great difference between reading every text in light of your system and constantly adjusting your system in light of the biblical text.  In that sense, let’s preach as, and let’s preach to motivate, “Bible-Christians.”

Abort Sermon! Abort Sermon?

On one level it is a feeling that can come for any reason.  A little moment of doubt.  An unexpected event, or listener, or conversation, or comment . . . and suddenly the temptation is there to give up on the planned message.  Some may have this feeling every time they preach.  Others may never get it at all.  But is there a genuine reason to abort the message and switch to something else?

In his excellent chapter on Charles Simeon in Preach the Word, J.I. Packer states the following:

Simeon would go on to remind us that expository preaching should be textual in character.  The preacher’s task, according to him, was not imposition, giving texts meaning the do not bear; nor was it juxtaposition, using texts merely as pegs on which to hand general reflections imported from elsewhere (“preachments of this kind are extremely disgustful”); it was, precisely, exposition, bringing out of teh texts what God had put in them  “I never preach,” said Simeon, “unless I feel satisfied that I have the mind of God as regards the sense of the passage.” (Preach the Word, 147)

There may be more than one reason to abort a sermon, but this one alone is worth pondering.  If we are not satisfied that we have the mind of God as regards the sense of a passage . . . we should not preach it!  Better to preach an unprepared sermon at a moment’s notice on a text we do understand, than to preach a prepared sermon built on shaking exegesis.  If you really don’t get, don’t preach it.  Abort sermon!

The Non-Academic Preacher Compliment

Last week I spoke to a friend who had asked to borrow my master’s thesis.  He was positive about it, but mentioned that he’d had to look up some terms I’d used.  He was a bit surprised since he doesn’t have that challenge when I preach.  That’s an encouraging compliment in my eyes!

Here’s a quick quote that is somewhat related in Phillip Jensen’s chapter, “Preaching the Word Today” in Preach the Word, the book of essays in honor of Kent Hughes:

With the discriminating eye of the cynic, the modern scholar can deconstruct the author’s writings so as to explain what he “really” meant.  Only the expert – never the ploughboy – can know what was meant.  The priesthood of all believers is no longer replaced by the sacerdotalism of the sacramentalists but by the arrogance of the academy.

We need to be so careful.  I think it is good to get the best academic training possible (a matter of good stewardship), but we need to be very careful not to develop the easily associated arrogance that comes with training, nor to carry that arrogance into the pulpit.  We serve the priesthood of all believers; we are not the priesthood for all other believers.

Let’s make sure we open up the Bible in peoples’ laps, rather than moving it further away from them.  Let’s make sure we communicate well, rather than impress with lofty language that the ploughboy doesn’t understand.  Let’s make sure we prepare for ministry and prepare for a message as fully as we are able, but not let that show in any way that will hinder our listeners.

Biblical Narrative: Two Truths Together

I’m giving a lot of thought to the preaching of biblical narrative at the moment.  I have a seminar on the subject coming up this weekend and I am thoroughly enjoying preparation for that event.  Somehow, when it comes to narrative passages, there are two truths that don’t seem to sit easily together in peoples’ minds.  These are the historical accuracy of the biblical narratives, and the literary artistry in the biblical narratives.

On the one side you have some conservative preachers who treat the narratives as historically accurate, but essentially no different than any other biblical text (just dissect and deliver!)  On the other side you have other less conservative writers who may recognize the literary skill, but deny historicity (my mind goes to Robert Alter’s term “historical fiction” in reference to the Hebrew Bible).

I appreciate this definition from Jeffrey Arthurs’ excellent book, Preaching with Variety:

Biblical narrative can be defined as a historically accurate, artistically sophisticated account of persons and actions in a setting designed to reveal God and edify the reader. (Page 64)

He goes on to write, “Although biblical narrators do not make up events and characters, they do select, arrange, and depict them with skill.Historical accuracy and sophisticated literary artistry are not mutually exclusive categories.  As Leland Ryken put it in Preach the Word, “While fictionality is a common characteristic of literature, it is not a necessary feature of it.” (Page 45)

As we prepare to preach biblical narratives, let’s make sure we don’t fall into the either/or thinking.  Historical accuracy.  Literary artistry.  Two truths that sit comfortably together.

Review: Preach the Word, edited by Leland Ryken & Todd Wilson

Subtitle: Essays on Expository Preaching in Honor of R. Kent Hughes (2007)

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Kent Hughes is a name I have been aware of for many years, but honestly I have never heard him preach or read any of his books.  Still, this book of essays written in his honor caught my attention.  Collections of essays in honor of individuals of spiritual stature range in quality from excellent to extremely ordinary.  Sometimes their quality of production falls far short of the person’s life and ministry they are intended to honor.  Not so in this case.  This book is a quality production from Crossway and a decent collection of essays from an impressive list of contributors.  This book is worthy of our attention.

Divided into four parts, the book contains sixteen essays, culminating in a gracious and encouraging biographical essay on the life and influence of Kent Hughes.  By the end of this book, you will have greater motivation to pursue the exposition of God’s Word, and a greater passion to expand that ministry by influencing the next generation.  Not a bad legacy to honor Kent Hughes’ ministry.

The first part is concerned with Interpretive Principles and Practices.  The book begins with a call to expository preaching from David Jackman.  John MacArthur offers a sound although very basic introduction to inductive Bible study.  Paul House considers the preaching of Old Testament narratives with a focus on three sermons from Acts.  Wayne Grudem offers a helpful chapter on rightly interpreting the Bible.  The only chapter to surpass Grudem’s contribution in this section is the excellent offering on “The Bible as Literaure and Expository Preaching” by co-editor, Leland Ryken.

The second part focuses on Biblical and Historical Paradigms.  Bruce Winter helpfully considers Paul’s approach to warfare in reference to the thought processes of his listeners – how to preach to minds not fully renewed.  Duane Litfin’s chapter on Paul’s kerygma foolishness in 1Cor.1-4 is superb.  In my notes I remarked the book was worth the price for this chapter alone.  Wallace Benn moves the book into church history with a straightforward summary of Richard Baxter’s classic, The Reformed Pastor. J.I.Packer then adds another heavyweight and inspiring article (in power, not in density), a delight of a chapter on Charles Simeon.

The third part concerns Contemporary Challenges and Aims.  Here you find Phillip Jensen and D.A.Carson’s more engaging lecture on contemporary challenges in ministry.  Philip Ryken then offers a very good call for expository preaching that is evangelistic, doctrinal and practical.

The fourth and final part focuses on Training and Example.  Peter Jensen considers the seminary setting, where he rightly wishes that expository preaching were the primary goal of the entire faculty.  Jon Dennis offers a detailed list of eight principles for multiplying ministers from 2Tim.2:2 and its surrounding context.  David Helm brings in British church history again, in an engaging article that looks for a generation of preachers to be trained.

This is a solid book, well worth buying and reading.  The essays are all decent and worthy of their place, although it must be recognized that the offerings of Leland Ryken, Duane Litfin and J.I Packer (perhaps with David Helm’s historically birthed effort attached to Packer’s consideration of Simeon) – these stand out as especially worthy of note and worth the price of the book!

Application is Not About Benefits

In the understanding of expository preaching espoused on this site, application is central.  Expository preaching must involve the explanation of the meaning of the biblical text while emphasizing the relevance of that text to the contemporary listener.  This is born out of an understanding that the Bible is highly relevant to us all.  However, there is a danger of misunderstanding this emphasis on relevance and application.

The danger is that people may take away the thought that we are advocating a strong view of the benefits associated with applying the Bible to our lives.  In reality, we are saying much more than that.  Paul House, in his article in Preach the Word, gives Christopher Wright credit for identifying the opposite reality.  We do not apply the Bible to our lives, but rather, “through the power of the Holy Spirit we must learn and help others to learn to ‘apply our lives to the Bible.’  God and his Word – not our lives and minds – comprise the horizon of reality and authority.  We are required to conform to the Scriptures; they are not required to conform to us.”  (Preach the Word, p25)

Only in this way do we protect listeners from getting the impression that they can pick and choose those parts of the Bible that appear most valuable.  As Tozer said, “Nothing less than a whole Bible can produce a whole Christian.”  So application is not primarily about the benefits for our lived reality.  Application is about conforming our lives to reality.

Fullness, Not Dipping – Narratives

I’d like to share another post in light of the chapter by Leland Ryken in the book he co-edited entitled Preach the Word (in honor of Kent Hughes).  In writing of the importance of understanding the Bible literarily and not just theologically or historically, he states the following:

A biblical scholar who caught the vision for a literary approach to the Bible has written regarding Bible stories, “A story is a story is a story.  It cannot be boiled down to a meaning,” that is, adequately treated at the level of theological abstraction.  A person listening to an expository sermon on the story of Cain should be aware from start to finish that the text being explicated is a narrative, not a theological treatise.  The text exists to be relived in its fullness, not dipped into as a source of proof texts for moral and theological generalizations. (Ryken, quoting John Drury, Preach the Word, 43)

A couple of comments from me:

I agree with the general thrust of this, particularly what is affirmed. I fully agree with Ryken’s qualified version of the Drury quote – a story cannot be “adequately treated” at the level of theological abstraction.  However, this is not to say that there is no place for theological abstraction in the preaching of stories.  Listeners should know they are hearing a narrative preached, rather than a theological treatise.  In fact, discerning listeners should, over time, recognize that very little in the Bible is best described as theological treatise – most of the Bible is highly “occasional” in nature, but still highly relevant to our “occasion” or situation.  Certainly, let’s not treat any Bible passage as a source of proof texts!

I would slightly disagree with what is denied. Listeners listening to a narrative explicated will either consciously or sub-consciously be looking for both unity and relevance in the message.  This puts the onus on us as preachers to make sure the main idea is identified and relevance is emphasized.  This is not about abstracting from a narrative to create some sort of literary-less set of propositions.  It is about making sure people don’t simply hear a story and make of it what they will.  By working toward a statement of the main idea in a narrative, we are forced to study and seek to understand not only the content, but also the intent of the author.  For a story is certainly a story, but Bible writers didn’t waste papyrus on entertainment alone, they were also theologians seeking to communicate about God by means of the highly effective literary form of story.

So let us preach texts in their fullness, let us make sure the stories we study are still stories when we preach, but let’s not think the hard work of defining the main idea is unnecessary with biblical narratives.