Zooming out on preaching (2)

Continuing now from the last post, in an effort to gain perspective on preaching.  This conclusion is lighter in nature than the prior material.

Communication 101.  Just a quick, logistical bit here.  When one person talks to an assembled group for an extended period of time, it is incumbent on that speaker to ensure that he is actually communicating and not merely going through the motions of sermonizing just to say sermonizing has been done.  Sometimes, in their attempts to communicate, preachers will come out from behind a large piece of furniture and descend from the platform.  This gesture is well intended and may be just what the PA prescribed, in some buildings.   But if you step down off a raised platform to a lower level, take care that you are not inhibiting visual communication.  Don’t make it more difficult for the gathered saints to see your face while you talk.

Sermons vs. other duties. Paid preachers often have huge lists of responsibilities (that go unnoticed until not handled).  If we need to hire staff people to mow grass, buy supplies, answer phones, and such, OK.  In many cases, it may be a wiser use of church funds to pay a man to take care of those things than to teach publicly.  More certainly, it is not the best use of corporate time to spend 30 minutes listening to one man.  Pay him for what is needed in each autonomous congregation (remembering that denominational guidelines and structures are suprabiblical and should be servants, where they are permitted by human will to exist, and not masters), but do not insist tacitly that he must preach in order to earn his keep—especially if his sermons are not effective.

On the other hand, it might also be noted that sermons can contribute more than instruction to the gathered believers.  There is such a thing as preaching that inspires, convicts, and ushers hearts into a greater God-consciousness.  When a sermon does one of these things, it can in fact be vitally connected with worship, as well as with teaching.

Public preachers/teachers, if you have not already done so, you might add to your spiritual arsenal some sermons that point more to God’s perfect holiness than to the “three points and a poem” of your perfect outline.  Why not resolve to direct hearts and minds more to the Almighty than to your individual ideas and individual or sectarian interpretations?

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As we are able, let us zoom out on preaching.  Let us not be so focused-in on the tradition that we forget that preaching is just that–a tradition.  Let us see clearly, in broader perspective, what the Christian assembly can be.  That potential is not nearly as dependent on sermons as we might think.

Zooming out on preaching

A very good friend (ironically, once a preacher!) has expressed his vision of Bible reading in terms of “zooming out.”  In hermeneutical terms, this zooming out demands sensitivity to larger literary contexts.  “Book-level context,” he calls it.

Today I’d like to extend this “zooming out” to the tradition of preaching in the Christian assembly.  Where does preaching fit in the context of Christian gatherings?

Worship or Not Worship?  Worship, which most churches would list quite high among their “purposes” in gathering, is generally not directly in view during a typical sermon.  In fact, I would suggest that worship is not even included in, say, 98% of the sermons I’ve heard.  It seems to me, then, that churches’ stated values and their practices are not always aligned.  Put flatly:  authentic worship is more important, and more effectual in the soul and mind, than the content of most sermons.  Preaching, I suggest, is overused in assemblies, if not overrated.

Sermons—ostensibly the preacher’s “bread and butter” task—have in my tradition been used primarily for instruction and exhortation.  To the extent this is true for you, sermons move into a category separate from worshipful praying and singing.  If one views everything done by “clergy” and “laity” (forgive the employ of unbiblical terms and concepts here, but you know what I mean) as “worship,” then one’s view of sermons will be different.  Even sequential liturgy, though–no matter how deep and how biblical–does not always consist entirely of worship, nor should it.  For sake of discussion here, let’s assume that, no matter whether you are a “high church” or “low church” practitioner, of the things said and done in a church gathering, 1) some are worship, and 2) some are not.  This is as it should be, and sermons must be recognized as part of the latter category, by and large.

ImbalancedInstructional sermons tend to occupy an unjustifiably large proportion of time in the assembly.  While this imbalance may be attributed to a sincere desire to avert creeping (landsliding?) biblical ignorance on the part of the people in the pews, one must ask whether sermons are really doing much to stem the tide.  By most measures I’ve seen, and by personal observation, professing Christians are more ignorant of the content of their Bibles than we were 50 years ago.

Effective?  Just as other activities in the Christian assembly—regardless of the length of time devoted to them—sermons should be effective. Perhaps sermons in your experience have in fact been largely effective.  In mine, not so much. If you’re inclined to write this opinion off as mere annoyance or rebellion, please don’t.  At least, not without realizing that my experience has included some very biblically centered, honest, decent, hard-working preacher-types (whose names, by the by, are Mike, Jim, Roy, Greg, Jerry, Peter, John, Chris, Terry, and Dale) … there is only one preacher I’ve ever heard on a weekly basis that I don’t respect to some significant extent, and his name is not in that list!

I would say that my experience of sermons has probably been a 5 on the scholarly scale of 1-10 (whereas your basic Presbyterian sermon diet might have been a 6), and my intake has been more like an 8 on the biblically faithful scale.  It is neither a lack of scholarliness nor a lack of faithful respect for scripture that I decry.  No,  it is the sermon mode, the method that’s lacking.  I don’t feeling like counting the sermons I’ve heard, but the number of seriously effective ones is appallingly low.

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As we are able, while standing on our most stable tripods, let us hit the zoom-out buttons on our individual camcorders.  Let us not be so focused-in on the tradition of preaching that we forget that it is largely, well … a tradition.  Let us see clearly, in broader perspective, what the Christian assembly can be.  That potential is not nearly as dependent on sermons as we might think.

To be continued . . .

Unceasing worship

Before offering some more quotes from Harold Best’s book Unceasing Worship:  Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts, I should say something about his major premise.  After a LONG stand with this heady, soulful book, I’m not sure I yet completely understand his notion of “continuous outpouring.”  Best theorizes that God is a continuous outpourer, and we, in His image, are also continuously outpouring.  It is our job, then, I’d say, to outpour well, and to outpour with cognizance and spiritual awareness of offering everything to Him–whether mopping the floor or outstretching our arms in praise.

Conceptually and linguistically, I resist the notion that everything is worship, because I think that concatenation waters down both worship and service. Put in terms of “outpouring” and not worship per se, though, Best’s whole philosophy is rather palatable.  C’est vrai: our lives must be seen as sacrifices; these sacrifices take many forms, including the vertical and the horizontal.

Worship leaders and preachers do a lot of public praying. This area of public worship can often be careless, cliché-ridden and theologically thin.  It can turn into a daisy chain without much thought to overall flow, biblical precision and word beauty.  Were the Scriptures themselves muddled this way, we might have a case.  Public praying should not only be scriptural as to content but also scriptural as to loveliness of style, richness of expression and fullness of truth.  (102)

I’ll add a little to Best’s mention of “biblical precision.”  I often find prayers (and comments in Bible classes) to water down distinct ideas by generalizing and stringing things together that really aren’t connected.  Heard a prayer like this before?

“Thank you for your grace, your abounding love, and your forgiveness, Lord, because it is in giving that we receive, and you taught us to love, and love is giving.  And forgiving comes out of giving, so thank you for giving and for forgiving.  And now, let us give with a cheerful heart, because, knowing of your grace, we can do nothing but give.”

Now, there’s nothing particularly alarming there, but neither is a precise biblical use of language espoused in the prayer.  Love almost becomes grace, and grace becomes forgiveness, and giving is aurally related to forgiving, so it somehow leads to giving money, which has very little to do with love or grace, except insofar as they are all spoken of in scripture.  Ack.  Moving on….

Even though it is the personal responsibility of all Christians to grow up into the stature and fullness of Christ, as if there were no preachers, it remains the responsibility of the pastoral staff to preach as though there were no other way to get the full truth of the gospel across.  (104)

I like this.  It’s the dilemma of dual viewpoints, both of which are valid.  I would suggest, as a tagalong to Best’s well-worded statement here, that the problem is more often with the “all Christians” side.  Preachers, by and large, take their sermonizing duties seriously enough.  The problem is that those of us in the pews don’t take primary responsibility for our own spiritual development.

As to the relation of preaching to the rest of the liturgy, it is to be seen as an offering of worship among the many offerings of the corporate gathering.  Preaching is not the high point of worship to which all prior actions are meant to point or for which they prepare.  it is not a chosen oracle or an automatic apex that towers in importance over the Word, the sacrament or the simple singing of a hymn, because, in fact, truth is at stake in all these actions.  (106)

On this point, I think Best and I (and my parents and grandparents) are soulmates!  Even some of the words are almost the same!  In case you can’t tell, I’m thrilled to be validated by the likes of Harold Best in terms of the place of preaching in the scheme of things.

More to come …

Preachers and preaching

There once was an exegete named Ray
Who studied and planned along the way.
He praught and he taught;
Church folks kicked him a lot.
Now he programs, and dreams all the day....

The need for preaching, as it were, is not as great, in my estimation, as 98% of the Christian world apparently thinks it is. In making this rather bold, unpopular statement, I am speaking of the institution known as the sermon or homily; the need for Biblical teaching of some sort is not in dispute. We all need to be taught by someone who knows something that we have not yet discovered in God’s will. The questions are whether this teaching should be offered by someone a) paid, and/or b) in a full-time staff position, and/or c) clergified.

In thinking back over the years of sitting through sermons, I don’t find many preachers I would want to hear from regularly — for more than couple months of Sundays, anyway. The animal we call the “sermon” is a species of our own creation, and, in my view, it needs a smaller cage, or at least a habitat that separates it from the weekly church experience.

Sermons invite criticism. Too much introduction? Too much Bible-quoting? Not enough scripture reference? Stringing together Bible verses like popcorn on a thread without regard for context? PA system gone bad? Too distant? Too many jokes? (Any jokes at all?) Too long? Too exegetical? Too personal/too much opinion? Too much Greek? No reference at all to anything besides the NIV? All-KJV? Topics and texts not related to everyday life? Topics and texts too populist, without attention to God’s eternity? Too much ear-tickling? Too much spiritual-directorish, “I challenge you to …” language from the ivory tower?

All these questions, and others, are naturally raised when one person’s words take such a large percentage of a church’s time. It’s not that it’s a good thing, necessarily, that a congregation is critical of the preaching it hears; it’s just a natural outgrowth of the fact that one person stands in front of the church for 25-30 or more minutes every time the church meets. Do we take note of the fact that one person gets 1/3 to 1/2 of the congregational meeting time?

If the conception of ordination (or hierarchy) is such that the man is revered for having been supposedly, directly selected by God Himself, things look different. If one sees the preacher as especially, divinely inspired or even infallible, well, I guess it’s not a problem that the people hear so much from him. (There’s a bigger problem then!)

Preachers also invite criticism. Some wear bad suits, or maybe they’re too fat or too short. Others have nasal or hoarse or high-pitched voices that are unpleasant to listen to. Some preachers come across as stereotypical used car salesmen, hawking church programs and God.  Admittedly, some are intermittently quite good at preaching — saying worthwhile, well-founded things in an effective manner. Others are simply inept and have somehow found their way into full-time church salaries.

. . .

One of my best friends (about whom the opening limerick was written) is a well-trained, gifted exegete. I hope he doesn’t read this, because, although he would understand and take the opening in the supportive spirit in which it was intended, it might bring fresh pain to him. In church work, he never got a fair shake, because, quite frankly, churches didn’t want much of what he had to offer. That is to the discredit of the churches, by the way:  Ray had far more substance to offer than most preachers.

The preacher/sermon chapter of Ray’s life (not his real name) gives me the most pause.  Why is he programming for a living now instead of feeding hungry Christians and seekers?  To his great credit, he is constantly dreaming of, and working out, new ways to reach people with God’s message.  But the sermon institution couldn’t contain him.  He was too much for it.

Considering all of us in the pews now … do we like jokes and stories and topical meanderings more than exegesis? Are we more comfortable with entertainment or Christian syrup or even church political correctness than with biblical teaching?

God, is there anything You would like to do with preaching in our decade?