Thursday, March 29, 2012

Practical Considerations in Preaching

We live in a whole new world. Period. Full Stop. The culture has shifted, and the church had better be seeking to understand and communicate in ways that are effective, or we will fail have an utter mission failure. 

We are commanded to do what Jesus commanded us to do, make disciples. That is the mission, not facilitating legacy, or keeping the structures in place. we are told to make disciples; and we have some pretty wide parameters. In Acts, we see Peter and Paul using differing approaches for differing situations. Timeless message. Gospel, Gospel, Gospel. When you look at Paul, you see him in the synagogue, doing street evangelism, setting up class, preaching to all hours of the night at a church service, and on and on. What Paul does in one place is not always what he does in the next. He had systems, but they were always flexible. Looking back, he writes in 1 Corinthians 9, "I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel. (1Co 9:19-23).

Which brings me to today's issue here in preaching week.. Practical considerations in preaching.

We live in a whole different world than the one that bred the short, sub twenty minute sermon. You could take that lectionary, shorter approach at one time. Could (not recommended even then, but could)... There was a day when people knew the gospel story, and had a fundamentally Christian worldview. They accepted the major themes of Christianity, because it was the dominant metanarrative (grand story that shapes a culture) of western civilization. Christianity shaped and molded western civilization, it was the air people breathed, and it provided the framework in which we thought, whether or not we knew it. The result was that people basically knew A-T of Christianity. They knew the story. To bring them to Christ, you just had to get them from T to Z. Now, you have to add allot more layers than you used to, people don’t know the story, they don’t have a clue, and if we want to see lives changed, we’re probably not going to see it happen in 20 minute sermons. The world has changed in the years since the twenty minute sermon became king, especially in the last 20 or 30 years, as we have moved into postmodernism and began to feel its force.

Let me take a moment to explain to give some background here in terms of postmodernism. For the last 100 to 150 years, we have been living in a world that has been dominated by the ideas of a school of thought known as modernism. Simply put, Modernists felt that the world was knowable and rational. There is an objective reality, and through science and human reason, we could understand and master the world (the problem with Modernity is that it assumes science is the source to all knowledge- therefore, it makes science God). On the other hand, Postmodernism argues that “there is no objective reality, you can’t really know anything, you only have your perspective”. There are no truths, no absolutes (the major problem with postmodernism is that it relegates all truth claims to the dustbin). There is no right or wrong, at least not in terms of the object sense of moral absolutes, things are only wrong in the subjective sense of “wrong for you” (so says postmodernity). This is the increasingly dominant voice. We live in an era which has turned the individual or 'self' into the ultimate authority. We've turned ourselves into 'gods'. My ideas, my opinions, my input is the final court of appeal. Everyone demands his or her own pulpit or stage. Our postmodern age is an age which elevates self-expressionism above all else. Everyone’s opinion is as good as another's. Your own ideas are just as relevant (or irrelevant) as anyone else's. Thus, why should you be forced to listen to someone preaching to you? And the very idea of preaching or being preached to is diametrically opposed to the spirit of our time. At best we allow for dialogue, a situation in which two or more people speak, share and provide insights with equal authority, where being listened to is on a par with listening. An authoritative message from the Creator to his creature, from the King to his subjects, the Master to his slaves is anathema to the postmodern mind. [i]

However, as Christians we should not be modern or postmodern, we believe that there is objective truth, God’s word is true, and there are absolutes that he has given. It stands against modernity and postmodernity. To the moderns, we say, there is an authority higher than science. Science may shed light, but it is not the one who speaks about ultimate reality. God does. To the postmodern, we say, there is objective truth. We have a message that is true, you can know what is true and not. There is an authority that says, "This is right, and wrong". There are moral absolutes. Pay attention. Hear this loud and clear.

And here’s the application of this information to preaching. More and more, as learn about communicating, I have been seeking to make intellectual arguments as I preach. I have been seeking to challenge their idols (keep in mind that an idol is good things that we make ultimate things, a good thing that we treasure more than God) and defeater beliefs of moderns and post-moderns (Everyone has defeater beliefs, things that they believe that contradict the bible, and cause people to dismiss the bible’s claim as something that doesn’t fit their worldview right off the top)[ii]. As I preach, I have to show the text, and show that what the bible says is true, and also have to show that they can’t just dismiss out of hand what doesn’t square with their assumptions and worldview. This process takes time (to go back to yesterday’s post- almost always well above that twenty minute mark).

In a sermon, you need to gain attention, introduce the passage, explain the passage, challenge the things that say “dismiss what the pastors saying”, the idols of our hearts and the defeater beliefs. And you need to show why this all matters and relate it to life, and show how the cross relates to this issue. Showing how the cross relates is huge. Ultimately, the purpose of every sermon is not to give information and general instruction but to preach the gospel and make it real to the heart. You have to get to the cross. I would say that it’s not a sermon if Christ isn’t preached. It’s a teaching, an encouragement, a speech, but not a sermon unless you get to the gospel and show how, because of the cross the thing we’re looking at (whatever it is), looks different.

Now here’s the challenge to those that grew up on the short sermon. This takes time. Moving through this is what the bible says, this is why you should believe this, and applying it is not a quick process. But if you don’t, people (especially young post-moderns) will dismiss what you are saying out of hand. They’ll say, “it doesn’t square”, and move on. This means you have to be fiercely apologetic, you have to show them why they should accept what the bible is saying. You need to make arguments that make them engage. Show them that they can’t just dismiss out of hand what they don’t want to hear. Think of it this way. If you lay a charge of dynamite on a rock face, and blow it up, you sheer off the face of the rock, but don’t blow it up. But if you drill a hole into that rock, if you bore down, then put that same charge in, it blows the rock apart. In preaching, if I just say “This is what the bible says, accept it”, or just make a straight appeal to the heart, no one is changed.[iii] But if I drill down, with an argument, “Here is what the authoritative word of God says”, if I show why they should believe the truth we are looking at, show why the beliefs and assumptions that they have unwittingly picked up from culture are wrong, and if I dig down and confront the defeater beliefs and the idols, saying, “here’s is why it is true…. You know it’s true---- look at the proof ”, and then, I get to the heart, through the cross, that changes us (Thank you Tim Keller for teaching me this. As a pastor, I’m still learning how to do this better and better. Some weeks I do well, some I don’t). But according some of the people who have studied this far more than I, people that have had successful ministry to postmoderns- (such as Keller, such as the people who are running Resurgence and Acts 29 conferences) that’s how you get to postmoderns. People in their teens, 20’s, 30’s, and even creeping into the early forties. This isn’t a quick 20 min and out the door.

And here’s the thing, younger people aren’t interested in short quick stuff. Some of the most downloaded sermon Podcasts are people like John Piper, Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Tullian Tchividjian. This isn’t the soft mushy stuff. They give you meat. Younger generations, for all their problems with the idea of truth, hunger to hear answers and certainty in an uncertain world, and they want to grow and go deep. They crave it even if they cant articulate it, is my observation.

Two quick thought as I wrap up today’s post. First, at the end of the day, this process will differ, depending on the passage. For some, the sermon may be close to 20 minutes, for others, it could be 40. Or 35 minutes. Or whatever. Pastors need to be respectful of time and say, a sermon should be as long as it needs to be to cover the passage adequately. Not more, not less. At the end of the day, the issue should not be the length of the sermon, but the content, and making it understandable. And understand, the reality is that to do good expositional preaching, the pastor will probably go longer. We should probably expect that solid expository sermons that mix this layer of apologetic in will be longer rather than shorter. John Macarthur suggests that “I am convinced that biblical exposition requires at least forty minutes”[iv] 

I’m not willing to go there ironclad, but he’s on to something. The more you dig in, the more you find, and the longer it goes. As a brand new pastor, I didn’t grasp this. I thought I could cut time down, I vainly promised I would shorten, and believed that in time they would shrink. Now, I don’t think so. I actually think I was underselling the reality, good exposition takes longer. It just does. I know that now.

Second, there is no alternative to preaching. The church must make preaching the heart of its life. Preaching is how God speaks; it is is one of God's primary means of grace. We cannot minimize it, or seek to limit it. It is God's way because it is ultimately a reflection of the nature and authority of God himself. Far too many ministers have a low view of preaching. They would rather dialogue, encounter, counsel or advice. And the pulpit is sidelined. The authority of God and his word is compromised and ultimately drowned out. But equally, far too many of those who sit in the pew need to change too. Far too many of us have drunk deeply from the wells of modernity and postmodernity. Preaching has lost its appeal because we challenge its authority by either not listening (or making an effort to) or by simply staying away when we feel like it. Getting preaching into its true, Biblically demanded focus is essential, because God himself guarantees that his word will never return to him empty. [v]

Now, with all this said about the practical considerations in regards to the craft of preaching, here’s the bottom line. The church is slowly growing, and God is bringing new life, and I believe that it starts, with preaching. With the proclamation of the gospel week in and out being the engine that drives everything.

New England is the least churched part of America. Massachusetts is number 46 in terms of church attendance, and Gospel centered, bible preaching churches are few and far between (while all around us dead churches close their doors, last summer, a local church in our denomination closed their doors- FBC Natick). And yet, we are slowly growing. Slowly. And for us, the road to changing into a Gospel centered, bible driven church that seeks God’s glory above while making an impact on our community has been rough. I didn’t understand that some in the church decided to institute change through a man. But God is working, and we’ve had conversions! New birth, and I long for many more, because that’s kingdom growth. Transfer growth is fine, but it doesn’t build the kingdom, transfer growth is just people shipping. Real growth happens as people connect to the gospel- coming, listening, and finally seeing his need, and coming to Christ. From there, we want to see disciples begin to grow in the gospel, and someday, serve because of the gospel, sharing the gospel, and continue to be changed by the gospel.

That is our trajectory. We have moved onto firm ground, and while we are not out of the woods by any means God is working. My prayer is for many, many more conversions. For changed  lives and full on revival to hit our imploding culture. Today, we are watching the devolution of our country, and world. We’re watching the fall of Western civilization, and two millennia of Christian culture fall apart. The churches in Europe are empty. My prayer is for revival. It starts with us, hearing the gospel, taking it and approaching it seriously, apply it to our lives seriously and living out in a real way that allows us to share the gospel.

One final thought. In many ways we’re closer to the world Christianity started in than the world our parents lived in. Islam, atheism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Wiccan, and allot of other voices are active in our culture. We are not a Christian culture in any way, shape or form. The northeast, has been classified by many thinkers as Post Christian. So what do we do? Pastors, church leaders, people. We preach well. Once again, we need to make the arguments of scripture, use logic, and witness winsomely. We don’t sit and try to be liked, and I need to be proclaiming the bible in a way that changes lives, rather than gives a back massage. Furthermore, we take on a wartime approach. Think of ourselves not as people who are home, but soldier in a fight. Think of ourselves not as people who are home, but missionaries who have a challenge. We need to change our mentality from that of comfortably settled churches, to being churches that have a church-plantlike desire to create a gospel movement that wins people to Christ and changes our communities for Christ.

[i] Faith in Focus, "Preaching, the supreme means of Grace"
[ii] Both of these ideas come from Tim Keller, for a great book on idolatry, read his book, Counterfeit God’s- in my recommended books list. The idea on defeater beliefs really comes from a sermon he gave at the Gospel Coalition conference called The Grand Demythologizer., although I've heard him make the point several times.
[iii] I’ve heard Keller make this point several times, but cannot tell you where as I have downloaded much of what he gives away and listened and re-listened to them
[v] Faith in Focus, "Preaching, the supreme means of Grace"

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