December 14, 2017

Mondays with Michael Spencer: January 25, 2016

Roberts Park Sanctuary

This is part two in a series of iMonk posts that Michael wrote back in 2006. We have edited them and present them each Monday. Michael’s subject was “the sermon,” and the series was called “What’s Wrong with the Sermon?” Here is Michael’s explanation of the approach he took:

In this series of posts I will be examining the sermon as it is currently done in evangelicalism. My method will be a bit backwards. I am going to examine the most frequent criticisms of sermons — something I hear all the time from my peers and student listeners — and see if there is truth in the criticisms.

Past posts:
Part 1: The sermon’s too long

• • •

What’s wrong with the sermon?
(2) The sermon’s boring

What did we do before the word boring was invented? It must have been tough.

One of the ironies of the study of preaching is that I’m pretty sure most of the great preachers of history would have been boring to the vast majority of people who ever happened to hear them.

Take Jonathan Edwards, for example. Edwards is a darling of theological type preachers, and a fan of Edwards like John Piper can wax rapturous about Edwards’ sermons, but I’ve read enough Edwards to safely say that, for the vast majority of the time, he would have bored the socks right off of any reasonable audience. I don’t think those “great awakening” stories of people falling out of their pews in writhing anxiety were the normal fare at Edwards’ church. The guy could split hairs to the point most people would have been begging for the words, “…and in closing” to arrive.

Or Martyn-Lloyd Jones, the great Welsh expositor of the mid-twentieth century. The Doctor was a relentless plodder in the pulpit, with a kind of dogged, warrior’s determination to wrestle every text to the level of application. Hearers like J.I. Packer were enthralled by Lloyd-Jones, but I would never put a Lloyd-Jones tape in the car player after a big meal. He’s put me down many times.

I preach to teenagers mostly. I work really hard at holding the attention of my primary audience, and I’m known for being able to keep the students’ attention for longer than anyone here. I can be funny, and I use my knowledge of my audience to make sure my sermons are well-seasoned with attention grabbers. Of course, that doesn’t stop the vast number of kids who sleep through everything I say from catching a 20 minute nap under my influence. I’m a sure cure for insomnia for a good sized portion of my audience. In other words, no matter how hard I try, I’m boring to many people. (And yes, preacher, so are you. Quit grinning.)

Today’s preachers are more afraid of boredom than of terrorism or disease. Preachers like Ed Young will bring tanks and tigers into church rather than preach another boring sermon. From object lessons to magic tricks to video clips to background music and slides, today’s preachers would rather hear any criticism before “it was boring.”

Other preachers, however, seem to have accepted the fact that boredom is a quality of this culture’s addiction to entertainment. Television has made us a culture with viciously short attention spans, and we assess almost everything by its ability to create an “instant” sensation or reaction. MTV made us into people who needed a new camera angle every 3 seconds. While many churches have decided to fight the battle to hold the attention of an ADD audience, other preachers have opted out of the competition.

I believe it is an inherent flaw in our consideration of Christianity to say that the Gospel will always appeal to the interests and concerns of any person in a culture. A culture that is literate, that has a concept of God and takes a theistic worldview seriously, will certainly find the Gospel much more interesting than a culture that is addicted to Entertainment Tonight and Oprah Winfrey. The Gospel speaks to us in Biblical language and concepts because the truth of the Gospel is conserved and communicated in those concepts in a way they are not conserved in other forms. If relevance and interest are purchased at the expense of laundering the Gospel for the coinage of entertainment, we’ve made a deadly and critical error.

In fact, a far superior approach to preaching insists that we not seek to be entertaining, but that we speak about the Gospel in the same way the Bible speaks to us. At this fundamental level, we must answer the question, “Is the truth of the Gospel true, whether it is entertaining or not?” The answer to this question is the difference between good preaching and mediocre entertainment.

• • •

Pulpit BethlehemHere are my suggestions for good preaching that isn’t unnecessarily boring.

1. Good illustrations are golden. Ravi Zacharias can talk over the head of 98% of his audience, and then put them in his pocket with the right illustration. I believe this is worth imitating. Work as hard at illustration as possible.

2. If you are preaching to the same audience on a regular basis, try to build up a basic understanding of the Gospel that will allow you to say more and more with each message. If you are privileged to preach to the same people for years, you should be able to avoid much that is boring by having basic concepts well defined, explained and illustrated.

3. The entertainment culture in which we live cannot become the standard for what is good preaching. Jesus was a master communicator, but he didn’t try to outdo the theater productions at Sepphoris. In the same way, we should refuse to compete with the secular entertainment media for the attention of people. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” “If they refuse to hear you, shake the dust off your feet and move on.” These are the words of Jesus.

4. Many sermons are boring because the preacher is doing exegesis or theological debate in the pulpit. We are announcing the good news of a new king and a gracious offer of salvation and inclusion in his Kingdom. We are not parsing verbs or answering the 28 objections to predestination in a scholarly review.

5. Sermons that are too long are usually boring. 20-25 minute messages may be a lot of things, but they are seldom boring simply by duration. The better organized, the more flow in content, the less boring.

6. Interest in a message is generally a matter of relevant, personal application. We need the quality of being able to speak to hearts and minds in the depths, and not to just scratch the itch of superficial entertainment interests. Work at application. Use personal questions. Be appropriate in dealing with life issues.

7. Some of my most “non-boring” sermons were messages were I came at something everyone was interested in, talking about in the introduction, and then used that as the door or jump point into the Biblical material. This is a skill that requires an awareness of how media, news stories, television, trends, etc., can be pressed into the service of the Gospel.

8. Are you excited by the Gospel? Or you enthused by its power? Are you excited by its relevance? Is the outrage of the Gospel alive in your preaching? Read Robert Capon! Read people who keep the “live wire” of the Gospel charged up in your own heart. Don’t be afraid to create interest by letting the Gospel be what it is: an offense and a stumbling block to those who want justification by morality and decency.

9. There is great drama, comedy and reality in scripture. Our job is to find it. Even in Paul’s letters, there is real life behind the scenes, and in that real life there are possibilities for preaching. When we deal with a text, we may be the ones who are bored as we read. No wonder others are bored. Find what is exciting about the epistles or the rest of scripture. Where is the conflict? Where is the struggle? The drama? The battle? It is there.

10. One of the finest books on worship anywhere is Michael Horton’s A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship. Horton helps us to see the drama that should be inherently present in properly ordered liturgical worship. If the worship service is a drama, a covenant renewal service between God and his people, then what is the sermon? The sermon is God speaking the Gospel to his people, preparing them for the Lord’s Supper.

God-centered, liturgical worship has proven, though not immune at least highly resistant to the pressure to become entertainment oriented. I believe that the sermon, when it is part of worship that is, in itself, dramatic and serious, will become what it should be: Good News of a great joy for all people.

Revivalism is inherently flawed as a model for worship- and preaching- because of its assumption that whatever grabs interest will result in public professions of faith. So a dog and pony show can get people down the aisle, and therefore the dog and the pony are superior to a sermon that announces the message of the Bible. This is a dangerous model, to be rejected without guilt.

Conclusion

In an entertainment addicted, spiritually depraved culture, the Christian message will never escape the charge of being boring, so preachers should tell God’s story clearly, creatively and persuasively, but without trading the Gospel for the applause of an audience.

We live in a culture that finds everything boring eventually. The Gospel is timeless, not entertaining. It is true, not trendy. It has depth, not just overnight ratings. It is God’s word to all of us, told in the story of Jesus. While sermons will always be boring to someone, we dare not find that God has been bored with our attempts to become entertainers rather than heralds and proclaimers.

Comments

  1. Already off-topic, but what church is pictured at the top? It looks like a beautiful old place of worship ( possibly
    United Methodist?). Music must be important. Not many churches have an organ, grand piano, and harpsichord.

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    > #4 We are announcing the good news of a new king and a gracious offer
    > of salvation and inclusion in his Kingdom

    Sort of… only it is not “News” anymore. The essence of News is that it is “new” information, late-breaking, etc… This is a real flaw in the logic of many a Gospel Preacher – it has been ~2,000 years. It is not News anymore; certainly not in the quasi-/post-Christian West. It is a fair criticism to look at The Church and to say – you have been tried, and found wanting (or hollow).

    > #7 – This is a skill that requires an awareness of how media, news
    > stories, television, trends, etc., can be pressed into the service
    > of the Gospel.

    But – PLEASE – be very very careful. If you are going to Press something into the service of The Gospel – then you have a #$^@&*^ OBLIGATION to actually understand what that thing is, the real story of that news item, the authorial intent of that story, etc… Undersand – AND do not Press too hard. #7 can (a) turn into flim-flam pretty easily and (b) [worse] propagate false information and serve the interests of bias and paranoia. Evangelicals especially are prone to pressing far to hard – and from a position of being ill-informed.

    • That’s an interesting point about the “news” term, I haven’t thought about that before…

      Also, in speaking to your point about #7, I think it should be treated carefully particularly in light of #3 as well (about catering to and competing with the culture)

    • Hi Adam,

      I agree your point about the “news” aspect of the gospel is interesting and something I haven’t thought of before. I wonder if the best interpretation of folks saying it should be “news” is something along the lines of “the gospel is news to the parts of the soul that have not yet been brought under its control”. And I wonder if it’s not the job of the preacher to find these areas and apply Scripture to them – and in this way make the gospel news again?

      • But that involves a pretty tortured understanding of the original language. Euangelion is by no means limited to the NT, and it means good news (used, e.g., to announce a Caesar’s victory in battle). To try and spiritualize or metaphoricalize it is almost as bad as turning an adjectivalization into a verb.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          > pretty tortured understanding of the original language

          Agree, we end up with Christian Word Salad…. again.

        • “the gospel is news to the parts of the soul that have not yet been brought under its control”. And I wonder if it’s not the job of the preacher to find these areas and apply Scripture to them – and in this way make the gospel news again?

          It’s this part I don’t understand at all, and yeah, seems to spiritualize or metaphoricalize it in a weird way.

          So the areas in the soul that aren’t under the gospel’s control would be those areas that are controlled by the law, so the gospel bringing them under control means…freedom and liberation? Or is it a new bondage to a new law, this one called “grace”?

          Christian Word Salad. With a dressing of Plato?

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > and in this way make the gospel news again?

        But why? This is wrapping something in metaphor only in order to keep the term for rhetorical[*1] or identity reasons? When something can be stated plainly why say it in a way that requires an explanation in order to unwrap it?

        [*1] For rhetorical purposes I also strongly feel this device is worn out.

    • #4 is my favorite point, so I respectfully disagree with your analysis of it. The reason it is Good News as in “new” is that in many places the fact it is “Good” is new and people either need to hear it is “Good” or be reminded that it is “Good.” I think the Gospel has been tainted so much (maybe even ever since the second generation of Christianity) that it is often viewed as “Bad News”.

      • turnsalso says:

        Said so much better than I could have!

      • Indeed

      • Rick Ro.: In “reminding” someone though, it is by nature no longer “news.” I agree though in the sense that the application of the Gospel is “new” (makes me think of Lamentations 3:22-23, where it says God’s mercies are “new every morning.”)

        Also, when people view “it” as “bad news”, they can not be referring to the Gospel, since I don’t know anyone who thinks that God reconciling us back to Him in granting us eternal life is inherently “bad.” Now, if we’re talking about various theologies within Christianity and implications of the Gospel, I could see where you’re coming from…

        Perhaps though we’re all just playing with semantics here 😛

        • Yes, I’m talking bad religion and theologies that promote the Gospel as something other than Good News for everyone.

          And in terms of “reminding’ not being “news,” remember this: the Good News of Jesus Christ was initially for the Jewish “Chosen” who’d gotten so off track (the Pharisees) or had lost sight of who God really was.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            > the Good News of Jesus Christ was initially for the

            Yes. 2,000 years ago. Empires have fallen, risen, fallen, risen. We’ve sailed across the oceans and peopled an entire additional continent since then. We’ve invented the printing press, walked on the moon, smashed the atom, and have a satellite orbiting our planet picking out other planets from how they make their own stars wobble. Since then those Jewish people have experienced their most profound diaspora yet, and then have returned as a democratic[-ish] nation state.

          • Yeah. It’s not so much good news to us Gentiles. So we’re not under Jewish Law? That’s ok. Wait, we’re all under the Law because of Augustine’s theology? Yeah, idk about that.

            Even “good news for the Kingdom is at hand” is kinda…eh. Maybe it was at hand. Or has been on hand for 2000 years.

            I’ll be honest, the “Gospel” doesn’t make much sense to me anymore. What Good News I hear and see in Christ definitely is along the lines of the social gospel. Justice, peace, good will amongst men. But he comes not to bring peace but a sword…but those who live by the sword die by the sword…it’s almost like the Good News existed during his earthly ministry only. Ever since then, it’s just been…”the Gospel”, ala ‘repent or one day be killed’.

            It’s tough.

            Good discussions today to catch up on.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Wait, we’re all under the Law because of Augustine’s theology? Yeah, idk about that.

            My conclusion is the church made a mistake by accepting Augustine’s theology as an all-or-nothing package deal. Monica’s son Auggie brought a lot of personal baggage from his past into his theology and writings (which are NOT Scripture) and needed to be approached and read with some discernment (in the original meaning of the word).

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          > In “reminding” someone though, it is by nature no longer “news.”

          +1

    • Crossan has a few very poignant essays on just this topic, Adam. His conclusion is that news needs to be updated, and if we aren’t then it isn’t the gospel any more. I’m sure the Neo Cal movement is going into apoplexy just sniffing my comment, but I think his perspective is worth thinking about – even if it does imply a social gospel.

    • Christiane says:

      I think the ‘gospel’ can still be made ‘new’, and I love the idea of ‘a good example’ so that people can ‘get it’ by cutting through all the doctrinal complexities.

      I look at the Furtick McMansion, and then I hear about Francis moving into a modest apartment rather than the papal palace suites . . . and I ‘get it’ in one.

      A lot of followers of the ‘popular’ preachers who are making big bucks off of the sheep do believe that the following saying is meaningless: ‘Preach the gospel constantly; if needed, use words” . . .

      sometimes ‘words’ obfuscate, when it’s ‘do as I say’
      . . . but sometimes the simplicity of an act of humility has more power to put light on the Gospel than all the entertaining sermons out there . . . there IS a reason for this and it belongs in the realm of ‘witnessing’ . . . and if the ‘witnessing’ is an act so startling as to make us stop and think and ‘get it’, then it deserves the accolade of the term ‘witness’ . . . a word given by the early Church to its martyrs who gave up all for Our Lord . . . and in their example, the Church grew phenomenally, as their willingness to die proclaimed their faith in the Risen Lord and the life that is beyond this Earth.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    This posting was obviously written before Social Media(TM).

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Yes. “The Gospel is timeless, not entertaining. It is true, not trendy. It has depth,” – I suspect means The Gospel and SM are inherently incompatible, and should likely be kept at a distance from on another [again, The Gospel is not News]. Let The Gospel have real incarnate life, and SM have the world of vapors and stale winds.

      Clearly from my Facebook feed – if I look at everyone I block 🙂 – a whole lot of people disagree with me.

  4. Are any of Michael Spencer’s sermons or classes availalable to listen to? I loved his podcasts, but always wished I could attend a class or worship service where he was preaching so I could hear the iMonk is his element.

  5. The cold is bitter,
    and though it feels so empty
    contains the full moon.

  6. Maybe it’s not news anymore, or maybe it’s “old news,” but God’s expression of Godself, God’s word to humanity, God’s giving of Godself in self-emptying love, is still Jesus Christ. If I no longer had any faith in that, I would join a benevolence society for the improvement of humankind, retire my baptism, and stay home with the news-paper every Sunday morning…though what it has to say is mostly numbingly old.