December 15, 2017

Mondays with Michael Spencer: February 1, 2016

Photo by David Cornwell

Photo by David Cornwell

This is part three in a series of iMonk posts that Michael wrote back in 2006. We have edited them and now present them each Monday. His 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
Part 2: The sermon’s boring

• • •

What’s wrong with the sermon?
(3) The sermon — I don’t understand it

This post is not about people whose communication skills are too poor to get the job done. If you are ignorant, or mumble or can’t get a talk organized in any sort of comprehensible way, the road for you is clear and striaght ahead: Get to work improving your skills. Take a class in communication or speech. Get mentored. These obvious problems can be addressed relatively simply if you have the humility to admit you need work.

We’re going to go a different direction.

The longer I preach, the more I am convinced that preachers operate in two “rings” of comprehension.

The first ring includes those familiar with evangelical language, dialects and rules of communication. These are the people who understand preachers because they know the Bible, the vocabulary and the methods of communication we typically equate with preaching. Most of us who are sitting in church listening to sermons are in this circle.

The other circle is everyone else. They listen to the same sermons and in many, many cases they have no idea what the preacher is talking about.

They don’t know the Bible. They don’t know the in-words. They don’t know the unspoken assumptions. They don’t buy into all the intellectual shortcuts. They don’t buy into the universe of answers that the inner circle takes for granted.

This audience–often young people and the chronically unchurched–are truly puzzled by what they are hearing. What sounds familiar and important to us sounds silly, confusing, even bizarre to them.

It’s at this point that something interesting happens. A bold response arises in regard to those who do not understand.

All over America, there are young “preachers” doing talks that those of us who are “trained” and “prepared” preachers find amateurish, informal and inadequate. Some of them are theologically rough around the edges, or worse. It doesn’t sound like preaching. Some embrace the label preaching for “talks.” It grates on our nerves, and it bothers us because these preachers seem to be implying that the way the rest of us are preaching doesn’t make it across the communication divide between the two rings.

They may be right, by the way.

These young preachers have shifted almost totally to the outer ring, and have largely left the inner ring on their own. Often they explain this as their purpose, but sometimes you simply have to figure out what is happening. They are attempting to communicate the Gospel in a way that deconstructs the whole idea of preaching to exclude “inside” communication and to take great pains to communicate simple and practical lessons to the unchurched. It feels, to many Christians, like “baby steps” all the time, and they don’t care for it.

Now I am not claiming that these preachers are succeeding. I think the results are a very mixed bag that depends on a lot of factors I can’t address here. What I am going to commend is a shift in thinking away from only being comprehensible to a smaller and smaller group of insiders–an approach that really is more about teaching and discipling than about proclamation anyway–to an approach that seeks to speak as directly to the non-believer, non-“insider,” as possible.

America and the West are becoming a mission field. These young preachers understand this, and we need to pay attention to that insight before we decide they are all betrayers of what is true and important (which some may be.)

Watching and listening to this shift has caused me to ask very hard questions about my own preaching. I preach to hundreds of unbelievers. I am very conscious of the fact that if I do a typical sermon from my own Southern Baptist tradition, the kind that all the Christians will like, I will be incomprehensible to many of my students. At times, I have sat with the students, listened to guest preachers, and tried to hear the message as a complete outsider would hear it.

The results are sobering. We really do speak in a total environment of incomprehension for many people. So much is assumed. So much is unexplained. So many of the questions, answers, stories and difficulties are assumed or ignored. While we are talking about Christian beliefs that we all take for granted, many are hearing a completely mysterious, unknown, almost bizarrely irrelevant presentation.

Now this raises clear choices.

Geth St FrancisFor some, the mandate is plain: be understood at all costs. No matter what must happen, what must change or what must be done, communication with the unchurched audience is the priority. Into this option we could list all kinds of creative and catchy tools that turn sermons into “talks” about “principles” and “lessons.” Grabbing and holding attention is a preeminent concern. Simplicity and practicality are unsurpassed qualities. The Gospel? Well…..we may have a problem there.

For many, this appears to be an abandonment of the sermon as the church’s unique proclamation and a surrender to the culture. The content of the Gospel seems to be perilously and cavalierly at risk in this approach. The end result often seems to be unrecognizable as Christian preaching. These are real concerns, and I don’t have a problem with anyone who is critical of the risk some young preachers are taking.

This deconstruction of preaching in the name of communication is an important challenge. It doesn’t just want to come out from behind the pulpit. In many ways it wants to eliminate the pulpit, and even the church building itself. It is a deconstruction and rebirthing of preaching and the context of communication that seems perilously uninterested in the “great preachers” of the past, and very interested in emulating secular models of communication from advertising to MTV.

On the other hand, many traditional preachers respond to this same challenge by not only getting back behind the pulpit, but elevating it to new levels. There is a call for a return to classic, theologically driven preaching aimed squarely at the church and not at the unbeliever. It is not unusual to hear advocates of this approach make absolute statements: only exposition is real preaching; large amounts of scripture should be used; an advanced theological vocabulary is to be used in order to precisely describe Biblical truth; systematic theology should never be avoided.

The idea here is to make the church’s communication centered on the preservation of the Gospel and not on communication with those in the “outer ring.” The results, in my opinion, may be very good and necessary for the church, but there is a real danger here as well:  abandoning the missional nature of the church. The church of Jesus is a cross-cultural movement. To stop and entrench our communication with those who already understand the Gospel is to take the path of the Pharisees, and not the path of Jesus.

Jesus is the key to this dilemma. And it is on Jesus that my advice for preachers will center.

How can our sermons communicate the Gospel more clearly?

1) We must be clear about the Gospel itself, in all its aspects.

2) Preparation and study of Christian theology and Biblical exposition is crucial.

3) The key point for preaching, however, is not the mastery of theological categories, but mastery of the Bible as literature/story.

4) I can affirm the efforts of recent communicators to speak clearly to the unbeliever. I believe this is what Jesus did, and what he models for his followers to do.

5) Jesus’ use of parables and explanation of those parables to his disciples sets an interesting and exciting model.

6) This suggests to me that a Jesus-style preacher will be able to go to various levels of communication, being aware of all different audiences.

7) There is good reason to believe that the Bible itself challenges us to do communication in a flowing, lively process that begins with basic illustration and story, then moves on to more explicit explanation and teaching. The goal is not to just speak to one kind of person, but to move all persons through a process of “basics on up.” This takes time and preparation, but it allows both seeker-sensitive creativity, and serious application to be “OK.”

8) This means that the preacher may be using provocative and non-traditional approaches at one point, and then more “inside” explanations and teaching at another, all the while connecting these methods together.

I think it is important for us to remember that the message of Jesus never comes with an age-specific or culture-specific label. We are communicators to everyone! An expositional preacher who never goes “down” to the level of the unbeliever has failed. An evangelist who never goes into depths on questions of Christology or application has failed as well.

We cannot take full responsibility for the complete comprehension of all who hear us preach. The Holy Spirit’s work is illumination and regeneration. Comprehension is an important matter, but God does amazing things with all our less than perfect communications.

The crucial ingredient is genuine love for people and genuine passion for God and the Gospel. That love then spurs us to work hard at the business of communicating like Jesus. We don’t “dead end” into doing what feels safe or right for us. We look at the sheep in front of us, and we bring all our abilities to the work of showing them the Great Shepherd.

Comments

  1. I assume this means don’t use the word “bifurcated” when trying to preach the Good News of the gospel…?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      I will take a stand behind “bifurcated” as a mainstream word with a clear meaning. I am willing to be a signatory for the In Defense Of “Bifurcated” (IDOB!) coalition.

      Others appear to despise the term.

      Sentiments regarding the term “bifurcated” appear to be … bifurcated?

    • Bifurcated… I’ve only heard it used when talking about rivers and britches on women.

  2. many traditional preachers respond to this same challenge by not only getting back behind the pulpit, but elevating it to new levels… The idea here is to make the church’s communication centered on the preservation of the Gospel and not on communication with those in the “outer ring.” The results, in my opinion, may be very good and necessary for the church, but there is a real danger here as well: abandoning the missional nature of the church. The church of Jesus is a cross-cultural movement. To stop and entrench our communication with those who already understand the Gospel is to take the path of the Pharisees, and not the path of Jesus.

    I saw this in action far too many times. Not only is communication with the unchurched lost, but far too often the more challenging aspects of the Gospel itself were pushed to the background. I heard many many sermons on the theology of justification in Paul, but damned few on Jesus’ call to sell all we have and give to the poor…

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      “””but damned few on Jesus’ call to sell all we have and give to the poor…”””

      Heh. I have heard that sermon exactly once.

      I recall it specifically, as I was blown away, not in small part just by the preacher’s courage. And when several of the students from the college-age oriented ministry I helped lead wanted to meet with the [guest] pastor and know what they could actually do – not a response I would have expected. And how our [resident] southern-baptist-background pastor was visibly uncomfortable about the situation. The follow on from the sermon was effectively squelched – the church had neither the infrastructure nor appetite for such radical ‘nonsense’. But the experience of witnessing people’s response has stuck with me as much as the sermon – I had anticipated people would vociferously berate such a messager. Instead it fell to the pastoral class to moderate and dissipate the message before any damage could be done.

      On my darker days, remembering that experience, I think of The Gospel as the Uranium-235 and Pastors as the lead and graphite rods used in the core to keep the reaction from becoming too excited […. BUT just excited enough, so they still get paid]. We have become adept at having just enough religion, but not too much. A Mission Of Moderation is …. just boring. Might explain a few trends.

      My advice to pastors concerning sermons is simple: grow a pair.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Instead it fell to the pastoral class to moderate and dissipate the message before any damage could be done.

        As they say in Dune, “The $pice Must Flow.”

      • At the local kitchen I volunteer at, the mix of young to old is 75/25. And it’s not a Christian organization. Maybe that’s what the dones and nones are looking for, actual faith in action.

    • I heard many many sermons on the theology of justification in Paul, but damned few on Jesus’ call to sell all we have and give to the poor…

      That “counsel of perfection” is only meant for monks and nuns, who have a special vocation and have taken vows of poverty; the rest of us, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox alike, don’t need to worry much about it, so why should the priest/pastor preach on it? (SARCASM ALERT)

      • I mean, in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy the severity and full force of this text (and others, for instance, in the Sermon on the Mount) is said to apply only to those with a special vocation, who are called to take a vow of poverty in response; in classic Reformation theology, the severity of the demand of this text (and others, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount) is said to be met by the theology of justification. In Roman Catholicism, when the text is taken seriously, it is as a call to a select few to enter the monastic life; in Protestant churches, when the text is taken seriously, it is to show how impossible it is to meet the demands of the law, and how therefore how central justification is to the Christian. In neither case is the text understood to be a demand on the lives of all Christians, that can be met by all Christians, or as a goal for all Christians. Why then would you expect it to be the focus of many sermons, except if they are being delivered in a monastery?

        • No need to preach it in a monastery – they *already* got that message. 😉

          • Exactly!

          • Christiane says:

            oh, I think that the monks, above all people, probably understand how important it is to ‘die to self daily’, so for them to experience that particular sermon in the monastery is more of an affirmation of the calling they said ‘yes’ to rather than a ‘repetition’ of a one-time thing . . . monks struggle daily . . . we can know this from the honest humanity expressed within the writings of Thomas Merton . . . and yet they have peace and I’m not sure you can have one without the other in this life no matter what your calling is

        • Robert,
          you are wrong about this with regard to EO. I have never heard a sermon or read any other instruction, ancient or modern, that indicates the belief that this text or the SOM or anything else doesn’t apply to everyone. Everyone, monastic or not, is on the same path; monastics walk it in a different way than everyone else, that’s all. There are some people who put monastics on a pedestal, but that’s not the monastics’ fault – the vast majority of Orthodox monastics take great pains to not call attention to themselves. All of us are called to the same end: union with God, and Sainthood.

          Lent is coming up, and we will hear a lot about how if we fast only, and don’t pray and give alms/do active good for those in need, our fasting is worthless – “the fast of demons.” We hear it all through the year as well, not just at Lent – whenever a Gospel is read on the topic. The priests in my church give homilies on the scripture readings of the day, not “topical sermons.”

          Dana

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I heard many many sermons on the theology of justification in Paul, but damned few on Jesus’ call to sell all we have and give to the poor…

      Because Abstract Theology (i.e. Theoretical Ideology) doesn’t hit you in the wallet.

      Intellectual Assent is a lot cheaper than putting your MONEY where your mouth is.

    • Went down the wiki rabbit hole (see Robert F, reverting back to my depression/emptiness!) looking at Moody, Fanny, Ira, Holiness movement, missions, etc. Struck by how many in the inner city seemed to have a focus on the poor, the needy, and their working for or founding missions and flophouses and whatever else. That’s the type of stuff in Christianity that keeps me holding on, especially when I see modern believers like Bono carrying on that spirit. Maybe it’s a city thing, the country doesn’t really have those needs or focus…nor do the suburbs except in “pack and ship” type relief.

      I applaud all those 19th/20th century types who did all that. Even if nefariously at times, preach to them before feeding them. Too bad their theology was utterly horrendous far too often. Holiness and perfection are the enemies of Christianity.

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    > abandoning the missional nature of the church. The church of Jesus is a cross-cultural movement.

    But is a local church a cross-cultural nexus? Some might be, but the majority? Advice applicable to all is a nearly impossible goal – but by the numbers the majority of pastors are speaking to small, diminishing, and aging, congregations; day by day most churches become even more mono-cultural. The most relevant question, IMO, is if the pastor is speaking truthfully to the audience he has.

    > To stop and entrench our communication with those who already understand the
    > Gospel is to take the path of the Pharisees,

    I don’t know. Are those other people in the church to hear the sermon? I have mixed feelings about this. Mostly I believe the Pastor should be speaking to his people – the people he knows, the culture he knows. How many truly have the skills and knowledge to do otherwise? Aside from dropping in some pop-culture references [and often very badly]. In my experience pastors often fail to Proclaim even to their own, who share his vernacular. This is a tough question, and it becomes more difficult every day, as the distinction between those within and those outside grows larger.

    • the majority of pastors are speaking to small, diminishing, and aging, congregations; day by day most churches become even more mono-cultural.

      That is true. It is also an indicator that the churches are failing at their calling.

      Mostly I believe the Pastor should be speaking to his people – the people he knows, the culture he knows.

      Again, true. But (s)he should be speaking to them to tell them that God wants them to *change their culture* – to welcome the stranger, give to the poor, forgo power and privilege and be servants, and to celebrate the person and work of Christ. IOW, to have the true fruits of good Christian theology. Reinforcing a shrinking, dying demographic/culture may be more comfortable than change – but it is also the path to extinction.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > churches are failing at their calling

        Which is what, exactly? This question is the nut of the problem IMO. If the calling is to preach – they are doing that.

        > God wants them to *change their culture*

        That message gets a whole lot of air-time. But it is very rarely in the sense of “welcome the stranger, give to the poor, forgo power and privilege, ….” Now with the rise of ideas like the Benedict Option it appears to be morphing into an isolationist we’ll-take-our-ball-and-go-home attitude [although it remains unclear where that is or will be].

        Do you have hope the American church can find its way back to such a message in any large measure? I can’t see it. Which is sad; I encounter a lot of hunger for that message.

        “Change” becomes Culture War so easy.

        From where it is now the church would be better off with a message of just “be less of a jerk”. Set the bar very low. I like the initiative a couple churches have: learn the names of your adjacent neighbors [geographically]. Show of hands in a room as to who knows the names of their neighbors… it is really sad. That is all, a start, learn someones name. Do not preach to them. Just learn their name. Wow. How did we get here [ok, I know the answer to that question, but still… Wow].

        > Reinforcing a shrinking, dying demographic/culture may be more comfortable than change

        Comfortable perhaps, but depressing, and anxiety producing. I place a healthy portion of the cultural anger and angst we see around us at the feet of functionally illiterate and – bluntly – cowardly pastors [if not cowardly, at least unreflective, which is kinda their job].

        • If the calling is to preach – they are doing that.

          Is preaching an end unto itself? Or is it meant to shape and guide the development of the congregation?

          Do you have hope the American church can find its way back to such a message in any large measure?

          On a large scale? No. But who knows? He may have one last surprise for us here in North America. However, I would prudently suggest that it is more likely that this message will remain as it has here thus far – the province of a small remnant. My suggestion is, try to be that remnant.

          I place a healthy portion of the cultural anger and angst we see around us at the feet of functionally illiterate and – bluntly – cowardly pastors

          Just leave enough room for the maddening crowds who want their message of peace and prosperity untempered with uncomfortable truths. I saw a good pastor go up against an elderly, upper-class gentrifying congregation with the message that they had to change or slowly die. They broke him. Literally. Within two years, he was so burned out he filed for a transfer.

        • *change their culture*

          You ever spend time going down the wiki rabbit hole of late christian history? modernism/fundamentalism, the holiness divides, perfectionism, etc. Grace vs Law. Over and over, there seems to be two sides: those who want to change, and those who don’t. Today’s Culture War warriors are really no different than those Holiness types, and they will endlessly fight and divide amongst themselves. It’s stupid, they were sitting there fine tuning the Law, while neglecting the actual Grace of doing things for others. And the ones with that Grace, out doing things…they were kinda kooky, unfortunately.

          History is fun. And repetitive.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Again, true. But (s)he should be speaking to them to tell them that God wants them to *change their culture* – to welcome the stranger, give to the poor, forgo power and privilege and be servants, and to celebrate the person and work of Christ.

        Problem is, “Change the Culture” now means none of those things — only Take Political Power, Take Back America, and Build a REAL Christian Nation cleansed of homosexuals, abortion, homosexuals, evolution, homosexuals, with prayer in every school and everyone in church every Sunday and studying Barton’s history at gunpoint if necessary. (Kind of like what the Ayatollahs did to Iran, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!)

  4. There is a question behind Michael’s post that is left unanswered. What is the purpose of a Sunday morning gathering? Sunday morning is the main focus for the majority of preachers, even those who might preach or teach two or three other times a week. Is the main focus to reach outsiders, or is it for worship and proclaiming the word to the body of Christ? Many churches consider Sunday morning to be their main evangelism time, the time to reach outsiders. Personally I think this is a mistake. The main evangelism time should be the rest of the week when we are out in the world, as we preach the gospel in the way we live and in the words we speak. But when believers have purposefully gathered together, that is the time for corporate worship, and the sacraments, and proclaiming the word. It should be expected there will be insider language, as there would be in any group of people who share a common interest, belief, work, or cause. Sermons should never be unnecessarily confusing, but it should be geared towards the purpose or the people it is being made for.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Agree. The proclaiming is different to the insiders than it is to the one outside. If the pastor cannot assume some level of theological baseline of someone in his congregation then something is wrong.

      A church service is not an outreach event.

      • I’ve had that discussion with my pastor—the question of “who is my audience?”—is it the seeker, or the believer? His answer was “Yes!”

        It’s a difficult sermon to preach. I’ve often thought that a preacher might reach the seeker as effectively if he assumes that all are believers. However, as Michael pointed out, the over-use of evangelical jargon or theological technicalities would be too much, even for believers. A lot of evangelicalspeak is merely inbred, meaningless, in-a-bubble jargon and should be exposed and edited.

        • “Yes!” seems like a good answer.

          • I thought so too.

            One of the deacons who occasionally fills in for the pastor has yet another audience: the outright atheist. His sermons always try to “prove” the very existence of God through popular astrophysics, popular microbiology, the human eye, etc. He gets pretty animated.

            Well, most of us already believe in at least that much. I assume that everyone in the congregation at least believes in the existence of God, that he created the heavens and the earth. So we do need to get beyond that in our sermons.

          • Maybe he’s trying to convince himself!

    • –> “There is a question behind Michael’s post that is left unanswered. What is the purpose of a Sunday morning gathering?”

      This is worthy of a whole article! Write it, CM!

      I tend to think that a worship service is just that: to worship. It follows, then, that most worship services should be geared to the believer who steps in to worship our Lord and Savior.

      That said…we already KNOW the Lord as Savior. However, what about the non-believers or wobbly Christians who step into a service (and we know there are plenty that do)? It does seem that some elements of a worship service SHOULD be geared toward proclaiming the Good News in a way that makes sense to them, and perhaps that’s best done in a sermon.

        • Thanks! (And if I’m reading it correctly, it’s all pretty much geared toward the believer.)

          • Yes, but always hospitable and accessible to guests.

          • Of course! (And I’m with you…I tend to think most services and a vast majority of a service should be geared toward the believer. “We are here to worship the Lord God Almighty and Jesus Christ our Savior” is, to me, what it’s all about.)

          • Are all guests invited to the Meal, or must they meet certain standards first? Baptism, for instance? If so, then not everything done during worship is accessible to guests, nor are they welcome to everything.

          • Important question, Robert.

      • I suppose I’m one of those who will continually crave the “milk” of the Gospel. I am a sinner–that is apparent in almost every interaction I have and almost any activity I undertake; The Accuser has no need to look far in my life to find examples of weakness and depravity, enough of such to convince me that I am not a beloved child of the Father but instead that I am hopeless and lost. I need to hear the Gospel every single week, no, every single day–that I am saved by grace through faith in the death and resurrection of my faithful Lord and Savior Jesus Christ because of the love my heavenly Father has for me.

        The Gospel is not a message that is just for non-believers; the Gospel is a message that is for all people, believers and non-believers alike. Yes, there is a time to “go deeper”, to eat “solid food” but any worship service they does not proclaim the same message that Peter proclaimed on Pentecost is not worthy of the name. There is no reason a sermon cannot do both. I like milk with my meals. 🙂 See this classic post by Michael:

        http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/imonk-classic-on-christless-preaching

        And just as an aside, though along related lines–I didn’t get a chance to participate in yesterday’s discussion but wanted to let you all know how encouraging it was to me. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you want to view it), I got more from reading the post and your comments than from the service.

        • That’s a great article right there. Thanks for pointing to it. I miss Michael. What a great talent.

        • Certainly speaking to believers doesn’t mean we don’t communicate the gospel. But the point I was addressing is insider language. So to speak of having my sins washed away, being reconciled to God, being adopted as a child of God, having been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light; this is all gospel, this is also all insider language. Some of it is probably easily understandable to an outsider, some of it maybe not. But we need it, and the church shouldn’t be denied it just because there maybe someone in the congregation doesn’t understand it.

          • “Certainly speaking to believers doesn’t mean we don’t communicate the gospel.”

            I get you, Jon, but all too often it seems the Gospel is not communicated at all, to either believers or non-believers, using insider language or not. It’s somewhat unspoken but the Gospel, at least from a sermon standpoint, is something we should all know and not have to reiterate. Kind of like in mathematics when studying algebra you’re expected to know the multiplication tables–there’s no need to revisit them.

            At least, that has been my experience as of late.

  5. Also, at least according to the gospels, Jesus didn’t tell the parables for reaching outsiders. If they were told because they were easy to understand, the disciples wouldn’t have had to ask him what they meant.

    • Well, what he seems to do is tell stories to the masses (at least on occasion), then pulls his disciples aside and explains them. So I think it’s a little of both…maybe…?

      • Well then we have to explain this: Matthew 13:10-13 10 ¶ Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    The first ring includes those familiar with evangelical language, dialects and rules of communication. These are the people who understand preachers because they know the Bible, the vocabulary and the methods of communication we typically equate with preaching. Most of us who are sitting in church listening to sermons are in this circle.

    i.e. Those already fluent in Christianese.

  7. Michael mentioned the expositional, or expository, sermon—that some preachers insist that this is the only proper way to preach.

    Question: are there truly any expositional sermons? Or they all really topical, and manipulated to look expositional?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Upon reflection, I find myself puzzled by the question.

      Expositional: A statement or rhetorical discourse intended to give information about or an explanation of difficult material.

      In what way is any sermon *not* exposition? Unless it discusses nothing. I assume the meaning is Exposition Of A Specific Scriptural Passage; which, yes, that seems a dominant form – and a constraining one [although the counter argument may be that such a constraint is exactly the point].

      But a Proclamation Of The Gospel is most certainly a form of Exposition. The Gospel overall is a difficult, and often frustrating, collection of texts. I would hope that a Pastor, for whom The Gospel is a full time profession can expose its meanings; otherwise what is he doing? I would hope the Overall is his focus – how to bring it all together – as that is the struggle. Any novice intellectual can disassemble, cross reference, and contextualize an individual passage; ever taught a bible study filled with freshman seminarians? Oy vey!

      • OK, so by that definition all sermons are expositional. Yet aren’t they all topical too, the topics arriving from the preacher’s interpretation?

        As Michael mentioned, some preachers insist only on “expositional.” Walt Kaiser, a past president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, used to say that he advises his students to preach topically about once every five years—and then to repent immediately. Well, Walt knew what he was doing, so yeah. But others? Others aren’t so capable.

        To many people, “expositional” means to exegete the text, to “get out of” scripture the “plain meaning” of it from cross-referencing, theological points, cultural and historical understanding, etc, and preach what the prophet or apostle meant to say, to our understanding, and above all what God meant for them and for us.

        Alas, I fear it ain’t always the case. The “plain meaning” will be different to me than to another.

        If we preach on a chapter, or on a bunch of verses, we tend to see those verses from our own theology, from our own culture, our own education and economic class. If we’ve been to Israel (I have not) we’ll see the bible in such a way. If we’ve been on mission trips (I have) we’ll see the bible in other ways. If we live in a city, or on a farm, etc, we’ll understand differently (a farmer may understand the sheep references better than a stock broker, for example), and we’ll preach from those perspectives. Now, that may all be good and helpful, introducing new perspectives to our understanding. But it may not be truly expositional, and for some to insist that expositional is the only way to go seems a bit of snobbery (sorry, Walt, I don’t mean you).

        Then there’s the bible itself. Are there any expositional sermons there? What Jesus preached seems pretty topical.

        Sorry. I’m fending off a 9 Marks trend in our church. “Expositional preaching” is the first of Mark Dever’s 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, the rest being “biblical” this, “biblical” that (understanding of theology, of evangelism, of church discipline, of conversion, of membership, etc etc)—but who defines “biblical?” And who defines “plain meaning,” which drives “expositional” preaching? There’s a whole lot of the preacher himself in there, and that makes it topical.

    • Or they all really topical, and manipulated to look expositional?

      Like when a church needs a building program they trot out Nehemiah.

      Or when a pastor wants his wife to put out more the church starts studying Song of Solomon.

      Or if you want to scare up some support and higher numbers, preach Daniel.

      And if the congregation ain’t coughing up the dough, go through Jonah.

      But if you are bored and binging X-Files and wanna just pontificate, Joel is your go to.

      If booksales are low or you need to earn another degree, Luke is a good start.

      And sometimes the controversial truth needs to be preached, so start with Genesis.

      In a pinch during women’s ministry you can turn to Ruth.

  8. David Cornwell says:

    Pastors should use the simplest language possible. The most eloquent sermons I’ve heard have used language that is easy to understand. If a theological term is used, then it should be explained. The sacraments also need explanation, concisely, simply, and repeated often. A pastor who gets out with his/her people will know how to speak to them.

    If a pastor only understands the Christian faith in a professional language he/she does not need to be a pastor.

    • David — Beautiful photograph! Thank you!

    • Thumbs up, David, on the simple language. It’s a lot harder than using ten dollar words, you have to understand what you’re talking about.

      Thumbs up as well on your photo. Looks much like the little church I attended the last year and a half which is now in the process of shutting down with not enough people. Alas, time marches on.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Pastors should use the simplest language possible. The most eloquent sermons I’ve heard have used language that is easy to understand.

      The French have a word for this: vulgarization = explaining complex subjects in terms understandable to everyone. Steven Jay Gould was the master of this in his collected essays for Natural History Magazine.

      • Yes. Steven Jay Gould was a master communicator. I thoroughly enjoyed his essays and several of his books.

    • David Cornwell says:

      To explain myself a little further. I do not mean to explain only in a rationalistic way, systematic, way, but in language that evokes both understanding and mystery. Many things are beyond full human understanding. The same is true when talking about the sacraments. Simple terminology that does not over-explain and leaves mystery. When a pastor/priest works at this, I truly believe there will be positive result over period of time.

      William Willimon is good at this. He is unusual in that he does not give a conclusion, but to the surprise of everyone, leaves it somewhat in the air. Plus his sermons are short. And I’m sure that there are others.

  9. Michael is specifically talking about an Evangelical problem. You can observe this problem for yourself in five seconds by walking into any Evangelical church, full or empty. What’s that in the center of the stage? It’s a pulpit. There’s your problem in a nutshell. As Michael points out, preaching doesn’t mean teaching, it means proclaiming, but in reality for most people it still means teaching, and there’s nothing wrong with a separate session for teaching or study. In Liturgical churches the pulpit is off to the side and the Bread and Wine are in the middle. That seems like a step in the right direction for me, but obviously not for everyone, and in any case Liturgical churches can still have problem sermons. I may be in the process of solving this by attending a gathering of Friends once daylight extends further into the evening. But that still leaves the problem for most.

    Michael doesn’t mention homilies, it’s off his radar. Homilies sidestep the whole problem, or should. I’m increasingly losing patience with sermons and religious language in general. The reading of scripture according to the schedule of a lectionary seems to me to be a worthwhile feature we kept from Jewish synagogue services. It calls for a short homily, or words tying the scriptures together in people’s minds, and hopefully leaving them feeling better than when they walked in the door, maybe even with a better understanding. Last week we discussed a homily that Jesus gave which almost got him killed, but that doesn’t seem good to do every week.

    Michael speaks of churches as a two ring circus, insiders and outsiders, and he also touches on young people as being outsiders, but this is in a special circumstance of a school. Ideally a church would have all ages in attendance, and ideally a homily would be clear enough for an interested, intelligent seven year old kid to understand and not exceed their attention span, while still speaking to all, including me. Ideally the time saved in not having a half hour lecture would let the pastor stay up front at the end of the service to answer any questions or deal with concerns and problems, like what does bifurcation mean. Dream on.

    As Michael points out,

  10. This reminds me of a passage from an article that I think applies to sermon preaching/theology just as much teaching any subject like science (just google “How to Use the Feynman Technique to Identify Pseudoscience” and it’s the first article that comes up):
    ——–
    In a lecture given by Richard Feynman in 1966, the influential theoretical physicist told a story about the difference between knowing the name for something and truly understanding it:

    “This boy said to me, ‘See that bird standing on the stump there? What’s the name of it?’ I said, ‘I haven’t got the slightest idea.’ He said, ‘It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you much about science.’

    I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that [the name] doesn’t tell me anything about the bird. He taught me ‘See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halsenflugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird — you only know something about people; what they call that bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way,’ and so forth. There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.

    The result of this is that I cannot remember anybody’s name, and when people discuss physics with me they often are exasperated when they say, ‘the Fitz-Cronin effect,’ and I ask, ‘What is the effect?’ and I can’t remember the name.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that [the name] doesn’t tell me anything about the bird. He taught me ‘See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halsenflugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird — you only know something about people; what they call that bird.

      Kind of a “Name it and Claim It”?

      And Feynman was a real hoot. When he worked on The Manhattan Project, he was known as “Feynman the Safecracker” for his prank of figuring out combination locks, getting into the file cabinets, and leaving prank messages. There was even a graphic novel about him and similar little-known science types (mostly nuclear and quantum physics) some years ago titled Two-Fisted Science.

    • I feel much better about not knowing what certain things are called in my own profession now.

    • Relevant quote:

      “I had rather feel contrition, than know the definition thereof.”

      -Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

  11. David Cornwell says:

    Here is a link to a full size view of the photograph at the top of the page. It may take a moment for the picture to come into focus:

    http://Holy Cross Church

    Hopefully this link does its stuff.