Jonah PreachingToThe Ninevites by Dore

 I often bemoan the fact that I don’t get comments on the blog section – I get them by email.  And I struck a nerve with the last blog I wrote – All Saints revisited – and 6 degrees of separation – David Strohshein.  I didn’t get much comment on the main theme but one paragraph obviously struck a nerve.  Here it is –

 I have that same feeling that I have work to do and I need to get it done while it is still day, “before the night comes when no one can work”. I don’t know when the race will end but I have the feeling that running the race with perseverance is getting to be more “needful” if that makes sense. I am getting more peeved with shallowness and slovenliness in the ministry and I pray that all ministers of the Gospel will dedicate themselves to excellence, especially in their preaching. Our primary task is to bear witness to Christ and that needs to be done with the utmost of our effort and skill notwithstanding the work of the Holy Spirit of course.

 So the comments, if I can try and categorize them without breaking the 8th commandment can be basically summed up like this – “how dare you criticise preaching and reduce it to our effort and skill when it is the work of the Holy Spirit?”.

Well I did have a “notwithstanding” in there somewhere.  I guess you missed that.  OK I will probably get into more trouble here but I can’t help but wonder why you are in the office then?  If it is the “task” of the Holy Spirit why did a congregation or institution “call” you?  Sometimes we get so theological that we get silly.  There is an obvious human component in the task and call to preach.  If the Holy Spirit does it alone why was God so insistent that Jonah go and do it?  It was an effective message too.  Simple and to the point.  It certainly had very little Gospel in it as near as I can tell.  “Yet 40 days and Ninevahshall be overthrown”.  I think I could have done that without a manuscript.  The point is that God called Jonah to preach and gave him the message and worked through the Spirit to convict and convince.  But Jonah still did the preaching.   We are not arguing about syncretism, or work righteousness, we are talking about giving our best to the one who gave us His all on a cross.

Let’s get serious here for a moment.  Some objected to the words shallowness and slovenliness.  My impression was that they don’t take to the idea of actually trying really hard to be excellent at what we do.  Well then, let’s just start with competent.  When I go to a funeral service for instance, and the Pastor watches the family process in, the music stops, he says the Invocation and then shuffles through his service book for what seems a half an hour looking for the Psalm reading.  I call that slovenly.  He had an entire hymn to get to the right Psalm let alone how ever many days of preparation for this service which in that frame of time and space is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING THAT HE CAN DO!!!

The sermon – a series of disjointed stories about the deceased that lacked a coherent reason for being told and no connection to the Gospel.  We frown on eulogies in our circles.  This wan’t even a eulogy.  This was like a gossip session at a family reunion.  Nice memories but we need the Gospel in this frame and time.  I call that shallow.

A wedding in which Christ was never mentioned and the sermon is a series of funny stories about marriage.  Good comedy.  Reprehensible in what should be a divine service.  I call it slovenly.

I never thought to look to Baptists for preaching tips but I did find an article where a Baptist professor raises some issues that he sees in Evangelical pulpits.  All I ask is that you think about these.  Here is his opening blurb to a series of articles on preaching –

If preaching is central to Christian worship, what kind of preaching are we talking about? The sheer weightlessness of much contemporary preaching is a severe indictment of our superficial Christianity. When the pulpit ministry lacks substance, the church is severed from the word of God, and its health and faithfulness are immediately diminished. 

1. A Loss of Confidence in the Power of the Word.

Contemporary Americans are surrounded by more words than any previous generation in human history. We are bombarded with words delivered to us in every conceivable form–sung, broadcast, electrified, printed, and spoken. Words have been digitalized, commercialized, and subjected to postmodern linguistic theories.

Taken together, all this amounts to a significant loss of confidence in the word as written and spoken. Several years ago, the photographer Richard Avedon declared that “images are fast replacing words as our primary language.”

This certainly appears to be the case. In The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word, author Mitchell Stephens of New York University argues that “the image is replacing the word as the predominant means of mental transport.”

Since preaching is itself a form of “mental transport,” any loss of confidence in the word leads to a loss of confidence in preaching. Ultimately, preaching will cease to be Christian preaching if the preacher loses confidence in the authority of the Bible as the Word of God and in the power of the spoken word to communicate the saving and transforming message of the Bible. The preacher must stand up and speak with confidence, declaring the Word of God to a congregation that is bombarded with hundreds of thousands of words each week, many of them delivered with a soundtrack or moving images. The audacious claim of Christian preaching is that the faithful declaration of the Word of God, spoken through the preacher’s voice, is even more powerful than anything music or image can deliver.

2. An Infatuation With Technology

Jacques Ellul was truly prophetic when he pointed to the rise of technology and technique as one of the greatest challenges to Christian faithfulness in our times. We live in a day of technological hubris and the ubiquity of technological assistance. We are engaged in few tasks, physical or mental, which are now unassisted by some form of technology.

For most of us, the use of these technologies comes with little attentiveness to how the technology reshapes the task and the experience. The same is true for preachers who have rushed to incorporate visual technology and media in the preaching event.

The effort is no doubt well intended, driven by a missiological concern to reach persons whose primary form of “mental transport” has become visual. Thus, preachers use clips from films, dynamic graphics, and other eye-catching technologies to gain and hold the congregation’s attention.

The danger of this approach is seen in the fact that the visual very quickly overcomes the verbal. Beyond this, the visual is often directed towards a very narrow slice of human experience, particularly focused on the affective and emotional aspects of our perception. Movies move us by the skillful manipulation of emotion, driven by soundtrack and manipulated by skillful directing techniques.

This is exactly where the preacher must not go. The power of the Word of God, spoken through the human voice, is seen in the Bible’s unique power to penetrate all dimensions of the human personality. As God made clear, even in the Ten Commandments, He has chosen to be heard and not seen. The use of visual technologies threatens to confuse this basic fact of biblical faith.

3. An Embarrassment Before the Biblical Text

Through the experience of hearing innumerable sermons from evangelical preachers, I note the tendency of some to appear rather embarrassed before the biblical text. The persistent attacks upon biblical authority and the sensitivities of our times have taken a toll on the preacher’s confidence in the actual text of the Bible.

On the theological left, the answer is quite simple–just discard the text and write it off as patriarchal, oppressive, and completely unacceptable in light of an updated concept of God.

Among evangelicals, we can be thankful that fewer preachers are willing to dismiss or discard the text as sub-biblical or warped by ancient prejudices. Instead, many of these preachers simply disregard and ignore vast sections of Scripture, focusing instead on texts that are more comfortable, palatable, and nonconfrontational to the modern mind. This is a form of pastoral neglect and malpractice, corrected only by a comprehensive embrace of the Bible–all of it–as the inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God. All of it is for our good.

4. An Evacuation of Biblical Content

The last point was concerned with passages of Scripture that are never preached–but what about the texts that are preached? Are today’s preachers actually studying for the content of the passage? In far too many cases, it seems that the text becomes a point of departure for some message–no doubt well intended–which the pastor wishes to share with the congregation. Beyond this, the text of Scripture is often evacuated of biblical content when, regardless of a passage’s textual form or context, the content is uniformly presented as a set of pithy “points” that come together in a staple outline form.

Every text does have a point, of course. The preacher’s main concern should be to communicate that central truth, and design the sermon to serve that overarching purpose. Furthermore, the content of the passage is to be applied to life–but application must be determined by exposition, not vice versa.

Another problem that leads to an evacuation of biblical content is a loss of the “big picture” of Scripture. Far too many preachers give inadequate attention to the canonical context of the passage to be preached and of its place in the overarching story of God’s purpose to glorify Himself through the redemption of sinners. Taken out of context, and without clear attention to biblical theology, preaching becomes a series of disconnected talks on disconnected texts. This falls far short of the glory of true biblical preaching.

5. An Absence of Gospel

The preaching of the apostles always presented the kerygma–the heart of the gospel. The clear presentation of the Gospel must be a part of the sermon, no matter the text. As Charles Spurgeon expressed this so eloquently, preach the Word, place it in its canonical context, and “make a bee-line to the cross.”

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In this last point the writer makes is the point our own esteemed President makes – often.  Matthew Harrison has written –

Hermann Sasse put his finger on a perennial weakness in our preaching. The sermon is not mere information. The preacher must dare to speak the biblical “you!” in both Law and Gospel. “You killed the Lord of glory!” “Your righteous deeds are as filthy rags.” “You are the man!” (Nathan to David).

And the Gospel is proclaimed the same way: “Today is born for you a Savior.” “Your sins are forgiven.” “You are raised with Him in Baptism.” “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

So to all the dear brothers that wrote emails to me – do you like the words “perennial weakness” better than “shallow” and “slovenly”?