First published two years ago (here)
...to win a soul, it is necessary, not only to instruct our hearer, and make him know the truth, but to impress him so that he may feel it. A purely didactic ministry, which should always appeal to the understanding, and should leave the emotions untouched, would certainly be a limping ministry...
I hate to hear the terrors of the Lord proclaimed by men whose hard visages, harsh tones, and unfeeling spirit betray a sort of doctrinal desiccation: all the milk of human kindness is dried out of them. Having no feeling himself, such a preacher creates none, and the people sit and listen while he keeps to dry, lifeless statements, until they come to value him for being "sound", and they themselves come to be sound, too; and I need not add, sound asleep also, or what life they have is spent in sniffing out heresy, and making earnest men offenders for a word. Into this spirit may we never be baptized!
Now I don't think I need to argue that such critique applies to the circles in which I move and which to some degree I represent. In fact to defend against such critique could easily end up proving the accusation! I take it on the chin and it hurts.
But why are we like this?
A thousand reasons - but let me point to something I've been thinking about lately. This is by no means even a major cause of such 'desiccated' 'soundness' but I think it's emblematic of some of our larger problems.
I'll phrase it as a question: Why do we have preaching groups?
By preaching groups I mean circles of preachers (whether professional or novice) who get together to critique one another's talks. As of three weeks ago I'm in one. In fact I lead one, and I've found it a great pleasure thus far, but we should never be afraid of questioning why we do what we do. So why do we have preaching groups?
On one level, we have these groups because fanning into flame God's gifts is something best done within the body. We do it because preaching, while being the word of God, is also a human act, and human acts can be practised and improved upon. We do it because we care about preaching and want to test it against Scripture and its proper Focus in Christ. We do it because standing in the pulpit, 6 feet above contradiction, is a dangerous place for someone to be (especially a young male / recent convert - those who tend to populate the preaching groups I'm thinking about).
Well then, why have I never joined a preaching group until being asked to lead one recently?
One answer: pride. Submitting myself voluntarily to the "pat, pat, stab" critique on a weekly basis was never my idea of fun. I told myself "I'm not sure I fit the mould of what is expected of a sermon and I'm not sure I want to submit to that mould." But perhaps that translates better as "I know best what a good sermon is and aint nobody gonna tell me how to do it." There's definitely a good dollup of that going on.
But then, there are people I'd take critique from. It's never easy I know, but there are some who I would welcome rifling through my sermons to shake 'em up good and proper. But there's something I've never quite trusted about the preaching groups that have been available to me in the past.
Top of the list of things I mistrust has to be this: Preaching for the sake of critique is extremely dangerous ground. (Note well the italicized phrase, I don't want to be misheard here).
I still remember the first time I learned that preaching groups existed in which people wrote talks not for the sake of public worship or their youth group but for the sake of critique within the group. I can remember blinking in total disbelief and asking the person to clarify what he'd said at least 12 times.
The idea of a sermon written for the benefit of 9 other hot-prots with clip-boards and a 21 point check-list makes my head spin. The thought that these groups, run according to this dynamic, would nurture a generation of such preachers gives me cold sweats. Really it does.
Hear me on this. Critique for the sake of preaching is a good and godly thing. Preaching for the sake of critique is treacherous.
I've written elsewhere on preaching itself as the word of God, but if this is the case then there is a spirituality and an authority to preaching that means the forms of critique to which we submit it should be carefully considered.
Imagine, for instance, that the standard of public intercessory praying at your church was pretty poor. Imagine that you decided to do something about it. You invite all those who pray publicly at your church to a few sessions that you're running. Now imagine that these sessions consisted of asking each member to get up and pray out loud using prayers they'd written in advance. We'd listen in, pen in hand, marking the prayers according to a pre-determined criteria. Good idea?
But you say - preaching is not the same. Well, perhaps not exactly. But perhaps it's a lot closer to praying than you think.
I'm rambling really. Let me just list ten dangers for preaching groups off the top of my head. These are dangers mind - they are not inevitable:
- Preaching itself is not considered according to its proper nature - a divine encounter
- With this spiritual nature minimized, the preaching itself takes on a more cerebral tone (see Spurgoen quote)
- The preacher is sorely tempted to preach for critique rather than for the Lord and for the congregation
- The listeners are trained in standing over rather than sitting under the word
- Preachers are taught to pretend that they're communicating to real people (and actually that can be how a lot of live preaching sounds too - could there be a link?)
- Check-lists for critique become old wineskins that will only accommodate old wine
- Therefore we learn to preach according to the check-list
- The audience for the sermon becomes extremely narrow
- Not only is it possible to be unaffected by the word (as we concentrate on its delivery), we can even be trained in such an innoculation. A skill that transfers beyond the preaching group.
- Praise for sermons becomes professionalized and tempered "Thanks, that was helpful."
Can you think of more?
Well what can be done?
Here are some pointers I've given to our group that I'm hoping to emphasize and re-emphasize as we go.
- Make sure you preach what you've prepared to real people. It could be to your sunday school, your spouse, your best friend, I don't care - but preach it to someone who doesn't have a clip-board. And prepare it with that audience in mind. This is non-negotiable. We are not preaching for the sake of critique.
- Let the preacher themselves tell you their criteria. If they say for instance: 'I'm just wanting to highlight a single verse or a single word from this passage', then assess things according to that. Now you can discuss what makes a good criterion at another point - but don't judge people according to check-lists that won't necessarily fit.
- First thing I ask after the sermon is delivered is addressed to the preacher: What spoke to you most from the word in preparation.
- Next thing I ask is to the listeners: what struck you most from the word that's just been proclaimed.
- At that point we discuss how the word has impacted us - we spend time being hearers and receivers of the word
- Only then do we discuss ways that the preacher has blessed us in the particular manner that they brought it home.
- Critique comes in the form of assessing the preacher against their own criteria.
- In the spirit of Spurgeon, both its didactic and its emotional aspects are up for discussion.
- We give praise to God for His word and for His preacher.
- We give praise to the preacher and thank them for how they've blessed us
In an ideal world we'd do all this by watching a video of the talk given in its true setting, but that's often unrealistic.
Now some of you will say - that's what all preaching groups are like, why are you so fearful of them. I don't know. Am I being too cautious about preaching groups?