Skip to content

About 10 years ago I wound up in the office of a Christian counsellor.  I couldn't believe I was about to confess to depression.  Me, a church worker!  Me, conservative evangelicalisms next big thing!

The cause?  Several very stressful things were happening in my life, but the tipping point into depression was a frustration with the gospel that was being preached around me.  And I fell flat on my face in despondency.

My counsellor took me to Jeremiah 2:13 and said (very graciously) I'd been digging some kind of broken well which had dried up.  Now I was slumped at this false life-source with a mouth full of mud.  He asked what the broken well might be.  In an instant I knew: "I need everyone to read the bible the same way I do".  Not for the glory of Jesus, but to be right!

I asked "What should I do?"  He said, "Give up on it and turn back to Jesus."  As soon as he said "Give up on it" my whole flesh rose up and said "Never!"  Instantly I knew that this idol had its hooks in me.  And it shocked me.

My theological paradigm had become my god.  And it was so subtle.  Because here's the thing: I prided myself on the fact that my paradigm was uniquely Christ-centred.

But when I identified the pride issue a weight fell off my shoulders.  The issue was not the idiots out there, the issue was the arrogance in here.  I'd been thinking of it as a complicated issue of theological debate with no way through.  In fact it was a simple (but very ugly) issue of plain old sin.  And the gospel has a solution for sin.

Someone has wisely said that if you diagnose your problems as requiring anything less than the blood of Jesus for their solution, you haven't diagnosed your real problem.  My hour with the counsellor cut through to the real problem.  But thankfully the real problem has a real solution.  And it's already mine.  Or rather, He's already mine.  I left that office with a massive weight off my shoulders.

Not that I didn't think the issues mattered any more.  They did matter.  They still matter.  But I looked at them through a different lens.

For one thing, I started pitying the Christ-lite Christians around me - not despising them or competing with them.  But genuinely feeling sorry for them and wanting something better for them.  I gave up on being the one who would crush them in theological debate and started to think more in terms of sowing seeds and trusting the results to God!

I get this wrong all the time and there's still much of the arrogant young man to me.  But I also think God's been teaching me some things about how to live and minister among other Christians with whom I disagree.  I'll share a few thoughts in no particular order:

* I love the saying (which I think goes back to Wesley?) that the way to handle opponents is "to out-live and out-love them, out-preach and out-pray them."  That's got to be the way forward. And I think it begins with repentance.  I repent of trusting in my christocentrism.  I turn to Christ!

* If I'm tempted to pride it's good to turn to Elijah's example in 1 Kings 19.  And to laugh at myself.  "I, only I am left!!" he says, exhausted by his own righteousness! "Ummm" says the LORD "I think you'll find there's thousands like you. Get some rest!"

* I find it very tempting to try and be John the Baptist - a voice crying in the wilderness.  But that's not our calling.  We're to get around others with the aroma of Christ.  And the aroma of 'young hot-prot' is not quite the same.

* When relating to church leaders, get a vision for what's already good about their preaching, leading and ministry.  It's so tempting to look for what they do badly and to miss the hundred things they do well.  Anything and everything we can rejoice in, we should.  Loudly.

* People can change.  Not through grand-standing argumentation.  But through a drip, drip, drip of gospel juiciness.

* I'm only beginning to learn this one:  Usually change happens when people taste the gospel dishes you serve up.  If you consistently serve up Christ-exalting stuff that releases hearts into gratitude and love, then people will ask you about the recipe.  Don't start with the recipe: "Right here are the ingredients you need - you've been doing it all wrong.  This is the order..."  Start by dishing out gospel goodness - then they'll want the recipe.

And now, for the real wisdom on these issues - check out the comments... (don't let me down guys)...

10

About 10 years ago I wound up in the office of a Christian counsellor.  I couldn't believe I was about to confess to depression.  Me, a church worker!  Me, conservative evangelicalism's next big thing!

The cause?  Several very stressful things were happening in my life, but the tipping point into depression was a frustration with the gospel that was being preached around me.  And I fell flat on my face in despondency.

My counsellor took me to Jeremiah 2:13 and said (very graciously) I'd been digging some kind of broken well which had dried up.  Now I was slumped at this false life-source with a mouth full of mud.  He asked what the broken well might be.  In an instant I knew: "I need everyone to read the bible the same way I do".  Not for the glory of Jesus, but to be right!

I asked "What should I do?"  He said, "Give up on it and turn back to Jesus."  As soon as he said "Give up on it" my whole flesh rose up and said "Never!"  Instantly I knew that this idol had its hooks in me.  And it shocked me.

My theological paradigm had become my god.  And it was so subtle.  Because here's the thing: I prided myself on the fact that my paradigm was uniquely Christ-centred.

But when I identified the pride issue a weight fell off my shoulders.  The issue was not the idiots out there, the issue was the arrogance in here.  I'd been thinking of it as a complicated issue of theological debate with no way through.  In fact it was a simple (but very ugly) issue of plain old sin.  And the gospel has a solution for sin.

Someone has wisely said that if you diagnose your problems as requiring anything less than the blood of Jesus for their solution, you haven't diagnosed your real problem.  My hour with the counsellor cut through to the real problem.  But thankfully the real problem has a real solution.  And it's already mine.  Or rather, He's already mine.  I left that office with a massive weight off my shoulders.

Not that I didn't think the issues mattered any more.  They did matter.  They still matter.  But I looked at them through a different lens.

For one thing, I started pitying the Christ-lite Christians around me - not despising them or competing with them.  But genuinely feeling sorry for them and wanting something better for them.  I gave up on being the one who would crush them in theological debate and started to think more in terms of sowing seeds and trusting the results to God!

I get this wrong all the time and there's still much of the arrogant young man to me.  But I also think God's been teaching me some things about how to live and minister among other Christians with whom I disagree.  I'll share a few thoughts in no particular order:

* I love the saying (which I think goes back to Wesley?) that the way to handle opponents is "to out-live and out-love them, out-preach and out-pray them."  That's got to be the way forward. And I think it begins with repentance.  I repent of trusting in my christocentrism.  I turn to Christ!

* If I'm tempted to pride it's good to turn to Elijah's example in 1 Kings 19.  And to laugh at myself.  "I, only I am left!!" he says, exhausted by his own righteousness! "Ummm" says the LORD "I think you'll find there's thousands like you. Get some rest!"

* I find it very tempting to try and be John the Baptist - a voice crying in the wilderness.  But that's not our calling.  We're to get around others with the aroma of Christ.  And the aroma of 'young hot-prot' is not quite the same.

* When relating to church leaders, get a vision for what's already good about their preaching, leading and ministry.  It's so tempting to look for what they do badly and to miss the hundred things they do well.  Anything and everything we can rejoice in, we should.  Loudly.

* People can change.  Not through grand-standing argumentation.  But through a drip, drip, drip of gospel juiciness.

* I'm only beginning to learn this one:  Usually change happens when people taste the gospel dishes you serve up.  If you consistently serve up Christ-exalting stuff that releases hearts into gratitude and love, then people will ask you about the recipe.  Don't start with the recipe: "Right, here are the ingredients you need - you've been doing it all wrong.  This is the order..."  Start by dishing out gospel goodness - then they'll want the recipe.

And now, for the real wisdom on these issues - check out the comments... (don't let me down guys)...

Evangelicals believe in conversion.  It's absolutely foundational.  The human race is either in or out.  We're born out.  We need to come in through Christ.

But then, what are we coming in to?  Because if you only think in terms of "in or out" then it might start to sound like the Christian community is the safe-house and the world is going to hell.  And the church says: "Bring em in, batten down the hatches and ride out the storm."  It's us against the world and the godly traffic is all heading towards the safe-house.

This sounds like the conservative Christian picture.  But it's missing a key element.  God.

You see God is out-going.  The Father is a Sender - of His Son and Spirit.  We need to be in.  But we need to be in on the One who is ever going out.  Therefore, with Christ, the church says: "Get on out there, reach into the world in order to bless."  It's us for the world and the godly traffic is all heading towards the outsider.

We must, by all means, believe in conversion.  But let's understand what we are converted to.  We want people in, but we want them in on radical out-going-ness.

So it's not so much in or out, it's in on out.

Here are three assertions that trip off evangelical tongues, almost without a second thought.  They are the air we breathe.  Almost never challenged.  And almost never justified in any Scriptural sense.  Everyone just knows them.

Trouble is they're not true.

.

Myth #1 - The prophets spoke better than they knew.

Take any text from, say, Handel's Messiah.  Try to use it as justification for Messianic faith in the OT and count the seconds before someone counters "Ah, but they spoke better than they knew."

What chapter of Hezekiah is that in again?  I forget.

Just pause for a second.  Why on earth should we think that?  Why shouldn't we assume that "the prophets knew what they were talking about?"  Wouldn't that be the most obvious assumption?

Why would we doubt that Isaiah knew what he was talking about?  Apart from a Darwinian belief in progress.  Apart from what CS Lewis called chronological snobbery.  Seriously, where have we got the idea that prophets - those whose job it is to enlighten the people - are actually so thick they can't understand their own prophecies.  I mean that would be a really odd model of prophecy wouldn't it?  But, you know, I'm willing to go with it - if the bible teaches it.  But where does the bible teach such a model of prophecy?

Caiaphas?  The murderer of Jesus?  His one off pronouncement is our model for Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel?

And yet the myth persists.  It is asserted very strongly and very often.  And it needs to be if pop-biblical-theology is to avoid imploding under the massive weight of OT evidence to the contrary.

But the thing is, it's not true.

.

Myth #2 - No-one expected the kind of Messiah that Jesus was

I don't think I've ever been in a home group bible study in my life where this myth was not mentioned at least once in the night.  "Well, of course, the people all expected the Christ to come on a war horse and overturn the Romans."  Well it's a decent guess that some Israelites might have been of that persuasion.  But show me the verse that says all Israel conceived of the Messiah only in such terms.

It seems like, relative to any supporting Scriptural evidence, this assertion is punching way above its weight in terms of its general acceptance among bible believers.

And in fact, there's lots of Scriptural evidence that the people were well able to comprehend the kind of Messiah Jesus was.  At Christmas we remember Simeon holding the baby Jesus and rejoicing that he'd therefore seen salvation.  The kings from the east bowed to a child and the songs like the Magnificat are Scripture-full acknowledgements of what an upside down kind of king the Christ is.  Read on in John chapter 1 and you have Simon, Andrew, Philip and Nathanael perfectly able to comprehend that this carpenter was Messiah, King of Israel and Son of God.

Absolutely there were comprehension issues among the disciples - especially as the way of the cross was set before them (same with us right?).  But it's just not the case that first century Israelites were unprepared for the kind of Messiah Jesus would be.  They were very prepared.  And the faithful among them (like Simeon and Anna) understood it very well.

.

Myth #3 - The Apostles read Messianic meaning into Hebrew texts that weren't intended by the original authors.

Myth #1 is deployed whenever an Old Testament text threatens pop-biblical-theology TM.  Myth #3 is deployed whenever a New Testament text threatens the system:

"Ah yes, but Paul had apostolic warrant to reinterpret OT texts in ways not intended by the author."

How very odd.  And to think Paul was able to reason in synagogues with Jews and win some over when apparently his claim is that he's not giving Moses' meaning but a new one!

Strange indeed, but ok, I'm willing to go with the weirdness because I imagine there must be explicit biblical warrant for it.  There must be a mountain of verses telling me about the apostolic re-reading of Hebrew texts.  Right?  And married to that, there'd have to be loads of verses telling us not to follow the Apostles in their exegesis because they were authorized to do weird stuff.

But, hmm.  Where are these verses?

And Paul even explicitly says "I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen, that Christ would suffer and rise and bring light to the Gentiles."  (Acts 26:22f).

So then, what's driving this myth?

Could it be that the pressure to believe Myth 3 comes not from biblical arguments but from the need to protect against biblical arguments??  Could it be that Myth 3 is required as the only escape route pop-biblical-theology has from the mountain of NT verses stacked against it?

I'll let you decide.

.

You might not think this is a very Christmassy theme.  Well think of it as answering this question: "Did Israel really sing 'O Come O Come Immanuel' or can we only put that song on their lips after the fact?"

.

Theology Network has just put up the second of my two papers on Mission and Evangelism (first one here).

Here's an excerpt:

Picture an evangelist.

What are they doing?  What are they like?  Do you warm to them?

Now picture the person or persons most significant in bringing you to Christ.

What did they do?  What were they like?  Why did you warm to them?

How do your two sets of answers compare?

Invariably when people are asked to imagine “an evangelist” they picture a bold enthusiast with boundless energy.  A salesman who could sell ice to Eskimos but, praise God, now they’re selling Jesus.  They are born communicators and can turn a pub discussion of the off-side rule into a proclamation of Christ – our Last Defender.

We are inspired by them sometimes.  Daunted by them more often.  Do we warm to them?  Well, we’re grateful that they’re out there.  Because, Lord knows we couldn’t do what they do.  We are not “evangelists” – not like them anyway.  So God bless them in their efforts.

Every once in a while we’ll rein them in off the streets to turn their wild-eyed enthusiasm on us – drumming up support for the church’s next ‘big push.’  But once that’s over they will ride off into the sunset and we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

I’m exaggerating.  Slightly.  But, lest you think I’m setting up a straw-man, try this experiment at your church.  Raise the topic of ‘evangelizing your friends’ and then count down the seconds until someone complains ‘But I’m no Billy Graham.’

What does this kind of thinking betray?

It reveals, for one thing, a belief worryingly similar to that medieval division between clergy and laity. At root there is the constant guilt felt by ordinary folk who know their failings.  And then there’s the offer of some small relief.  The riff-raff can pay for professional Christians to live the really holy life for them.  The professionals (this strange breed of “evangelists”) are secretly delighted to be put on such a pedestal.  And inevitably these experts aggravate as much as alleviate the guilt feelings of the common folk.  But really, once the guilt is in place, the divide will follow.  And both sides will have strong reasons to reinforce it.

How can we possibly address this situation?  There’s a big problem here.  If anyone tries to remove the guilt from ordinary Christians they’ll be accused of building up the dividing wall:  Are you saying the ordinary folk are off the hook??  Are you saying only certain people can/should evangelize!!? And if anyone tries to remove the division they’ll be accused of guilt-mongering:  Are you saying everyone’s under this burden??  Are you saying we all need to be Billy Grahams!!?

But the gospel flushes that whole paradigm down the toilet where it belongs.  The gospel addresses both the guilt issue and the division issue.  And it doesn’t just re-balance them, it abolishes them.  Think of the priesthood of Christ.  It means the end of guilt.  And then think of the complement to that truth – the priesthood of all believers in Him.  It means the end of divisions.

So what would evangelism look like which glories in the perfect priesthood of Christ and the corporate priesthood of all believers?  What would evangelism look like if it was motivated not by the high-octane marketeers but by the goodness of the gospel itself?

Read the whole thing...

.

Now that I have your attention...

I'm getting very wary of arguments that run like this:

"Hey man, we're not medieval, we're protestants, there's no secular / sacred divide.  Therefore it's not that everyone should join Navigators - they can join Goldman Sachs, it's all equally cool.  Cos, hey, Genesis, the Lord is a worker and gets His hands dirty and Adam was made as a worker.  There's a divine dignity to all work, don't try to put full time gospel ministry on a pedestal.  Everything's equal now."

There are parts of that argument to which I want to give a hearty Amen.  But...

It's interesting that Gen 2:15 might be more literally translated:

"The LORD God took the man and RESTED him in the Garden of Eden to SERVE and WATCH"  Or even you could say "to WORSHIP and KEEP."

All this has heavy temple/priestly connotations - just as the temple has lots of Eden connotations.

And of course when the true Man stands on the earth He describes His work (and that of the Father) in priestly (ie evangelistic terms) - e.g. John 4:23,34-38; 5:21-29).  And the kind of 'till the earth' stuff that Jesus does is, well, priestly (ie evangelistic) - e.g. Matt 9:35-38; Matt 13:1-53)

Now we together are a priesthood in Him declaring the praises of the Father that pagans may glorify God (1 Pet 2:9-12). That's true priestliness - bringing people  to God in the Priest - the Lord Jesus.

And that's the real redemption of our labours - whether labours for Navigators or Goldman Sachs (both need redeeming).  We are to sow gospel seeds on whatever soils we find ourselves as priests in The Priest.  Whatever else is involved in the redemption of our labours - that has to be a key part.

And absolutely you don't have to be ordained or "a full time gospel worker" (whatever that phrase means) to do that.  You might very well be ordained etc and not doing that.

But I just don't believe that Mr lonely lighthouse keeper is really glorifying God by sitting alone on an island but working really hard "as unto the Lord"!  The redemption of work that comes in the Redeemer will mean not simply being an honest accountant (or whatever) but by being a priestly accountant.  And so not all jobs are on a level.

We're used to saying "If you can't be moral in your job, it's not a job for Christians."  But I think we should be equally ready to say "If you can't be priestly in your job, it's not a job for Christians."

But demolishing the medieval divide is not accomplished by denying priestliness to people.  It happens by affirming the priestliness (i.e. the evangelistic character) of all activities.

.

19

Now that I have your attention...

I'm getting very wary of arguments that run like this:

"Hey man, we're not medieval, we're protestants, there's no secular / sacred divide.  Therefore it's not that everyone should join Navigators - they can join Goldman Sachs, it's all equally cool.  Cos, hey, Genesis, the Lord is a worker and gets His hands dirty and Adam was made as a worker.  There's a divine dignity to all work, don't try to put full time gospel ministry on a pedestal.  Everything's equal now."

There are parts of that argument to which I want to give a hearty Amen.  But...

It's interesting that Gen 2:15 might be more literally translated:

"The LORD God took the man and RESTED him in the Garden of Eden to SERVE and WATCH"  Or even you could say "to WORSHIP and KEEP."

All this has heavy temple/priestly connotations - just as the temple has lots of Eden connotations.

And of course when the true Man stands on the earth He describes His work (and that of the Father) in priestly (ie evangelistic terms) - e.g. John 4:23,34-38; 5:21-29).  And the kind of 'till the earth' stuff that Jesus does is, well, priestly (ie evangelistic) - e.g. Matt 9:35-38; Matt 13:1-53)

Now we together are a priesthood in Him declaring the praises of the Father that pagans may glorify God (1 Pet 2:9-12). That's true priestliness - bringing people  to God in the Priest - the Lord Jesus.

And that's the real redemption of our labours - whether labours for Navigators or Goldman Sachs (both need redeeming).  We are to sow gospel seeds on whatever soils we find ourselves as priests in The Priest.  Whatever else is involved in the redemption of our labours - that has to be a key part.

And absolutely you don't have to be ordained or "a full time gospel worker" (whatever that phrase means) to do that.  You might very well be ordained etc and not doing that.

But I just don't believe that Mr lonely lighthouse keeper is really glorifying God by sitting alone on an island but working really hard "as unto the Lord"!  The redemption of work that comes in the Redeemer will mean not simply being an honest accountant (or whatever) but by being a priestly accountant.  And so not all jobs are on a level.

We're used to saying "If you can't be moral in your job, it's not a job for Christians."  But I think we should be equally ready to say "If you can't be priestly in your job, it's not a job for Christians."

But demolishing the medieval divide is not accomplished by denying priestliness to people.  It happens by affirming the priestliness (i.e. the evangelistic character) of all activities.

.

10

Together with this hymn, this is what really depresses me about the manner and method of today's 'conservative evangelical' preaching.  As for the content... that's what the rest of the blog is about...

.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture,” he loudly proclaims
“Our rule and our guide, Our fount and our frame.
We stand on the bible, for better, for worse
But let me give vent to my own bluster first.”

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, so let me digress –
To warn you of others who do not confess
Our creed guaranteed to produce a revival:
We are the ones who honour the bible.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, though some shun our scheme
Daring to preach on one verse, or a theme!
I really must warn you about all our rivals,
And then I will ask you to take up your bibles.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, and so I rehearse
Our constant insistence on verse by verse.
Methodical, logical, slowly proceeding,
This is our system, now, what was our reading?

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, but don’t be naive,
The troubles with preaching you would not believe.
We must invest time in Corinthian Gnostics,
The value of genre and Hebrew acrostics.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, a difficult book,
But do not despair, to me you can look.
The dirty great chasm between then and now
Is bridg’d by my painstaking, expert know-how.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, The clock is against us!
I fear that I shan’t do this passage its justice.
We’ve only got time for a mere  bible dip,
Yet before we explore – a joke and a quip.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, but first let me quote
From Shakespeare and Churchill, a drole anecdote,
My children’s exploits and the signs of the times,
The state of the church, and, my, how time flies!

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, just time for essentials,
But, wait, have I listed my many credentials?
My friends in high places, the people I meet,
The man I converted in the aeroplane seat?

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, although it’s a drag
I’ll lighten the tone with a mother-in-law gag.
And stories I’ve stolen from preachers at will.
Consider it sugar to sweeten the pill.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, though sixty six books –
This story of glory’s more plain than it looks.
Distilling its filling through splendid oration,
You’ll see it boils down to this fine illustration.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, the detail’s not vital,
I’ve spent all my time on a memorable title
And quaint turns of phrase that will please only me,
And predictable points beginning with ‘P’.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, my time is now through,
My pithy summation will just have to do.
You guessed it the moment my sermon began:
The Lord is the Boss, now submit to His plan.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, And now let us pray,
‘I thank You my Father You made me this way,
Not like all those others about which we’ve heard
For I am the preacher who honours Your word.’”

.

Together with this hymn, this is what really depresses me about the manner and method of today's 'conservative evangelical' preaching.  As for the content... that's what the rest of the blog is about...

.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture,” He loudly proclaims
“Our rule and our guide, Our fount and our frame.
We stand on the bible, for better, for worse
But let me give vent to my own bluster first.”

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, so let me digress –
To warn you of others who do not confess
Our creed guaranteed to produce a revival:
We are the ones who honour the bible.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, though some shun our scheme
Daring to preach on one verse, or a theme!
I really must warn you about all our rivals,
And then I will ask you to take up your bibles.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, and so I rehearse
Our constant insistence on verse by verse.
Methodical, logical, slowly proceeding,
This is our system, now, what was our reading?

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, but don’t be naive,
The troubles with preaching you would not believe.
We must invest time in Corinthian Gnostics,
The value of genre and Hebrew acrostics.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, a difficult book,
But do not despair, to me you can look.
The dirty great chasm between then and now
Is bridg’d by my painstaking, expert know-how.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, The clock is against us!
I fear that I shan’t do this passage its justice.
We’ve only got time for a bare bible dip,
Yet before we explore – a joke and a quip.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, but first let me quote
From Shakespeare and Churchill, a drole anecdote,
My children’s exploits and the signs of the times,
The state of the church, and, my, how time flies!

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, just time for essentials,
But, wait, have I listed my many credentials?
My friends in high places, the people I meet,
The man I converted in the aeroplane seat?

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, although it’s a drag
I’ll lighten the tone with a mother-in-law gag.
And stories I’ve stolen from preachers at will.
Consider it sugar to sweeten the pill.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, though sixty six books –
This story of glory’s more plain than it looks.
Distilling its filling through splendid oration,
You’ll see it boils down to this fine illustration.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, the detail’s not vital,
I’ve spent all my time on a memorable title
And quaint turns of phrase that will please only me,
And predictable points beginning with ‘P’.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, my time is now through,
My pithy summation will just have to do.
You guessed it the moment my sermon began:
God is the Boss, submit to His plan.

“Tis Scripture, Tis Scripture, And now let us pray,
‘I thank You my Father You made me this way,
Not like all those others about which we’ve heard
For I am the preacher who honours Your word.’”

.

First published two years ago (here)

CH Spurgeon:

...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:

  1. Preaching itself is not considered according to its proper nature - a divine encounter
  2. With this spiritual nature minimized, the preaching itself takes on a more cerebral tone (see Spurgoen quote)
  3. The preacher is sorely tempted to preach for critique rather than for the Lord and for the congregation
  4. The listeners are trained in standing over rather than sitting under the word
  5. 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?)
  6. Check-lists for critique become old wineskins that will only accommodate old wine
  7. Therefore we learn to preach according to the check-list
  8. The audience for the sermon becomes extremely narrow
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. First thing I ask after the sermon is delivered is addressed to the preacher: What spoke to you most from the word in preparation.
  4. Next thing I ask is to the listeners: what struck you most from the word that's just been proclaimed.
  5. At that point we discuss how the word has impacted us - we spend time being hearers and receivers of the word
  6. Only then do we discuss ways that the preacher has blessed us in the particular manner that they brought it home.
  7. Critique comes in the form of assessing the preacher against their own criteria.
  8. In the spirit of Spurgeon, both its didactic and its emotional aspects are up for discussion.
  9. We give praise to God for His word and for His preacher.
  10. 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?

.

Twitter widget by Rimon Habib - BuddyPress Expert Developer