Some critical reflections on preaching online

This is an Advent sermon I preached last Sunday in Maynooth Community Church. If you wish you should be able to view the video by clicking on the link.

The text was Luke 1:1-25 and the theme was ‘An Unexpected Fulfilment’ based on the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah

Some Critical Reflections

A while back I did a post linking to some very helpful short videos about preaching / communicating to a screen. It’s a very different ‘genre’ to preaching in person. I’ve tried to keep those tips in mind, and here are some take-aways from this latest outing. It was encouraging to get some very positive feedback, but there were also things I didn’t do so well. All of life is a learning experience, so these are some learning points I took away.

If you have your own to add from your own experiences teaching or preaching online, you are welcome to add them here ….

1. When preaching online, try preaching to a specific person.

It’s so easy to become ‘flat’ and rather robotic when talking to a screen. It’s harder than teaching online with a group of students on Zoom. At least there, there is conversation, Q&A and breakout rooms etc. A screen doesn’t talk back or smile – or even show it’s losing concentration 🙂 I have a soft voice that doesn’t carry that well, so have to work at keeping sound and energy on the screen. Plenty of room for improvement in this sermon on that front.

One thing I tried this time was to imagine myself talking / preaching to a specific person (won’t name names here!). Keep their face in mind. Imagine responses and reactions – engage in a real dialogue. Keep it as warm and relational as possible. Vary voice pitch and speed. Ask questions. I might even put a photograph of a person up next time.

2. Keep it clear and simple

I kept this sermon to two points. All preaching should be clear and easy to follow, but I think this is especially necessary via a screen. This isn’t the same as being simplistic, but it is working hard to distill the key messages of the text into an accessible structure.

In this sermon the two points were

1. The Loving Kindness of God to individuals

There is a touching and beautiful moment in this story of how God (unecessarily) blesses Zechariah and especially Elizabeth with a child, and takes away her shame in the process.

‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.’ 1:25

2. Christians are called into a much bigger story

On ‘either side’ of those two points, was an introduction about ‘Christmas Kitsch’ and how Luke (and the other Gospel writers) are anything but kitsch. And a conclusion in how all believers are called into the same story as Z & E – the story of God’s redemptive purposes in the world. Like Z & E waiting faithfully in darkness for the first Advent, believers are also called to faithful waiting in darkness for the second Advent.

3. Consider using visuals alongside video

I also decided to combine the video with a powerpoint. I used to use powerpoint a lot in preaching but these days rarely use it in person-to-person settings. It’s so often a distraction. Especially if visiting somewhere, the technology can fail to work. It is often used so much that people end up just watching a screen and not concentrating on the human communication between preacher and congregation. And you can also end up spending far too much time on a snazzy powerpoint and not enough on the harder work of exegesis of the text.

But with video preaching being a visual experience, I think it was helpful to have pictures and headings. (Images that help to illustrate, rather than lots of hard to read text.)

Rather than have to do lots of video editing afterwards to put in pictures and slides and Bible texts (which would be beyond me to be honest), I use Loom, a video programme. It allows you to record video and screen together. So you can have yourself on one side of the screen and a pre-prepared powerpoint on the other side. And then I just advance the powerpoint in ‘real time’ as the sermon progresses. The advantage is once finished, that’s it done.

4. Keep it concise

The sermon ended up at 23 minutes. While this is about average (for our church) when meeting together physically, I think it was too long for watching online. It needed to be shorter and snappier in places, and needed to get to the text a bit quicker. I think the conclusion could have made the link to Advent and our waiting today a bit more clearly. I didn’t have time to edit and re-record – the video had to go off asap. I also needed to check on my knowledge of the Matrix – Neo IS Mr Anderson – duh!

But then again maybe that’s not a bad thing. That’s what usually happens after all! You don’t get to have a second or third take in front of a live congregation ! (Many’s a time when I wish I did).

It would also have ended before a certain two daughters came in the front door laughing and cackling about something amusing @ c. 22 minutes. Not having great video editing skills meant I had to keep going without stopping!

The remaining three points are about preaching in general.

5. Pray the Spirit speaks

This applies to all preaching and Christian teaching, but any preacher needs constantly to bear in mind. Good communication skills matter – and that includes appropriate use of video technology as well as verbal communication. But such things are merely the scaffolding, not the building itself. If all the focus and energy goes constructing the scaffolding, we end up forgetting its purpose is to serve the good of the building.

In other words, preaching isn’t about the preacher or the tools he/she uses – they are not ends in themselves. They need to serve the purpose of communicating the meaning of the biblical text to the world of the listeners.

The process of preaching needs prayer – a sermon ‘evolves’ through study of the text, reflection, time and prayer. And once preached to the best of his/her ability, all the preacher can do is pray the Spirit takes his/her imperfect efforts and uses them to speak into peoples lives.

6. Be open to (constructive) critical feedback

It’s easy to be hyper-spiritual here. On the one hand, there is a tremendous freedom in knowing preaching is not just a human enterprise, the ‘success’ of which is how much it is enjoyed by the listeners. Only the Spirit can transform people. But, on the other hand, all preachers are limited. However experienced, there is always much to learn. So feedback from people IS important – both negative and positive.

But structured feedback does not happen by accident, it needs to be fostered.

In theological education there are all sorts of systems of student and peer review for teachers. I’m not saying they are perfect by any means – often they can be paper exercises. But good feedback from students and peer review from a trusted teacher who sits in on your class is invaluable (as well as a bit scary).

My sense is that most preachers / churches don’t have this sort of robust system of constructive critical review in place. It takes trust and transparency, but it speaks of a culture that is open to critique, a humility to say ‘We are all learners’, and a desire to keep growing each other’s gifts for the good of Christ’s church.

7. Deal seriously with the text and bring it to bear on the lives and hearts of listeners

I’ll nail my colours to the mast here and say that preaching that isn’t dealing seriously with the text isn’t really preaching. The text is all we have and it is the task of the preacher to do the exegesis that underpins contemporary application – to allow the text to speak.

That’s why I love expository preaching. Sure topical or thematic preaching can (and should) deal seriously with the text. But expository preaching builds on exegesis (historical background, language, grammar etc in order to understand its meaning), in order to ‘expose’ its meaning for contemporary listeners (exposition).

Doing exegesis isn’t preaching. I like the image of a chef preparing a meal. Just putting all the ingredients on the table wouldn’t make him/her very popular with the guests. The chef has to put those ingredients together in a creative way to produce a tasty meal. So expository preaching is a creative process that distils exegesis into a message that applies the living text into people’s lives.

Expository preaching is usually structured around preaching through the whole Bible in a planned way. In this way it takes the text seriously, and the whole of the Bible seriously. The danger of topical or thematic preaching dominating is that we get to choose in advance what we’re going to talk about so we avoid grappling with difficult texts or issues. We can also all too easily just reinforce our own preferences or end up using the text as a convenient ‘hanger’ for our topic in hand.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Preaching to a screen

So I’m preaching at our local church this Sunday – except of course it will not be ‘at’ church but pre-recorded and broadcast during an online service.

Here’s the hi-tech preaching set up – note the garden rake holding notes in place via sellotape.

IMG_20200416_123537I really enjoyed having a go. After endless Zoom conference calls I wanted to try outside in the fresh air and sunshine (while it lasts). I always teach in class standing up, free to move about and engage with students. So I find sitting static behind a screen restrictive. Rather than preaching to a group of people with whom there is engagement and eye contact, a screen gives you nothing. And so I find communication becomes a bit flat – including non-verbal communication like tone of voice and emotion.

A couple of helpful resources I watched in preparing were these:

And also this one from Ian Paul’s blog. You take notice when he calls this a masterclass in online sermon communication by Bryan Wolfmueller, who is a Lutheran pastor in Austin Texas (don’t know what the health and safety issues are in preaching to camera when driving ..!)

 

 

 

 

Eschatology and Advent (9) Fleming Rutledge: Advent sermons – a word to preachers

And so to a flavour of some of Fleming Rutledge’s Advent sermons – which are eschatological through and through.

But first, one more post on methodology. In the Introduction she has a word of advice to preachers who want to take the task of preaching seriously.

What do you think of these three points? What, for you, are the ingredients of effective and powerful preaching?

1. Always do serious exegesis of the text

The preacher’s job is to preach the Word. To do that there is no short-cut, the text must be studied, understood and engaged with at a serious level.

The great error that lies treacherously before us all, especially as we feel we are growing stale, is the temptation to lose sight of the text itself … never fail to do a searching exegesis before you begin. (p.26)

This is not to say sermons are to be ‘academic’, regurgitating different scholars’ views, but it is to say that the preacher needs to have wrestled with the text’s meaning and what it is saying – otherwise the sermon will be just a collection of the preacher’s thoughts and opinions. While these may, or may not be interesting, it is not preaching God’s Word.

A practical question that Rutledge does not address is the practical implications of this sort of commitment. If you preach, what sort of time are we talking about here to do serious exegesis in preparing a sermon?

If, say, it is 16 good study hours (for sake of argument) that’s two days’ work per week.

And if that’s the case, what implications are there for pastors and church leadership teams in terms of realistic workloads, priorities and administration that pastor/preachers are expected to do?

2. Take yourself out of the sermon

A sermon may lead people away from the Word of God

unless the preacher can get herself out of the way. That, too, was important advice I received: take yourself out if it! (p.26)

This reminds me of a comment by Stanley Hauerwas on preaching.

The issue here is focus is off the text and on to the preacher. I like to think of a preacher like a referee – if he/she does her job well no-one particularly notices the ref. The game is not about them. If the match becomes all about the ref, something has gone wrong.

3. Announce the promises of God’s gospel (rather than moral exhortation)

Rutledge is again right on the money with a third observation – God is the subject of the verb. A sermon isn’t all about us – as if God can’t get anything done until we help out. Rutledge has strong words here:

If a sermon is an exhortation to help out a ‘dreaming’ God build the kingdom, as if he couldn’t do it without our efforts, it’s not the gospel. (p.27)

For this reason Rutledge is wary of exhortatory sermons (‘Let us …’ or ‘If only we can grasp this’ or ‘we should be doing justice, feeding the poor, fighting racism, marching for climate change etc’). Here’s why

When sermons end that way, the hearers feel defeated and powerless, except of course the few who are already doing whatever it is, who can then feel superior. For that reason, hortatory sermons are divisive. (p.27)

What’s your experience here? How does some preaching make you feel defeated and powerless ? What sort of preaching uplifts and inspires you? What place is there for exhortation in preaching?

Instead, she argues, sermons should be messages announcing God’s hope and promise. This speaks good news to everyone and such a word liberates and empowers. Good preaching happens when

Every person in the congregation should feel that a promise has been made to him or her by the God who, unlike human beings, keeps his promises. (p. 27).

Amen. Preach it sister.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (43) sub-Christian teaching on the Christian Life

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are in the final theme in the book – that of recapitulation.

In the last section of the chapter, Rutledge turns to the ethical implications of the motif of recapitulation.

She uses the idea of ‘takeover’ for recapitulation: believers are delivered from Sin, Death, the Law and have a truly new identity in Christ (incorporation).

There is power here too – not just a theology or an idea, power to live a new life. Rectification (her translation for justification) is powerful – a power to make right what was wrong, not only in believers but in the entire created order.

Being ‘incorporated’, means that believers die and are raised to new life. This is an objective reality, not a subjective feeling or experience.

Yet, she asks searching questions here.

If this is all true, what does such an ontological transformation look like? What does the powerful and victorious Christian life look like?

Her answer is, rightly, ‘cruciform’. This is the paradox of the cross and it is the paradox of the Christian life.

‘Power’ and ‘transformation’ are worked out in suffering,

“… not the ordinary suffering that comes to everyone, but the particular affliction that must come to those who bear witness to the Lord’s death … The suffering endured by Christian witnesses does not come from a place of weakness, but from a place of strength. That is the difference between Christian witness and masochism.” (566-67)

Christian suffering is radically reimagined in that Christ has already ‘paid the price’ and died our death in our place.

“He has lived out – recapitulated – the fate of condemned humanity to the last frontier of the demon-haunted kosmos, and in doing so has brought us over from eternal bondage and condemnation into the eternal realm of the righteousness of God.” (567)

The Gospel and the Christian Life – moving beyond moral exhortation

Linking back to the previous post here and my comments on ‘depressing androcentric preaching’ – Rutledge freely admits that in mainline US Churches there is no shortage of moral exhortation to ‘live a life worthy of the gospel’ – to be more loving, more inclusive, work for peace, be tolerant, care for the sick, provide for the poor … etc.

All these are good and important, however, she argues that,

“What is often missing from such exhortations is the powerful proclamation of the One who is doing the calling, who has ratified our calling in his own blood, who has entered upon the life of ‘Adam’ in order to defeat from inside human nature the work of the Enemy. This is the resounding, foundational gospel message on which the life of the church is built …” (568)

I love this …

“We do not hear enough of the working of God nowadays, though we hear a good deal about our own working – especially our religious working. The message of the gospel, however, is not that of building the kingdom as though we were subcontractors or even free agents …. It is not our spiritual journey that lies at the center of our faith … it is the journey of the incarnate One to us that enables our participation in the redemptive working of God.” (569)

That paragraph takes some chewing.

A personal comment

This is where care and theological attention is needed in preaching and teaching. It is easy to slip into Jesus as a moral example and we essentially now face the task and challenge of living Jesus-shaped lives today – in love, in service, in prayer, in self-giving and so on.

Again, this is not obviously wrong – indeed it is obviously right at one level. In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul encourages Christians to follow the self-giving example of Jesus the incarnate, crucified and resurrected Lord.

Rutledge gives the similar example of 1 John 4:17 “because as [Christ] is so are we in this world.”

But, and this is a big “but”, the Christian life is NOT a moralistic effort to be like Jesus.

Returning to the discussion on depressing preaching in the last post, such moralism ends ‘beating people up’ with the perfect example of Jesus without giving proper attention to these vital things:

  • Our absolute inability to live a righteous life. [Rutledge says ‘incapacity’]
  • The fact that we are not Jesus!
  • Little or no awareness of the ‘apocalyptic war’ – that Christians are in a battle with enemies. And that the Christian life is empowered by the Spirit of God.

Such teaching is therefore theologically naïve and pastorally unhelpful. It is sub-Christian in that it fails to speak of the depths of the human problem and the heights of Christ’s recapitulation of human nature as the second Adam.

The last word to Rutledge on this, as ever she is wonderfully articulate and passionate;

“The apostolic message speaks of our having “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16), being “like him” (1 John 3:2), and “being changed into his likeness” (II Cor. 3:18), but this is true only insofar as he has entered the life of his utterly, irredeemably, lost creation and rewritten its wretched story in his own flesh and blood. Never is it more necessary to say sola gratia (by grace alone) than here.” (570)

In the next post, we move into the Conclusion of Rutledge’s magnum opus.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (42) Unevangelical Preaching vs Evangelical Preaching

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

We are in the final theme in the book – that of recapitulation.

I freely admit that a post or two cannot do justice to a long chapter, much of which traces the thought of Paul in Romans.

This post is breaking in to Rutledge’s discussion of how recapitulation is preached.

To summarise, recapitulation can be seen as “Christ reliving the story of Adam.” (558). As a real human being (incarnation)

“The Son of God secures our redemption, not over against us as a divine being, but restoring our human nature to the righteousness of God from within the depths of our unrighteousness.” (588)

None of this is dependent on us, but on Jesus’ own righteousness.

Rutledge quotes T. F Torrance’s work The Mediation of Christ here (he is the quote within this quote)

‘… we are not saved by any will or any decision of our own. Our rebellious, egocentric, and disloyal human wills have been established “on an entirely different basis by being replaced at the crucial point by Jesus Christ himself.”’ (558-59)

So, if you are a preacher and teacher, how do you preach the good news of the cross? And specifically the theme that ‘all that is Christ’s becomes ours’?

Unevangelical versus evangelical Preaching

Torrance talks about ‘unevangelical preaching’ “which emphasizes human acting and deciding, and true, ‘evangelical preaching’.” (559). Rutledge quotes Torrance at length and with approval. It is worth doing the same and asking some questions as we do so …

What is your response to what Torrance says here? Exciting? Liberating? Troubling?

How does this compare to preaching you hear regularly?

Does it ‘over-do’ divine action and minimise the role of human faith and repentance in salvation?

Torrance:

“From beginning to end what Jesus Christ has done for you he has done not only as God, but as man. He has acted in your place in the whole range of your human life and activity, including your personal decisions, and your response to God’s love, and even your acts of faith. He has believed for you, fulfilled your human response to God, even made your personal decision for you, so that he acknowledges you before God as one who has already responded to God in him, who has already believed in God through him, and whose personal decision is already implicated in Christ’s self-offering to the Father, in all of which he has been fully and completely accepted by the Father, so that in Jesus Christ you are already accepted in him.

[I]t is not upon my faith, my believing, or my personal commitment that I rely, but solely upon what he has done for me, in my place and on my behalf, and what he is and always will be as he stands in for me before the face of the Father.” (559, Rutledge’s added emphasis to highlight Torrance’s use of recapitulation, incorporation, substitution and participation).

In the first paragraph, the theological point being hammered home is that ‘my faith’ is NOT what ‘saves me’ – it is only and completely the work of the incarnate Christ on the cross.

A personal comment on depressing preaching

The gospel calls for a personal response of faith and repentance; this must not be lost. But I like where Torrance is going even if I am not sure I’d go all the way with him.

I have been around a while and there have been too many sermons I’ve heard in my life (and probably preached as well) by the end of which I have ended up feeling frankly depressed!

The thrust has been ‘it all depends on us’: ‘if only we can grasp this’; this experience or that advance ‘is within our reach’; I have discovered this and ‘you can too’ and so on.

Even though God’s grace is talked about, the actual sub-text is that for it to be effective, it is really all up to us / me.

It all adds up to rather exhausting moral exhortation – hence my depression.

The focus is switched from what Christ has done (theo-centric focus), to what I must do if I am to ‘get it’ (andro-centric focus). It almost becomes a form of Gnosticism that we talked about at the start of this series – a secret route to enlightenment for the few and a second-class Christianity for those further back down the path somewhere.

Whereas the preaching of the Christian life, it seems to me, is more like be who you already are in Christ’.

The focus is off ourselves and on Jesus’ completed cross-work:  this is the good news and it is theo-centric through and through.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (2)

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015).

In the Introduction, Rutledge engages the reader with a bang:

The early Christian preaching announced the entrance of God upon the stage of history in the person of an itinerant Jewish teacher who had been ingloriously pinned up alongside two of society’s castoffs to die horrible, rejected and condemned by religious and secular authorities alike, discarded onto the garbage heap of humanity, scornfully forsaken by both elites and common folk, leaving behind only a discredited, demoralised handful of scruffy disciples who had no status whatsoever in the eyes of anyone. The peculiarity of this beginning for a world-transforming faith is not sufficiently recognized. (1)

In this sense, Christianity is ‘irreligious’ – if religion is defined as a projects set of beliefs emerging out of humanity’s needs and longings for meaning and hope. ‘The religious imagination seeks uplift, not torture, humiliation and death.’ (2).

And so Rutledge’s aim is to re-articulate the radical and unique nature of Christianity. What other faith would embrace shame and death? – think of Paul, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel’. The cross is foolishness and a stumbling block – the Christian faith is scandalous.

Rutledge’s foil here is much American Christianity that prefers optimism and inspirational uplift. The primary focus is not on narrower recent debates about the ‘rights and wrongs’ of penal substitution (chapter 8 is a major chapter on this theme which we will get to eventually) but much more with returning the significance of the cross to the centre of Christian preaching and teaching.

The atonement is much contested these days. Some are looking to re-cast the foundations; others a return to historical tradition. The former can lapse into cultural trendiness and heterodoxy; the latter into a belligerent defensiveness. Rutledge appeals for a robust, honest but gracious conversation.

But here’s the thing that Rutledge gets so well throughout this book ..

The atonement is not a theory to be dissected, debated and used as a test of ‘soundness’. It is, first and foremost, a doctrine to be preached and experienced. The real question, similar to that of Bonhoeffer (Who is Christ for us today?) is

‘What does Jesus’ death on the cross a long time ago have to do with us now?’ (7)

The Bible, and this book, is full of different motifs and images to answer this question – but no image can ever capture the whole. And they are not to be understood as an intellectual construct ‘but as dynamic, living truth empowering us for the living of these days.’ (7).

So, I wonder what is your answer to Rutledge’s question?

How is the cross something that empowers you to live life to God’s story in the days allotted to you?

And do you agree that much of contemporary Christianity is more about ‘uplift’ and spiritual optimism than a robust theology of the cross?

Mostly serious musings on humour

This blog can be a rather earnest place. Like any social media it presents a particular face to the world – in this case mostly theological ideas and issues discussed through a critical lens. By their nature, the subject nature is on the serious side. And fair enough too – the Christian faith deals with big questions of identity, purpose, injustice, hope, sin, forgiveness, judgement, suffering, reconciliation, death and new creation (for a start).

Larsen GBut life is also absurd, ironic, poetic and funny. This world is bursting with beauty.  Each day is an opportunity to learn, to love, to laugh and praise God for his goodness.

On laughter – has anyone written a good theology of humour? If so, I’d like to read it. Stanley Hauerwas has spent a life doing serious theology in an entertaining way.

I do think, in spite of considerable evidence to the contrary, that theology can and should be, in some of its modes, funny. Theology done right should make you laugh. It should be done in an entertaining manner. Humor is not the only mode of entertainment the discourse of theology can take, but it is surely the case that we are often attracted to speech and writing that is funny. This calls into question the presumption by some that if you want what you have to say to be entertaining, then what you have to say cannot be serious. I have tried to defy that presumption by attempting to do theology in a manner that “tickles” the imagination.  (The Work of Theology)

I think it’s harder to write such theology than speak it. In teaching and speaking there are so many more possibilities for bringing in irony and humour – a facial expression, a tone of voice, a throwaway remark, an off the cuff joke, a witty response to a question. But those are not to hand as easily in writing. Just think how many smiley emojis are needed not to cause insult and offence with an email joke.

I’m a writer. I love writing. If there is one thing I’d like to do better, it is to write serious theology entertainingly and imaginatively. I’m trying to do this in what I am writing at the moment and find it a huge challenge.

Seems to me that humour has multiple facets theologically speaking. I’m sure you can think of more than these three for starters …

Humour as gracious invitation

Po-faced Christians who never smile are somehow life-denying. They tend to take themselves so seriously that they can become inhospitable to others. Only those who share their serious God-given mission are accepted. Humour is hospitable – it invites others to a share in a mini-experience of joy. It is a gift of relationship offered to the other. So one way of looking at the overly serious Christian is someone who is ungenerous and stingy when it comes to blessing others through humour.

This is why a preacher who is deadly-earnest all the time had better be a brilliant communicator to hold people’s attention. He or she is not ‘giving’ people much in terms of generously drawing them in to the sermon.

Humour as humility

At its best, humour helps us to laugh at ourselves. That’s why self-depreciating humour, done honestly, humanises us. (Humour that humiliates the other isn’t funny – it’s just an aggressive power play. Dishonest self-depreciation merely tries to draw attention to the self). We are finite beings, full of desires, hopes, fears, mixed motives and plans. Life is transitory. We are here today and gone tomorrow. All our grand ambitions and projects will be forgotten sooner than we like to think.

I was clearing out some books recently. One was by an author I knew. He’d signed the front page for me. He seemed to have a long life ahead of him but a few years later he was dead. Now here was his book – all but forgotten and now out of date.

As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like  a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it and it is gone (Ps 103:15-16).

This means that, while we take faith and discipleship seriously, we need to have a healthy scepticism about ourselves.

Humour as weightlessness

Yet humour can be double-edged. There are few things worse (in my humble objective, unbiased and completely reasonable opinion) than a lame joke thrown in to a sermon ‘to lighten up’ all this ‘heavy’ theological talk. Give me the serious preacher any day.

Such humour can point to a lack of faith in the power of God’s Word and the power of the Spirit to speak into people’s lives, bringing transformation and renewal. It can be a rather desperate attempt to make following Jesus a comfortable and essentially unchallenging calling. Such humour can trivialize the gospel and the cost of Christian discipleship. Such preaching lacks ‘weight’.

Which all sounds very heavy theological talk but there you go. I’m back in earnest mode again …

So, to finish on a hilarious note (which makes my German wife roll about in mirth every time):

Question: ‘Where would you be without a sense of humour?’

Answer: Germany.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (10) what is good preaching?

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This is an excerpt from the final chapter (8) on Preaching, Praying and Primary Christian Langauge.

Some questions discussed below are: What do you consider good and bad preaching? What form should sermons take? How should the sermon relate to the text? Should the preacher bring in personal stories or generally keep them out of the sermon? What assumptions should the preacher make about his / her listeners in a post-Christendom context? How critically should listeners listen to sermons? 

I always am trying to remind students in class that the purpose of good theology is, to use a phrase from J I Packer, for ‘doxology and devotion’. In other words, there is no artificial boundary between a life of worship and theology (thinking about God, faith, and what means to be a Christian in the modern world).

One of the many things I like about Hauerwas is his lifetime of resisting modernist epistemological dualism – the notion that there is the detached objective world of knowing and the subjective world of values, beliefs and feelings. In his life and work he has consistently prioritised prayer, preaching, theologically reflective writing and some biblical commentary. He is on record as saying this is the work he cares most about and see as most significant.

I’m focusing in on their discussion on preaching. Brock creatively identifies common themes from Hauerwas’ sermon material – which provokes this from Hauerwas on preaching on the relationship between the sermon and the biblical text:

Those are extremely interesting observations. I  always take the text very seriously. I am against idea-sermons. What you say in the sermon always has to be dependent on the text you’ve been given. One of the things I also try to do is work very hard not to exclude the Old Testament text. So I try to preach, as much as I can, in a manner that the text of the Old Testament is seen as crucial for what we’re saying in the New. So there is a certain sense that I  hope my sermons are really exegetically responsible. That involves why it is that I believe Christianity is a form of Judaism and that I don’t say that but I try to show what the implications are for the reading of the text we have before us.

To this I want to shout AMEN! Preaching, if it is to be authentic, has to engage well with the text itself – doing the work of exegesis that underpins what is being communicated. What has a preacher to say if he / she is not preaching the text? I’m sorry, but far too much preaching is ideas merely hung on a handy text. Such preaching is dismaying. The Scriptures are powerful and Spirit inspired – the preacher’s job is to let God’s Word speak.

And I’m with Hauerwas completely on how the text is best located within the wider biblical narrative.

… sermons cannot be what they are without being embedded in the story of “Out of all the peoples of the world I have chosen you, Israel, to be my promised people.” (251)

He adds this caution that while all texts are located somewhere within the biblical narrative, sermons themselves are best not stories. Because our stories can be anthropocentric distractions :

But that doesn’t mean that the sermon itself tells a story. I worry that, for example, when preachers tell the story of “When me and my wife . . .” I always think, “Oh no.” That’s just an invitation for the congregation to think, “Isn’t our preacher clever?” I don’t like that at all. I try to stay away from any self-revelations or stories that have shaped my life. (251)

Do you agree with SH here? Is the preacher best to keep personal stories out of his / her preaching?

Preaching is a wonderful privilege but also a great source of temptation. Human nature being what it is, it is so easy, even unconsciously, to be motivated by the basic human desire for affirmation, praise, admiration and respect. And so, to present a particular story about ourselves to our listeners that feeds into those desires.  The best practice I think therefore is to keep stories of ourselves and our lives out of the frame. A sort of ‘And lead us not into temptation’ sort of ethic. Yes, let’s have creative illustrations and relevant stories that illuminate the text, but let’s keep the ‘me’ out of those stories.

At one point Brock asks Hauerwas about his oft quoted proposal that sermons should be argumentative.

What’s at stake in your insisting that “sermons should be arguments”? And what kind of arguments do you mean? You elsewhere suggest that the sermonic form is a better form of argument than theoretical argumentation. (252)

Hauerwas’ point here is that sermons must engage the hearers and proposing, unpacking and defending an argument is the best way to do this. Again this is helpful – a basic argumentative form invites listeners into a conversation that ideally is relating to their lives and their world.

There is much more in this rich conversation that I can capture here. Here’s is an intriguing aside:

This is why preaching in our time is fundamentally shaped by the assumption you are preaching to people who are only half Christian. Apologetics takes over. (254)

Absolutely right. The reality of church life in a post-Christendom world means that very little can be assumed of what people know and believe. My hunch is that many sermons assume far too much and that we might be very surprised at what many listeners actually believe.

I think a good approach to this is to preach about the Christian life / gospel in a way that avoids WE and US language as much as possible. This presents the gospel and demand of the Christian life and leaves but space for the listener to be reflecting on where they are. It makes no assumptions of the listeners.

Yes, by all means stress the corporate nature of the Christian faith, but WE and US language all too easily makes a dangerous assumption that everyone present is ‘IN’. And this slides comfortably into US switching off – while there might be something interesting to think about, nothing much is at stake in the message; it is really just about helping us to do a little bit better in our lives rather than a message that calls us to come and die to ourselves and live to the Lord.

On critical assessment of preaching, Brock asks Hauerwas this:

BB: … do you have any advice on whether we should allow our critical mind to start chewing on what the minister is doing in church?
SH: No, I think that’s exactly what we should do.
BB: Why’s that?
SH: Because the sermon isn’t the property of the one preaching it. The sermon is the congregation’s reception of the Word of God. You sure better be ready to think that that word should invite some critical response. The idea that the congregation is just passive recipients of the word means that you don’t get what the word is about. (255)

This is wise counsel. The worst response to a sermon I guess is that it creates no reaction at all – just indifference. A sermon should be expecting and receiving critical response. And depending on the context, that response may welcome the Word and at other times fiercely resist it. Both responses can be reactions to what the Spirit is saying – one good soil, the other perhaps stony ground.

That critical response can also be, as Brock’s question implies, reflection on the sermon itself. The challenge here I think is for the preacher / leader not to be defensive but to take the initiative to welcome critical feedback by setting up structures in which a learning loop can happen with a small but diverse group of trusted people. However good and experienced a preacher, everyone always has more to learn.

Comments, as ever, welcome.