Preaching Practices on Easy Street

Preaching Donkey wide-header

Preaching has many ironies. Many are sure they are good preachers; but many congregants feel their is a famine of God’s word. Some preachers struggle weekly trying to find things to say. Others couldn’t be shut down with a gun pointed at their heads. Some preachers are deemed ‘brave’ because they dare to call out the ‘gay agenda’ and bathroom politics. Others are deemed cowards because they educate their congregations on issues of war and peace, prosperity and poverty, and more. Again, some preachers are a lifetime learning this work. Contradicting that are tonnes of ‘improve your preaching in three easy steps’ gimmicks.

Preaching, Entry Level

IFBdom Preaching

A local IFB we’ve met mainly in civic-related matters recently wrote a few paragraphs on preaching. Among his points, Kevin Folger says that preachers should:

  1. …Approach the text…without preconceived ideas, notions or thoughts.
  2. …Approach the text simply — let Scripture say what it says.
  3. …Approach the text as a student, mining the text for truth.

Evaluating IFB Practice

The first point is explained by saying that the Bible should form our thoughts for us, rather than our bringing preconceived notions to the Bible. Maybe he thinks this results in a purer reading of the Scripture.

He may not know it, but Mr. Folger adapts a version of Aristotle’s ‘tabula rasa’ for Bible interpretation. John Locke and others held versions of the ‘mind as a blank tablet’ idea. Some take this on a ‘we are the sum of our experiences’ path. Other philosophical derivatives may exist also. The fact is, it simply isn’t possible to do what Mr. Folger suggests. His assertion that we bring no prior ideas to the text is itself a prior idea that shapes his own approach to the text. This is called a ‘self-negating premise.’

The second point on the surface attempts a good show. But it has at least two problems. The first further illustrates the issue with the earlier point.

Mr. Folger must make gigantic assumptions that the English language words in my text mean exactly the same thing as words written millennia ago for an alien culture and in languages we don’t know or use.

Moreover, ‘simply’ in ‘approach the text simply’ too easily ‘translates’ into speaking against any heavy lifting with the text. It’s as if we’re hearing, ‘read it a couple of times and you’ve got it.’ Now go and live it.

I addressed preaching and preparation in the ‘Leaving Fundamentalism’ series. Approaching Scripture and ‘simply’ allowing the text to say what it says doesn’t exactly encourage the diligence that preaching requires whatever Mr. Folger’s third point may say.

Hearing Scripture

1Pe 1:10-11 explains that the prophets preparing questions and took them to the Scriptures in order to know what person or time Christ’s Spirit in them indicated, and what was spoken about his sufferings and glory. The Bereans also formulated questions and brought them to the Scriptures for insight into their value and correctness [Act 17:11].

Questions about faith arise from life. In stable faith traditions, believers discuss, study, pray and think about issues. Questions are formulated with care, prayer and in concert with others. Adjustments are made as needed. These questions are then brought to the Scriptures, which are searched in the spirit of 1Pe 1:10-11. God’s people listen for the dialogue in the Bible on these questions and issues.

When disagreements arise [in healthy traditions, they always do], you go back to reevaluate your questions in light of that fact, and review your process of study. This matters more than fundamentalists may suppose.

In Fundamentalism

  • Presumes that it comes to the text with no assumptions.
  • Presumes that the text means what it says on the surface.

So when disagreement arises, it’s obvious that you’re disobedient.

Beyond Fundamentalism

  • A rational process is followed at each step of the Biblical journey.
  • Study follows a self-correcting path in concert with others.

And agree or not, the result is better theology and better preaching.

God’s Attributes, God’s Image, Non-IFB Spirituality

We are God's Image

‘…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling [Philippians 2:12].

‘The Message translates it as “reverent and sensitive before God.” I think that sounds much more gentle.’

Dear First time caller:

I think your reading of Phil 2:12 arises from God’s image, which you are. We are God’s image; but we don’t all image God the same way. Each of us images God uniquely. As I unpack this, I hope it will be for you a window to gain perspective on HOW we can read Scripture with ‘new eyes.’

God’s Attributes, God’s Image

A list of God’s attributes will include such things as God’s perfection, love, holiness, faithfulness, goodness, justice, mercy, grace, truth, wisdom and power, etc. But some attributes we recognize also as traits in others — traits by which they reflect God’s attributes. We’ve all heard things like:

Mary finds faith so easy — nothing seems to shake her! John is so persevering – for all he’s faced, he just keeps plowing! Amy is so gracious — she can put herself at anyone’s disposal in an instant and never resents it! Bill is so giving — he would hand the shirt off his back to the stranger who just cussed him!

Some call this ‘spiritual giftedness.’ Perhaps it is; but this is also how we uniquely image God’s character. One has the wisdom/insight to navigate a minefield of logical traps and linguistic chicaneries. Another can declare truth prophetically to the nation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes to mind.

No one reveals all God’s attributes; no one reveals any attribute in all its glory. Jesus Christ alone is ‘the exact representation’ of God’s being. We are smaller, much dimmer reflections of God’s being. But we do reflect God’s glory by virtue of our being God’s image.

Attributes as an Interpretative Aid

If with our spiritual makeup/gifts/calling we uniquely image God, how could this NOT also inform and shape our reading of Scripture?

When you said, ‘I think that [reverent and sensitive before God] sounds much more gentle,’ you read Scripture through the lens of God’s gentleness. In other words, God’s Spirit IS leading you already…just as promised.

Can God’s gentleness guide us to spiritual understanding? Can it lead us into practices that honor God, that imitate Christ, that bring grace to our communities? Can God’s gentleness teach us to discern how God is with us, leads us, deals with and saves us? Can God’s gentleness function as a lens by which to read Scripture with new eyes? Those questions require another post! But several more points before closing this installment.

Why all this Matters

  1. Why turn to ‘gentleness’ as a possible, preferred reading of Phil 2:12? Perhaps I’m wrong, First time caller, but I think the likelihood is good that you did so because THAT is how God made you. If you met your Christian friends and all discussed what they see in each other, I suspect that you’d be nominated for the ‘gentleness’ award.
  2. If I’m off the mark and some other aspect of God’s nature more naturally quickens your faith, THAT attribute can also aid spiritual understanding and function as a key to reading Scripture with ‘new eyes.’
  3. Evangelical and Fundamentalist sects are overpowered by a tendency to elevate a few aspects of God’s nature above all others. God’s goodness, mercy, kindness, loving-kindness are mentioned as a point of orthodoxy. These are quickly set aside. Then God’s rage, authority, judgment and a few more fill the whole picture. These define how God is perceived. These become the starting point for their initiates’ relationship with God.
  4. Beyond teaching us to think about God in distorted and unhealthy ways, such ‘theology’ fosters extreme spiritual debilitation. It also means IFB members have little opportunity to relate to God or to reflect the aspect[s] of God’s character for which God primarily made them.

An Alternative to IFB Sects

Such an environment does not support spiritual growth. It does not aid believers to read Scripture through ‘new eyes.’ It is no surprise that IFB sects come to regard ‘maturity’ as church busyness — drive the bus, teach church school, sing in choir, go witnessing, lead the youth group, etc. Nor is it any surprise that ‘knowing the Bible’ means little more than being able to cite the stock passages on any given IFB line.

But once God’s attributes and God’s image are recognized as a key for spiritual growth and reading Scripture, a world of possibilities opens to us. We can now study passages from the perspective of any number of attributes of God. We can study passages to discern which aspects of God’s nature seem most at work in a passage. And we can ask what it means for us to reflect that aspect of God’s character from the text in our lives.