Chicken Preaching, Flat Mountains and Glorious Contradictions

Chicken Preaching, Flat Mountains and Glorious Contradictions

The funny guys at Babyon Bee have hit on a Forsythian nerve of mine.  The headline ‘Half Of Congregation Dies Of Starvation As Sermon Goes 15 Minutes Over Time‘ is brilliant satire, as are almost all of their other articles; a much welcome relief to the tedium of seriousness we Protestants can so easily find ourselves embroiled in; relieved only by the annual church Barn Dance (this comment is also satire….or is it)?

My first thought upon reading the title was remembering two theological giants famous for, among many other things, their preaching.  The first, John Stott, metaphorically places the nail underneath the fast approaching hammer:John_stott

“Basically it is not the length of a sermon which makes the congregation impatient for it to stop, but the tedium of a sermon in which even the preacher himself appears to be taking very little interest.”

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Right Pitching in Preaching

“I remember one minister for education urging that ‘Britain was the only nation on earth where cleverness was despised’. In other European countries, for example France and Germany, cleverness is sought after and prized. The glorification of educational backwardness, then, is part of a localised British decadence or hedonism that is inconsistent with biblical Christianity.

On this point the stress on ‘right-pitching’ from the pulpit in our churches is potentially confused with the rebellious suppression of the truth which Paul speaks about in Romans 1:18, or with ‘keeping the congregation as babies’ in line with sinful parent-child models of leadership. Right pitching always seeks to ‘move on’ those in the congregation to the next level of understanding. If ‘pitching’ always remains low, then people are not prepared for the complexities of the trials they face in life. When trouble comes, the ‘cartoon’ Christianity they have been fed proves to be hopelessly inadequate and they often fall away. The excuse is often given by ministers that ‘people will not understand’, but this is often nothing more than a patronising assumption that people are stupid.

 

Some, of course, want to remain ‘as babes’ because they do not wish to be alerted to subtle distortions in their own relational patterns. Right pitching, however, combines intelligibility with the introduction of the new, the more advanced, the ‘not completely understood already’. As the famous philosopher Wittgenstein said, in order for learning and growth to occur, more than mere ‘information’ is required. There has to be a gradual increase in the sophistication of the very categories by which people process ‘new information’.

In my second year at Junior school (age 8-9), we did maths using the ‘A2’ textbook. I remember looking at the ‘A3’ text book and thinking ‘flippin’ ‘eck, that looks difficult!’ Yet, in no way was it ‘unwise’ for me to progress from A2 level to A3 level. In no sense did my teacher think, ‘hmm, yes – we’d better keep the class at A2 level because that’s what they can understand’.

In other words, advancement into the ‘at-present-unintelligible’ was right and normal. And that’s for children, let alone adults. Just as we are born, and require education, so when we are born again, we require re-education. Just as it would be wrong to prohibit education beyond 8-9 year-old level, so it is wrong to prohibit biblical re-education beyond ‘spiritual baby’ level. It may be culturally fashionable, but it panders to parent-child patterns of leadership control that are inappropriate for those progressing towards spiritual adulthood.”

Dr Robert Knowles

 

The Ancients on, and in defence of, Preaching

Martin Luther (1520):  “The soul can do without anything except the Word of God. . . . The Word is the gospel of God concerning his Son . . . To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it….The Word of God cannot be received . . . by any works whatever, but only by faith.”

John Wycliffe (14th c.):  “A Christian should speak Scripture’s words on Scripture’s authority in the form that Scripture displays. . . .The pastor has a three-fold office: first, to feed his sheep spiritually on the Word of God . . . ; second . . . to purge wisely the sheep of disease . . . ; third . . . to defend his sheep from ravening wolves . . . . Sowing the Word of God among his sheep. . . All the duties of the pastor, after justice of life, holy preaching is most to be praised . . . Preaching the gospel exceeds prayer and administration of the sacraments to an infinite degree.”

Alain of Lille (12th c.):  “Preaching should not contain jesting words, or childish remarks, or . . . that which results from . . . rhythms . . . These are better fitted to delight the ear than to edify the soul.  Such preaching is theatrical and full of buffoonery, and in every way to be condemned.”

Hugh Latimer (16th c.):  “Though a preacher be well learned, yet if he lacks that boldness and is faith-hearted, truly he will do but little good . . . When he fears men more than God, he is nothing to be regarded. . . . A preacher is like a ploughman who must first break up the soil; then he plants and waters the seed, to produce a right faith, sometimes weeding them by telling them their faults . . . breaking their stony hearts [so as to] tell them God’s promises to soft hearts. . . .Some are negligent in discharging their office or have done it fraudulently, [making] people ill. . . Many are involved in devilish ploughing, saying, “down with Christ’s cross” and “up with purgatory.  Only Christ made purgation and satisfaction.”

John Newton (19th c. – on prayer but works equally for preaching):  “Even in the exercise of prayer we profess to draw near to the Lord, the consideration that his eye has little power to . . . prevent our thoughts from wandering . . . to the ends of the earth.  What should we think of a person who, being admitted into the king’s presence, upon business of the greatest importance, should break off in the midst of his address, to pursue a butterfly?”

P. T. Forsyth (19th-20th c.):  “The orator, at most, may urge men to love their brother, the preacher beseeches them first to be reconciled to their Father.  With preaching, Christianity stands or falls because it is the declaration of a gospel.  Nay, more – far more; it is the gospel prolonging and declaring itself. . . I note that the Catholic revival of last century (19th), is coincident with complaints elsewhere of the decay of preaching.  And if this decay is not preaching itself, there is no doubt of the fact in regard to the pulpit’s estimate and influence with the public.  Even if the churches are no less full than before, the people who are there are much less amenable to the preached Word, and more fatally urgent for its brevity. . . . But the great reason why the preacher must return continually to the Bible is that the Bible is the greatest sermon in the world. . . . The Bible, therefore, is there as the medium of the gospel. . . . If we ask what is a modern Christian theology, it is the gospel taking the age seriously, with a real, sympathetic and informed effort to understand it. . . . It takes its stand neither on the spirit of the age, nor on the Christian consciousness, nor on the Christian principle, but on the historic and whole New Testament Christ. . . . . This is actually Luther’s test – does this or that passage ply Christ, preach Christ.”

The Belly-god

bb-header-logo4The funny guys over at Babylon Bee have hit on a Forsythian nerve of mine.  The headline ‘Half of Congregation Dies Of Starvation As Sermon Goes 15 Minutes Over Time‘ is brilliant satire, as are almost all of their other articles; a much welcome relief to the tedium of seriousness we Protestants can so easily find ourselves caught up in.

My first thought upon reading it was to think that the people in this satirical church were dying of starvation precisely because too many sermons are woeful in their duration, content and depth;  and secondly, remembering two theological giants famous for, among many other things, their preaching.

The first, John Stott, metaphorically places the nail underneath the hammer:

John_stott“Basically, it is not the length of a sermon which makes the congregation impatient for it to stop, but the tedium of a sermon in which even the preacher himself appears to be taking very little interest.”

And secondly, in the context of a favourite of mine, the theological giant that is P. T. Forsyth, I remembered his particularly penetrating and thoroughly uncompromising assessment of the situation, as the metaphorical hammer comes down and hits the nail on the head with astonishing accuracy:

blueforsyth-5“With its preaching Christianity stands or falls… The demand for short sermons on the part of Christian people is one of the most fatal influences to destroy preaching in the true sense of the word… Brevity may be the soul of wit, but the preacher is not a wit.  And those who say they want little sermons because they are happy to worship God and not hear man, have not grasped the rudiments of the first idea of Christian worship…. A Christianity of short sermons is a Christianity of short fibre.”

The problem is that we think we’ve cornered the market on short-attention spans, so trapped in a lifestyle that we’ve chosen of instant news feeds, permanent social media harassment, portable offices that beep, flash and ping every few seconds – we call these things “mobile phones”, we must be so important in the cosmic scheme of things, that we choose not to think deeply about a lot of things, we demand to be entertained; and when we are called to think, we think thinking is time-wasting and unproductive!  I mean, doesn’t that pillock-in-the-pulpit know how distracted I am?

pt5bn7qtbIs the preacher the equivalent to the Medieval Court Jester?  Singing the sermon-songs that seek attention and promise entertaining aka Robbie Williams?  Who wouldn’t prefer Raunchy Robbie to Preachy Richy?  What chance do I have?  Let me entertain you; must I entertain you?  Do you need entertaining?  Why do you need entertaining?  Why me?  Why you?  Why here?  Why now?  Why?

Manure!  These guys, Forsyth and Stott and gazzillions of other unnamed faithful, preached at length twice on Sundays, with many people being present at both, as well as mid-week meetings that actually included exegetical study and exposition of the biblical text (admittedly the TV wasn’t so good back then), but still!

Now, may I get a little theological here?  If Stott’s comment is the reason for Forsyth’s comment (even though Stott was a generation after Forsyth – stay with me), then my goodness, preach a short sermon and get it over with – put us all out of our bored and hunger fuelled misery.  Forsyth also said that a bad short sermon is also a sermon that is too long.

Just preach well preachers.

Just eat well before church if you can.  Even our belly-god knows when our spirit is being fed and our hearts warmed by the food that is Christ proclaimed.  For we do not live on bread alone…..

A Fatal Influence

bb-header-logo4The funny guys at Babyon Bee have hit on a Forsythian nerve of mine.  The headline ‘Half Of Congregation Dies Of Starvation As Sermon Goes 15 Minutes Over Time‘ is brilliant satire, as are almost all of their other articles; a much welcome relief to the tedium of seriousness we Protestants can so easily find ourselves embroiled in.

My first thought upon reading the title was remembering two theological giants famous for, among many other things, their preaching.  The first, John Stott, metaphorically places the nail underneath the fast approaching hammer:John_stott

“Basically it is not the length of a sermon which makes the congregation impatient for it to stop, but the tedium of a sermon in which even the preacher himself appears to be taking very little interest.”

blueforsyth-5And in the context of a particular favourite theologian of mine, the theological giant that is P. T. Forsyth, I remembered his particularly penetrating and thoroughly uncompromising assessment of the situation, as the metaphorical hammer comes down and hits the nail on the head with astonishing accuracy:

“The demand for short sermons on the part of Christian people is one of the most fatal influences to destroy preaching in the true sense of the word… Brevity may be the soul of wit, but the preacher is not a wit. And those who say they want little sermons because they are there to worship God and not hear man, have not grasped the rudiments of the first idea of Christian worship… A Christianity of short sermons is a Christianity of short fibre.”

We think we’ve got the right to a cultural short-attention span, so trapped in a lifestyle we’ve chosen of instant news feeds and social media harassment, we must be so important that we choose not to think and we demand to be entertained; and when we are called to think, we think thinking is for losers and time-wasters – doesn’t that pulpit-person know how distracted I am?   Is the preacher the new (congregational) Court Jester?  Singing the sermon-songs that seek attention and entertainment, a Medieval second-rate knock off version of Robbie Williams’ ‘Let me entertain you’ prances into my mind.  Who wouldn’t prefer Robbie to Preachy-Richy?  What chance do I have?  Let me entertain you; must I entertain you?  Do you need entertaining?  Why do you need entertaining?  Why me?  Why you?  Why here?  Why now?  Why?

Manure!  These guys, Forsyth and Stott and gazillions of other unnamed faithful, preached at length twice on a Sunday with many people being present at both, as well as mid-week meetings that actually included exegetic study and exposition of the text (admittedly the TV wasn’t so good and social media wasn’t so addictive (or invented), but still)!!!

Now, may I get a little theological here?  If Stott’s comment is the reason for Forsyth’s comment (even though Stott was a generation after Forsyth – stay with me), then my goodness, preach a short sermon and get it over with – put us all out of our bored and hunger fuelled misery!  Forsyth also said that a bad short sermon is a sermon that is already too long!  Preach it brother!

And finally (to satirically use a well known rhetorical device beloved by preachers), now’s the time to smell the chicken….

…..which is, I think, deeply ironic!  Amen.

tree

 

Preaching: A word from elsewhere

thebible_brueggeman_theologian“I heard a Rabbi say not long ago, that Christian pastors have ruined the life of a Rabbi, because a Rabbi is a scholar and a preacher; but Christian pastors are social workers and therapists and a bunch of managers, and now people in his synagogue expect him to do that!

I would think that preachers – I think it’s exceedingly difficult – but I think that preachers have to decide what the main tasks are and practise enormous self-discipline about not being drawn away to do other things that do not properly belong to the ministry of Word and Sacrament….now you can’t do that completely…

But I believe that many preachers finally get around to their sermon in their fatigue from everything else.  And if imagination is the key to good preaching, you cannot be imaginative when you’re exhausted! 

So I think it has to do with ordering ones priorities, for the sake of ones best energy.  And that, for many preachers, that means really deciding that this is the main task, and if you want the congregation to have missional energy and all of that, preaching is the pivot point for all of it.

If a pastor decides that, then a pastor is going to make more time for reading and study and prayer, which are the disciplines that cause the pastor to live, to some extent, in a different zone.  And if we are to bring a word from elsewhere, then we have to live to some extent, elsewhere, and I don’t think that’s very easy given the huge demands and expectations on most pastors.”

Walter Breuggemann

(You can see this short interview here)

Although this very short interview does not fully outline the task of preaching or pastoral care, as this was not Breuggemann’s point.  To my mind, he is suggesting that Christian ministry of any kind but especially that linked to Word and Sacrament, is less effective when conducted in the toxic atmosphere of fatigue.

The problem is that our toxic atmosphere of fatigue is also a toxic atmosphere of relentless activism (I wonder if there’s a link), so much so that we’ve made it a virtue, to the point where we feel guilty or feel compelled to express embarrassed justification when ‘caught’ reading a book – because when in-toxic-ated, we neither view nor value reading a book, or study, or even prayer as work!  

So although not all questions are answered here, what WB does remind us of, is the supreme importance that the Gospel subverts our common narrative and purifies the toxicity all around us and crucially, in us.  We need men and women called by God to Word and Sacrament, who are serving and feeding the Church from playful and thoughtful rest; playful and thoughtful study and playful and thoughtful prayer!

I don’t even know how to do it but I’m gonna die trying…..

Preaching is like the blurred image of a mountain on the bosom of the French teacher – A Preaching Parable

text-message-preaching-scripture-in-the-multimedia-age-by-ian-stackhouse-0718842634I am currently reading a great little book edited by Ian Stackhouse and Oliver Crisp about preaching, called Text Message – The Centrality of Scripture in Preaching, and can be found by those who seek!

It is a collection of essays by thirteen writers, each contributing to the book within its three main categories:

Part 1:  Biblical and Theological

Part 2:  Historical

Part 3: Textual

It really is a wonderful collection and should be on every homiletics course reading list in our colleges and universities, not to mention the shelves of ministers and preachers alike.

In any case, there is much to say about this book, but I was re-reading the foreward by Thomas G. Long, a professor of preaching  at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, USA.  I was struck by a story he told of a preacher (James A. Wharton) remembering his French teacher from school and how it related to preaching:

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