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.

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They Never Will Care

They Never Will Care

PeterTForsythA student (of Forsyth) was sent to preach in a comfortable suburban chapel, and whose route. . . . took him through one of the worst slums in London.

“The sight of barefoot children in sordid alleyways, and all the other signs of deprivation, incensed him to an anger which he could not contain as he faced his furred and feathered congregation from the pulpit.

Waxing eloquent on social justice he recalled to his hearers what he had seen, and being met with a sea of complacent faces he blurted out:  ‘You don’t care, do you?  Damn you!’

Next morning, he found himself . . . . in Principal Forsyth’s study.  Forsyth was holding in his hand a letter of complaint from the church officers, and for several minutes the student was subjected to a stern lecture on proper pulpit behaviour.

Eventually dismissed, the hapless young prophet was just going through the door when Forsyth called out to him:  ‘Oh, just one word more, Mr …..  They never will care, you know – damn them!'”

Keith Clements, P. T. Forsyth: A Political Theologian? in Justice and the Only Mercy, Trevor Hart, pg. 146-7

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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…..

Interview with British Theologian Rev. Dr. Derek Tidball

tidball_derek_dianneOn the 21st June 2015 Rev. Dr. Derek Tidball was the guest preacher at church, and you can listen to his sermon here.  Derek is a British theologian, sociologist of religion, former Principal of London School of Theology, retired Baptist minister and author of numerous books, the most recent one of which I have read is ‘Preacher, keep yourself from idols’, a very helpful reminder of the priorities for the minister/preacher!

After the service I had the privilege of sitting down with him in my study and asking him a few questions:

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How to Listen to Sermons

ear handBooks abound on preaching.  Its art and craft, science and form.  But there is a dearth on how to listen.  Even if sermons have fallen for the old cliche, ‘a monologue by a moron to mutes’, it still begs the question: What of hearing?

Yet Jesus said, “Consider carefully how you listen….” (Luke 8:18).

The preacher has a responsibility to preach faithfully; and the congregation has a collective and personal responsibility to listen faithfully.  Sometimes what we think are ‘bad sermons’ are actually the result of bad listening.  For sure, there are bad sermons out there, no one’s perfect, but how often have we considered our own listening?

 

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Christ and the World

This is stunning…..

Subversive Preaching in a Postmodern World – A Targum based on Colossians 1:15-20 by Brian J Walsh

In an image-saturated world,

a world of ubiquitous corporate logos

permeating your consciousness,

a world of dehydrated and captive imaginations

in which we are too numbed, satiated and co-opted,

to be able to dream of life otherwise.

A world in which the empire of global economic affluence

has achieved the monopoloy of our imaginations;

in this world,

Christ is the image of the invisible God.

In this world,

driven by images with a vengeance,

Christ is the image par excellence;

the image above all other images,

the image that is not a facade,

the image that is not trying to sell you anything,

the image that refuses to co-opt you.

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