Preaching: Many people hear it every Sunday, whether it's called a sermon, message or homily. Trouble is, not nearly enough actually absorb preaching or act on it. That's a terrible shame, because ancient and modern theology has understood preaching as the Word of God that feeds and changes human hearts and lives.
Why the disconnect? Maybe in part because, despite such a high-sounding theory, in white Protestant culture preaching has slipped into the tame niches of being an academic discipline, a professional exercise or 30 minutes of one guy (usually a guy) talking at a glassy-eyed crowd about an isolated Bible passage.
In two provocative and related books Kenton C. Anderson aims to open up such spiritual deadends for God's Spirit to breathe life back into preaching, so postmodern listeners can make some sense of our driven, but often aimless lives. To hit that moving target, Anderson (Dean at ACTS Seminaries Northwest) has written textbooks as light mystery novels. Here spiritual detective and protagonist Rev. Jack Newman is himself a victim of postmodern malaise. Yet as pastor of an established evangelical church in an unnamed northwestern North American city, Jack finds mysteries to solve and God's Mystery to proclaim.
In Conviction, Green Valley Trust, the town's environmental gadfly, suffers a break-in after a public flap with Dogwood Developments. Who's behind the break-in? Dogwood wants to build on environmentally sensitive land. City welfare is at stake morally and environmentally. Suspicions point to city councillor and would-be mayor Philip Andrews, but proof is hard to find. Of course! Postmodernism is big on action, but fluffy on facts and truth.
Meanwhile, Jack Newman doggedly plods through a confusing pastoral week, making a message on Colossians 1:24-29 about unsolved mysteries. He is dragged more deeply into city politics than he wants to be, but can't stay away from the mess. His cynical, agnostic, TV newscaster brother Tom challenges him to get real with his commitment. Finally Jack preaches a dynamite sermon that certain preachers might be tempted to use after one of our own crisis-filled weeks. (Kenton Anderson warns against that, but urges us to give credit if we do crib. Check out the “Begging, Borrowing, but Not Stealing” article on the Pastors Network “Must Reads” section.)
In Integrity, the postmodern search for truth cuts even closer to the preacher's bone. Jack Newman hears of the moral lapse of Chris Ellis, a gifted colleague and friend. Wishing to accompany his friend, Jack is beset by his own spiritual weariness. He doubts he can ever preach again. The thickening agent of Integrity's homiletical plot is an earthquake that tumbles the old church. Jack's own foundation shakes when he crosses the moral border from compassion to lust. He visits brother Tom's colleague Terri Jones in hospital where she ends up after being injured in the earthquake, but catches himself. Rather God's Word catches him and because of tough grace he kicks himself back on course and preaches "Shaken Foundations" on Hebrews 1:28-29. Maybe I'd like to use this sermon too.
Why didn't we have texts like this when I was in seminary? Why did we work so much on historical and grammatical background and history—important things—yet often miss the Story? Here's what I think. Generations of Evangelicals—preachers, teachers, believers—have fixated on truth as exclusively proposition, doctrine and dogma. Consequently, we missed Scripture's timely stories of eternal Word becoming our vulnerable flesh--convicting, forgiving and sanctifying us so we can live in a messy world that still echoes with God's presence and is the place for his Grace. Funny, to get at truth, Jesus told stories and poets and singers wrote psalms, but many listeners and not a few disciples didn't get them either.
So, Kenton Anderson helps us find the stories again to connect to the grander and true story of God's mysterious but ever-loving engagement with humanity and the world. He agilely dances between fiction and didactic style by analyzing postmodern symptoms, then giving homiletical structure to life situations via Bible passages probed in context. Some might call Anderson's plots contrived, but the books read as compellingly as most mystery novels.
He also cites dozens of academic texts that probe the theory of life-engaged, context-faithful narrative preaching. His method need not produce cookie-cutter sermons. In both books Anderson develops "integrative preaching" in four quadrants of a circle to show the intersections between Scripture and life: "What's the story? What's the point? What's the problem? What's the difference?"
Yet Conviction is editorially sloppy. Two aggravating slips among others: Jack Newman is stubble-faced and dressed in a sweatsuit when he meets brother Tom in a restaurant (p. 16). From there he drives directly to his church office to meet detective Conrad Liu, whose "suit was newer than Jack's. Crisper" (pp. 30, 31). Did Preacher Jack do a Superman-like change in his car on the way? Did he shave too? Later, Conrad Liu "poured" over telephone records (p. 97). Worse than such minor slips, though, is this careless grammar: "Preaching is when . . . . " (p. 45) and "Integration is where . . . ." [Italics mine.] p. 54). No such solecisms crop up in Integrity, the newer book. Maybe Kregel solved its own mystery and found a crisper copy editor.
Despite this, if you're a preacher who has ever gotten tired, doubtful or in trouble, these books might push you back to the story and life behind everything. Or, do you want to be a confidant and friend to your pastor? Read these books, lend or give them to him or her and keep talking about life and preaching. Maybe that will help prevent endless sermons. After all, the Word of the Lord lasts forever, but preaching should be shorter, engaged and interesting.