Engaging God's Mysteries in Preaching—a Book Review
November 13, 2010
Updated December 21, 2017
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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.
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Sounds kind of refreshing.
I agree with you that sermonizing has very much become an academic exercise even though it is changing. All I can say is that I have been wrestling with, "what is good preaching?" since I left seminary just over a year ago. While nice academic, polished sermons may cut it in GR and in the trenches of deep rooted established traditional churches, I have not found that style to be valuable out "in the real world." Trying to reach simple folk and unchurched here in the West requires a much more passionate conversational style. While I appreciate the 4 page method we learn in the seminary, I use it mainly to make sure my bases are covered with trouble and grace, the rest is dictated by how I believe the text needs to be preached in my context. I think my sem profs would shudder sometimes. But, hey, the Word of God is being preached and I see lives changed. And to be honest, I think GR and entrenched established churches need less polish and a little more spit... and vinegar sometimes. To me, Jesus sometimes just laid it out there as if to say, "okay now what are you going to do with that? How will you respond?" It wasn't all polished and caudeling, if you know what I mean? If we're preaching to the saints and seekers, lost and hopeful, then there are times when the challenge needs to be laid on the table for the saints and a challenge for the seekers as well as hope for those needing it. Grace in the world could also include a quote from Alan Danielson, "What if.... we got off the couch? Why are you wanting to stay on the couch in the first place?" Let people walk out with that on their mind.
Ken, Believe me I don't hold back the Gospel at all. Just listen to my sermons. If you don't hear the word of God preached let me know. www.alamosacrc.com
What I was getting at is that there isn't any one model that is best. In seminary and in some places perfect wording and being certain to come up with the right illustrations, etc is what is expected. Sometimes that can get in the way of good dialogue preaching which is more natural for me.
Thanks to Ken and Allen for the comments and responses to the book review on preaching. Since I'm moderately ambidextrous--or maybe slightly dyslexic, if you look at things judgmentally--I'll respond first to Ken's response to Allen and then make a couple of observations about Allen's initital comment. (Are you still wth me???)
Ken--I don't think Allen was talking about "holding back" or "coddling" anyone. I think he was responding to what it means to get out into the preaching world once one has left the somewhat hothouse environment of seminary (ANY seminary, not just Calvin). There's nothing wrong with hothouses. They give plants and preachers good starts or helpful, nurturing environments for producing fruit under supervised and controlled conditions.
Hothouses in the fruit and vegetable industry go wrong when farmers forget how to grow stuff in a natural environment. For example, one of the stupidest things I ever remember seeing was a greenhouse project in the highlands of Guatemala to grow tomatoes within sight of an ancient and successful outdoor market garden program by Mayan folks; it used local water, soil and air without modification. Meanwhile, the hideous greenhouses used imported metal frames, plastic sheathing, bottled fuel and who knows what kind of soil. I think it must have been old (or young) white guys trying to "help" smarter, more experienced brown people who could have stood some help in other areas but surely not in growing vegetables.
Now on to Allen's first comment: homiletics and church worlds go wrong when congregations become audiences or consumers and when what and the way one learns in seminary or continuing education classes is entrenched as the only mould for producing sermons. Paul Scott Wilson's "four pages of the sermon" is a splendid method, one of many helpful tools in a large, flexible, differentiated toolbox for preachers. Robert Farrar Capon's many books on preaching and the Bible are rich, never exclusive sources. For his part, Wilson never claims "four pages" is the only way to prepare or preach sermons. "Four pages" CAN deliver the whole goods at certain and many times and for certain and many congregations. Maybe "out west" academic stuff in sermons doesn't work, but I don't know that it works "down east" or "up north." I know nothing about what works "down south." But it's gotta be OK to quote Eugene Peterson or Marva Dawn to almost anyone with half-a-brain and a heartful soul.
If "academic," though, means merely citing sociology, statistics, recounting philosophical currents and arguments and quoting experts and commentors for the show-off quialit, that probably doesn't fit in too many places. If, though, "academic" means quoting from, reflecting on themes in contemporary or classic novels, songs or movies that echo or allude to biblical narratives, characters or themes, that not only fits; it also seems to me to be a rigorous and required way to engage culture and give the whole biblical goods. No coddling, no holding back. Rather, it's just "exegeting the culture along with the Bible" as my friend Dan Ackerman once said in a fine speech to Synod when he was a candidate; he urged all preachers to do both constantly.
So, friends, thanks for the topics, themes, conversations. Let's keep thinking, writing, listening, preaching--and going back to the Bible.
Hey all, James, (from your opening section of your book review last friday) well, that's me a lot of times, I am there listening to but not always absorbing the sermon at hand, our former youth minister used to say, you have them (youth) for 10, maybe 15 minutes, after that forget it. I happen to think that a lot of older than youth people have the same going on. So, does this mean that the day is lost as far as God's word is concerned?, I joke about it sometimes in our Bible study groups, we have a pastor in each we attend. I don't think so, you are at church, the Holy Spirit is there and you, paying full attention or not, are being "marinated" in God's wisdom and directions, kind of like having your food three times a day, but still taking the extra vitamins (think sermon) by taking pills. You take in minute (milligrams) of nurture, and then, someday in the near or further future, something comes up and you have the answer, the vitamins kicked in, the Spirit prompted, something of a sermon from some time past stuck. It's not always (ever?) our own strength that makes us so Bible smart or Christian living savvy. so, I try to stay with the sermon, but don't feel bad if i loose it sometimes.
I'm not sure I fully buy into the 10 or 15 minutes of youth attentiveness. Perhaps it happens sometimes. But I think your points raise another concern that I have and find myself trying to work with. That is perhaps we have created and enabled an environment where people can turn-off during the sermon. It's sad to me when people think a service is supposed to last no more than an hour. In some ways our tight system has enabled people and perhaps subtlely so to tune out and not fully engage.
Recently when I was at the Right Now Conference in Dallas I rubbed shoulders with many wonderful evangelical brothers and sisters who often spoke of a 45 minute sermon and people responded to the message. These are very fast growing churches too. And listening to some of the speakers I could tell why. Their style of preaching and teaching was very encapsulating and engrossing -- it was a very down-to-earth style that touched a lot of contextual nerves throughout reconnecting the listener in different ways. It was exegetically sound and very honest and enlightening. But I think that many of these growing churches have the DNA of "We are here to encounter the living Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit and we don't care how long it takes." I experienced this myself in my own church journey as a young adult. Expectancy and a "realness" in worship keeps attention -- generally speaking -- there are always some who will disengage no matter what.
Allen, yes, I agree, the style of preaching makes a difference, and yes, the Message is the key in the service, a long sermon does not bother me, unless there is a lot of repeating. Attention span?, maybe it is talked into the kids inner being that that's all that they can take, and unfortunately we may move that idea forward and perpetuate/strengthen it in their mind, they hear things and figure it out pretty quick I am told. Do you think that these churches grow because of the preaching only, the whole service or are members actually inviting the new ones to come.
Ken, you are helping my friend, I see your thoughtful, encouraging replies throughout the Forums, as God let the apostle Paul know after his requests to remove the thorn from his flesh, it's through weakness that things happen in Gods kingdom, you are one busy guy at work in that kingdom in my view. I read that you have MS, much in the news here about a treatment, developed by an italian doctor, still not allowed in Ontario, where the veins to the brain are treated like an Angioplasty, some people from Toronto were on the radio (yup, still listen to it!), they said they were much better, but there are risks involved, as always I presume. God Bless, John.
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