Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Preaching and Teaching

Disclaimer: I realize that this post will not matter much to everyone. Honestly, I just wrote it for myself, but I thought I'd put it here anyway. Thanks for reading!

I had a thought yesterday. I was listening to a podcast of a sermon while I was driving back from school in Waco (before you start wondering, the preacher is someone that I do not know personally. Only via podcasting). As I listened, my mind kept wandering. I began to plan out my day and make lists in my head, all the while this teacher is pouring everything he's got into what my mind is ignoring. At a certain point, I snapped back into focus and asked myself, "Why can't I pay attention to this guy?" I've actually been a subscriber to this podcast for a while, and I don't think I've ever made it through one without drifting off at least once. Which, of course, begs the question: Why do I still listen to his podcast? Because he has good ideas, and I keep expecting his sermons to catch up with his creativity. So far, they haven't. But I keep listening anyway.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good sermon (or talk or message or whatever). Any preacher you ask will have a different answer (they range from lots of scripture to humor to if the gospel is presented). I find that there are two mentalities (for the most part) that go in to the preparation of a sermon. The first is, "We want this experience to be accessible." This is what people say when long-time listeners say things like, "I'm just not getting anything out of this anymore." The pastor tells them, "Well, that's because it's not for you, pal. It's for the friend that you should be bringing. We're trying to make this accessible to people who are not Christians." Fair enough. So, while I'm sitting here bored out of my mind, at least someone else is getting something out of this, right? 

The other side of the sermon spectrum is, "We want the messages to be challenging." This is what happens when a new person comes and there is all sorts of internal jargon, and they approach the pastor and say, "I didn't follow a word that you were saying." The pastor would respond with something like, "Well, this is really a time for our members and attenders to be 'fed' (see other posts for my thoughts on this term) and challenged, and since you're new, it's going to seem pretty confusing at first." Fair enough, again. I'd better go somewhere else that is accessible until I can follow the lingo, and then I'll just hop back over here when I'm ready to move up to the advanced class.

The problem, as I see it, is this: most preachers say that they want to do one or the other, but they actually do neither. I've been to several church services where the pastor would claim to adopt the accessible perspective, but the talk is loaded down with Christian-ese and language that nobody outside of a church background should be expected to understand (this is the case with the pastor whose podcast that I referred to earlier). The problem is that when this happens, the preacher does not accidentally drift into the challenging category, either. Because he (or she) has spent so much time focusing on the idea of being accessible, there is nothing too terribly interesting being said. So, it becomes an odd stew of simple ideas delivered as though to a group of children, all the while being peppered with internal language and references. The result is that there is a certain group of people who feel like they're right there with the preacher because they've been around long enough to understand the language, but they've never been challenged to move beyond a certain point. So, it becomes like the small child who can watch the same movie over and over again and enjoy it every time. There are no surprises and there is nothing new being offered, but there is a sense of having experienced the movie, anyway. Everyone else in the room is either bored or confused or--most likely--both. (I wish that I could give you a concrete example of this, but I feel that I owe my colleagues more respect than that. However, if you start listening to a lot of different preachers and teachers, it won't take long for you to stumble onto this).

Here's what I think (and I acknowledge that I am, by no standards, an expert in this). I think a good preacher has to view both the values of accessible and challenging as equally important. Most people go wrong, I think, when they view it as an either/or situation. They see both concepts as existing on opposite sides of the same spectrum: the closer that they get to being challenging, the less accessible, and vice versa. However, I think you've go to throw out the spectrum idea. I think, instead, it should be viewed as two gauges on the same dashboard. Both gauges need to be on FULL for the mechanism to work appropriately. If you are high on one and low on the other, your car will not run properly. Having the appropriate level of oil does not make up for being out of gas. We need to focus on keeping an appropriate level of both. All of the messages (or sermons or talks or whatever) that have truly moved me have accomplished this. They are accessible: They enter into the conversation with no assumptions about their hearers. They carefully use narrative to draw new listeners into the conversation and help them to feel as though these ideas are not above or beyond them. They are also challenging: There is a sense of universal importance in what they have to say. They are never content with the status quo. They are constantly asking the question, "What are we supposed to do with this?" Honestly, I know very few teachers who are consistently good at this. I doubt most teachers and preachers put the amount of time and energy into the message that would be required to pull this off. But when it is done well, people are changed. A great sermon is a beautiful (and rare) thing.

Rodney Clapp has written a book for church leaders entitled A Peculiar People. In this excellent book, Clapp highlights all of the ways that the church can become more like the image of Christ that we are called toward. In this examination, he briefly turns his attention to those who would choose to call themselves preachers. Clapp writes this:

"The preacher, the Christ-storyteller, has the crucial task of helping us articulate our lives—our weal and woe—theologically, in relation to God" (103).

If something is not accessible, nobody will have any new insight on the articulation of their lives. It will simply feel like a foreign language. If something is not challenging, people will not see their lives in the scenario that is being presented, because, quite frankly life is challenging. It's not enough for a church member to hear the preacher; the preacher must constantly be listening to the people who would graciously offer their attention for 30 minutes every week. If we are to guide people and help them to articulate their lives through the lens of theology, we must learn to deliver sermons that are both challenging and accessible. This is how Jesus preached, and it is how we must preach as well.


*Caroline* said...

i think you are an extraordinary "preacher"! And I'm not the only one... ;)

mm jw said...

Wow. That was a GREAT post.
You ought to get that published --- well, on more than a blog.