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I’m not wild about books about preaching. I often feel overwhelmed; how can I fit all that into a sermon? I already feel like I’m trying to do too much in my sermons.

But I know I can become better at my craft. This year during study leave, I decided to read some books on preaching. One of the books was Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Tim Keller. I want to do a better job of reaching those who aren’t “fully on-board” in addition to communicating the Reformed faith to those who already believe. I think Tim Keller is pretty good at that.

This book is not so much about the nuts and bolts of sermon preparation (there is an appendix that addresses much of that). It focuses on the bigger issues of preaching- how to communicate with people.

The introduction talking of the three levels of the ministry of the Word. The ministry of the Word is not the exclusive province of pastors. The ministry of the Word extends far beyond the sermon. Every Christian should have a ministry of the Word in that they should be able to communicate basic Bible knowledge and teaching to others. This is a very informal level of ministry. If the Word dwells richly in us, this is doable.

In between this informal ministry and formal ministry is those who have a gift of teaching but who are not ordained to preach. It is a formal setting, but doesn’t entail formal education or an office. Small group leaders, SS teachers, personal exhortation, counseling, and evangelism are examples of this second level of teaching. This book would be helpful for people in the 2nd and 3rd levels of ministry.

In the midst of this, Keller defends preaching from the attacks of those who want it done away with in our day. While God transforms churches through all three levels of the ministry of the Word, preaching is still an important part of that transformation. We see preaching as normative in the New Testament. It should be normative for us as well. He positively quotes Adam in saying the gospel ministry should be “pulpit-centered, but not pulpit restricted.”

Good preaching is faithful to the text, and the people to whom God calls you to preach. Great preaching lies mainly in the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the preacher and the listener. Later he’d refer to Martyn Lloyd-Jones talking about “logic on fire”. I recently watched the documentary on him and can identify with those moments during preaching when you are caught up in the truth you are preaching. A shift takes place in you as you preaching becomes worshipful, for lack of a better term. You are lifting up Christ to them, and yourself.

“Spiritual eloquence should arise out of the preacher’s almost desperate love for the gospel truth itself and the people for whom accepting the truth is a matter of life and death.”

Great preaching preaches Christ to the cultural heart. The preacher connects with the heart of the culture to challenge its conclusions and point to Christ for the fulfillment of its legitimate aspirations. Keller is an advocate of redemptive-historical preaching, connecting each text with the central message of the gospel for the justification and sanctification of those who listen.

He starts with preaching the Word. He explains the difference between expository and topical preaching. He advocates for focusing on expository preaching. He doesn’t think you should never do a topical sermon, but that it should be the exception, not the rule. He cautions against some forms of expository preaching which spend so much time in one text that book studies take 5+ years. The people will not hear the whole counsel of God this way.

“Preaching is not only explaining the text but also using it to engage the heart.”

I am generally an expository preacher. I have one text and preach it. During Advent, Lent or Reformation Day I may do some topical or thematic sermons. My goal is to preach the text, and point them to Christ through that text. I’ve spent about 2 years in a book like Genesis or John, but I try to balance that out with shorter series like Esther, Jonah or a summer series in Psalms. In my 7, nearly 8, years at my current congregation I’ve preached on Genesis, James, Colossians, John, Esther, 1 Peter, and Jonah. In addition to the summer series on Psalms, there have been series on the sacrifices, Advent Songs in Luke, the dreams in Matthew, prophecies of the Messiah and others I can’t recall at the moment.

I pick series based on my perception of the congregation’s needs. Expository preaching will drive us to preach on difficult texts and subjects we’d prefer to avoid as well as keeping us from our hobbyhorses and pet issues.

In the second chapter he focuses on our need to preach the gospel every time. We need to connect our text with the context (paragraph, chapter, book, Testament, whole Bible). We don’t want to merely provide moralistic “biblical principles” or generally inspire them. We need to show them Jesus because He is the One they need generally and in the particulars of their lives. I’ve heard too many sermons that never get us to Jesus.

Keller talks about law and gospel. He relies much on William Perkins who doesn’t divide the Bible or texts into law and gospel. It is more helpful to see law and gospel as uses of texts rather than categories of texts. Therefore we use the text to reveal the law and therefore need for the gospel, and how Christ fulfills that need. In this context he points us to Ferguson’s work (from the Marrow Controversy) on legalism and antinomianism. Both have the same root in the lie of the serpent that God is not good but withholds good from us. If you read only one chapter in this book, this is the chapter to read. This should filter into our preaching so that we bring the gospel to bear against both legalism and antinomianism. Both miss God’s loving grace, the loving grace we need to present to them each week. We can trace their idols down to these roots and show that Christ is the real answer.

Keller, without really saying it, indicates what gospel-centered preaching isn’t. He mentions two dangers to avoid. I have actually heard sermons that said “gospel” 50 times but never actually explain the gospel. Such a sermon is NOT gospel-centered preaching. Keller warns us to avoid preaching without preaching the gospel. You can mention Jesus frequently without mentioning His substutionary obedience, death, resurrection and ascension. You can mention Him without talking about imputed righteousness, union with Christ, His humiliation and exaltation etc. We can also preach Christ without actually preaching the text. Spurgeon did this sometimes. We need to know the main point of the author and spend time with it and going from their to Jesus. Spurgeon tells a story of a Welsh pastor telling a young pastor that every city in England had a road leading to London. Not every road led there, but one did. Every text has a road to Jesus (sometimes more than one), find it and go down that road with the people.

In the next chapter, he spends some time showing how to do this.

The section I really had interest in was about preaching Christ to the culture. This had much to do with proper contextualization so you are connecting too as well as challenging the culture. This is a hard balance. Antinomians accommodate the culture and legalists tend not to connect to the culture because they are overly critical. While culture is the produce of sinful humans, it is also the product of people made in God’s image and necessarily has some remaining connection points.

“We adapt and contextualize in order to speak the truth in love, to both care and confront.”

He notes a shift in Edwards’ preaching after he left Northampton. He took the Native Americans’ experience of suffering into consideration in his preaching. He used more narrative as well. He adapted his preaching style in order to connect with a different culture, a different audience.

“If you over-contextualize and compromise the actual content of the gospel, you will draw a crowd but no one will be changed. … You will mainly just be confirming people in their present course of life.”

He advocates for using respected cultural authorities to strengthen your thesis. Just as you may drop a few Calvin quotes for a Reformed audience, you may want to consider quotes from non-Christians or others who are generally respected by the non-believing members of your audience. Additionally you want to demonstrate you understand doubts and objections. Address the resistance instead of simply ignoring it and plowing through it. He brings up “defeater beliefs” people hold, that if true Christianity can’t be true. Acknowledge them and address them or people will just tune them out if they have those beliefs. He advocates affirming cultural narratives in order to challenge them. Often the aspirations are good but the means are not biblical. Affirm them as on the right track, but point them to Christ and His work as the real means to fulfilling those aspirations.

In the next chapter Keller addresses preaching to the modern and late modern mind. He talks about the impact of individualism, the web of secularity and the borrowed capital used by atheists. He tries to help pastors move from the cultural narratives into idols and true freedom and fulfillment in Christ.

Keller than addresses preaching to the heart. You preach the text (normative), addressing the culture (situational) and the heart (existential). We have to exegete all three and preach to all three. Each of us finds one of these easier and another harder. Tim is great at the culture in my opinion. The text must impact the heart of the pastor to help him impact the hearts of the congregation. He again draws on Edwards and his work on the affections. Truth produces holy affections. We are passionate and imaginative when we address the heart. We want to show them that Jesus is greater than the things they love. This is gospel motivation; more love to Thee.

One of the keys is getting out of the echo chamber. He doesn’t use that term, but we need to listen to a diversity of opinions. That can come from friendships, social media, sources of information and more. But don’t just listen to people you agree with. This will help you have broader understanding of the application of texts.

The book ends in discussion the demonstration of the Spirit and power. This includes the call to holiness. Giftedness will get you only so far. Holiness is essential to great long-term preaching. We are more convincing if we actually find Him to be great, not just assert He is great.

This is a very good book for covering the big picture of preaching which affect how we say it more than what we say. It is a challenging and encouraging book. I’d highly recommend this contribution to the science of preaching.

 

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In January I’ll be starting a sermon series on 1 Peter currently entitled “Living Faithfully in Babylon.” Recently Daniel Wells mentioned a book by David Fitch called Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission. It looked like something that may help me think through some things as I preach through 1 Peter. In 2010 James Davidson Hunter released a book called To Change the World, in which he talks about the church maintaining a faithful presence. Dr. Anthony Bradley, before he dropped off Facebook, was highly critical of the book. Having not actually read it, his point seemed to be a lack of missional presence by the church but rather a retreat to a ghetto. Fitch refers to Hunter’s book in the introduction:

“Hunter proposes that Christians changes their tactics for engaging culture and changing the world. He asks Christians to turn away from grabbing power in the broader culture through traditional political means. Quit trying to win the battle of ideas through political rallies, voting schemes, cultural confrontations, and campaigns of persuasion in churches and political forums. Instead let Christians commit to a “new city commons” free from the power struggles and culture wars. He calls for Christians, shaped by an alternative covenant community of the kingdom, to humbly inhabit the places where they live and work with a new on-the-ground presence that dialogues and interacts with those around us and the institutions we are a part of.” (pp. 12-13)

Fitch seeks to flesh out more of what this looks like. Anthony Bradley did a blurb for this book, so I thought I’d read it. I’ll confess I can struggle with reading more “broadly evangelical” books. They often lack a sense of history and theological depth that leads them into trendy ideas that are often gone in a few years, as well as a rather shallow understanding of things. But I don’t want to live in a Reformed echo chamber either. This was one of the times I ventured out.

I think I found some helpful ideas in the midst of the trendiness. There were some challenging thoughts in the midst of the, from my perspective, theological weaknesses and problems in the book.

David Fitch is a professor at Northern Seminary (an American Baptist Seminary) and pastor of Vine Christian Community (affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance) and Peace of Christ Church in Illinois. I did not know of his denominational affiliations until I just looked it up seconds ago. Reading the book I thought he came from a more Anabaptist or Brethren background. He frequent refers to John Howard Yoder, for instance. There is also an emergent, or whatever it is called now, influence with guys like Scott McKnight and Leonard Sweet. To make matters interesting he tosses in some Herman Ridderbos. In other words, Fitch is kinda broadly evangelical with some Anabaptist leanings.

So, where to begin?

He wants us to practice 7 disciplines, as the subtitle notes, to shape the church for mission. He looks at each of these 7 disciplines in 3 contexts. His terminology is fairly idiosyncratic at this point so I’ll use more common terminology. First is the church gathered or public worship. Second is essentially missional communities where Christians are gathered but expect to invite non-Christians to join them on “our territory” for lack of a better term. Third is outreach where we enter “their territory” in the hopes of dialoguing, discussing and building relationships that may or may not result in them eventually being part of the church gathered.

He notes that often churches can focus primarily on the church gathered and fall into maintenance ministry. In reaction to this, they can focus primarily on outreach and fall into exhaustion. Churches should be committed to all three.

The 7 disciplines are: The Lord’s Table, Reconciliation, Proclaiming the Gospel, Being with “the Least of These”, Being with Children, the Fivefold Gifting (Eph. 4) and Kingdom Prayer. Nothing terribly novel here. Sadly, many churches have lost sight of these disciplines. When we lose sight of them, our churches become unhealthy and eventually die. For instance, too few churches seem actually committed to practicing reconciliation. Members just leave in a huff or conflict spirals into church splits. It starts with the little things, and so should reconciliation. We don’t just practice it among the church gathered, but in our missional communities and relationships outside of the church with neighbors, co-workers and people who share our hobbies and interests. I agree we should value children, and avoid the lure of glitzy programs in place of actually spending time with them.

So, in terms of big picture as well as some cultural critique there are some positives here. There were some good challenges.

But I also struggled while I read this book, largely because it was “broadly evangelical.”

It was trendy, and annoyingly so. Since the book is about presence, I can understand the very frequent use of the term. “Space” on the other hand…. It was nearly as frequent as the very “to be” (yes, some hyperbole). In one paragraph it was used 5 times, and frequently used 3 or 4 in a paragraph. I started circling it. Often the sentence was quite understandable if you removed the word or the clause around it. I feel like the Knights Who Til Recently Said Ni- “Stop saying the word!” As we will see in a moment, there were also some theological concerns connected to it.

His ecclesiology and sacramental theology were problematic. He speaks as if these disciplines are a set of new post-Christian sacraments. He uses the term sacraments in connection with them. My inner Inigo Montoya kept saying “I do not think it means what you think means.” Taking the concept of the Lord’s Table to missional communities and outreach is difficult for me to process. We should take hospitality into those arenas, but not an actual sacrament. I see a similar issue with the Fivefold Gifting. Does every missional group need each of the 5 gifts to work effectively? How does this work in terms of outreach? In his stories of sitting a McDonald’s it is just him, not with 4 other people exhibiting the other gifts. So this was confusing.

“The sacrament of being with children is a social sacrament that brings together the community in its withness with the child.” (pp. 139)

He repeatedly talked about miracles happening. Here comes Inigo again. As a seminary professor I expect him to use this loaded term technically, not simply for unexpected and extraordinary events that took place. In Scripture it is used to refer to healing of prolonged and disabling medical conditions without ordinary means (medicine), raising the dead, walking on water etc. It is not used of reconciling long-broken relationships or a homeless guy getting a job.

His view of God’s sovereignty is problematic. He says, in one place, that God is sovereign over all. But he sounds very much like an Arminian throughout the book. Often he notes God does not coerce or force his way. He may be arguing against a Calvinist strawman here since the Westminster Confession (and London Baptist Confession) affirm that while God ordains whatsoever comes to pass, he also does “no violence to the will of the creature.” Fitch does more than maintain human responsibility. He frequently speaks of “creating space” for God to work. That sounds like more than human responsibility to me, but that we really control whether God is at work or not. There is no sense of Him working with, without, above or against means. There is no sense of God initiating all this as the One who “works in us so we will and work according to His good purpose” (Phil. 2:11).

“He is still ultimately sovereign and in control of the world. But as for actually using his power and authority, he will not oppose our grabbing and pushing for control. He refuses to steamroll our wills in order to dictate his will in our lives and in the world. … God’s power can only work through us as we submit to him, let him work, open up space for him.” (pp. 168)

A text from Proverbs comes to mind, one that is quoted by both James and Peter in the context of our grabbing and pushing for control: God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. God does use his power and authority to actively oppose the proud. Yes, He is love and is patient but He’s also righteous and wise.

His polity is rather vague. He is clearly against hierarchy. This is good to a degree. But his ideas of mutual submission, particularly in the discipline of the Fivefold ministry, is quite unclear. Here is where Presbyterianism is a really good thing. We don’t believe in pastor as “pope” or bishop. We believe in the plurality of elders leading together in submission to Christ through His Word, and summarized in our Confession, in mutual submission to other churches in our presbytery. While not perfectly lived out (we are sinners!) is seems to be a good and biblical model based not just on an isolated proof-text but the whole of Scripture.

“For Jesus, authority in the kingdom would be exercised in no other way. There would be no hierarchy, no coercive power, no one person ruling over and above another person. His model, as we will discover, is mutual, shared leadership under one Lord.” (pp. 152)

Jesus’ point is not simply hierarchy, but motive. Church leaders are to be about Christ’s kingdom, not their own. Yes, there power is limited and there authority is to be exercised in love. But we see hierarchy in Heb. 13, 1 Peter 5, 1 Tim. 3, Titus 1 and Acts 15 among other places. Christians are told to obey their church leaders. Church leaders are overseers. It is how they fulfill this that is the issue.

As a result, this really is a book for mature leaders who can pick through the book, tossing out the suspect theology and trends while retrieving the good ideas that are present (and they are there). We should consciously work to maintain not only the church gathered, but missional communities of some sort and recall God’s presence with us even as we are present to the world in outreach. We should be committed to the Lord’s Table and hospitality, prayer, biblical leadership with stewardship, children (not just children’s programs that entertain), relationships beyond our socio-economic class, reconciliation, and gospel proclamation. When we do we are engaging the world, and engaging it positively, not just as a critic.

I will add that reviews say something not just about the book, but also the reviewer. While I can learn from broader evangelicalism (some Reformed people fall into the stereotypical arrogance and think they have nothing to learn from other parts of the church), I do evaluate it from my theological heritage rather than just accept whatever is said. I hope I am being fair in my criticisms.

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