Power in the Pulpit
We have the great responsibility to be different from the world.
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Spending nine years on the preaching team of All Souls, Langham Place was a rare privilege. A nerve-wracking one, too. Especially when Uncle John (Stott) was in the congregation! But as I've reflected on my preaching over the last twenty-five years or so, I've sensed that very different things affect my nerves these days.
The All Souls pulpit was donated in the 1970s by John Stott's friends and admirers when he stepped back from the overall leadership of the church. In common with many others, it has a little inscription that always caught my eye as I climbed its three steps: "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." They're great words—important words. Every preacher would do well to honor them.
But given today's cultural climate, the ability of people to "see" Jesus in our preaching has a new barrier. It all comes down to the problem with power. Specifically, many of our contemporaries harbor deep suspicions of anyone in authority, perhaps especially when they speak publicly.
For example, I recently chatted with a woman from a missionary family but who is now really struggling to cling to her faith. She simply stated that she had never encountered a Christian leader who was not manipulative of others. But her cynicism was no contrived posture; it was an agonized, if understandable reaction, to having fingers burned too many times.
The problem with power
In 1998, celebrated German theologian Jürgen Moltmann noted that skeptics' engagement with religion, and with Christianity in particular, had shifted to "a purely functional critique of [its] psychological, political, and social effects." The question is not about "whether it is true or false, but only whether it has the function of oppression or liberation, alienation or humanization."
Exactly right. Moltmann had identified one of the key features of the prevailing mood of suspicion—and it is as much a mood as anything—that is engulfing western culture. If I can make a gross generalization for a moment, suspicion derives from the abuse of power. And because when you start looking, you find it everywhere, contemporary society is acutely sensitive to the problem. What will we discover behind the next closed door or buried deep in a leader's personnel files?
It stands to reason, though that the old adage "once bitten, twice shy" still stands. The grounds for this suspicion are all around us. It's too risky not to be suspicious. Isn't it?
Consider politics: aren't we immediately suspicious of campaign trail pledges? And I'm not just talking about candidates we oppose. Even those on "our side" of the political aisle dissemble, distort, and spin. It's the inescapable fact of modern political life. Does anybody these days honestly believe every official statement or explanation?
This of course, chimes with the philosophical shifts of the last century. Nietzsche was the real pioneer though. To cut many long stories and treatises very short indeed, he recognized that all knowledge is now suspect. As he declared in Beyond Good and Evil, "Every philosophy conceals a philosophy too: every opinion is also a hiding place, every word is also a mask." All that remains is a hermeneutic of suspicion.
Thinkers since have systematically unpicked reality. The intellectual foundations of the whole Enlightenment project of modernity have consequently crumbled. God was not the only casualty of this project of deconstruction; everything was—all political ideologies, all social interactions, and eventually what it means to be an individual person. Opinions, especially if advocated by those historically privileged with power, required vigorous scrutiny to expose hidden agendas. The status quo could not stand, because who knows what inequalities and injustices it masked?
The problem with power in the pulpit
What has this to do with pulpit ministry? Well, unfortunately, rather too much. For pulpits (or pulpit replacements like pretty glass stands or even a bare stage designed for a solo speaker) are powerful symbols. Symbols of power.
Now, the theologically orthodox (of whom I naturally consider myself a member) baulk at the thought. Or at least, we rightly kneejerk a retort that it's not intended to be symbolic of the preacher's power. Rather, it clearly stands for the authority of the speaking God. "Sir, we wish to see Jesus."
Yet when the average Millennial wanders into an evangelical church these days, their unlikely to even consider such nice distinctions. After all, what's the difference between a preacher's pulpit, a professor's lectern, and a politician's podium? All are designed for addressing large numbers of people for whatever purpose. But sadly, history repeatedly proves that those purposes have not always been for the flourishing of those listening, but the aggrandizement or bolstering of the one speaking. And I am talking about churches here.
Spiritual power abuse is a recognized problem, documented by various reputable and responsible professionals. Dr. Diane Langberg of Pennsylvania has done excellent, if agonizing work, on this issue. While we might assume that the problems of child abuse in the Catholic Church or the practices of cults are far removed from our own contexts, they lie along the same spectrum. If we're not careful (by which I mean, if we're not sensitive to the power we inevitably wield in our ministries), we will find that we inadvertently fall into some terrible traps.
Another ex-All Souls minister, Steve Wookey, published an important book, When a Church Becomes a Cult, twenty years ago. He outlines a number of common features, but one thread is pervasive: authoritarian leadership. While it is perfectly possible to be authoritarian from the shadows, there's no doubting that preaching can be a key weapon in the autocrat's arsenal.
So today's skeptic is unlikely to be listening for logical holes in our preaching. Or be concerned about referring to the spiritual realms as if they might actually be … like … real or something. In fact, they'll probably find that stuff quite intriguing and refreshing. It's the means the preacher uses to communicate, and to what ends that they will be sensitive to. What do these people want from me? What will these people do to me? Will I ever be able to get away from them? In short, will the preacher manipulate me?
So it is my increased awareness of these issues in recent years which has deepened my trepidation about preaching, far more than any nerves I might have about public speaking.
The practice of power in the pulpit
Now just to be clear, I am not advocating abandoning the pulpit. For one thing, I don't actually buy the line that our generation is uniquely attention-limited. It simply depends on what grabs that attention, not how long. Online gaming or TV boxed sets can occupy us for days; while sports statistics keep fans quiet for hours. It all depends. When the English playwright Alan Bennett was once asked how viewers would cope with one person talking for forty minutes, his response was simple, "If you've got a story to tell, they'll listen." How much more true for cosmically good news communicated well?
What's more, I do actually believe there is something intrinsically and unavoidably declarative about the gospel appeal. When Christ comes to rescue us in all our brokenness, he calls on us to repent and trust him. It's not up for debate or discussion. But it is an appeal. A command actually, on the lips of the greatest revelation of the Cosmic Creator. There is something genuinely awesome about that.
This is not the place to consider the case against the validity of preaching in a postmodern era. But it is the place to recognize the great responsibility we have to be different from the world. I've often come back to four very precious, radical words of Jesus in his discussion about the Gentiles who "lord it over you." "Not so with you," he says (Matthew 20:26). Instead the model is the loving slave: in other words, himself.
So how might we do this from the pulpit? Here are some thoughts and provocations in what is by no means an exhaustive list.
• Keep Your Authority Explicit: It has never been more vital to sit under the authority of Scripture. And to do it quite explicitly and regularly. People forget! Incidentally, this is one of the supreme benefits of systematic expository preaching since topical preaching can all too easily (though not inevitably) become a litany of private hobbyhorses or corporate agendas. But I actually think this is liberating in the end. It means we don't even have to pretend bear the weight of divine authority.
• Keep Learning With Your People: Make sure you never present yourself as the fount of all knowledge (particularly tricky if you are the only regular preacher in your church). If there is a legitimate hermeneutical debate about your subject, say so. By all means say where you stand and encourage others to follow your example, but do so with sound reasons, never manipulation or coercion. Don't hide difficulties or squeeze out problems. So demonstrating that you are a disciple yourself who is constantly learning is very important, as well as an encouragement to everyone else to keep learning.
• Handle Difference and Disagreement Well: Now this is tricky since I'm not a relativist. I'm not denying the importance of holding to your convictions nor the need for any community to have some membership boundaries. But do you respect questions and doubts enough to be take them very seriously? Even from the pulpit.
In one church I worked in, we would regularly have a question time during coffee after the service. Anyone could ask what they wanted about the sermon and the preacher would attempt an answer. Now that was scary, but never fruitless. It kept us all honest.
Then how will you discuss and describe those you take issue you with? Are you slow to empathize and quick to label? I'm not just talking about opponents outside the wider church or even your church. From the record of your preaching alone, could you ever be accused of loving your opponents and enemies with gentleness and respect? It's something that John Stott modelled brilliantly. He knew there were occasions when naming names was unavoidable. But he would take great pains to ensure a fair representation of opponents' views (to the extent that he would contact them in advance to check he did them justice). Not only does this prevent setting up easily swatted straw men, it earns great respect and even affection from friend and foe alike.
• Take People's Pain Seriously: I'm not talking about making psychological therapy the mainstay of your preaching ministry. That is a short-sighted blight on much contemporary preaching (on both sides of the Atlantic) since it fails to recognize both the Now-And-Not-Yet nature of redemption for broken people and the rebelliousness of sinful people. But as we apply the wonders of gospel grace, we must show how they meet us in our pain and brokenness, not despite it. And for that, I think, we must be prepared at times to show our own vulnerability, confusion, and weakness. It's a tough one to get right though. It's certainly unhelpful to hang all your dirty washing out in public! But it's vital for our integrity, and for how we wield the power in our hands by virtue of our ministry. It was certainly a key motivation behind our mental health/depression service at All Souls back in 2012, when I touched on some of my own struggles in the course of my sermon (now transcribed for Preaching Today).
• Convince, Don't Manipulate: When I first started doing talks at summer camps for teenagers, we were taught always to "state, illustrate, restate, and apply" each key point. I don't think I've really graduated from that. Intriguingly, it's important for the issue at stake here too. For it encourages a discipline that is committed to clear communication of the Scriptures—to what they reveal, rather than what we think. Our task, like the temple priests of old, is to make "it clear and [give] the meaning so that the people understood what was being read" (Neh. 8:8). Then, since the Word will not return empty (Isa. 55:11), we simply have no need to manipulate, distort or deceive (2 Cor. 4:2). Instead, we help to convince people that this is what God says. It's the crucial ingredient in itinerant or even international ministry. How else could we ever imagine we would have something to say when we cross cultures?
• Apply, Don't Convict: It is right that we show how the Scripture applies to the here and now. But it is both unnecessary, since Jesus promises that his Spirit will do it (John 16:8), and quite possibly an abuse of our power, to try to convict people of their personal sin or eternal destiny. We should certainly never take any delight in it. We must always avoid using the pulpit to say the pointedly personal things we are too timid to say to an individual.
History's greatest preacher
There will be many other ramifications from all of this. We should leave it now though for remembering the greatest preacher of human history, to whom the multitudes of all sorts flocked, for hours and even days on end: the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no question that, when he preached, he never used his platform to abuse his power, but to bring about the flourishing of all who would heed him. So let us preach to serve, as he did. "Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:26-28).
Editor's Note: To explore more about this theme, see Mark Meynell's book, A Wilderness of Mirrors, Trusting Again in a Cynical World.
Mark Meynell is Associate Director (Europe) for the Langham Preaching arm of Langham Partnership, having previously been a Senior Minister at All Souls Langham Place in London for nine years.