Chapter 64

Letting the Listeners Make the Discoveries

Scripture can speak for itself

Whenever I stand before a congregation, I have to suppress my natural instinct to preach. We preachers have a tendency—some innate drive—to offer answers to our listeners before they've even heard the questions. We want to help, but sometimes we forget the process required.

No wonder preaching has gotten a bad name. "Don't preach at me!" a teenager shouts at his parents. "I don't need your sermon," a wife says to her husband. And we know exactly what they mean. People resist answers others have found for them. Now-I'm-going-to-fix-you sermons make my congregation's eyes glaze over. When I pontificate, they cannot contemplate.

J. B. Phillips, while translating the New Testament, discovered its truth to be pulsing with life and power. He felt like an electrician, he said,' working with wiring while the power was still on. This was no dull routine, grappling with the dynamic, living Word! Phillips felt the awesomeness—both the dread and the excitement—of the electric charge of God's truth.

Keep the Bible first

Once while traveling, my daughter and I heard a sermon on the radio. The preacher read the text magnificently; it was from Romans 8 and was about hope. The preacher then gave a series of moving, personal anecdotes about hope.

After the sermon my daughter asked, "How did you like the sermon?"

"It was moving," I said. "In fact, one of the illustrations brought me to tears."

Then my daughter said something I'll never forget: "But Dad, I didn't like the sermon because the pastor basically said, 'Since I have hope, you should have hope.' And that's not gospel."

I was so proud of my daughter. She saw that the Good News was something more. I'm glad this pastor has hope. But I need to see how that text in Romans gives me a profound basis for hope whether he has hope or not! In a way then, the pastor cheated his listeners. We were denied the opportunity to see the text and discover from it the basis of hope for ourselves.

People, of course, desire a human touch—love and compassion and hope. And they need personal stories to show the gospel in action in daily life. The only trouble is, personal stories alone don't connect me to the real source of hope.

Personal witness and stories should be seen like all illustrations—as windows to illuminate, to help people look in on a textual treasure waiting to be discovered. If I make my discoveries through such stories, I may become unhealthily dependent on the storyteller, usually the pastor, for my spiritual growth. But if I can discover hope for myself from Romans 8, I discover it alongside the pastor. Although it takes more time, this discovery is more powerful and long lasting.

Yes, we must be people-fluent, understanding them and communicating to their needs. But first we must be textually fluent. That means, of course, I must invest time and hard work to know the text. In fact, I have to know a lot just to raise the right questions! Good teaching comes when I understand the content and deeply know the text before I search for its implications. Then people can be connected first and foremost with the text.

Let the urgency come through

Letting the Scripture speak for itself doesn't mean I'm dispassionate about my presentation. If I want my learners to discover the text, I need to whet their appetite for spiritual things. To do that effectively I need to convey the urgency of the text.

The best calculus teachers believe a kid can't really make it in the world without knowing calculus. Such teachers demand more and challenge more. They also teach more. I want to capture a sense of urgency that says, "This is not just an interesting option. It is essential that you know." Learners catch more than content from such teaching; they catch an enthusiasm for the truth.

This means, among other things, I must be urgent about my own soul. I must be a growing, maturing Christian myself with an appetite for spiritual things. Only then can I communicate with urgency the need for my congregation to grow and mature as well.

Don't get to the point

Although I'm urgent about what I teach, I'm not urgent about getting to the main point of the text. I've learned not to reveal what I know too soon. I've learned not to force the discovery but to let the natural drift of the text unfold. I've got to give people time to wonder, time to ponder, time for questions to emerge, and time for answers to take shape in the text.

When I preach by raising questions that spring naturally from the text itself, I enable the listener to discover meaning for themselves. It's a little like Agatha Christie holding the solution to the mystery until the time is just right.

Take, for example, the text about Zacchaeus in Luke 19:110. After Zacchaeus received Jesus into his home, the next line says, "They all murmured, 'He is gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.'" Even though I want to highlight this detail quickly, I don't need to tell the congregation right off why the people murmured.

So first I'll ask them, "Why did the people murmur? Why are they so upset? What's going on that they're so angry with Jesus? And notice, they all murmured—that means the disciples, too. Why are the disciples upset?" I may journey with my congregation through the various kinds of people who'd have been present in Jericho: Why would the Pharisees murmur? Why the disciples? Why the townspeople? What upsets them so? What expectations did they have that Jesus now has dashed? Such an approach retains the text's natural drama.

With this particular story, I can take my congregation on a journey through some Old Testament expectations of the Messiah. I can explore various ideas of what the Messiah would and wouldn't do with a crook like Zacchaeus. I can consider why people weren't prepared for a Messiah who came to seek and to save the lost. I can show why they were so surprised by Jesus.

It's this surprise element in the text that is the wonderful news! When I can help my congregation make such discoveries just a split second before I actually tell them, they get excited about the Scripture and its relevance for their lives.

Let the truth sell itself

We teachers are often tempted to say too much all at once, especially at the end of lessons and sermons. We throw in everything we can think of to make someone a Christian, rattling off the most precious facts of our faith—the blood of Christ, the cross, God's love—and reduce them to hasty, unexplained sentences.

Instead, I've found it is far better to let the scriptural text make its own point and sell itself. And we can trust Scripture to sell itself because the Spirit is already working in people before they even come to the text.

People come to the text not as blank slates but as individuals in whom the Spirit is already working. Since the Scripture speaks to people's deepest needs, we can trust that it will get a hearing from people. We can be confident people will discover how good it is once they give it a try.

It's like taking a person to Mount Hood: I've been to Timberline Lodge, and I know how beautiful it is. But I don't have to brag about it beforehand to convince someone of its magnificence. When I get him there, he'll see its beauty for himself and be impressed. All I have to do is bring people to the door of Scripture. Once they walk through the door and see for themselves, they're going to be struck with how relevant Jesus Christ is for their lives.

In our church's small group Bible studies, for instance, we don't try to be evangelistic. Our goal is to let the text make it's own point and then enable the group to talk together about what is being read. We consciously try not to cover everything the first week but only what the text for the first week says.

A crusty engineering professor in our city was shattered when his wife died of a sudden heart attack, and just before he was to retire. She had been a Christian, and after the funeral, he came to see me. I steered him toward the Gospel of Mark and some additional reading.

After several weeks, I could see the New Testament was gradually making sense to him. My closing comment in our times together was usually, "Let me know when you're ready to become a Christian."

One Sunday after church, with a lot of people milling around, the engineer stood in the back waiting for me. He's not the kind of man who likes standing around. Finally he got my attention, and he called out, "Hey Earl, I'm letting you know."

That was it; he became a Christian at age sixty-five, convinced by the Scripture of Christ's trust-worthiness.

Letting people hear their own application

Creating opportunity for personal discovery sometimes surprises us in the way results come. One pastor struggled with the way his conservative upbringing imposed artificial spirituality on people. He refused to preach on traditional "sins": going to movies, smoking, drinking, and so on.

One Sunday his text gave him ample opportunity to talk of such things: "All things are lawful, but I will not be mastered by anything." However the pastor still would not mention the sins dictated by his tradition. Instead, he deliberately spoke of other addictions tolerated by his church, things such as overeating and watching too much television.

After the service one woman cornered the pastor, handing him her pack of cigarettes. "It may be lawful," she said, "but I've been mastered by these cigarettes. I've never noticed that verse in that way before, so I'm giving these to you. With God's help, I'm going to master them." Without a word about cigarettes or nicotine, the text itself had spoken to this young woman.

I have found that change goes deeper when we make the connection, when we discover God's Word to us.

When I can help people discover that, then I'm "teaching" a great deal and preaching as I should.