A pastor friend once asked me, “What are some good points for the text this week?” At that moment, a piece of my soul died.
Points, applications, and next steps are all appropriate for sermons, but they aren’t as good as vision. I’m not talking about the vision of a particular church or program, but a vision for people’s lives—as individuals, families, and the church.
Can God’s work in the world be reduced to stale and alliterated points? Sometimes, I guess, but not most of the time. Life is too complicated for one size fits all formulas and prefabricated constructions. Sadly, that reality hasn’t kept many of us from trying. And that trying often keeps people from growing.
Let me explain.
Sunday to Monday
Several years ago, I was talking to a group of local city mayors, chiefs of police, chiefs of fire departments, and city managers. More than 95% of these women and men were Christians. Knowing I was a local church pastor, they gave me the green light to use the Bible in my presentation. As we worked through the day’s content and I responded to their questions and concerns, I mentioned a well-known parable of Jesus and how the principles of that parable might shape their imaginations in solving their problem.
They were shocked. They weren’t shocked because I’d referenced the Christian scriptures. They were shocked because they’d never thought this parable was of any use in their daily work. This parable was not an obscure teaching of Jesus’. Even folks outside of Christian churches would likely know it.
I left our gathering astonished!
These good folks had spent their entire lives sitting in church pews, carting their spouses and kids to local churches, volunteering in their church community, and offering their tithes, but they had not considered that what they heard each Sunday—beyond a general moral code—was useful in any real-world way. They could recite the “rules” of Christianity, something like the 10 Commandments, but they lacked the ability to transfer what they’d heard each Sunday to the projects they worked on and the people they worked with.
I began to wonder: Is preaching broken?
How Do We Form People?
I know plenty of people who think preaching is broken. They argue that one person monologuing does not form people like spiritual disciplines practiced individually or in small groups. I don’t disagree. Where I do disagree is whether or not preaching is designed to form people in the ways these critics expect.
The problem with preaching is counter-intuitive. It’s the exact opposite of what preaching’s critics say. The problem with preaching is that too many preachers are trying to form people through preaching. And worse, they are trying to form people by rote.
Rote teaching is designed to aid learning through repetition—think memorizing multiplication tables or a piano student who never learns to read music, but simply mimics their teacher’s movements across the keys. This is fine in some circumstances, but insufficient for growth, development, and spiritual deepening.
A Christian who sits under rote teaching and is primarily shaped by a step-by-step approach to the spiritual life, will do well when the events and contours of life connect obviously and well with a particular teaching they’ve heard. Some of us preach as if life is a puzzle and all there is to do is match the pieces with the vacant holes on the board, but life hardly ever happens that way.
The Bible doesn’t directly address thousands of everyday situations. Rather, the scriptures offer us principles, frameworks, concepts, stories, and experiences of women and men who have failed and succeeded in faithfully walking with God. There are precious few if/then, black and white scenarios in life. In fact, many of life’s stickier situations don’t even fall into the categories of right or wrong, but rather wise or unwise.
Growth in Wisdom
Wisdom requires more nuance and deft than three points. Wisdom requires story. Wisdom requires discernment. Discernment resists fill-in-the-blanks outlines.
Rather than painting-by-numbers, God-followers are invited to enter into a story, discerning how God is moving, what are God’s priorities, and then drawing conclusions and principles to apply to situations which often aren’t directly enumerated in the Biblical text.
The daily situations and temptations of a Fourth-Grade teacher differ greatly from that of an accountant, model, writer, multi-millionaire, or single mom. Rather than bought off the shelf, connect-the-dots sermons, preaching ought to give people a vision of a new and different world, a kingdom where God is enthroned and God's will is enacted. That means (wait for it) that preaching which yearns to tell Christians exactly what to do and when to do it, straight-jackets Christian’s own wisdom and imagination.
A quick look at each of the sermons in the Book of Acts reveals very few “to-dos” or “applications.” There are certainly some (i.e. “repent and be baptized …”), but while those exist, the bulk of the homilies are a proclamation of an event—the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. They are invitations to see the world differently and live differently in light of the resurrection. Disciples, then, are asked to arrange their lives on the basis of the reality of the resurrection. In short, Christians are invited into a vision of a new world, not simply to satisfy a checklist.
Vision and story functions differently than application. A vision invites Christ-followers to listen, look, discern, and seek.
Now is the time to reimagine the way preachers preach and the way churches hear.
Readjust to the World
It is Eastertide, the 50 days after the resurrection leading to Pentecost. It is a time when the church is invited to readjust to the world where resurrection is a reality. Eastertide is a time of new beginnings, it is the time we see the world differently and fracture its brilliance into the lives of the church in ways we cannot anticipate, see, or fully comprehend.
Now is the time for preachers to proclaim an expansive, kingdom vision for life and the world rather than merely offer tips, tricks, and tactics about hot topics and Twitter. The preacher’s central homiletical task is to ask hearers “What does resurrection look like in the particularity of their lives?”
When I met with that group of city officials, they were evidence of a Christianity which was learned by rote—like a child mimicking their piano teacher, they were familiar with the tune, but had no clue how to read music. When faced with hard and sticky realities, these folks are forever consigned to “go ask my pastor.”
And if asking pastors is the primary response from our people, our preaching may be broken.
Sean Palmer is the Teaching Pastor at Ecclesia Houston, speaker and speaking coach, and author of several books including--Speaking by the Numbers: Ennegram Wisdom for Teachers, Pastors, and Communicators.