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Preaching & the Next 10 Years

Three suggestions for becoming preachers who turn the world on its head.
Preaching & the Next 10 Years

An interesting exercise: imagine switching up Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr. Put the first Martin, the theological Reformer, in the streets of Memphis or Selma in the early 1960s, calling down the papacy, asking pointed questions about indulgences for the dead. Put the second Martin, the Civil Rights activist, in Wittenberg, circa 1520s, decrying racism and systemic injustice, organizing bus—or, I guess, mule-and-cart—boycotts.

Their respective messages would be lost on their new audiences, rendered almost entirely incomprehensible by the cultural context. Not that the issues each touched on—doctrinal purity, social justice—are irrelevant in either's era: there just would be no ears to hear it said that way.

What just happened is that the text's subversive power has itself been subverted by the sermon's anemic applications.

Which captures a key dilemma of every preacher in his or her historical moment: how to keep our preaching both timely and timeless. How to tell the old story in fresh bold ways. How to avoid tickling ears but also avoid dulling them.

I was speaking recently with a man once internationally renowned for his preaching. He is now in his 90s and, because of his frailty and forgetfulness, has had to step down from the pulpit. In our conversation, he lambasted preachers today whose sermons "don't have a clear proposition." I've listened to a few of this man's sermons—which are very good—and he certainly could never be accused of that. In each sermon, he says what he's going to say, then says it, and then says what he said. Each sermon is as tight and lucid as a syllogism.

I was glad he'd never heard me preach, because I rarely have a clear proposition. I cut my teeth in the era of narrative preaching—Eugene Lowry, Fred Craddock, William Willimon, Tom Long, and others, were my mentors from a distance. The technique is to pull people into the story. Weave a spell. Hint and bait. Raise more questions than you answer. Puzzle your listeners, provoke them, get them wondering and pondering. Disturb as much as comfort, haunt as much as edify.

But if you listen to Tim Keller, one of the most compelling and influential preachers in our day, whose preaching is particularly attractive to a younger generation, it seems closer to what my 90-something friend thinks good preaching is than it does to my approach. Keller always has a clear proposition. And my hip, cool style is starting to feel stodgy and passé.

Where is all this going? How should our preaching change over the next 10 years?

Well, if I knew the answer to that I'd write a book and get filthy rich..

But I have a few suggestions. Three, in fact.

Propositional and narrative

First, I think preaching should become both more propositional and more narrative. We need clearer propositional preaching simply because so many people have lost the big story of Scripture. Most North Americans, at best, retain a thin patchwork of inherited, and distorted, memories of a few iconic biblical moments—a talking snake tempting a naked couple in a garden, a kid with a slingshot felling a giant in a valley, a wayward son stumbling home, a waylaid man taken to an inn. These pictures exist in many people's minds as merely a scattering of unconnected fragments: the scroll they once attached to is lost. Narrative preaching works best where there is a deep grasp of the big story—say, a group of pastors; where there is not that deep grasp of the big story—say, a group of undergrads—propositional preaching, the careful spelling out of things, will need to make up the difference.

Yet I don't think we should lose narrative preaching. Novels and movies with jerky, twisting, multi-layered, even bewildering, plot lines that keep the audience guessing to the last page or frame are all the rage just now, with no end in sight. People endure a lot for the sake of a good story: they sit in dark caverns for two or more hours, riveted to the screen, holding their bladders, or they sit up in bed until the wee hours, telling themselves over and over "just one more chapter," because they simply need to know what happens next, and how it all turns out. Preaching that grabs and holds people like that has a long shelf life. The best thing a preacher can hear after a longish sermon is, "you could have kept going. I lost track of time." Only narrative preaching evokes that response.

Recreate the dynamics of the text

Second, I think in the next 10 years we need more preaching that recreates the dynamics of the text. What I mean is that a sermon on grace should do more than just teach about grace—its Greek root, its various meanings and uses, the key texts from which we derive our understanding of it—but should create a "taste and see" moment, where the sermon, and its preacher, become vessels of an actual outpouring of grace, and people walk away smitten, agog, dazzled by grace, giddy about it, soaking in it, and ready to let it flow freely from their mouths, their hands, their lives.

Think, for instance, on Paul's famous riff in Romans 5 on grace abounding where sin abounds. Good preaching will do its exegetical duty here—say something about the Roman church, about the wider context of Paul's argument, about the original language, and such. But transformative preaching will sweep people up in a visceral experience of the very grace of which Paul speaks, and make them laugh out loud with joy or weep unabashedly with relief, and send them forth full to bursting.

Implication and example, not application

My third and last suggestion: preaching in the next ten years should go light on application and heavy on implication and example. The problem with most applications is they reduce the text to a few bromides and, worse, meddle with the work of the Holy Spirit. Imagine, for instance, a sermon on Luke 19:18-30, Jesus' encounter with a rich young ruler. The man wants to know how to inherit eternal life. Jesus explores options with him, but then tells him bluntly, "This one thing you still lack: go and sell everything you have and give to the poor … then come follow me." The man is stunned. He walks away, very sad.

Imagine a preacher preaching this in the way just described in my second point, where they recreate the dynamics of the text. People are squirming. It's almost unbearable, the drama, the tension, the crisis of decision. One man, wealthy, successful, talented, is completely undone. He sweats profusely. His heart thunders. It is as if Jesus himself stands before him, and he must either heed Jesus literally or walk away entirely.

But the preacher feels they must make an application. They say, "Now, it's unlikely the Lord is asking anyone here to do something so radical as selling everything and giving all to the poor. That was an appropriate challenge for this man in this story at this time, because Jesus discerned that money and possessions had become his idols. But what might the Lord be asking you? Some of you need to start tithing. Some of you need to give away the clothing you haven't worn in the past year. Some of you … "

What just happened is that the text's subversive power has itself been subverted by the sermon's anemic applications. Or, as Dorothy Sayers says, the Lion of Judah has just been declawed and turned into a lap cat.

What we need more of is not application but implication and example. Imagine the same sermon, the same dynamics. But instead of applying the sermon, the preacher says, "What are we to make of this? At the very least, Jesus does not play either favorites or games. He does not make following him a partial, whimsical thing, done on our timetable, on our terms. Grace is free, abundant, amazing, but it's never cheap.

"Maybe I can best describe it by telling about my friend. He had just bought his dream car—a pearl white beamer. He'd waited his whole life for that car. When he washed it, which he did every third day, it was like he was seducing a maid: the silky touch, the ravished attention, the enraptured gaze.

"Seemingly unrelated, he was praying for an old high school friend who had come back into his life. The friend was a mess. He'd burned through three marriages. He'd just broken the grip of a drug addiction. He was out of work. He was trying to get back on his feet. But he needed a car. My friend was praying for him, and he sensed the Lord saying, 'Give him your car.' And he said, 'But God, I was going to give that car to my daughter.' And Lord said, 'Not that car. Your car.'

"And so that's what he did.

"So we're left with this question, but I wonder who dares ask it now: What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Preaching like that would turn the world on its head.

Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.

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