We are living
in cyclonic times for preachers. Students of the history of preaching realize
that such seasons for the craft have occurred sporadically across the centuries
but we seem to be experiencing some especially poignant pressures and stresses
right now. Many preachers feel themselves to be caught in a vicious and violent
vortex of pressure to change, adapt, retreat, retool or something and they are
abit confused and bewildered by it all. QUO VADIS?
Living in a context
of widespread deconstruction, the preacher faces the fact that many deny there
is any text at all. Meaning and authorial intent are gone. The very idea of
history has collapsed and the classics are gone. The ego disease is pandemic
and the quest for the authentic self has pretty well edged out any transcendent
vertical. Is any coherent, stable linguistic meaning possible today? Preaching
is under serious assault.
The American “religion”
is an amalgum of Emersonian gnosticism and its “self-reliance;” Harvard pragmatism;
and American “manifest destiny.” E. Brooks Holifield’s classic A History
of Pastoral Care in America has the subtitle, From Salvation to Self-Realization.
A very clear paradigm shift has moved much preaching from text-centered, text-derived
proclamation to audience-centered, need-driven, problem solving discourse. Many
like Powerpoint and the use of film clips seem to leave many preachers with
high levels of frustration. Preachers stagger from one faddish program to another
always under the gun of unfavorable comparison with neighbors and highly visible
national pacesetters. Endless seminars on how to reach boomers, busters and
millennials have only added to their consternation. Are we touching the more
auditory, the more visual and the more kinesthetic? Besides, some are telling
us that linear reasoning is done, induction has triumphed and narrative is all.
Where has this left many highly motivated preachers who find themselves stunned
and confused. Is it all up for grabs?
Worship wars continue
to devastate many congregations. One able young preacher and his leadership
were slow to include any newer sound and a large contingent of the younger folk
decamped to a nearby media center. By the time the church began to seek a judicious
blend, they found the older element was offended and they left the church or
absented themselves from it. No winning for losing. Now with the advent of “hi-tech
worship,” in some cases the pastoral staff no longer decides on what will be
preached. The technicians do because they have to get the images to be projected
and that determines the preaching topic. The clash of culture wars continues.
But not only is
there great pressure to adapt feel-good theology or “Christianity-lite,” but
some key evangelicals are bailing out from the high view of Scripture but also
from the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement. Conversion is a process
not an event some insist (isn’t that a false dichotomy?). Voices are heard among
us deriding absolute authority, absolute certainty and the centrality of Scripture.
Rejection of propositional truth is urged as our exit from too servile a bondage
to “modernism.” “What I’ve experienced” is the be-all and end-all. And add to
all of this and what appears to be the triumph of the therapeutic gospel is
the fact constantly thrown at us, that the life of the mind is virtually extinct
among evangelicals. So where are we?
Add to all of
this, as we look over our shoulders we are assured that after the current wave
of the mega-church is coming the house church again, refitted and reionized
for competitive advantage. Are we not all feeling somewhat buffeted and beat
upon? Is there any reasonable basis for thinking recovery is possible? What
ought the preacher to do?
WE NEED TO REST US IN OUR BASIC CONFIDENCE IN CHRIST
When Chicken Little
screams “The sky is falling!” or when William Butler Yeats glumly tells us that
“The center will not hold,” the servant of Christ must not panic or disintegrate.
Christ is the guardian of his church (Matthew 16:18). At this juncture we would
be advised to sink the shafts of our spirits deeply into the narrative of how
King Hezekiah was besieged by the Assyrians. The adversary scoffed and threatened
but Hezekiah went to the Lord and “spread it out before the Lord” (2 Kings 18-19).
The Lord preserved and delivered his people. Similar scenarios in the life of
our Lord and in the ministry of the Apostle Paul would be likewise profitable.
Revisiting the early church’s address to the clash of Christian and GrecoRoman
cultures or how the church faced the Enlightenment onslaught in the eighteenth
century become exceedingly instructive.
WE NEED TO REVISIT AND CORRECT THE DATA
We need to beware
of the sweeping generalization. Post-modernism is in the air beyond a doubt
(especially in the bastions of the academy), although in Europe it is already
the post-post-modernism. But what per centage of our hearers are post-modern?
Most are still quite traditional, some are still enlightenment rationalists,
some are old-fashioned romantics, others are new age. Stanley Fish, ardent post-modernist,
has recently published a new book on John Milton “so that people will really
know what Milton meant.” Oh, so. Is there meaning in a text? Richard Rorty,
another pomo stalwart, has recently stated that he wants to live his life by
the last table of the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule of Jesus. It is not
easy to live real life on the post-modern premise.
We have not left
linear thinking – 99% of the fiction published in our country is still linear.
In fact, narrative itself is linear. A divinely revealed premise in deduction
thinking does achieve “moral certainty.” Science itself uses both induction
and deduction. There is a danger of oversimplification. Technology like Powerpoint
can be useful but can be overused. Advocates in business, education and the
military are all pulling back some – advising users not to use the technology
coming down the stretch in a presentation. The triangulation in the communicational
situation tends to overintellectualize the faith and greatly reduce the warmer
aspects of interpersonal discourse. There are plus and minus here. Use it wisely
Narrative is but
one of the exciting literary genres of Scripture but narrative cannot establish
doctrine but rather illustrates doctrine. We need the teaching sections of Scripture
to tell what the passion narratives in the gospels mean in terms of an understanding
of the atonement. To regard the canon of the Bible as only narrative is to fail
to proclaim “the whole counsel of God” and to deprive our hearers of the rich
variety in our Biblical sources.
Worship wars are
needlessly wasting us right and left. Separate contemporary and traditional
services will be the kiss of death. We need a serious blend of diverse styles
of good quality music in our worship. We are not helped when well-meaning evangelical
leaders call worship teams “terrorists.” Colleen Carroll and other scholars
are documenting the fact that the millennials (the bubbles) are not of one perspective
on worship (really is any population segment?). 15% of them really want traditional
worship, traditional doctrine and traditional ethics. Post 9/11 changed the
listening situation for most Americans.
NEED TO RECOMMIT TO OUR BIBLICAL CONVICTIONS
of the Word of God have always faced the challenge of stating the eternal “givens”
of Holy Scripture in diverse cultural settings which have required the most
careful and prayerful contextualization. Make the truth clear – for it is relevant
– but beware of giving away the store. Our job is not to make people feel better
about themselves. D.M. Lloyd-Jones raised an important question: can we really
make a Christianity which appeals to modern intellectuals? Can we erase the
scandal and the folly of the cross? Are we advised to try to do so?
after World War I tried to tailor the gospel to fit the post-war mood but as
Machen has so well demonstrated, they jettisoned the supernatural distinctives
and were left with the pablum of positive thinking which changes and transforms
It is not Catholics
like John Dominic Crossan who believe that dogs ate the body of Jesus who make
a mark. The Jesus Seminar people are not seeing growing churches and changed
lives. One conservative Catholic thinker calls these liberals “quislings of
the Zeitgeist,” i.e. those who are sold out to the spirit of the age. The fact
is that “traditional dioceses and religious orders are producing lots of vocations,
but liberals are not. All the energy in the church is found among traditional
Catholics, who have large families, who are revolutionizing education via home-schooling,
who are virtually the only Catholic presence on radio and TV, who are founding
new seminaries and colleges, and who are spearheading the only massive
grassroots movement in the church, the prolife movement.”
In both message
and methodology we should be cautious and careful, not making change for the
sake of change. C.S. Lewis warned of the “chronological fallacy,” that asserts
the new is true and the old is mold. The old is not always true but the true
is old. Fads and fancies come and go but there are bedrock realities which are
always true and are unshakable. Don’t rush into major change.
King Ahaz of Judah provides us with an important warning. “He did not do what
was right in the eyes of the Lord his God” (2 Kings 16:2). He became a servant
and vassal of the Assyrian tyrant. He paid tribute to this heathen and saw the
wealth of his own people stripped bare. He went to Damascus to hob-nob with
this enemy and there he saw an altar he liked. He had sketches sent home and
when he returned he had sacrifices and offerings made upon the new altar. His
deference to the Assyrian monarch was disastrous. Whatever the pressures of
our time, our fealty as preachers to the Lord and to his Word must not be reduced.
LET GOD BE GOD!
L. Larsen isProfessor Emeritus of Preaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity
School, Deerfield, IL.