The Preacher Under Pressure: Crunch-time For The Christian Communicator David L. Larsen May 1, 2005 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 have succumbed. New technologies 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? I. 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. II. 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 and selectively. 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. III.WE NEED TO RECOMMIT TO OUR BIBLICAL CONVICTIONS Communicators 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? Protestant liberalism 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 no one. 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! ________________________ David L. Larsen isProfessor Emeritus of Preaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL. 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