Saturday, February 06, 2010

In Defense of Irrelevant Preaching

I've been thinking about preaching some since returning from NOLA. I delivered a sermon there and then also heard Kirk Jones Preach again. To see Kirk preach is to be reminded of the joy in the gospel and the joy in preaching it. He preaches with his whole body and thoroughly savors being immersed in the Word. that is something I'd like to get back to that I think I've forgotten about lately... the joy of preaching.

But I'm also thinking about relevance. Most churches that I know of place 'relevant preaching at the top of their priority list. Every once in a while I get some feedback that a recent sermon or sermon series 'isn't speaking to me.' I take that to mean that the sermon/series hasn't addressed an issue that the person deems relevant, or has not contained information that the listener finds useful. This post isn't meant to be a response to criticism by the way. I'm not offended where I hear that criticism and I don't take it personally. Kirk Jones once told me that one of the secrets to good preaching is careful listening... so I am listening carefully and thinking about what I'm hearing.

I have some concerns about what people expect of the sermonic event and I wonder if there aren't some assumptions at play.

First, the bible text cannot be comprehended in its original context and then applied to a completely different context in the normal New England 15-20 minute time limit. I don't care what anybody says, the Bible was not created to be quickly and easily digested. It takes time to understand and apply it. I fear that when we apply time limits to the sermon we are leaving preachers in the position of speaking in bumper-sticker phrases and empty platitudes. Politicians speak in sound-bites and we are very accustomed to receiving slickly packaged information in brief commercials on tv and radio. But the Bible isn't a Swanson Hungry Man Dinner. It isn't meant to be quick easy.

Second I'm concerned about our priorities here. I wonder if those who sometimes say 'its not speaking to me' are without thinking it through placing priority in the wrong direction. The Bible wasn't created to serve us, offer us tidbits of advice. IT is a record of amazing encounters with a living God that transformed people. When God called Abraham to leave behind his homeland and follow him, that wasn't to offer Abraham support or encouragement, but a challenge. THe same could be said of the call of Moses and the Call of Jeremiah. The word of God was delivered to them to change them, inspire them and challenge them. The word of God does not serve our needs, but instead should challenge and instruct us in serving God.

So I think that sometimes the sermon must be irrelevant. We might not consider the modern phenomena of slavery or abuse of the environment relevant to our lives, but I am convinced that the Bible tells us these things are relevant to God and we had best pay attention. OR, we might find a sermon on forgiveness or generosity to be more challenging than we are ready for. It isn't that it doesn't speak to us, but it just isn't the message we wanted to hear. (a preacher should hear a message that is challenging and offensive and experience it that way, before preaching it, by the way.) OR, we may not find a sermon on the Trinity terribly relevant, but theology of the trinity stand behind much of our church practice, such as forgiveness, unity in our diversity, the cooperative efforts of a group with different gifts of the Spirit. This may not be easily applied to every-day life, but nonetheless it is vital to a life of faith.

That is the main concern I have I guess. Who is serving whom here? Is the sermon meant to serve the listener, or, is the listener meant to serve God through hearing the sermon?

This isn't to say that the preacher should go out of his way to be irrelevant, preaching in highly technical language that is difficult for the average lay person to understand, speaking about strange and arcane topics. And of course a preacher should always strive to connect even the most challenging topic, like Trinity for instance, with illustrations that help the listener understand the relevance of the concept. But I think perhaps there needs to be some dialogue in churches about sermons in general. or perhaps a return to the baptist tradition which engages the entire gathered community in the construction of the sermon.

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