On treating performance (and other things) as word ministry

Word ministry is preaching, but is also more than preaching.

Prompted by a friend, I read the first chapter of Phillip Jensen’s The Archer and the Arrow last night. I wouldn’t actually exist without Phillip Jensen, my parents met and married while attending his church, if his preaching wasn’t good back then, then one or both of them probably wouldn’t have stuck around.

The chapter deals with the necessary centrality of the word of God in the gathering of God’s people, and the centrality of preaching – not just in the pulpit, but in our relationships with one another – where we are to “declare” God’s word to one another. The word rightly occupies the central place in Christian life, and communication. That said, it pushed what I think is a pretty unhelpful modern category, with the idea that the “word of God” necessarily requires “preaching” in order to be central. There are more types of “word ministry” than “preaching” as the Archer and the Arrow defines it.

I’m not going to argue that the act of preaching, thus defined, has no place in the church – it clearly does. Just about every narrative in the Bible that involves people being taught what God thinks, involves preaching: from Joseph (I can’t, off the top of my head, think of anything that looks like preaching coming from Abraham?), to Moses to the kings and prophets, through to the New Testament with John the Baptist, Jesus, the disciples, and then Paul. What I would argue is that to suggest that preaching is the only form of “word ministry” as this quote that ends the opening chapter of the The Archer and the Arrow does, misses some of the richness of the way the word of God is taught in the Old Testament, and arguably in the New (I think Paul’s sufferings for the gospel form part of his presentation of the gospel – but you’ll have to wait for me to post my Corinthians essay to get that argument in full).

If God guaranteed you that he would visit your church this Sunday, and bring a message to the congregation, direct from his own lips, speaking his life-changing truth to the spiritual needs of all, would you think about cutting one or two songs, and giving God some extra time? Would you ask the drama team to postpone their 20-minute re-enactment of the Prodigal Son? Would you feel the need, if you were the minister, to put aside some time after God had spoken to tell some stories that made the divine message a bit more real and relevant to the people?… The truth is, of course, that God is with us whenever we gather, and he speaks his very words to us, Whenever we open God’s Scriptures and read his words, he is with us and he speaks. And yet by our actions–by the way we run our meetings, and by the way we preach–we often demonstrate that we don’t really believe in the transforming power of his words.

This presents what I believe is an unhelpful, and unbiblical, definition of what “word ministry” is. Word ministry includes how we gather. How we run our meetings. How we relate to one another. I don’t want to jump the Francis of Assisi Shark and use the “preach the gospel, when necessary, use words” tripe trope. Preaching the gospel will necessarily involve words – but it is not limited to the use of words. We’re not created in a way that makes that an effective form of communication.

I’m reading up for an exam on Friday, and I found this cracker of an article from Gordon Wenham about the Pentateuch, which features an examination of the teaching function of the ritual laws. If one accepts this premise than we can no longer maintain the idea that the only way God’s word is taught in our gathering is from one specially trained dude speaking from the pulpit – and we shouldn’t be belittling other forms of word ministry in order to establish the supremacy of preaching – we should be making teaching the word the purpose of the whole service, not just 20 minutes tucked into a packed program. The songs, the drama, the way we meet, the way we speak, the physical space, the “liturgy”… everything we do together – and even everything we do alone, and outside the gathering, should be a proclamation of God’s word.

Anyway. Here’s the quote from Wenham that I liked:

“But not only is the Old Testament ritual law central to theological understanding of scripture; I also want to suggest it is a model of modern communication technique. For a long time Christians have imagined that communication between God and man is essentially verbal, merely a matter of words. God speaks to man through the prophets or through the Bible: man replies in prayer. We view communication with God as a sort of two-way radio. But God does not restrict himself to words, he uses ritual such as sacraments: ritual is more like colour TV than radio. Ideas are made visible… Educational psychologists tell us that we remember 10% of what we hear, 30% of what we see but 70% of what we do. Modern preachers put most of their effort into teaching by hearing, though 90% of what they say will be forgotten. Moses put his main effort into teaching through ritual, a wise move if he wanted the people to remember such fundamental truths, for ritual is a kind of doing and therefore sticks in the mind much better than words…But I believe we should go further: not simply act out the ceremonies of the Old Covenant, but in our post-literate age devise dramatic rites that teach the fundamental truths of the new covenant as effectively as the Pentateuch teaches those of the old. This will require imagination and sensitivity, but I think would be worth the effort.”

The visual examples the prophets use (eg Ezekiel cooking his food on poo and eating a scroll) are another example. We need to move past this stupid “word ministry = preaching” equation, as much as we need to dismiss the idea that preaching is an unnecessary part of word ministry.

That is all.

16 Comments On treating performance (and other things) as word ministry

  1. Arthur

    Yes. To put it another way: why on Earth would we equate teaching/preaching with ‘the sermon’, restricting teaching/preaching to a single moment and a single person?

    And if we want to start exploring NT models and precedents… While the ‘elders’ might be doctrinal guardians, it’s not as if they’re the only ‘preachers’. Instead of a one-way minister-congregation relationship, the local body seems to be typified by a word-rich environment of mutual prophesying and encouragement.

  2. Tamie

    I love this idea of performance as preaching. Without devaluing preaching I think it gives room to broaden its scope so storytelling and drama can have that proclamatory function.

  3. Izaac

    I am mostly ignoring the content of your post in this comment.

    Instead I would encourgae you to read the archer and the arrow to see the gross injustice you have done it and Phillip in adapting the quote as an opposing position to your argument. Firstly, the book meant to be read as a companion with the trellis and the vine which smashes the idea that sermons are the be all and end all of anything. Col Marshall wanted to call the trellis and the vine by a different title ‘The Insufficient Sermon’.

    Furthermore, the chapter after this introduction in the archer and the arrow, attacks the premise that the sermon is everything, and instead clarifies that a sermon can only be considered in light of other word ministries including, but not limited to talking to one another the gospel as we gather (and other things you mention above), oftentimes either side of aforementioned sermon.

    I used that quote because it struck me with its rhetorical force. As far as I can tell it was not intended to provide anything even nearing Phillip’s account of ‘word ministry’, and was instead attacking the lack of expectation we all have as we approach the word of God (in the context of preaching). That is, we come expecting the sermon to be bad, as does the person preaching it, and we forget that it is God’s living and acting and double-edged sword which is meant to pierce us. What I got from that intro was that our expectations in this area often match the reality BECAUSE they are our expectations. If God’s word really does what he says it does, we should stop expecting so little.

    I think your post is a horrendous misrepresentation of The Archer and the Arrow, and though it stemmed from my quoting the book, like all quotes, and indeed all good Bible reading, its meaning is determined in large part by context.

    Basically you’ve taken the quote I quoted, and used it as the opposing view to the one you just put forward. Instead, the book is at pains to begin by making the exact point you do in this post, and a hundred quotes could be taken to back up your line of argument here, rather than oppose it.

    For a bit of context on my own I was researching for a ministry and mission research essay on ‘Working under ministers not committed to expository preaching’ and in a related topic examining the style over substance versus unmoving substance debate. Thus my research and indeed reading of this book was with a particular angle, leading to some particular quotes I found thought-provoking.

    If you do read the archer and the arrow, or at least the chapter on the oracles of God (from memory), then you might wish to update this post at a later date to reflect an accurate portrayal of the book.

    That is all.

    1. Izaac

      Also, I should add that for a book about preaching to begin by downplaying the role of the sermon, or at least by clarifying that preaching is only part of a much bigger pool of speaking the words of God, is very rare for the genre. And really is quite bold for a book about preaching.

    2. Nathan

      Hi Izaac,

      I’m sorry – I thought I made it clear that this post was based on the quote – which seemed to be pretty clearly comparing preaching to other aspects of the church gathering, in a pretty disparaging way.

      My comments on your post indicate that this was my interpretation of that quote – last time I checked, you hadn’t challenged them there?

      That this quote exists at all is, I think, indicative that such a dichotomy between “word ministy (ie preaching)” and “other ministry”… I suspect if you asked most representatives of most churches where expository preaching happens if they could identify which part of the service contained “word ministry” their answer would be limited to the sermon. I think the quote, especially the last sentence, highlights what is perhaps an over corrective. I don’t feel the need to read the book to correct what I’m saying here – I will doubtless read the book. Rest assured this quote isn’t the sole source of this vibe, and this post is something I would’ve eventually said without it – this has been the subject of a bit of my thinking about my long term career trajectory. Word ministry is more than what happens from the pulpit. That statement may not be all that controversial in Sydney circles, I don’t know. But in Brisbane Pressy circles the idea of even having a dramatic re-enactment of the Prodigal Son (outside of a kids talk) is pretty foreign.

      1. Izaac

        Thanks for the edit.

        Sure, you made it clear this post was based on the quote. Your error which I was attempting to correct was that a deliberately subversive introductory statement in the context of a book you had not read, was indicative of the authors entire view of word ministry.

        And it is a weird mix of having my name attached to the out of context quote, an (albeit side-swipe) attack on my current circles, and various other things that led me to challenge the post where I felt it misrepresented people.

        1. Nathan Campbell

          I don’t think it actually misrepresents people – or the book. While Jensen says that preaching is more than speaking from the front, the quote featured is indicative of the tone of the first chapter – he doesn’t think the other parts of the service are as important as preaching.

          What I’m arguing is that the other parts of the service are also word ministry. And to blithely dismiss them kind of misses the point that sharing the word with one another takes more forms than just declaring it. It’s not even “embodied word” (which you reference below) – it’s recognising that communication is about more than direct speech. All the other stuff needs to be based on the word – which is why we sing songs that are theologically driven, Scripture is the starting point for word ministry – but preaching/speaking isn’t the end point. From what I read of the Archer and the Arrow last night, the premise is that something which looks very much like preaching, shaped by context (ie the number of people), is word ministry.

          That’s why Phillip says that if God rocked up we’d necessarily ditch the singing, the drama, the storytelling… but I’d say if God turns up we might expect to sing to him, to talk to him in a way that expresses our delight and testifies to his presence in our lives, and these things would be equally appropriate – and Biblical – expressions of a church gathering. Sure, we’d listen to him too – and we’d likely remember everything he said – given that being in the presence of God would be an experience (did you even read the Wenham quote?).

    3. Nathan

      Also. Assume for the moment that someone wanders onto that post on your blog without any preconceived notions about what they might find. Assume they figure out that the Archer and the Arrow is a book about preaching via the internet. Then assume they read the quote – what sort of view of preaching do you think the post conveys, when followed by the “ouch” – and without the context you’ve supplied here. What are they going to think is the message of the book?

      I’m not sure the smackdown you’ve given my use of the quote is warranted – especially since the other person who commented on your post seems to have taken the same interpretive line as me, suggesting that the problem of songs not being the word of God might be solved if we simply sang Psalms.

      The context I had is: here’s a guy who has been shaped by Phillip Jensen (your words “Phillip Jensen has had more of an impact on me than any other preacher. And to be honest, exclusively as a preacher, he has probably shaped me more than anyone else”), posting a quote by Phillip Jensen. Without editorial – except for the word “ouch”… that’s the interpretive context of this quote. Rather than the book. Unless you expect every reader of your blog to read every book you quote.

      I specifically say “this quote” – I haven’t anywhere suggested that the book, or Jensen himself, hold to the picture the quote presents as universally representative of their views on ministry. And I think the quoted passage does push, pretty strongly, the notion that word ministry only really happens when we open the Bible and read it. If, as you say in your review, the book is disjointed, then how does one know if this is the dominant paradigm of word ministry that every other statement about our gatherings and relationships are meant to be defined through?

      As somebody from outside of Sydney (largely – though it’s my heritage) – I’d say the quote is pretty representative of how the rest of Australia conceives of the Sydney Anglican vibe. Arthur and Tamie, who have both commented on this post, are from Melbourne and can probably speak to whether or not this stereotype is alive and well in Melbourne (from conversations with them in the real world, and their comments above, I suspect they’ll agree – but they can speak for themselves).

      If book writers are going to use broad and inclusive words like “our,” and “we,” then perhaps they need to be prepared for people who don’t feel like their hypothetical reconstructions mesh with their experience of what goes on in church to say “hang on a minute, I disagree with the picture you’ve painted here”…

      1. Izaac

        I feel extremely comfortable with you analysing the blogpost like this.

        When I write, I don’t imagine the anonymous reader who wants to create an entire theology of a person based on one quote. I wouldn’t do it, and it displays a certain lack of generosity, not to mention common sense to do that. It was a relatively unadorned quote, and so it’s not meant to carry much weight.

        And in my opinion you did make the jump from quote to broader theology by saying:
        “A couple of the posts on Izaac’s blog last week, that showed how Phillip Jensen’s The Archer and the Arrow deals with the necessary centrality of the word of God in the gathering of God’s people, pushed what I think is a pretty unhelpful modern category, with the idea that the “word of God” necessarily requires preaching in order to be central.”

        That still sounds to me as if you were saying the quote was representative of the entire book.

        However your bolded sentence has helped clarify this.

        But the thing is, this is a book about preaching. One of the most widely respected evangelical preachers is writing a book on preaching, so why are you surprised that it talks about preaching, and that this is at the heart of the book? It’s what the book is about! And my point is that surprisingly, it begins not by enlarging pulpiteering, but by downplaying it to its rightful place in broader word-ministry.

        I see of course that your post is taking a different argument. But your introductory statements needed to be challenged, and I stand by the smackdown!

        As for the point of your post, I fundamentally disagree at every level.

        I jest.

        Your embodied word idea has its place. What I would suggest is that this vague concept of word-living is a true and natural outworking of the gospel. It is essential for all who speak God’s words, as their life displays their message, and those who hear them see their life (I think this is covered in Archer and the Arrow). And again to draw from my memory of reading the book and mixing it with the conclusions to my essay:
        It’s not enough that we have the gospel message and then go and live it. It’s not even enough to say it. Because without a firm conviction to keep reforming through the revealed words of God, we will subtly change what we say away from the Biblical revelation. It won’t be deliberate. But we’ll say what we think God says rather than what he actually says. Is it a problem that Christians only ever speak Christian truths to each other without referencing what they are saying against the Bible itself? Not as long as they speak the truth – but how long will that be? And how will you know?

        Now reading the BIble is no guarantee either. But at least you’ll have a measuring stick. And you’re unlikely to reform your errors by repeating the same errors over and over.

        1. Nathan Campbell

          Ok. So I’ve edited you out of the post.

          I don’t see how your penultimate paragraph represents at all what I’ve argued. I’m not even beginning to suggest we move away from the word as the anchor point of all our teaching. I’m suggesting that we move away from “declaration” as the only definition of “word ministry” that is of value, especially as we gather to teach one another.

          I think Colossians 3:16 makes the point I’m making better than I’m making it:

          “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”

          Tell me how the quote above, from the Archer and the Arrow, especially – “would you think about cutting one or two songs, and giving God some extra time?” – is consistent with this.

          Oh yeah. And 17…

          “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

          And I don’t know. Maybe telling some stories, in the context of the gathering, about how God is working in our lives is necessary for encouraging one another – especially if we’re increasingly focusing Christian community on small groups… maybe that goes to the purpose of meeting together that Hebrews 10 gives us… maybe “prophecy” in 1 Corinthians 14 fits the category of sharing how God’s word shapes life now, and speaking with the same wisdom that Paul advocates in Colossians. And if Paul meant preaching, which he obviously had a category for, why would he switch to prophecy when talking about how the gathering is to be ordered. I suspect prophecy looks a lot like “tell(ing) some stories that made the divine message a bit more real and relevant to the people”…

    4. Nathan

      Ok. So now I’ve read the first chapter. I think you’ve misunderstood my point. He basically argues that the sermon isn’t the only form of preaching, which he defines as proclaiming the word of God – but he still seems to limit that to talking, from the Scriptures, regardless of audience size. I want to say that it’s more than talking. It’s demonstrating. It’s choosing to wear unmixed fibres to make a point about purity (in the OT).

      His equation, which he sees as controversial, is: sermons do not equal preaching, though they are a form of preaching, my equation is: neither sermons, nor ‘preaching’ equal “word ministry” though they are forms of word ministry.

      Word ministry includes the songs we sing to one another, it includes the plays we put on in church, it includes the announcements (if we’re careful about announcements)… it is not limited to “preaching” from the pulpit, in small groups, over morning tea, or in one on one conversations.

      1. Nathan

        Ironically – it was kind of important not to ignore the content of the post – which you said you were doing from the outset – in order to understand the distinction I’m trying to make.

  4. AndrewF

    Great post Nathan.
    If we don’t equate worship with the singing part of our service, why would make the mistake of equating teaching the word with merely the sermon?

    I don’t know if you read this or not, but I had a guest post a little while back on the performance nature of scripture, which is kind of the flip side to the idea that performance can be word ministries, but also incorporates a lot of what you’re saying:

    Before the invention of the steam-powered printing press, and also before Gutenberg and earlier book technologies, the Scriptures and engagement with them necessarily took a very different form. For the vast majority of Christians, the Scriptures would have been encountered almost solely in the context of the performance of the Scriptures in the Church and its life. The Scriptures were to be heard and spoken, to be sung, prayed, read aloud, preached upon, enacted and memorialized in the sacraments.

    http://aborrowedflame.com/2012/02/fresh-words-scripture-as-performance-12-by-alastair-roberts/

  5. Nathan Campbell

    Though I should be reading up on the Pentateuch for an exam tomorrow, I’m reading the Archer and the Arrow.

    Here’s another passage that makes it clear my use of the quote is not a misreading of the book:

    “However, it is worth emphasiszing at this point that unlike any other sort of meeting, when we gather as a church our purpose is to hear the word of God… Whatever else we might do when we come together – to give thanks to him, to make melody in our hearts to him, to cast our cares upon him – we primarily gather to “hear his most Holy Word

    “In our gatherings we must be careful not to allow other elements to crowd out the hearing of God’s word. It happens easily enough. Sometimes it’s singing. Sometimes it’s long interviews and announcements and news about what’s happening in the church’s program. Sometimes it’s an overly short meeting, with the aim of getting people in and out before they get bored. But however it happens, when the hearing of God’s word is reduced to one short Bible reading and a quick sermon, we have lost touch with why we are getting together in church in the first place.”

    I don’t think that’s a distinction that can be maintained in the light of what the Bible says about singing, or how the Bible views rituals/performance/prophecy stuff – particularly if Wenham is correct.

    He does say:

    “It is just as critical that what is preached is put into action within the gathering. For example, to preach the priesthood and ministry of all believers but to run our meetings as if the pastoral staff are the only people allowed to say or do anything is to make a nonsense of what is being preached.”

    And in chapter 5 he spends a lot of time talking about communication barriers, and speaking accordingly – but speaking may be a barrier that needs thinking about too…

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