Archives For preaching

9 things preachers can learn from wrestlers

When you think about it, very few people in this world stand and fall on their ability to stand and deliver a compelling public speech. The field narrows somewhat when you’re talking people performing largely as themselves, or under their own names (not in character). Comedians. politicians. TV and radio presenters, motivational speakers, preachers… and Professional Wrestlers. In this post I’m going to air some dirty laundry – revealing that I know more about (and think far more about) professional wrestling than I should… but bear with me.

I suspect there’s stuff preachers can learn (given the right approach to learning) from the cream of each of these crops – be it Jerry Seinfeld and Ricky Gervais, Barack Obama, Ira Glass, or Paul Heyman.

Who is Paul Heyman?

This guy.

He’s not even a wrestler.

He’s a manager (essentially paid to be a mouth piece to help people who can’t speak for themselves get over with the crowds).

In that video he’s standing next to Brock Lesnar, Lesnar is a bona fide fighter. WWE might be ‘sports entertainment’ – but Lesnar was the UFC Heavyweight World Champion. He just can’t speak (he’s not mute, he’s just not interesting). Paul Heyman has built a career out of speaking for guys like Lesnar.

A speech, in wrestling parlance, is called a promo. Promos are up there with in ring ability when it comes to advancing WWE storylines. Here’s another Heyman special.

There’s obviously a fair bit of bombast involved in the professional wrestling world. It’s over the top. And that sets the stage, and frames the delivery. But the audience is along for the ride. Hanging off every word. Booing and cheering when they should.

They are in the palm of Heyman’s hand. What’s extra impressive is that this speech is happening in the slot a typical WWE episode reserves for the ‘main event’ – the much hyped (but usually unresolved) match between two (or more) guys who will headline the next pay-per-view. It’s prime time in this prime time programming. And instead of over-muscled, juiced-up, meatheads grappling with one another for the cursory few minutes before outside interference renders the match void (to hold the finish over until a bigger pay day), we have a speech. This “speech in the place of a fight” both is, and isn’t, unconventional. Despite ostensibly being all about wrestling the WWE is nothing without speeches. Because the WWE’s product is the stories it tells. And the stories it sells.

The WWE, and its component superstars, are modern day story tellers. They use words and choreographed action to tell stories – much like the opera, the ballet, or the theatre. They might be a little oafish and ham-fisted in their delivery (of both lines, and blows). But they’re telling stories and selling out seats. Wrestling is a cultural event. Its a billion dollar business (changes within the company can wreak havoc with WWE’s market value – a recent change in the company’s broadcasting approach saw owner Vince McMahon lose something in the order of $750 million in a very short amount of time). It’s serious, even if it’s not ‘real.’

The WWE stands in a long and rich history of pugilistic endeavours being played out as the circus element of ‘bread and circuses.’ Cajoling an audience into cheering for the hero who is coming up against an exaggerated pantomime villain (while they hand over fists full of money) is an old formula , but it still works. The WWE is big business. And it relies on guys like Heyman (and the more articulate wrestlers – like Chris Jericho, pictured above) to sell tickets and move merchandise by telling compelling stories that the audience buys in to – with their money, their voices, and their emotions.

There’s some really nice writing underpinning this second Heyman speech – the building of intensity with a nice use of cadence and the escalating repetition in the paragraph quoted below which works because of the punchiness of the verbs, and the way they’re doing the heavy lifting when it comes to advancing the storyline.

If you want to overthink wrestling – Grantland’s Masked Man is a stunningly interesting commentator and historian on the phenomenon of professional wrestling. His book The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling is worth a read to get a handle on this quirky corner of the entertainment world. The Masked Man spends a few thousand words explaining why these promos from Paul Heyman are the archetypal pieces of wrestling oratory, there’s something nice, for instance, in the way Heyman plays with the fourth wall (in wrestling this is called ‘Kayfabe’) he mixes truths about wrestling and its fakery/scriptedness with fiction, and even with a bit of a hat tip to exactly what it is he’s doing as he speaks…

I don’t just stand out here and spew hype and hyperbole; I exploit historical facts to shove my points down your throats. To wit, I offer you what happened the last time my client Brock Lesnar zeroed in on someone and decided to give them a beating.”

This para throws to a video clip of Lesnar’s very surprising (and totally scripted) win over the indomitable Undertaker at Wrestlemania. It’s driving the storyline towards the next pay per view, where Lesnar won’t be facing the WWE’s perennial pin-up boy, John Cena. Lesnar is a part timer. The time allowed for his stories to get traction with the audience is contracted, Heyman’s job is to throw fuel on the fire – giving the story significance as quickly as possible.

At SummerSlam my client Brock Lesnar will take John Cena down. Brock Lesnar will punch John Cena’s face in. John Cena, you’re going to be hurt by Brock Lesnar. Brock Lesnar’s going to injure John Cena. Brock Lesnar is going to mangle John Cena. And then, and only then, Brock Lesnar is going to F-5 John Cena and strip John Cena of the dignity of being the WWE World Heavyweight Champion, the same way Brock Lesnar stripped the Undertaker of his dignity and exposed the streak as just being a myth — the same myth that Brock Lesnar hears every week on television when John Cena is referred to as being the greatest WWE Champion of all time. Fifteen world titles in 10 years: Now that sounds like something worth conquering.”

So. I contend. There is much that preachers can learn, should we so choose, from the WWE. I’m not suggesting we ditch church and start up Christian Wrestling Federations (as some are in the habit of doing), or that we recruit preachers from the ranks of the WWE (a road surprisingly well-travelled – hall-of-famers Ted DiBiase and Shawn Michaels are engaged in various preaching gigs). When Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the flashy orators he wasn’t going to be like as a guy preaching about the crucifixion of Jesus, it’s likely the flashy orators he had in mind were oiled up guys who shaved their chests after spending too long in the gym… but it’s also fair to say Paul’s writings and the records of his speeches suggest a fairly sophisticated understanding of the guys he positioned his approach against… his opponents… the ‘heels’ (wrestling term for bad guys) to his ‘face’…

… And, if you want to get really technical with the wrestling stuff – Paul had a pretty massive ‘face turn’ – where Acts positions him as one of the worst of the bad guys – a Pharisee shooting up the ranks, and then depicts his conversion into the leader of the Gentile church. Paul’s biography is the stuff wrestling promoters have been copying for years. But I digress…

I’m also fairly convinced that Paul knew about oratory, that he learned from orators, and as a result (and because he was also being led by God) he was able to present the story of Jesus in a bunch of compelling ways that varied depending on his audience (as you see in Acts). And so I’m convinced that we, like Paul, should be looking around at people who are telling stories in ways people find compelling in our day and age. I’m not an expert preacher – and I’m so not experty that I’m prepared to learn from anyone who might help.

1. Understand your audience(s)

Wrestlers know they can get the crowd on side (if they’re good guys) or off side (if they’re bad guys) with a quick bit of contextualisation. If you’re a good guy you know who the local sporting teams are, you give them a shout out, you praise the town, and you get a ‘cheap pop.’ If you’re the bad guy you insult the town, insult the sporting heroes, and you get ‘cheap heat’… but there are more audiences to consider at every event. The beauty of Heyman’s speeches are that they play to the ‘cheap heat’ stuff, while also tapping into the genuine loathing of John Cena amidst the fans who consider themselves ‘insiders’ – people who see past the surface level fakery of wrestling and still choose to invest themselves in the WWE universe. Heyman nailed his appeal to these guys, because he understood their language and their disposition, and spoke to them.

There’s something in this for preachers – not just in reaching sub-cultures via their idiosyncrasies, but also in knowing what your audience is expecting from you and choosing to either deliver on expectations or subvert/exceed them. I like the idea that preaching needs to be sufficiently local that the people who you are preaching to feel like you’re speaking to them, especially if they’ve never heard preaching before, but also rich enough that people who think they know how preaching works are surprised by what you’re doing with a genre of communication they believe they’re familiar with.

2. Tell a story that connects the audience to something bigger (than you, and them).

The really good wrestlers – the ones that get big and headline big events – are the ones who’ve managed to achieve something like wrestling transcendence. Historically, these are the guys that non-wrestling crowds recognise. They get into movies or reality TV. They start movements of fans who influence the writing of the shows (most recently an anti-hero named Daniel Bryan managed to get so popular with the fans that he became WWE World Champion). They do this by capturing the imagination, by being relatable, and by including the fans in their stories. Incidentally, the WWE has poured bucket loads of money into building a presence online, especially on social media. It’s not uncommon for WWE storylines to be trending on Twitter, and for the Twitter stuff to become part of the storyline. WWE has democratised its product, giving certain amounts of control (or the illusion of control) to its fans. The more enfranchised the fans feel, the more connected to the process, the more they feel involved in the stories, the more they invest themselves into what’s going on. Emotionally, and, more importantly for the WWE, financially. Fans identify with wrestlers in these storylines – and they buy the T-Shirt to prove it…

There’s something about the power of the good v evil story that wrestling tells over and over again that gets the audience engaged. And you know who has a better good v evil story to tell than professional wrestlers? Christian preachers. We have a big story, our preaching should always connect to it, or we’re telling small stories that might move some people, but will (if the wrestling world is any reflection on reality) be a flash in the pan. There are plenty of wrestlers who didn’t cut it because their stories never became significant, multi-episode, entities, and as a result never reached the stage of including or exciting the audience.Sometimes I feel like I’m so caught up in the facts of the Gospel story that I forget how much the story is my story, and is also the story I’m inviting every body listening to belong to. Christianity is about more than buying a T-Shirt that says ‘Team Jesus’ – but the story is so compelling it can produce radical transformation to those who become part of it.

3. Play to the emotions (not just the head)

Part of the whole story-telling to get buy in thing involves moving the audience to cheer for the good guys (or the smart audiences to cheer for the bad guys), and boo the bad guys. Listen to the crowd in the Heyman speeches, watch the faces of the kids (and adults) in the crowd when their favourite wrestler loses a match, and you’ll see the real emotional connection people make with these wrestlers through these stories. Here’s a photo of the crowd response to the Undertaker losing to Brock Lesnar (before that he’d been 21-0 at Wrestlemania).

fanreactions

Image Credit: This post cataloguing responses to the surprise finish.

The thing about preaching is that we want people to be making an emotional connection like this – but not with us. With Jesus. I think we want to move people’s emotions, but we want our emotions to be moving in the same way. There’s a Cicero quote about his desire to never producing an emotional response in his audience that he didn’t feel himself first. Which is a good rule of thumb (or voice).

The great thing about preaching about Jesus is that we’re not the main event, we’re the fans who help shape the story of our hero as we tell people about him and participate in his victory. We feel emotions (or we should) when we’re talking about Jesus like those kid fans do. This means we’re in a position to deal in the emotional space with real authenticity. Unlike in the fake world of professional wrestling.

All too often I’ve found myself avoiding dealing in the emotional space. I think this is often because I forget I’m the kid in the stands and think I’m a vital piece of the show – where the pressure is on me to deliver. It’s not. Jesus wins the cosmic wrestling match. We cheer. We know the outcome. We wince with every blow now, as the bout carries on. But his victory is assured and we share the spoils. We will experience the emotional highs of victory. Our emotions need to ride this rollercoaster for us to really appreciate the story, and for us to really tell it. I think part of my inability to engage the emotions as I preach is, in part, because I’m worried that being emotional makes the story (or my preaching) about me. The nice thing about remembering that preaching is telling Jesus’ story (that it’s not about me at all) is that it frees me to respond emotionally as I tell it. I can be the fan who feels like my fate is caught up with the guy I’m cheering for – because it is.

4. Understand your character (and your role)

Using Paul Heyman as the example driving this piece is interesting because he’s not a conventional wrestling orator, by today’s standards. Most wrestlers do their own talking, and their success (in the ring, and out of it) depends as much on their ability to tell a story as it does on their in ring prowess. In fact. Because wrestling is scripted – even the stuff in the ring – wrestlers are judged on their ability to ‘sell’ the in ring action as well. They have to be able to tell a compelling story with everything they do. They have to be part of the story.

Every wrestling character has a role to play. And the story – like a piece of theatre – depends on them playing that role. These stories don’t work if everyone wants to be the good guy, or if everybody wants to be in the spotlight. In the normal wrestling equation there can only be one hero.

Heyman has made a career out of shining the spotlight on others (sort of, he’s never far from it, or from controversy). Even when he’s focusing the spotlight on others he is in your face and part of the main event. Preachers need to know our role in the story of the Gospel. It’s not about us, but we do have a part to play – as do the people we’re speaking to. The pull to make myself the star of the show is something I’m constantly aware of – partly because I like being the centre of attention, partly because sometimes I believe I should be…

5. Don’t write cheques with your mouth that your body can’t cash.

One of the enduring truths about wrestling – even with its occasional David v Goliath underdog victory – is that if you’re going to run your mouth, you need to match it up with action. There’s a stereotypical heel character who runs his mouth, and then runs away (or relies on underhanded tactics to get cheap victories). These are probably the least popular bad guys. The lowest of the low. The really famous wrestlers – guys like Steve Austin, The Rock, Hulk Hogan – they were able to deliver on the mic, and believably back up the talk with action.

There’s something in this for preachers. Wrestlers can’t live by anything that looks like “win the match, where necessary use fists” any more than preachers can “preach the Gospel, when necessary use words” – but both words and actions are necessary for in ring and in pulpit success. It’s a credibility thing as much as an authenticity thing. For compelling wrestling, and compelling preaching, words need to meet deeds with sublime consistency.

6. Be different.

Wrestlers don’t get attention by copying the gimmicks of those who have gone before. They might borrow the occasional move, in tribute to past greats, or to align themselves with wrestling lore and history. But originality is important. Finding a balance between imitating the people worth imitating and developing your own voice on the mic, and moves in the ring, is part of winning the crowd and influencing people. The really fun wrestlers know what the mould looks like but choose to break it. They innovate on the mic, they innovate in the ring. They figure out what sort of unique contribution they can make, and what sort of unique stories this enables them to tell.

I think this is true in preaching too. There’s a massive temptation the more other preachers move sets and voices dominate the podcast airwaves to borrow too much. To be a clone. That might work on a local scene where nobody has heard of the big famous guy, but it doesn’t work when everybody else listens to the same guy you’re imitating. People can spot fakes who are faking it in a fake world, I think it’s probably more damaging if you’re caught faking it in the real world. I heard some advice once, I forget who it was from, that preachers who are just starting out should listen to as many preachers as they possibly can, rather than just a hero. There’s something insightful in that. But I’d rather figure out what it looks like for me to preach as me, than for me to preach as a pastiche of my favourite preaching heroes.

7. Practice on the ‘indie’ scene

Practice makes perfect. There’s that (potentially debunked) Malcolm Gladwell theory about 10,000 hours being required to master something, and this could well be true for wrestlers. The best wrestlers hone their skills for years in small halls, regional promotions, wrestling has beens (ala Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler) and wannabes until they get noticed. This is the ‘indie’ scene. It’s where the guys who have tasted success in the WWE in more recent years have cut their teeth. Especially the ‘original’ guys – not the carbon copy muscular supermen who can’t string sentences together but look tough in speedos so experience a certain degree of success naturally guys – but the guys who tell unique and different stories. Guys like CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, and Dean Ambrose (guys the Masked Man and other internet commentators write about with a certain degree of admiration bordering on obsession – see, for example, this treatment of the rise of Daniel Bryan).

I suspect part of finding your voice is using it. As much as possible. Wherever possible. To whoever possible. And getting a sense of what flies and what doesn’t. I don’t know what this looks like when it comes to training for preachers in this day and age, but I certainly haven’t racked up 10,000 hours of preaching (even with the equation including prep + delivery). That’s a 10 year project, assuming one preaches every week for 48 weeks of the year and takes 20-25 hours to prepare and deliver a sermon. So I’m comfortable that it’s going to be quite a while before I feel like I shouldn’t be preaching to 12 people in a dank school hall.

8. Always stay in character

The line between in-show character and real life person/actor is pretty blurry when it comes to your typical WWE superstar. The world of ‘kayfabe‘ means wrestlers are meant to only ever appear in public in character. Personas in tact. This is doubly true for what happens during a show – the wikipedia article on ‘breaking’ (which Jimmy Fallon was hilariously notorious for on Saturday Night Live) has its own special section reserved for professional wrestling.

It’s as important for my preaching as for the success of a wrestler committed to ‘the business’ that I stay in character. The difference between wrestling and preaching is that preaching isn’t fake. I am my character. I perform under my own name – for Jesus’ name. I don’t perform under a stage name for a multi-billion dollar company that depends on my ability to uphold an act. As a preacher I genuinely want everything I do to be telling the story of Jesus. In the pulpit or at home with my kids when visitors pop in. Christianity is part of who I am. I am part of the story of Jesus in every sphere, there is no room for breaking for the preacher (that’s not to say there isn’t room for stuffing up – part of the great news of the Gospel is that God forgives sinners like me through Jesus’ victory).

9. Try not to gasp

Because somebody might do this to you. And that would be bad.

 

This little exercise of turning longform radio story-telling ala the internet intelligentsia’s favourite This American Life and others into a scribbles on napkins is nice. Because thinking about how to structure stories is an interesting exercise – for those who like telling stories, reading stories, or, I would argue, preaching. If a significant part of the material we preach from is narrative – and if we have a view of the Bible that sees it as one overarching and intricate narrative telling the story of Jesus from creation to new creation, where we’re invited to pick a side as we read – then why isn’t more of our preaching “narrative” flavoured? I’m not actually sure what that looks like – but I’m pretty sure it’s not a list of three propositions presented propositionally.

Anyway. The napkins. I haven’t listened to any of these (other than This American Life). But they are helpfully described in the post…

“Napkin #1″ is Bradley’s drawing for This American Life, a structure Ira Glass has talked about ad infinitum: This happened. Then this happened. Then this happened. (Those are the dashes.) And then a moment of reflection, thoughts on what the events mean (the exclamation point).”

 

“It starts with a straight line. That’s the opening scene where the reporter introduces listeners to a character often in action. Bradley gives the example of a story about ticks he produced for ATC. In the opening minute or so of the piece, we meet a biologist plucking ticks from shrubs in Rhode Island.

The dip down and up is what Bradley calls ‘the trough.’ “Throw whatever reporting you have into this middle section,” he says. In the “trough” of the tick story, Bradley included info on tick biology, lyme disease, and lyme disease research.

Then, the final line is a return to the original scene. Perhaps time has passed and  the character is doing something new. But, it’s like book-ending a story — end close to where you started. Bradley’s tick story ended back out in the woods with the biologist.”

“The e” is what the Village Voice reporter drew for Bradley many years ago. The beginning of the line is the present or somewhere near the present. (Frankly, you can start wherever you want in terms of time, but the present or recent past is fairly common.) And, typically, there’s a character doing something — a sequence of events.

Then, at the point where the e loops up, the story leaves the present and, perhaps, goes back in time for history and or it widens for context.

When the loop comes back around, you pick up the narrative where you left off and develop the story further to the end. Somewhere in that second straight line the story may reach it’s climax then the denoument or resolution of the story.”

“The first line is the opening scene. Then, it’s followed by history, context…. a widening of the story. Then, a return to the opening scene only further along in time. Then, that’s followed by several characters each of whom have a connection to the story. That’s what the horizontal lines on the right represent.

When I spoke to Bradley about how a story might play out using this structure, he suggested considering a story about Lutheran ministers advocating for same-sex marriage in the church. In the first line, we meet a minister who is in favor same-sex marriage and he’s in church preaching. In the “V” we learn about the history of the issue in the church and the proposed changes. We return to the minister, perhaps at a meeting where he’s advocating his position and that’s where we meet several people linked to the issue and their perspectives.”

 

I also love this Kurt Vonnegut lecture about the shape of stories, which became a nifty infographic.

And then, of course, there is the classicly overthought Dan Harmon – creator of Community – who in order for his show to be so very meta, needs to have a firm grasp not only of how he wants to repackage stories and tropes, but needs to know how the stories he is dissecting work. He reckons there’s one universal story structure. His best tip from this series of posts about his story circle (part 1part 2part 3part 4) is this one, about finding a relatable hook for your audience so they can take part in the story and be moved by it:

sooner or later, we need to be someone, because if we are not inside a character, then we are not inside the story.”

The Circle

Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we’d naturally do.

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. Adapt to it,
  5. Get what they wanted,
  6. Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. Having changed.

Simplified, his 8 steps look like:

  1. When you
  2. have a need,
  3. you go somewhere,
  4. search for it,
  5. find it,
  6. take it,
  7. then return
  8. and change things.

Harmon reckons almost all good stories follow this pattern – and, in fact, that it is innate.

“Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return, diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it’s hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.”

Descent and Return

Why this ritual of descent and return? Why does a story have to contain certain elements, in a certain order, before the audience will even recognize it as a story? Because our society, each human mind within it and all of life itself has a rhythm, and when you play in that rhythm, it resonates.

Now you understand that all life, including the human mind and the communities we create, marches to the same, very specific beat. If your story also marches to this beat- whether your story is the great American novel or a fart joke- it will resonate. It will send your audience’s ego on a brief trip to the unconscious and back. Your audience has an instinctive taste for that, and they’re going to say “yum.”

The return bit is the most important…

“We need RETURN and we need CHANGE, because we are a community, and if our heroes just climbed beanstalks and never came down, we wouldn’t have survived our first ice age.”

 

Some story telling tips

Step 1 – Establish a (relatable) Protaganist:

“How do you put the audience into a character? Easy. Show one. You’d have to go out of your way to keep the audience from imprinting on them. It could be a raccoon, a homeless man or the President. Just fade in on them and we are them until we have a better choice… If there are choices, the audience picks someone to whom they relate. When in doubt, they follow their pity. Fade in on a raccoon being chased by a bear, we are the raccoon… The easiest thing to do is fade in on a character that always does what the audience would do.”

“He can be an assassin, he can be a raccoon, he can be a parasite living in the racoon’s liver, but have him do what the audience might do if they were in the same situation.”

Step 2 – Demonstrate a need: We’re being presented with the idea that things aren’t perfect.”  

“This is where a character might wonder out loud, or with facial expressions, why he can’t be cooler, or richer, or faster… This wish will be granted in ways that character couldn’t have expected.”

Step 3 – Crossing the threshold: “What’s your story about?”

“The key is, figure out what your “movie poster” is. What would you advertise to people if you wanted them to come listen to your story? A killer shark? Outer space? The Mafia? True love? Everything in grey on that circle, the bottom half, is a “special world” where that movie poster starts being delivered, and everything above this line is the “ordinary world.” Step 1, you are the sheriff of a small town. Step 2, strange bites on a murder victim’s body. Step 3… it’s a werewolf.” 

Step 4 – The Road of Trials: preparing for the task at hand…

“Hack producers call it the “training phase.” I prefer to stick with Joseph Campbell’s title, “The Road of Trials,” because it’s less specific. I’ve seen too many movies where our time is wasted watching a hero literally “train” in a forest clearing because someone got the idea it was a necessary ingredient. The point of this part of the circle is, our protagonist has been thrown into the water and now it’s sink or swim.

Step 5 – The opposite of comfort: The climax at the bottom of the circle

“Imagine your protagonist began at the top and has tumbled all the way down here. This is where the universe’s natural tendency to pull your protagonist downward has done its job, and for X amount of time, we experience weightlessness. Anything goes down here. This is a time for major revelations, and total vulnerability. If you’re writing a plot-twisty thriller, twist here and twist hard.

Twist or no, this is also another threshold, in that everything past this point will take a different direction (namely UPWARD), but note that one is not dragged kicking and screaming through these curtains. One hovers here. One will make a choice, then ascend…

Step 6 – heading back up: symmetrical redemption.

“When you realize that something is important, really important, to the point where it’s more important than YOU, you gain full control over your destiny. In the first half of the circle, you were reacting to the forces of the universe, adapting, changing, seeking. Now you have BECOME the universe. You have become that which makes things happen. You have become a living God.”

Step 7: Bringing it back home: This is how the character ends up back where they started, having experienced the rollercoaster (and having been changed by it).

“For some characters, this is as easy as hugging the scarecrow goodbye and waking up. For others, this is where the extraction team finally shows up and pulls them out- what Campbell calls “Rescue from Without.” In an anecdote about having to change a flat tire in the rain, this could be the character getting back into his car.

For others, not so easy, which is why Campbell also talks about “The Magic Flight.””

Step 8: Showing the Change: This is where the protaganist is confronted with an opportunity to show that the ‘journey’ they have been on is worth it.

In an action film, you’re guaranteed a showdown here. In a courtroom drama, here comes the disruptive, sky-punching cross examination that leaves the murderer in a tearful confession…the protagonist, on whatever scale, is now a world-altering ninja. They have been to the strange place, they have adapted to it, they have discovered true power and now they are back where they started, forever changed and forever capable of creating change. In a love story, they are able to love. In a Kung Fu story, they’re able to Kung all of the Fu. In a slasher film, they can now slash the slasher.

One really neat trick is to remind the audience that the reason the protagonist is capable of such behavior is because of what happened down below. When in doubt, look at the opposite side of the circle. Surprise, surprise, the opposite of (8) is (4), the road of trials, where the hero was getting his s*** together. Remember that zippo the bum gave him? It blocked the bullet! It’s hack, but it’s hack because it’s worked a thousand times. Grab it, deconstruct it, create your own version. You didn’t seem to have a problem with that formula when the stuttering guy (4) recited a perfect monologue (8) in Shakespeare in Love. It’s all the same. Remember that tribe of crazy, comic relief Indians that we befriended at (4) by kicking their biggest wrestler in the nuts? It is now, at (8), as we are nearly beaten by the bad guy, that those crazy sons of bitches ride over the hill and save us. Why is this not Deus Ex Machina? Because we earned it (4).”

 What’s cool about this model is that it actually works for telling the story of Jesus. I think. And for telling our own stories. Like I said at the top – I have no idea what this does for preaching – I do believe we’re culturally hard wired for receiving stories, and I think that part of being God’s image bearers means being story tellers, if God is the master story teller who arranged the whole of creation and human history to tell his story, and then arranged for it to be masterfully told in a text that has lasted thousands of years, then something of that is essential to us. We all process our lives and new information through something like a master story too, events are incorporated into this narrative and interpreted through it (that’s why Biggest Loser contestants keep banging on about their journey).

 

I like TED. But…

I think TED talks are to ideas what blog posts are to books. And I clearly don’t have a problem with blog posts… but I would hate to imagine a world without books.

TED is probably a little guilty of taking itself slightly too seriously. So I’m a fan of this video, where a performance comedian snuck into the schedule for a TEDx event.

Here, as something a little meta, is a TED talk about the problem with TED talks.

If you can’t handle that level of metaness – you can read the transcript as an article on The Guardian, which includes this nice little quote…

TED of course stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and I’ll talk a bit about all three. I Think TED actually stands for: middlebrow megachurch infotainment.

The key rhetorical device for TED talks is a combination of epiphany and personal testimony (an “epiphimony” if you like ) through which the speaker shares a personal journey of insight and realisation, its triumphs and tribulations.

What is it that the TED audience hopes to get from this? A vicarious insight, a fleeting moment of wonder, an inkling that maybe it’s all going to work out after all? A spiritual buzz?

I’m sorry but this fails to meet the challenges that we are supposedly here to confront. These are complicated and difficult and are not given to tidy just-so solutions. They don’t care about anyone’s experience of optimism. Given the stakes, making our best and brightest waste their time – and the audience’s time – dancing like infomercial hosts is too high a price. It is cynical.

Also, it just doesn’t work.

This article Against TED is also worth a read, it makes many of the same points.

Culturally, we have an incredible tendency to switch deep thinking for pre-packaged intellectual junk food. And TED feeds that addiction.

People doing the communicating have a responsibility to package their information in a way that makes the content clear and engaging – TED is a great reminder that presentation matters… But people receiving the communication have to fit that information together in a coherent framework from a wide range of sources, TED talks only give a very small part of the picture and the medium works against depth and complexity.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the format – a short oral presentation about an interesting, potentially life changing, idea is incredibly compelling. I am embarking on a life doing that. I think TED is essentially secular preaching. But I think the intellectual life of the church would be incredibly anemic if all we did was preaching (which is part of the problem I have with the typical megachurch).

It’s weird. When I think about how I go about preaching in the light of this quote – I feel my training in communication stuff pushes me towards serving up sermons that are something like an epiphimony – because stories grounded in the life of the speaker and audience are absolutely one of the most compelling ways to persuade people of something – while my personal preference is for deep and lengthy content filled with conceptual rabbit holes and stuff to nut out. It’s a paradox. It’s a paradox that only becomes crippling if we do all our communication in one communicative event, with one style.

Here’s a worked example of how TED can work well though, in a multimedia, multi-channel approach to communicating an idea. In 2011, I read an Economist article by an author/journalist, Tom Standage, called How Luther Went Viral. This essay became part of my thinking for my own essay on Luther for my Reformation subject, which in turn partly inspired my Masters projectThen I watched a Tom Standage TED talk about ancient social media. The TED talk wasn’t deep. But it was exciting. Finally, I read Standage’s excellent book – Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years, while conversing with him on Twitter, before writing my own review, and using some of his insights in my thinking in the current series I’m writing about Facebook messing with your brain.

I’m not claiming this example involves the production of high quality material on my part (the TED material, frankly, is gold in this case) – but the process is an example of how TED can work well when it causes people to interact with and develop ideas, producing new stuff in response.  An idea was shared, discussed, and new ideas were cultivated. This is TED achieving the goal implied in its own motto – “ideas worth spreading”… but it’s only working well because it’s part of a much bigger picture involving a fair bit of depth, and wider reading. Could you get the gist just by watching the TED video? Sure. Maybe. But that’s a fairly limited way to participate in the spread of ideas, arguably being featured on just one platform, with just one audience – no matter how big that audience is – isn’t really “spreading” – not, ironically, like Luther’s Reformation – which if you think about it kind of started with Luther nailing up a proposal for a 16th century TED talk. Luther didn’t stop there. He used every medium he could to spread his ideas.

Another interesting thing about the popularity of TED, by the by, is that it (along with the rise of YouTube tutorial videos and vlogs) represents a movement back from a predominantly written culture to an oral/visual culture – if you’ve ever checked out the comments on YouTube you could say a pre-literate oral/visual culture. This has interesting implications for people whose job it is to communicate something to such a culture, and its possible this means being a bit more creative in how we present stuff, preferably without wiping out depth and complexity.

Anyway – I really just wanted to post that video. So. Over and out. 

 

The power of stories

This should have a profound impact on how we share Jesus with people. Less propositions. More stories.

I’m aware of the irony in that sentence. It would have a profound impact on how I blogged if I was able to figure out how to tell a story about telling stories – and just how powerful they are.

 

Should we be using iPads, and presumably other forms of technology in church? Or does that undermine the concept of the word of God? Does it white ant the authority of the Bible?

applaunch

I don’t think so. But, this post went a little viral last week. It attempts to make the case against preachers reading the Bible from tablet devices.

“And yet I am finding that cutting-edge, 21st-century technology is subtly but quickly changing important, even indispensable aspects of Christianity. Consider just one example: the ever-growing tendency to substitute a physical, visible Bible (remember . . . the ones where you lick your finger and turn the pages) with a tablet in the pulpit.”

Conflating medium and message like this is dangerous. As is not understanding the importance of the relationship between medium and message. But the church would die tomorrow (or in this generation) if we did not adapt our mediums to continuously carry the message.

I’ve written some dumb stuff in my time, so I don’t like throwing stones at dumb ideas – but this post enshrines 16th century Reformation values as modern regulations in a pretty unhelpful way. Imagine trying to make this case for a physical, presumably leather bound book, in the early church…

His argument kind of boils down to the symbolism involved in the use of particular physical mediums – what they represent. What they communicate.

“Yes, this tablet contains the digital text of the Bible, but visually that tablet represents so much more. It is an icon of social media and a buffet of endless entertainment.”

And in trying to pre-emptively move away from the technological idol, he idolises the hard copy.

“In short, a print copy of the Scriptures in the pulpit represents something far more focused and narrow: a visible symbol of God speaking to his people, the master Shepherd feeding his flock.”

That borders on idolatry. The physical form of the Bible – I’m not talking the words themselves – but what they’re printed on as a symbol? No thank you. Unless you want to take me back to Greek or Hebrew characters scrawled on pages by scribes…

I reckon Augustine would be rolling in his grave at the argument that wrong use of technology – in this case tablets – negates any right use.

This is quite a ridiculous statement. When you think about it. The “problem” as described, may even be accurate… but is it caused by better technology? A hyperlinked medium? I doubt it.

“When the preacher says, “Turn in your Bibles to . . . ,” the layperson simply clicks on a link or enters the text into a search box. As a result, I am increasingly discovering as a professor at a Christian university that students do not know where books in the Bible are located, let alone how the storyline of redemptive history develops. Many laypeople do not possess the ability to see the text in its context. Consequently, these old-fashioned, basic, Bible-learning skills are being lost.”

I want to suggest – and I’ll attempt to outline my thinking below – that this is an apt description of the modern “layperson,” and that the Reformers are a model for thinking about how this sort of technology could be embraced by the church, but that they wouldn’t be mounting arguments more at home in the Luddite movement than in a reforming church.

Here are a couple more quotes before we move on.

“And should an unbeliever walk in for the first time, would he know that we are a people of the book?”

Here’s where he displays his cards – I’d argue we’re people of God’s written word. Not people of the book. Being a person of the book makes no sense when books no longer exist (or before books exist). Honestly, picture a day in 50 years where nobody but a collector or a traditionalist is all that interested in physical mediums – what message are you sending in this post 1984/Farenheit 451 dystopia if you’re trying to insist on the use of a book? Is the gospel not relevant in this cultural wasteland?

Interestingly – media theorists – those who study the rapidly changing landscape of the things that carry messages – often chart the rise and fall of empires through history and note that staying apace with change is really important. Media Theorist Marshall McLuhan (who coined the phrase “the medium is the message”) said:

“Any change in the forms or channels of communication, be it writing, roads, carts, ships, stone, papyrus, clay, or parchment, any change whatever has revolutionary social and political consequences.”

The way the people of God have selected, used, and adapted mediums to carry the message of the Gospel has ensured the longevity of the gospel message. God’s communication agents, his messengers, have always kept pace with (and in the case of the Reformation – driven) changes in communication mediums. Preferring mediums that are easily transmitted in a way that breaks down physical barriers, or impediments, to messages spreading.

Consider the Epistle. A short letter that could be easily duplicated and ferried around a network of roads – rather than relying on one speaker on a tour, or setting up an impressive statue with a stone inscription…

Consider the Reformation. Luther didn’t just translate the Bible. He produced fliers that were designed to spread quickly, to start conversations, to stir controversy, to change minds. Luther also complained about the typesetting of some of his pamphlets – because good use of emerging mediums is important. Luther would love the iPad.

Look. If your evangelistic strategy depends on you carrying a physical Bible. I think you’re doing it wrong. And if you can’t think of ways to use the digital text of the Bible to start conversations with people. I think you’re doing it wrong. And if you think you need a book, a physical book, in church to be doing it right. I think you’re doing it wrong. I’m not sure “carry a book” was what Paul meant when he said, in Colossians 3:

“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.”

Richly seems a little bit more than the two dimensional written/spoken approach underpinning that post.

“… when the smartphone or iPad (or name your mobile device) replaces a hardcopy of Scripture, something is missing in our nonverbal communication to unbelieving onlookers. When you walk to church, sit down on a bus, or discipline one another at a coffee shop, a hard copy of the Bible sends a loud and bold message to the nearest passersby about your identity as a Christ follower. It says, “Yes, I am a Christian and I believe this book is the Word of God telling us who we are and how we should live.”

The medium should support the transmission of the message

This is kind of communication/media theory 101. The medium is incredibly important. The paradigm for this is, believe it or not, Jesus himself.

In Jesus, the word of God takes on an unprecedented three dimensional reality that is incredibly flexible (not simply rigid text). God’s word becomes rich in that Jesus could be experienced by those he interacted with in the flesh, with the senses.

Marshall McLuhan, said of the incarnation of Jesus:

“In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same.”

I would say it is Jesus himself who is centrally important, and provides the pattern for thinking about the relationship between medium and message. Not the written word. This means being flexible with our use of mediums – not rigidly holding on to a “flexibility” developed in the Reformation.

Here’s what Paul says about Jesus approach to becoming a physical communication medium in Philippians 2, and how that seems to impact his approach to communication in 1 Corinthians 9.

Philippians 2…

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

1 Corinthians 9…

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

In Jesus, God sacrificially accommodated us, his audience. So that we could understand what he was communicating – try understanding an infinite God without God making himself human… the medium was one that we could understand and relate to. Paul works hard to be a medium those he seeks to reach can understand and relate to as he presents the gospel to them…

If we really want to become part of the world we’re trying to communicate the message of Jesus to, it’s no good hanging on to old fashioned ways of communicating the message – unless you want a church exclusively made up of nostalgics hungry for a tactile connection to God – and that’s probably idolatry… we should be at the forefront of thinking about how we can pair God’s timeless word with timely mediums. We should be looking to incarnate the message in new mediums in a way that accommodates those we seek to reach.


If we don’t adapt – we will die.

It’s only through speaking the language of the people, in forms they are familiar with, that we can start addressing some of the deeper literacy issues when it comes to the Bible – and I firmly believe that a greater ability to follow intertextual links along a thread (or trajectory) through the Bible is where we’re going to see a greater grasp of a Christ centred Biblical Theology developing.

So even the legitimate concern raised above is addressed by making the books of the Bible more intertextually linked – through actual links – than they ever have been before. And now it’s in your pocket. Not in a clunky old book that you have to lug around on a plane to start a conversation…

 

On Sunday I followed up my previous talk in a miniseries called “Where is Jesus now?” with a look at how Jesus is visible in the here and now in images of him.

People. Those who have been transformed by Jesus. Into his image.

I feel like it was an adequate treatment of the question in that Jesus is visible in his church – but I feel like I pulled some punches in the answer that I gave.

It’s easy to talk about being Jesus in the small stuff. It’s easy to talk about being Jesus to other people when they’re moving house – or when you realise how broken you are, and they are… It’s easy to talk about being Jesus as something that’s a little intangible and hypothetical – it’s easy to say that people should be able to see Jesus in us. As we live transformed lives.

But it’s not so easy to see Jesus, here and now, in human tragedies.

The challenge for those who call Jesus Lord, who are being conformed to his image, and who are his image bearers – or ambassadors – is to know how to be Jesus in the awful extremities of life, not just in the every day.

Sure. Figuring out that bearing the image of Jesus means having a life shaped by the sort of sacrificial love Jesus showed at the cross will hopefully help us in big situations if we’re disciplined at living that way in the minutiae of daily life. But a big question we’ve got to answer – and account for, if we’re bearing Jesus’ image – is where is Jesus in tragedies.

Where is Jesus when bombs explode at the finish line of a popular marathon and maim hundreds?

The Westboro Baptists offer one answer.

It’s not a very good answer. There is no image of Jesus in this picture, or in these words. There is no Jesus in the words and lives of the Westboro Baptists. There’s as much Jesus in their ministry as there is in those pieces of toast that sell for thousands of dollars on eBay.

This sort of thing makes you wish that Anonymous would make good on their threats to remove the cancer that is Westboro Baptist… Even if that’s not real justice. And even if there’s a little of the hate (or at least the capacity for hate) that Westboro spew out in all of us… sometimes when we’re condemning them.

But Jesus is in the voices of people who are changed by him – who are called to be his ambassadors – joining together to call Westboro out for what they are. Spokespeople of evil. People peddling the sort of message that might have earned them the label “antichrist” from the guys who wrote the New Testament… Jesus is in the actions of the people who respond in love, rather than standing idly by – or worse – celebrating – when tragedies like this strike. Tragedies that are the result of human brokenness. Tragedies that unite us – tragedies that the world unites to condemn.

I read somewhere that the explosion left people with broken bodies and severed limbs – people who moments before had been taking part in a grand moment, sitting at the finish line of a marathon – the pinnacle of human athletic achievement. There’s something beautiful and pure about sport – it’s one of those parts of life, like music, love, and childbirth, where something magical happens. Something that puts the better aspects of our humanity to the fore… except when people cheat (or play country music).

That’s why it’s easy to spot the tragedy and injustice in this situation that has, as I write, claimed the lives of a handful of people, including a child, and seriously injured many, many others.

It’s easy to speak for Jesus in a situation where everybody is essentially saying the words, and offering the compassion, that those of us who follow Jesus want to be saying. You don’t stand out as different for wanting to see those who have been, literally, torn apart by those explosions, lovingly pieced back together – to have their lives stretch out for many years into the future with only small physical scars to show for this event.

It’s easy to be Jesus – to carry his image – when everyone agrees with what he says. When the media is trumpeting the story on front pages, and at the top of news bulletins, throughout the world.

It’s easy for those in leadership to sound like Jesus when they’re condemning evil and promising to deal with it, and deliver justice for the victims. It’s easy to be admirable and kingly – to be a voice of sacrificial authority and compassion.

But what about when the media is silent – by conspiracy, or just because an issue is deemed to be a non-issue?

Where is Jesus when tragedies are occuring in darkness – rather than in the prominence of an internationally significant sporting event?

Where is Jesus in the story of Kermit Gosnell?

Abortion is a horribly complex issue with all sorts of factors influencing a decision that often comes from a place of trauma and despair and leads to more trauma and more despair. This has never been more true than in the horrible shop of horrors case of Kermit Gosnell.

Where is Jesus in that million dollar backyard abortion clinic that ended the lives of mothers, and untold numbers of unborn babies – and worse – babies who were born. Live. During the abortion process. Only to be, literally, torn apart for the convenience of the mother and doctor. Using stationery. He’s on trial for killing seven babies and one mother – but it’s hard to tell the difference between a baby killed outside the womb at 30 weeks and a baby killed inside the womb at 30 weeks. It’s hard to tell the difference between these seven babies and the thousands of babies Gosnell has killed in completely legal (though horribly conducted) processes in his clinic. Which is why some ethicists argue that infanticide isn’t just ok, but the natural conclusion of legalising abortion. And is probably why pro-abortion reporters have a hard time demonstrating why Kermit Gosnell is a criminal anomaly rather than a participant in the status quo.

It turns out it’s much harder to be presidential when you’re talking about the potential legal murder of babies (Obama’s track record on this issue is pretty disturbing, I’m not expecting him to comment on a case that’s before the courts)… It’s much harder for the media to speak like Jesus in a story like this – as they try to balance their competing agendas. It’s harder to carry the image of Jesus into a situation like this – when people would much rather sweep the whole thing under a rug and forget it happened. It’s much harder to sound like Jesus when the mob is baying for a certain type of blood to match a certain style of lifestyle.

One of the tragedies of the abortion debate is that it’s the product of a culture that rejects the idea that some actions have consequences that we don’t want. If the debate was limited to early term abortions in the case of rape, or genuine threats to the life of the mother, there’d be a lot less heat. Even those situations aren’t black and white. But the goalposts have moved so far from those extremes to questions of convenience that we’re now in a situation where the long term mental health of the mother is said to justify the termination of a human life after the person has exited the mother’s body. It’s not about control over one’s body at that point.

Where is Jesus in infanticide? He’s in the voices of Christians who lovingly point out that we can do better – and who model a better way forward. A way that involves sacrificial love – not a voice of condemnation. A way that involves hope, not despair. A way that involves being Jesus not just to the unwanted babies – but to the mothers. To the legislators. To the doctors. We can do better. We need to do better.

It’s easy to speak for Jesus when what he’d say is obvious and requires no creativity. It’s easy to carry the image of Jesus into a situation where everybody agrees on a way forward.

It’s harder to speak for Jesus, and carry his image, when the way forward requires creativity and thinking outside the box in a completely counter-cultural way.

You can read Mike Bird’s excellent and persuasive piece on why we need to be thinking about infanticide now, not in three years, and I’d humbly submit this piece I wrote last year when those enlightened ethicists calmly essentially suggested that Kermit Gosnell’s actions be normalised as a useful companion piece.

Jesus is in those who speak out for the vulnerable. Who speak against the consensus that is driven by an ideology of “me” – an ideology that dehumanises other lives for my convenience. An ideology that knows nothing of sacrificial love – but only sacrifice of others. Of other lives. With scissors.

I’m sorry. But how did we get to this? We got here by rejecting the progress borne out of almost 2,000 years of people valuing life because Jesus valued life. Valuing life because human life is life made in the image of God with the potential to be life remade in the image of Jesus. You only get to humanism through Jesus.Humanism is that great modern “secular” doctrine which has somehow been white-anted by selfishness where “I” am valuable but fellow humans – including the unborn – are to be discarded when they become inconvenient and its within my power (or rights) to do so. Humanism is a product of Christianity. Cut out Christianity and the foundations for valuing life disappear. And we’re going to wear the cost of that.

We might see a bombing that takes the life of a handful of people – including a child – as tragic, and rightly so. It’s right for that story – that describes how human brokenness can affect something pure and exciting – to be front page news. But somehow the story of a man whose brokenness affected that other pure and exciting human event – childbirth – in bloody, heinous and unimaginably terrible ways – is only worth a mention five weeks into his trial as a result of a sustained outcry.

Somehow we need to be Jesus in situations like this.

Somehow we need to be Jesus to our legislators, and to parents – as Christians were in the pagan Roman empire where child exposure (infanticide) was a daily reality.

Here’s what Tertullian said about infanticide which was part of a Christian led revolution of the practice where Christians would take exposed children and raise them in loving environments – in a way that ultimately led to children being valued.

“But in regard to child murder, as it does not matter whether it is committed for a sacred object, or merely at one’s own self-impulse—although there is a great difference, as we have said, between parricide and homicide—I shall turn to the people generally. How many, think you, of those crowding around and gaping for Christian blood,—how many even of your rulers, notable for their justice to you and for their severe measures against us, may I charge in their own consciences with the sin of putting their offspring to death? As to any difference in the kind of murder, it is certainly the more cruel way to kill by drowning, or by exposure to cold and hunger and dogs. A maturer age has always preferred death by the sword. In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fœtus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth…”

Somehow we need to find creative ways to be Jesus to the mothers faced with the horrible prospect of terminating a life because they see no other way forward.

Somehow we need to be Jesus to those who would profit from the industry this produces.

Somehow we need to be Jesus to those who are legislating on our behalf so that people see that it’s ok to make decisions out of love for other people that come at personal cost. Like Jesus did. Somehow.

Somehow we need to help people rediscover the truth that people are made in God’s image, and of value – so that they might take the step to being remade in the image of Jesus, who after surviving an attempted infanticide when he was born, sacrificed himself for others.

It’s all well and good to pay lip service to living like Jesus – and at the end of the day I feel like I did a pretty good job of doing that on Sunday. Paying lip service to the idea that we should take up our cross and follow Jesus so other people see him in us. It’s easy enough to do it when everybody is up an arms. But what about when the rubber hits the road – what about in the face of tragedies and injustices that people aren’t really interested in knowing about?

You know that discomfort you experience when you hear your recorded voice played back. I get that tenfold watching the first few seconds of this. It’s a recording of a sermon I preached last Sunday.

Part 2 is coming this week. I post this more as an explanation for my complete lack of substantial content this week – moving house and preaching two Sundays in a row, while not writing my project means producing cogent extra-curricular writing is not at the top of my list.

I still can’t quite snap out of “piece to camera”/reporter/emotionless drone mode. I’m a product of my own long term deliberate suppression of pathos. On the plus side, I felt much more comfortable with the no notes (or rather the powerpoint) thing this time around.

Right. I’m preaching on Sunday – the second part in a two part series called “Where is Jesus now?”… The first talk will be online some time this week. In the mean time – my answer to this question this week is that he is in the church – his body. That we bear his image. And that people should be able to find him by looking at us (and that being Christ like is particularly tied up in being cross like). I’m getting there from 2 Corinthians 5.

So here’s a question I have. And I’d like your input. So put your thinking caps on.

Here’s the passage.

14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creationhas come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

I’m particularly interested in the first two verses.

These appear, at face value (and as promoted by universalists) to say that Jesus’ death covers every one.

14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

It seems people universally accept that the one who died “for all” is Jesus, and is the same as the “he” who died for all in verse 15. I think 14 is talking about Adam, and 15 is talking about Jesus. The only good reason I can think of not to think this is that I can’t find anyone who agrees with me yet…

I’m struggling to figure out how 14 helps Paul’s argument if he isn’t really developing it, but repeating it, in verse 15. I think verse 15 is a contrast where a second person has died for all. And I think Paul is using the same comparison between Jesus and Adam that he uses in Romans (chapters 5-8), and 1 Corinthians 15. I think Paul would say that all die because Adam died. So, in fact, Adam also died for all…

Here’s a bit from Romans 5…

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned…”

17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!”

And a bit from 1 Corinthians 15…

21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

I don’t understand why this is even a question? The comparison seems pretty obvious, but I can’t find anyone who makes it (I’ve googled a bit, and used my whizz bang Bible software).

Book Review: Saving Eutychus

Disclaimer/Disclosure statement: The authors of this book are people I know well. One is the principal of the college I study at, Queensland Theological College. The second, if the review process could be any more daunting and personal – is my father. The advice in his chapters is advice I’ve grown up hearing, and seeing applied – though I haven’t been a member of a church that Dad has preached at for 8 years. I received early chapters of this book to proof read, and I didn’t do a very good job of that. I read them. But they seemed fine to me. The book also contains the following paragraph…

Phil and Louise are the parents of four adult children— Nathan, Jo, Maddie and Susie—and they are now learning the art of grandparenting (even though they insist they’re much too young). Nathan’s popular blog www.st-eutychus.com inspired the title of this book.

Which is nice – because as Gary was keen to point out – I don’t really own the copyright on Eutychus…

You can, in the absence of the book actually being released, check out some sample chapters and stuff on savingeutychus.com.


 

The Review

The disclosure should make it obvious that I’m going to have a hard time being objective here – I’m also going to have a hard time coming at this book as though half the chapters are at all novel. This isn’t new to me. It’s bread and butter. It’s how I’ve been taught to preach from my first talk, to a youth group, when I was 16. In many senses it’s how I was taught to write. It’s also how I’ve been taught to preach at college. I think it’s a good model. It meshes with what I know about communication from my profession.

One of the first things you notice about this book, appropriately, is the number of, and caliber of, the guys endorsing the book.

I could tell you this will revolutionise your preaching – but really I have no idea what it looks like to not have some of these tips running through my head, so instead, I’ll focus on some of the bits that I really liked, and let you read it and make up your mind for yourselves when it comes out.

There’s a nice humility underpinning the approach of this book – from confessions about being naturally boring, to constant reminders that preaching isn’t about us. In fact, the very message of the book takes most of the emphasis on the preacher out of the mix, except for this fundamental responsibility at the heart of the book…

“Gary and I are not approaching this book as experts on preaching that keeps people awake. But we are convinced that when attention wanders and eyes droop, it’s more often our fault than our listeners’.”…

Saving Eutychus doesn’t just mean keeping him awake. It also means doing our best to keep him fresh and alert so he can hear the truth of the gospel and be saved. If we have done our job, we will stand up on Sunday ready to deliver a sermon on a Bible passage that we have wrestled with and that the Holy Spirit has begun to apply to our own hearts and lives.

Preaching is God’s work, and any authority the preacher wields comes from the text of the Bible. It’s a nice reminder that no matter how charismatic our personalities are, no matter how engaging and witty we can be as we speak – preaching is ultimately reveals God, points people to Jesus, and relies on the Spirit to be hammered home.

Gary’s answer to this dilemma is prayer.

“Gradually, we seem to be losing sight of the fact that God uses weak and sinful people, and that he uses them only by grace. Yes, we may sow, plant and water—but only God gives growth. That’s true in your local church and mine. It’s also true of every podcast and ebook and conference address under the sun. God doesn’t use people because they are gifted. He uses people (even preachers) because he is gracious. Do we actually believe that? If we do believe it, then we will pray— we will pray before we speak, and we will pray for others before they speak. It’s that simple.”

One of the nice things about the book is how honest both authors are about their own struggles in preaching – and their own lives in pastoral ministry that is preaching driven. There are excerpts from real, recent, sermons, to support some of the practical tips, and plenty of rubber hitting road anecdotes to illustrate how each chapter might be applied.

The chapters are relatively evenly split – Gary does the “theology” stuff, Dad does the practical, but the dichotomy isn’t carried out cleanly the whole way through – both are free to enter the other’s turf, so Dad is “theological” when it comes to how you think of the big idea, and Gary is practical when it comes to how you make real changes in the light of some theological insights.

Dad’s bits are shaped by years of trying to communicate better, driven by a gospel motivated (and personality motivated) perfectionism that I’ve inherited in certain areas – his chapters are the result of constantly assessing what you’re doing and questioning why you do it that way, and how you can make it work better, and be less painful, for your listener. Gary’s bits, are, as you’d expect if you know him, thoroughly Trinitarian, almost devotional (in a refreshing way and substantial way), reference Jonathan Edwards a few times, and are laced with really nice insights that’ll challenge the way you think about church – not just preaching, in a section on encouraging your whole church to pray for preaching he drops this Hanselesque breadcrumb:

“The growth of home groups is, I think, a really good thing, but it doesn’t come without a cost. In my experience, the cost is that the ‘prayer’ part of the home group is always weaker than the study part. The net result is that we pray more for my Aunt Nelly’s next-door neighbour’s friend’s daughter than we do for the proclamation of the message of Jesus. (And it’s not that my Aunt Nelly’s next- door neighbour’s friend’s daughter doesn’t need prayer—I’m arguing for both/and rather than either/or.) So, again, it’s just worth checking—is there a dedicated time during the week when people gather specifically to pray for our core business?”

I’ve been part of bible studies at five churches now, and I’m thankful for the way each have taught me to read the Bible and apply it to my life, but this rings a bit true – normally it’s the newest Christians who are the most passionate prayers when it comes to the core business of spreading the gospel.

Gary spends some time on the dangers of manipulation, and while it’s a really valuable reminder – I’m left wondering where “persuading” – openly, rather than underhandedly (manipulation) fits, but no matter how the cake is baked – the conclusion is worth eating…

“The key to preaching, then, is to make the message of the text obvious. Help people to see it and feel it. Help people to understand the text. Paul is talking about what I would call ‘expository preaching’, in which the message of the text is the message of the sermon.”

But this is a great way of making sure the authority of a sermon is resting in the right place – God’s revealed word.

One of my favourite bits of preaching advice from Gary is this, as a rookie preacher it has been really helpful for me thinking through what I think the “big idea” of a bit of the Bible is and how I might frame it appropriately.

“Expository preaching happens when the message of the text = the message of the sermon. Or perhaps better, expository preaching happens when the vibe of the passage = the vibe of the sermon.”

I could go through this book and keep cherry picking out the bits I like, but that might mean you won’t buy the book, and while my inheritance isn’t riding on it, you know, there’s enough self-interest there on my part to want you to buy it, as well as the belief that the book is really helpful – because it’s hard not to be if you think this is the goal of preaching:

This approach ensures that your preaching will be both predictable and unpredictable. It will be predictable in the same way that the Bible is predictable. At the core of our preaching will be the same message—what God has already done for us in the Lord Jesus Christ.

His chapter that covers doing this well from the Old Testament has been helpful for me, in lecture and chapel sermon form, and it’s nice to have it fleshed out more than I might have managed in blog post form in the past. The chapter includes a really helpful discussion of Biblical Theology and “trajectories” that link the Old Testament to Jesus, to the New Testament, to us…

The book’s format is helpful – chapters contain nice chunks of supporting material, be it passages from the Bible, passages from sermons, anecdotes, or helpful theological and pastoral reflections, and they’re rounded out with nice practical tips, lists, and summaries to help you remember and apply. The conversational tone between Gary and Dad within the chapters (they share a pulpit at Mitchelton and have had a chance to see each other in action for the last year) means the switch between voices is natural rather than jarring, they play nicely off each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

It’s interesting for me how many of Dad’s tips are very similar to how good corporate communication happens – it needs to be clear, as geared to your medium, as concise as possible, repeat your key messages, be based on some sort of authority (data in my case, the text when it comes to preaching), and for people to listen it needs to be about people.

“Take a look at the front page of a newspaper sometime. Are interest rates rising? Then you’re almost sure to see a photograph of an affected family. Graphs and statistics can come later. The journalist’s rule is this: if there are no people, there’s no story. So populate your preaching with real people. Use people-based illustrations and people-based application. Where you can, talk about real people and real situations, instead of just talking about abstract ideas. Typically, I’ll scour the newspaper, internet news sources and TV for fresh material. Incredibly, there always seems to be something useful. Of course, if the story involves a member of your congregation then you’ll need to ask permission first.”

This paragraph from Dad comes with a very important caveat in the footnotes:

“In fact, even if it’s about one of your kids make sure you ask permission first! Being a pastor’s kid carries enough baggage without growing up in church where everyone can recite the ‘cute stories’ of your childhood.”

I’ve found this has been incredibly true in the age of the Internet and a “digital shadow” – when my mother-in-law googled me when I started dating Robyn, she found a bit of one of Dad’s sermons that opened “Nathan Campbell has lost his shoes”…

The book covers stuff like pulling a text apart, spoken delivery, receiving critique, putting a talk together – which includes something like a Director’s Cut/commentary version of the sermon manuscript from one of Dad’s recent sermons on Acts. And then, to finish off nicely, there’s a sample critique from Dad, and from Gary on a each other’s real sermons.

I really liked this book, I obviously heartily endorse it, and you should buy at least three. As I was reading it I was pretty thankful – thankful that I’ve been shaped the way I have by a father who wants people to know the ultimate father, shaped to love the gospel of Jesus, and want people to hear it unhindered, and hopefully shaped to be self-aware of my myriad faults and my constant desire to make preaching all about me. This book is a useful reminder for me in that ongoing challenge. And it makes me thankful that in the last few years I’ve been taught at a college by guys of Gary’s caliber (and the caliber of the other members of faculty). I have much to be thankful for, especially the gospel, and the privilege of being a fellow worker in the ministry of the gospel, as a preacher with training wheels on. There’s that old saying about new generations standing on the shoulders and I’ve never felt that more tangibly than when I read a book that spells out so clearly what I’ve been blessed to assume as natural by guys I know. But as impressive as I think those guys are, and as thankful as I am for both of them, it’s the gospel that’s really impressive and powerful to change hearts, not them, not me – but the God who revealed himself in Jesus and his word, who changes us by his Spirit.

The authors of this book have framed it as “an Irishman and an Aussie walk into a pulpit”… if I was making it a joke it’d be “My dad and my college principal write a book together”…

But here’s something to look forward to.

 

Cool title… Don’t you think…

Hopefully this is the last in a series of long posts responding to John Dickson’s book “Hearing Her Voice.”

The other posts include:

If none of this interests you – have you watched this lip reading of NFL players? It’s funny.

A tl:dr;* introduction/summary of what follows

*too long, didn’t read

In what follows I argue that if the sermon is preaching (not teaching), and preaching, in the context of the gathering (not preaching outside the gathering – essentially to non-believers), is:

  • a piece of cross-shaped persuasion proclaiming the crucified Lord Jesus and the message of the gospel,
  • something of greater magnitude than the sacraments, in that the sacraments support the preaching,
  • where God speaks through those he provides with gifts,
  • so long as they too submit to the authority of Scripture, and their sermon is based on the authority of God’s revealed word.

If these points are true, then the sermon is the ultimate act of authority in the church, and at the center of preaching – which is a corporate activity of the church (not an individual act).

So if one is a complementarian the sermon should be:

  • a clear proclamation of the gospel,
  • based on the authority of God’s revealed word,
  • given by a man who meets the Biblical ethos guidelines for a preacher (assuming they’re the same as those for an elder),
  • who is appropriately gifted to carry out the logos and pathos elements of the delivery of a sermon,
  • which sits in the context of a church gathering where all the members sacrificially exercise their gifts, as one body,
  • to preach the gospel, corporately (in an act of worship).

And therefore, those who preach should be:

  • Sacrificial in their approach to preaching,
  • not speaking as an ego exercise, but a genuine act of service to others,

which means being mindful of who they are preaching to, and how their preaching style and content relates to and serves those in the gathering.

While the structure of the gathering, and the life of the church outside the gathering, should be such that all members of the church can function as part of the body and use their gifts in the preaching of the gospel (outside of the context of the gathering).

If you disagree with any of that, and want to tell me about it – feel free to jump to the comments and tell me why – this is another pretty big post. I feel like I can justify most of these positions from the Bible, and from various “authorities” throughout church history – but I haven’t always done this because some of the points assume things I’ve argued previously, and other times it’s just too hard to list all the proof texts, and I prefer proof vibe, and theological coherence and cogency, anyway.

Thinking about this issue has been fun because it has forced me to consider some things that appear to be contradictory in my thinking about church and ministry. I’m trying to reconcile the beliefs that all people are equal, but genders are inherently different, and all believers are “priests,” while some specific roles exist, and some of these roles aren’t available to sets of equal people.

On a simplistic level – if you’re comfortable with the idea that somebody who is tone deaf but passionate about singing shouldn’t be leading the singing at church, and that they might willingly forgo this role because they understand it’s for the good of others without losing any sense of their own value or the value of their singing to God, you’ve already started reconciling these tension.

Want to read more. Like 5,000 words more… then click the “read more” link…

Continue Reading…

What is preaching?

I’ve been talking to my dad a little about the hubbub surrounding Hearing Her Voice, my review, and some of the stuff I’ve been suggesting is relevant to how we think about preaching from the thought world of the first century. Dad (and now Mikey) made the interesting point that there’s never really been a solid definition of preaching, as in “what we do in the pulpit in church on a Sunday,” beyond teaching, especially for those influenced by the Knox/Robinson revolution in the Australian evangelical scene.

Here, as a bit of a cheat note, is the relatively pregnant definition I’m suggesting in this post:

Preaching is the persuasive and authoritative proclamation of the good news that Jesus is the Christ, who launched God’s kingdom in his death and resurrection, it relies on the authority of God provided by his word, and the gifts supplied to his body – the church – by the Spirit, to beget and nurture the faith of those God has called.

It’s interesting that the Knox/Robinson ecclesiology, which Mark Thompson has just summed up in The Briefing, seems to influence the understanding of what happens in the pulpit on a Sunday. There is another useful factor that I’ll get to below – but I wonder if the appropriate first principle for figuring out what “preaching” is, particularly in the context of the gathered people of God, is to figure out what church is.

What is church?

I’m a young guy, I have nothing like the runs that either Knox or Robinson had on the board – but I want to humbly suggest that their focus on the internal aspect of church life, appears to have come at the cost of ignoring the simultaneous external aspect of what it means to be the church.

I’ll bold the bit that I think create an unnecessary limit on what church is.

Thus church is Christian fellowship. Like all fellowship it requires as a sine qua non ‘other-person-centredness’, that is, being genuinely interested in the other person as a person, and, in particular, as a Christian person. It will require communication, talking to each other in Christian things, in the things of faith and hope in Christ. Christian church fellowship means not only talking together, but doing together Christian things such as praising, praying, and thanking God. Our fellowship is not only directed towards God, but also towards one another, building one another up as Christians.”

What’s really interesting is what’s missing. If the reformers model of church as mother, the ordinary means of both begetting and nurturing faith, is correct – and I think it is, then an ecclesiology and understanding of what the role of the church is that excludes the process of begetting is slightly lacking.

Also, if the church is incarnational – the physical body of Christ, united to him, and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit – it seems odd to limit its focus like the quote above does. Christ’s ministry, recorded in the gospels, seems to be directed to all people, publicly, in the service of God, with clear demonstrations that he was and is the long promised king bringing the long promised kingdom, ultimately for the benefit of those who put their trust in him, but this definition explicitly suggests the church (and its gatherings) should only really focus on God and other Christians.

It’s not just “missing” – it’s deliberately absent. Here’s how Thompson sums up how both Knox and Robinson conceive of the mission of the church…

“We might discern a slight difference of emphasis between Knox and Robinson at this point, though both consistently argued that “the visible church has no purpose or mission beyond being the church, that is, being the fellowship of Christ’s people”

Thompson says the pay off of this position for who we think church is for is one of the significant contributions Knox/Robinson make for today – and I’d say it’s part of the significant contribution to whatever confusion exists about what the difference is between “teaching” and “preaching”… I’ve heard from someone sharp, and remember, I haven’t read anything by either of these guys, that their emphasis, and thus the emphasis at Moore College is on training Bible teachers, and letting authority rest in the word of God, rather than training preachers.

Thompson sets up, or articulates, what I think is an unhelpful false dichotomy in our thinking about the orientation of our gatherings.

“Some of our contemporary confusion about what we do when we come together, it seems to me, arises from a failure to observe the important distinction between being intelligible to outsiders and being oriented towards outsiders. Paul expected that an outsider might enter the assembly at Corinth and understand what was being said. But he did not expect that all that was being done would be oriented towards the outsider, calculated to remove all that might seem strange to the outsider, or even designed so that the outsider might anonymously observe and feel more comfortable.”

I’d argue that the problem isn’t one of failing to observe an important distinction, I’d say it’s failing to grasp that the thing that both outsiders and insiders need – the one thing – is to know the gospel of Jesus.

You don’t have to choose between “seeker” and “believer” oriented – because both seekers and believers receive their mothering in the same way – the gospel. Sure. The full significance of the gospel is something that bites with time – which is why Paul can say he gives the Corinthians “milk, not solid food” (1 Cor 3:2), but I don’t think his preaching ever goes beyond “Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 1:22-24) and the wonder of being united with Christ and having our status as children of God restored in him – and the impact that has on how we understand what it means to be human (which seems to be part of the solid food he serves up in Romans).

To know how Jesus, the long awaited Christ, is foretold in the Old Testament, and to know what the kingdom he launched at the cross is, and how we can be a part of it. Clear, authoritative, gospel proclamation, based on the authority of the Scriptures (including the apostolic deposit) – aimed at persuading (both those who are already persuaded, and those who aren’t), will serve both believer and unbeliever, doing the “mother” thing the reformers saw as so key to what the church was on about.

Also, if we assume that part of being the church isn’t just wanting to have fellowship with one another and to do things together as we worship God, sacrificially, with the gifts he gave us, as the Body of Christ, under his head, but see this role extending to something like seeking to be, actively, his representatives on earth – as his ambassadors, as participants in his mission – then not letting this impact how we gather, such that our gatherings make the gospel message as clear as it possible can be (which in turn benefits the insider), is a bit odd.

While I think Knox and Robinson made some incredible contributions to how we think of the church using appropriate theological categories, I suspect their desire not to meddle with the harmful stuff the ecumenical movement was doing meant their picture of the church as an entity with some sort of outwards focus was a little weak.

Thompson says:

“Of course we should recognize the danger of alienating those who visit our churches with obscure language, unexplained rituals and general insensitivity or rudeness. However, the outsider is visiting or entering a fellowship that has a particular character that marks itself out from other gatherings. Not all ‘strangeness’ is bad, especially when we consider how distant our contemporary culture has become from gospel priorities. The desire in some circles to transform church into something which resembles other gatherings (theatres, cafes, etc.) needs a better justification than it is often given.”

And again, sets up an interesting dichotomy. Strangeness isn’t bad, unless it obscures the gospel. Unexplained rituals or obscure language is bad because it obscures the gospel. You don’t have to jump from an unexplained ritual to theatre though – a better place on the spectrum might be doing whatever it takes to make the message of the gospel, as it relates to the revealed word of God, as clear as possible – using the gifts God has given his body to make his Christ, Jesus, known.

What is “preaching”?

This definition is a bit of a work in process, it brings together the essence of a few previous posts, I’ll provide links here and you can read them, or not, at your leisure, at times I’ll assume premises that I’ve argued for in these posts:

In yesterday’s post (the last one in that list) I tried to show that when the New Testament uses the word preaching it brings with it the idea of proclaiming Jesus as the Christ, and proclaiming the kingdom of God.

I’m also assuming the legitimacy of a Biblical Theological framework that is something like Goldsworthy’s (while recognising that attempts to apply one central motif, rather than seeing many strands contributing to a rich picture of fulfilment in Jesus, is a bit reductionist). Such a framework also sits in the Reformed tradition, where it is understood that for any passage of Scripture to be appropriately understood by a Christian audience, as Christian scripture, it needs to be understood through the lens of Jesus being the Christ.

On this basis all faithful “Bible teaching” points to Jesus being the Christ. You can certainly “teach” about the Bible both the Old Testament, and narrative bits of the Gospels that occur before the cross, and its meaning for its first, pre-cross readers, but that’s not preaching.

Harking back, for a second, to the Knox/Robinson model of church – because they rightly want to place the emphasis on the authority of Scripture, they saw teaching (as I understand their position) as expositing Scripture faithfully, with the preacher and his congregation sitting under the authority of the word – rather than the office of the preacher. And there’s a real rightness to that. In this way “teaching and exercising authority” was one act – the act of standing in front of the congregation and presenting the authority of God, and it was limited, by Paul’s instruction, to men.

But in jumping on “teaching” as the vehicle for authoritative instruction in the church, without really adequately defining or emphasising what “preaching” is – such that any trained monkey can be taught to teach – they’ve robbed us a little bit, I think, when it comes to supplying a definition of what preaching is.

Here’s my working definition – hopefully tying up nicely where I’ve been heading in the last few posts:

Preaching is the persuasive and authoritative proclamation of the good news that Jesus is the Christ, who launched God’s kingdom in his death and resurrection, it relies on the authority of God provided by his word, and the gifts supplied to his body – the church – by the Spirit, to beget and nurture the faith of those God has called.

Preaching is multi-genred, as the Scriptures are, and includes, I think, exhortation, teaching, rebuking, prophecy, and anything that helps people to see who Jesus is. It’s multi-media, it is communicated through the word – primarily, as it is adorned by the character of those who speak it, the way they speak it, and through the work of the Spirit (in the gifts supplied to the speakers, and the work the Spirit is doing in conforming the speaker to the image of Jesus, and in his work in the lives of the hearers).

If I ever get up in the pulpit on a Sunday and what I’m doing isn’t achieving that end, I feel like I’m wasting my time.

It’s interesting that Broughton Knox, in this quote from the Thompson piece, appears to agree with the essence of the sermon.

“We who are members of Christ’s church should lift our thoughts to where Christ is, and remember that the purpose of Christ’s gathering us in his presence is for fellowship with him and with one another by our hearing his voice which comes to us in the preaching of the gospel within that fellowship…[34. Knox, ‘Church’, p. 22.]”

I’d just add that it’s also for the purpose of bringing other people into the fellowship that we enjoy as we participate in the task of glorifying God by declaring his good news in a clear and persuasive way.

If you haven’t been following along on the interwebs, a hornets nest has been kicked and then ignited with the release of three Zondervan e-books about women and preaching, and whether or not they should do it.

I’ve read one of these, Hearing Her Voice, by John Dickson, the following review should come with the same caveats I included when I reviewed Promoting the Gospel: the best kept secret of Christian mission – I think John Dickson is excellent, I love his published body of work, and have found him helpful at just about every step of the way on my journey from Christian kid to theological student.

In this book we get more of Dickson’s very solid hermeneutical model applied to a pretty tricky question, and particularly applied to a verse that creates quite a few difficulties for the modern church. Seriously, he is, I think, the model of what being a careful interpreter of Scripture looks like, there’s a great para in the book that outlines his approach to using history as a tool for exegesis, and I commend it to you.

I was going to include quotes from the book – but this post is already almost 6,000 words long.

The question at the heart of this book – well, there are two questions, I think – and perhaps three – is what is “teaching?” Is preaching teaching? And if not, can women preach in church?

What’s not up for grabs for Dickson is the real strength of his work – he’s big on the authority of Scripture, big on consistently reading and exegeting it with the original readers and meaning in mind, and big on the principle that while male and female are equal in God’s sight, we are different.

I feel like I should throw in a few disclaimers at the start so you know where I’m coming from…

  • I’m aware of the dangers of being a “privileged” and unoppressed class speaking out on this issue – a white, anglo-saxon, male, protestant voice in this debate needs to be pretty mindful of his cultural background and relative freedom to make proclamations that appear to come at a cost to others.
  • I love the concept of a priesthood of all believers – it goes without saying that this includes men and women – I think it’s biblical, I think we’re all called to be on mission together, and equipped by God to serve as part of the body of believers as we serve and love one another and try to reach people together.
  • I think there are lots of women who are gifted preachers, teachers, and evangelists. I don’t see any gender specific traits that make being able to show someone else that Jesus is the Christ a particularly male act. This isn’t an “innate” issue, or a “masculinity” issue, men are not innately more competent in this area than women.
  • I’m also a complementarian – I think our different genders are a good and necessary part of what it means to be human.
  • I agree that there are lots of roles open to women that we’ve essentially closed because we’re scared of transgressing in this area – including prophecy, exhortation, partnering as “gospel workers,” etc.
  • I think the gender stuff at the fall is pretty interesting, and is certainly something Paul has in mind in this verse. While this is pretty absent in Dickson’s book, it is something Mike Bird, who wrote a second book in the series, spends some time considering – but I haven’t read that yet.
  • I’m wary about tossing out 2,000 years of church tradition, particularly the interpretive traditions from people who took the Bible seriously – though I’m also aware that all interpreters are fallible, and texts, and interpretations of those texts are the product of different cultures.
  • I’ll also presuppose that how we do church – including who preaches – is part of our ethos, so that the decision about who preaches is, in part, a decision we make about our presentation of the gospel.

What is a sermon? Teaching? Exhortation? Preaching?

I have some reservations about how Dickson approaches the Greek language (and how others do too) – but this is probably because they are experts at Greek and I am not. I think word studies have some merit, but I think assume too much about the deliberation that goes into the use of particular words, rather than paying heed to the vibe of a paragraph, or whole letter. I think words often have a broad semantic range that overlaps with other words, and you kind of use those ranges together to create new concepts – Dickson thinks this happens with “teaching” and “authority” in the verse in question… So I don’t really like arguments based on word studies – and most of my response won’t really engage with the question of whether or not “teaching” or in the Greek, didaskein, is a technical word for a particular act, or a general word for the passing on of knowledge – this is where the debate is being fought out on the interwebs by Lionel Windsor, and Dickson himself (in a great model of how you can disagree with people without calling their character into question…

Like I say – I’m not an expert on Greek, and don’t pretend to be, and I’m fairly sure that words can also be used technically to mean very narrow things – but I do think literary context guides interpretation… and I think one of the concerns of Paul’s letter to Timothy is to help Timothy, and the church, think rightly about questions of pastoral leadership – including the establishment of a role that seems to be for men and includes carrying the responsibility of preaching and teaching, within the church.

I don’t think Dickson necessarily disagrees with this approach to language – though his treatment of “teaching” here is very similar to his treatment of “evangelism” in Promoting the Gospel. He allows for general  use of words, while suggesting we need to pay heed to the technical meanings that may have been in operation in the first century.

He spends significant time making the case that “teaching” isn’t directly transferrable to what we do in the pulpit of a modern church each Sunday – and his argument seems to have some merit. I don’t think preaching is the teaching, in the technical sense, that Dickson identifies. So I’m almost happy to cede his whole argument, on one level – if the Sunday sermon is exhortation, as he suggests, or prophecy as the Puritans suggest, and not teaching (as Lionel Windsor suggests it is) – then I think he’s right – women should be able to exhort, prophecy, and do all the things that Paul specifically or implicitly allows, and even all the things he doesn’t forbid.

Anyway – here’s the passage in question, with a bit of context. From 1 Timothy 2…

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

In 1 Timothy 3, when he’s establishing the qualifications of a deacon, and an overseer he gives a set of ethos heavy principles, like being “above reproach” – which presumably has something to do with not undermining his leadership of others, and “be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” It is assumed in these verses that the person in question is a man – building off his argument in chapter 2.

In 1 Timothy 5 it appears he assumes these elders will be the people doing the “preaching and teaching”…

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”

Then, in 2 Timothy 4, he kind of spells out what Timothy is called to do, under the umbrella of “preaching”…

4 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teachingFor the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Ultimately, I’m not convinced by the way Dickson groups “teaching” and “authority” into one command, rather than two separate but related commands based on the same Old Testament/created order principle… and I think there’s another reason, an ethos reason, when it comes to how we persuade people about the message of the gospel that means we should think carefully about how we use, or emphasise, gender and authority in church gatherings… which I’ll get to below. Somewhere. I think what is done from the pulpit is an act of authority – and listening is an act of submission.

Where I think Windsor is right to go (but slightly wrong in where he lands – I think), and where I think Dickson is wrong – is on what the sermon actually is. In sum, Windsor thinks it’s teaching, and Dickson sells teaching short, Dickson thinks the sermon is exhortation, or something analogous to that – and thus thinks women can give sermons.

What Preaching is not…

I’d argue, with Dickson, that preaching is not teaching, we’ve hastily drawn an analogous line from the Bible’s use of teaching to our modern equivalent, and that’s come at a cost.

  • Preaching is not simply teaching – though it may involve the transmission of information from someone with knowledge to someone without.
  • Preaching is not strictly exhortation though it may encourage.
  • Preaching is not simply prophecy, though it may speak God’s word to people at a particular time… though in a sense a good sermon is all of these things. 

This is one of the areas I think Dickson’s argument breaks down – you don’t have to look much past Paul to find someone who exercises more than one of the “offices” of word ministry that Dickson seems to suggest are in operation… Paul also suggests all of these things are part of Timothy’s job as a preacher (2 Tim 4).

It’s quite possible that there’ll be an overlap of different styles of speaking in any particular speech, much as there was in just about any form of first century oratory. Where Cicero, in Brutus, bags out some orators for being too specialised in one area, because the idea was that public speakers could adopt a wide range of styles, from the boring didactic history lecture, to the witty declamation of an opponent on the election trail.

What a sermon (preaching) is…

Preaching is preaching. It has a New Testament equivalent – and an Old Testament equivalent. It has a Greek word – kerusso – which had a pre-existing technical meaning, and a meaning that developed through Christian usage, and it appears to be something like being a herald and proclaiming good news, with authority.

I’d argue that if one:

then our sermons are not “teaching” in the sense identified by Dickson – but “preaching”… in the sense that the word is used throughout the New Testament.

Our sermons should point people to Jesus and the kingdom of God, attempt to persuade people to accept the message, and declare that, Jesus is Lord – This essentially does nothing for the gender question but move the goalposts, so the question is not “can women teach?” but “can women preach?” – so Dickson’s insights, while useful, are potentially irrelevant to the question.

I would say that I think preaching is an act of authority – but the ultimate authority rests in the same person it rests in when Jesus is challenged about the authority behind his preaching – God and his Christ. When we preach faithfully we are simply pointing to the authority of Jesus. The way authority is exercised over the church is ultimately in the preaching of the word (and the faithful passing on of the apostolic traditions) as they relate to Jesus, not the appointment of humans who have particular gifts in particular areas.

Here’s where I want to make the case that this isn’t a new way of thinking about what preaching is – first from the Reformers, and then, after a little ethos excursus from the New Testament (though the order should be reversed – the NT stuff is pretty long).

Preaching in the Reformed world

Both Luther and Calvin (Institutes, 4.1.5) put a pretty high value on preaching , if preaching involved the gospel – so much that preaching was more important than the sacraments in terms of constituting Christ’s presence in the gathering of the body – this was a big deal in a time where people were killed over what they thought happened at communion.

Calvin says:

“We see that God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the Church. We see the mode of doing it expressed; the preaching of celestial doctrine is committed to pastors. We see that all without exception are brought into the same order, that they may with meek and docile spirit allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed for this purpose… Hence it follows, that all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the Church, deserve to perish of hunger and famine. God inspires us with faith, but it is by the instrumentality of his gospel, as Paul reminds us, “Faith cometh by hearing” (Rom. 10:17). God reserves to himself the power of maintaining it, but it is by the preaching of the gospel, as Paul also declares, that he brings it forth and unfolds it.”

Both (Luther Large Catechism (PDF, p 72), Calvin Institutes 4.1.1, 4)  saw the church as the “mother” of believers – responsible, ordinarily and under God, for giving birth to new believers and nurturing the faith of existing believers – and it did this, for both groups, in the same way – by preaching the gospel of Jesus. Not legalism. Not morals. Not ethics. Not just words of encouragement. But the gospel.

The gospel will have necessary implications for our morality and ethics – and it will necessarily be encouraging as we consider that the creator of the universe sent his son to earth to buy us, for a relationship, to make us his children. But our sermons that do all these things do these things because they first declare the truths of the gospel, and these things are part of the persuasive case the gospel makes for those who hear it.

The preaching of the gospel is one of the “marks of the church” for Reformed people.

The Westminster Confession of Faith essentially follows both Calvin and Luther on this point – it says the church is responsible for the “gathering and perfecting of saints” (WCF VII, XXV), and that the preaching of the word is one of the two marks of the church (along with the administration of the sacraments).

“And particular Churches, which are members thereof [the universal, visible, church], are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”

In XV the Confession says ministers are to preach: “Repentance unto life is an evangelical grace, the doctrine whereof is to be preached by every minister of the gospel, as well as that of faith in Christ,” and in XXI it says faithful preaching is part of worship. This preaching is conducted by these “ministers of the gospel”…

I like this quote from Calvin that Justin Taylor shared last week:

“This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father. If one were to sift thoroughly the Law and the Prophets, he would not find a single word which would not draw and bring us to him. . . . Therefore, rightly does Saint Paul say in another passage that he would know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Biblical, expository, sermons will point people to Jesus Christ in a way that declares his kingdom has come at the cross. It is preaching, not teaching.

An argument from “authority” – an ethos consideration

I think a case can be made that Paul’s prohibition on women exercising authority in the 1 Timothy 2 passage refers to what is going on in the gathering, and works a bit with the similar prohibition in 1 Corinthians, to establish a principle, rooted in creation and the fall, for what happens when the church meets and the gospel is preached… as an authoritative act.

But even if that case is weak – I wonder if there’s an ethos driven, cross-shaped, argument for women letting men preach, if sermons are preaching, and preaching is an act of persuasion where both pathos and ethos are as relevant as what we say… even if they are more gifted than their male counterparts, which is surely often the case.

A willingness to submit is part of the testimony of the gospel of the cross – as is a willingness to sacrificially not use our gifts for the sake of others… I’d argue Paul is essentially doing this in Corinth when he avoids using his full rhetorical prowess, that he demonstrates in Acts, in order to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified” as he teaches them, knowing what he does about their culture and context – and the sinful desires they have to place value in their abilities or flashy man made idols. I reckon its possible that gender equality is a bit of an idol in our culture – I’m not arguing that it’s a bad thing, idols are good things turned into ultimate things… but I wonder if a refusal to give in to cultural pressure on the gender front, voluntarily, might be a hugely important part of our testimony.

This is where a little bit of trepidation kicks in on my part – because I recognise that I’m a guy telling gifted women they can’t do what they’re gifted to do.

But, I think it’s possible that If we believe that:

  • genders are different, but that people are equal in value,
  • that the gospel does away with inequalities that people might establish on the basis of differences (Gal 3:28),
  • that submission isn’t a statement of inequality, this is where some smart egalitarians like Miroslav Volf depart, but it must be true because if we believe that the Trinity is made up of three parties who are equally God, we need to be able to say that Jesus can submit to the father without calling this equality into question (in academic terms this is a question of whether you can have functional subordination alongside ontological equality, I think the answer has to be yes, if the submission is voluntary, an act of love, offered without coercion),

then we should be able to sacrificially let men do the preaching… even if there are women out there who are better equipped to do the job… because this is part of our testimony, and our act of testifying – to the sacrifice of Jesus, for his church – just as it is in marriage (Ephesians 5).

The act of preaching is an act of authority – but this authority isn’t establishing an inequality – and if it does create such an inequality, then questions have to be asked about whether or not the guy is doing his job – just like in a marriage. Because a cruciform preacher who humbly uses the gifts God has given to build up the church and point people to Jesus through the persuasive preaching of the gospel won’t, if logos, pathos, and ethos stack up, be in a position to create any inequality except the inequality created by considering everybody else better than yourself…

Our value to God isn’t caught up in our ability to serve him – with the gifts that he has given us, nor is our testimony – I would argue our testimony is caught up in our ability to live cross-shaped lives where we imitate Jesus, who despite having all authority and abilities in his grasp, and being equipped to do otherwise gave himself up for us, as an example, here’s Philippians 2:

2 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, anyparticipation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselvesLet each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of othersHave this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Perhaps the way we testify to our unity, our like mindedness, and avoid promoting our gifts, interests, and selves, is to be prepared to not do things we could do, as part of our testimony to Jesus, and to the creator who sent him, and made men and women different.

Communicating why we’re doing this, and valuing, affirming, and giving avenues for gifted women to be effective members of the body and servants of the mission of God is obviously pretty tricky – and one of the great strengths of Dickson’s work is that it’s motivated by exactly this concern.

Continue Reading…

It seems we’re at a bit of a crossroads in the Australian evangelical church at the moment – once we recognise that the church isn’t really growing – do we throw our lot in with Spurgeon, or with Augustine… For many in our scene – faithful preaching from the pulpit is the ultimate panacea – and if the church isn’t growing then it doesn’t matter, so long as we’re faithful, or perhaps a lack of growth is a sign of some lack of faithfulness…

augustine spurgeon

I reckon the problem is that many of us have conflated “faithful preaching of the gospel” with “expository preaching on a Sunday” – and we’ve pretty much checked our responsibilities in at the door at that point. I’m not going to argue against expository preaching – because I think it is part of faithfully preaching the gospel – but I wonder if we’re missing two-thirds of the persuasion triangle… We seem hesitant, or suspicious, of anything other than unadorned words – be it emotive production values or anything that by itself would be manipulative, or an emphasis on the sort of life and good works we should be producing outside of the pulpit… Part of this has been from a desire to respond to the imbalance of the pentecostal movement on one hand, and the social gospel driven ecumenical movement, which focused solely on “liberating the oppressed” because nobody could agree on what the gospel actually is, on the other. But we’ll get to that when we get to the triangles below…

On the merit of “Egyptian Gold”

I read this stirring Spurgeon quote about preaching that Justin Taylor shared a couple of days ago, especially these bits:

“Are you afraid that preaching the gospel will not win souls? Are you despondent as to success in God’s way? Is this why you pine for clever oratory? Is this why you must have music, and architecture, and flowers and millinery? After all, is it by might and power, and not by the Spirit of God? It is even so in the opinion of many.”

…”I have long worked out before your very eyes the experiment of the unaided attractiveness of the gospel of Jesus. Our service is severely plain. No man ever comes hither to gratify his eye with art, or his ear with music. I have set before you, these many years, nothing but Christ crucified, and the simplicity of the gospel; yet where will you find such a crowd as this gathered together this morning? Where will you find such a multitude as this meeting Sabbath after Sabbath, for five-and-thirty years? I have shown you nothing but the cross, the cross without flowers of oratory, the cross without diamonds of ecclesiastical rank, the cross without the buttress of boastful science. It is abundantly sufficient to attract men first to itself, and afterwards to eternal life!”

…In this house we have proved successfully, these many years, this great truth, that the gospel plainly preached will gain an audience, convert sinners, and build up and sustain a church.

There is no need to go down to Egypt for help. To invite the devil to help Christ is shameful. Please God, we shall see prosperity yet, when the church of God is resolved never to seek it except in God’s own way.

There is much to like in Spurgeon’s quote – the church is God’s agent in the world and its job is to promote, proclaim, declare, whatever verb you like, the wonder of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s our mission, and arguably how we worship.

But there are a couple of things that rankle me in this quote – while I agree that the gospel requires words – because it is the story of God’s word made flesh…

  1. I still can’t help but think that the reduction of our mission to just words misses the point of both the actions that the written accounts we call gospels contain, and the strong links made between the lives we live, the good we do, and the love we give and our testimony to the world (so to provide a sample of from three different New Testament’s authors – John 13:35, 1 Cor 10:33, 1 Peter 3:8-16). Interestingly, Augustine suggests that the good we do should be to the end of seeing people come to know God
  2. I don’t understand the assumption that the Spirit can’t work through architecture, music, flowers, or even millinery – surely the Spirit doing so would be a greater testimony of his power, not lesser. Surely if there is a milliner, or flower arranger, in your congregation they can find some use for their profession as part of the body, to point people to Jesus – these things can’t replace word ministry but word ministry doesn’t need to happen in a cultural vacuum (and the right balance is important). I like Luther’s potentially pseudopigraphic “make a good shoe and sell it for a fair price” quote at this point…
  3. I can’t figure out why “word ministry” as in the promotion of the Gospel should be limited to the spoken word in a way that rules out using the “gold of the Egyptians” – or without the metaphor – the good parts of the created order that can be applied to gospel ministry and declaration of truth. Music, video, the arts – all of these can be used as “word” ministry – they just lean heavier towards pathos than logos when it comes to the persuasive act.
  4. This displays a limited doctrine of creation – one I’ve been guilty of in the past when it comes to free range eggs (and the environment) – the way we treat creation and how we use it is also part of our testimony – and this includes the way we think of the arts, and things that people make as part of our stewardship of creation and desire to bring order to it… as an aside: I don’t think the way “creation” and “redemption” are as separate as some people want to suggest (there’s a bit of a debate about this) – I now think redemption, and God’s mission, encompass creation – and how we use it – but “redeeming creation” is not an “end,” it’s a means to support the ultimate end – our mission to redeem people.

In fact – on the second point – what we do with the “gold” we find – or the goodness of creation – is an incredibly strong part of our testimony.

The “receive, redeem, reject” paradigm for culture that has been made popular by Keller, Driscoll, et al is pretty useful – and it works with the plundered gold analogy that Augustine ran with…

If the gold of Egypt is some sort of “truth” – a “created order” thing, being used in a cultural way – perhaps, for the purpose of this post, a persuasive technique, or musical style… it seems to me there are four options for this thing:

1. Leave it in Egypt – assuming the gold itself is inherently bad - because people use it to make idols.
2. Bring it with you, as is, or make it your own idol – like a golden calf, at the foot of Sinai.
3. Bring it with you, because gold is beautiful - recognise its goodness without worshipping it – music whether written to honour God – like Bach, or written as a recognition of the way ordered sounds can work together to create pleasure – captures something of the goodness of creation, as music.
4. Bring it with you, use it to glorify God – build the temple out of it, artistically, with sculptures. People will then both understand a good God made it, and understand that this Good God is Yahweh, who reveals himself in creation, and the redemption of creation.

The first seems to be Spurgeon’s approach when it comes to what happens in church, the fourth seems to be what Augustine advocates… it’s no secret that I think Augustine is right – my masters project is going to be an application of his principle to modern communication theories. Here’s the money quote…

“…all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also —that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life — we must take and turn to a Christian use.”

There really is no “Egyptian Gold” – but rather an Egyptian use of Gold, that may or may not be redeemable. This is demonstrably the case if we believe that every idol results from taking something good that God has made and using it in wrong ways.

On “faithful preaching” and equilateral triangles

But all this got me thinking about “faithful preaching”… and triangles.

If the following linked premises hold true:

  • Preaching must involve the faithful articulation of the gospel. I’m with the Bible, the reformers and the Westminster Confession on this – for a church to be a church, it needs to be a gathering of people united by the gospel of the Lord Jesus, who are proclaiming the gospel through preaching and the sacraments.
  • Our “preaching of the Gospel” can’t just be words. It has to include words – so Francis of Assisi is still wrong – but those words need to be backed up by action. How the church lives and loves its community is part of the package of faithful gospel preaching… because teaching is more than words.
  • Paul’s call to “imitate him, as he imitates Christ” (1 Cor 11:1) is a bit of a unifying principle delivered to a church fractured over preaching styles (the conflict he addresses earlier in the letter) – where imitation was a key part of first century oratorical competition (so, for example, Cicero bemoans poor choices about who and what young orators imitate and pushes for an imitation of substance over style).
  • Paul, in both 1-2 Corinthians, champions an approach to preaching that includes the embodiment of the cruciform (cross-shaped) life as the key aspect of this imitation (you’ll have to read my essay on Corinthians to find out why I think this)
  • Preaching is an act of persuasion (no doubt governed by the work of the Spirit – I’d argue, like Augustine, that rhetoric works because it recognises a truth about the order God has created in the world, particularly how human minds work).
  • Faithful preaching is more than what is said from the pulpit, but is how a preacher, and by extension the church, as a whole, lives as the Body of Christ in their time and place.

There’s something nice and Incarnational about all of this that I’m increasingly appreciating…

But if these points are true – then we can kind of understand “faithful preaching” using an Aristotelian framework, which includes logos, pathos, and ethos – with the type of life the preacher lives (ethos) being a decisive communicative act – serving to either emphasise or undermine the “pathos” or “logos” (ie the content of the preaching)… Which is where the triangles come in…

I’d argue that part of the mix which is limiting the growth of our branch of the church is that we’re so cerebral and logos driven in our approach that we’re relying almost entirely on our ability to persuade solely by reason (I’m not suggesting the Spirit can’t work through this – simply that it might be true that God has created us to respond to pathos and take note of ethos as well – and that we’ve been instructed to employ those aspects as part of our “preaching” more than we might at present in our gatherings and the rest of our life as a church).

It’s hard to make generalisations here… and I’m reflecting a little on my experience in some churches that were actually growing as a result of faithful and engaging Bible teaching – and some attempt to figure out how to engage with the world around us (I don’t think they’re just doing what Spurgeon says is all they need to be doing – they typically also have excellent music, well thought out architecture, and other bits and pieces) – but also on my observations of the churches that I’ve been part of that seek to imitate the logos aspect of those churches without necessarily investing heavily into pathos in a way that treats each place and people group as different…

I’m also reflecting a little on my training, the things that have been emphasised as I grew up in evangelical ministries in Australia including my churches, AFES, other groups I’ve been part of, and my experience at theological college. All of these groups require a certain threshold for “character” when it comes to involvement, but I don’t think ethos - which I’m defining as how to live in the world in a winsome and persuasive way that backs up my words - has ever been the focal point of the training I’ve received.

I’ve been pretty well equipped with the logos stuff… I think, like Spurgeon, we’ve been pretty suspicious of pathos too, because without logos it can be manipulative and lacking in substance (and we’ve seen that a little in the worship wars and the Pentecostal movement), though I think being “winsome and gracious” in how you speak is a mix of pathos and ethos.

I suspect the lack of focus on ethos is because ethos will ultimately look, without the logos, like the social gospel stuff we’re all so keen to avoid.

And now. For the visual learners and thinkers… a triangular approach to this issue.

This is a triangular picture of Aristotle’s approach to rhetoric. It’s an equilateral triangle, and represents all these aspects being held nicely in balance – I suspect this is the model for faithful preaching – because I think Aristotle has rightly recognised the way humans are persuaded of truths.

Aristotles Triangle

If this is a truth about the way people, and creation, works – then we should expect to see some fruits of it in terms of growth, assuming that the Holy Spirit works, in some way, consistently with the created order that God declared to be good. Perhaps even by helping us see that order in a way that guides our participation in the world.

This is my caricature (thus it is a little reductionistic) of the emphasis I think exists in our evangelical circles, it’s not without pathos or ethos – but logos is heavily emphasised.

The evangelical triangle

This is my caricature of the emphasis in more charismatic churches… My guess is that these churches are growing faster than those in the evangelical tradition because their triangle is a little closer to being persuasive – while they don’t necessarily place a heavy emphasis on solid teaching, they tend to, as a generalisation, be more interested in social justice type stuff, and much better at appealing to the emotions via their production quality, use of music, style of music, etc… Though their teaching is a little shallower than we might like, and occasionally just plain wrong in terms of what promises are fulfilled now for Christians, and what is still to come – it’s generally recognisable as Christian preaching, in that the Lordship of Christ is foundational.

Pentecostal triangle

And this is my caricature of the emphasis in liberal churches where the emphasis is on bringing transformation to the world, and liberating the oppressed – rather than articulating any actual definitive truth. There’s a complete lack of balance here – and depending on the churches in question, the lack of anything remotely like logos translates to a lack of moderating influence on what constitutes faithful gospel shaped pathos or ethos, which is why I think the liberal church is shrinking faster than any other variety.

Liberal triangle

So, I reckon Spurgeon is right – I think all that is required for the church to grow is faithful, Christ centred, gospel preaching – but I think that encompasses more than the delivery of a logos-heavy presentation from the pulpit, it’s got to involve using the goodness of creation to point people to the creator of that goodness, through the right use of pathos – music, art, and an understanding of how to stir the emotions, but it’s ultimately got to be matched with the type of ethos outside the pulpit that lends weight to our words when we talk about God loving people.

 

The importance of carefully scripting a sermon is something that has been pretty genetically drilled into me since before I can remember. The importance of writing the way you speak – rather than reading an essay – even more so.

I’m not ready to throw that under the bus just yet. There’s something nice about the security of having a script in front of you – both in terms of the discipline it brings – where you can’t just wander about on a whim, and there’s something reassuring about knowing that even if you completely fall apart mid delivery, you’ve just got to get to the end of your stack of paper.

But I like a challenge – and I think it’s axiomatic that the most engaging preachers around can hold an audience without using a script (I’m not so sure about a causal link there – it’s possible they’re just gifted and engaging people), and it’s certainly true that writing a script that isn’t dry and boring – and is active, full of verve, and engaging, is incredibly difficult and probably a combination of gift, art, and learned skill.

So this week I preached at our 11pm Christmas Eve service, and at all three services today. And I thought I’d, for the first time ever, give a talk from something other than a full script.

It was scary…

I’m not claiming to be an expert – but I’m drawing on a couple of experts – perhaps the world’s foremost expert on oratory – Cicero, and a couple of more modern people, as I think this through, and try to decide whether the method is a keeper…

We’ve been using this book, Preaching Without Notes, by Joseph Webb, at church this year. Because though I stirred the pot a few years ago with this post – eye contact does indeed make for more engaging communication. And being engaged is the first step towards being persuaded (all caveats about persuasion being the work of a sovereign God, by the Spirit, aside).

Webb draws on the work of a guy writing in the late 19th century… A guy named Broadus, who wasn’t a big fan of the old read sermon…

“As to delivery itself, reading is of necessity less effective, and in most cases immensely less effective, for all the great purposes of oratory, than speaking. Greater coldness of manner is almost inevitable. If one attempts to be very animated or pathetic, it will look unnatural. The tones of voice are monotonous, or have a forced variety The gestures are almost always unnatural, because it is not natural to gesticulate much in reading; and they scarcely ever raise us higher than to feel that really this man [or woman] reads almost like speaking… As to the delivery itself, it is only in extemporaneous speaking, of one or another variety, that [the sermon] can ever be perfectly natural, and achieve the highest effect. The ideal of speaking, it has been justly said, cannot be reached in any other way. Only thus will the voice, the action, the eye, be just what nature dictates, and attain their full power. And while painstaking culture vainly strives to read or recite precisely like speaking, the extemporaneous speaker may with comparative ease rise to the best delivery of which he [or she] is capable”

Preaching from a script, so that it doesn’t come across like you’re reading, is, I think, potentially more difficult than preaching without notes and being disciplined. But when you fail on the discipline point – or you’re tired – the script is incredibly useful.

Webb makes the distinction that extemporary preaching isn’t “off the cuff” or ad libbed – but the result of a fairly meticulous planning regime.

“What we are emphasizing is that the sermon preached without script or notes is a well-developed, meticulously crafted sermon, open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but prepared under the same constraints of procedure, time, and energy that guide every preacher week in and week out.”

Generally I find I’m much more comfortable, and more natural, and thus, arguably more engaging, when I tell a story naturally, rather than from a bit of paper – that’s partly because I’ve not yet mastered writing naturally (my writing is much more likely to sound like a news story – thanks to my journalism degree, than a conversation – the upside is that news stories don’t sound like essays…).

Cicero on preaching without notes

One of the reasons I really like the idea of preaching without notes is because I really like Cicero. You might have noticed. He said some great stuff in De Oratore which reaffirms the need for preachers to write. Constantly. In order to master language and develop their voice – and to improve their oratory. But also reaffirms the need for preachers to engage, and sound natural.

“This is why, in those exercises of your own, though there is a value in plenty of extempore speaking, it is still more serviceable to take time for consideration, and to speak better prepared and more carefully. But the chief thing is what, to tell the truth, we do least (for it needs great pains which most of us shirk), — to write as much as possible. The pen is the best and most eminent author and teacher of eloquence, and rightly so. For if an extempore and casual speech is easily beaten by one prepared and thought-out, this latter in turn will assuredly be surpassed by what has been written with care and diligence.”

In these two talks I started with a full script, and cut it back to what I thought was the minimum I needed to deliver a careful, and diligent, and prepared, piece of persuasive speech.

I reckon Cicero nails the sermon writing process in this quote. Even if some of the language is a little archaic. But give the guy a break – this was written in Latin, about 2070 years ago.

“The truth is that all the commonplaces, whether furnished by art or by individual talent and wisdom, at any rate such as appertain to the subject of our writing, appear and rush forward as we are searching out and surveying the matter with all our natural acuteness; and all the thoughts and expressions, which are the most brilliant in their several kinds, must needs flow up in succession to the point of our pen ; then too the actual marshalling and arrangement of words is made perfect in the course of writing, in a rhythm and measure proper to oratory as distinct from poetry.”

It’s part art, part skill, part gift – and mostly hard work. Thinking. Expressing. Scripting.

The written word was, unless you lived in Corinth and wanted Paul to be a flashier preacher, a longer lasting contribution to debate, and the shifting of ideas, in Rome – so sounding like you were delivering a tight piece of written persuasion was pretty important in Cicero’s day – but he suggests the goal of the relationship between spoken and written conversation is that people not notice the difference when you’re speaking…

“… he too who approaches oratory by way of long practice in writing, brings this advantage to his task, that even if he is extemporizing, whatever he may say bears a likeness to the written word; and moreover if ever, during a speech, he has introduced a written note, the rest of his discourse, when he turns away from the writing, will proceed in unchanging style.”

I love this little picture Cicero uses – I’d love for my sermons to feel like this. Rather than like an inverted proverbial duck’s feet churning around above the water, while I drown.

“Just as when a boat is moving at high speed, if the crew rest upon their oars, the craft herself still keeps her way and her run, though the driving force of the oars has ceased, so in an unbroken discourse, when written notes are exhausted, the rest of the speech still maintains a like progress, under the impulse given by the similarity and energy of the written word.”

Some actual reflections on preaching without notes

Anyway. Here are some of my actual reflections on the four sermons I preached, without a script, this week.

All preaching is hard – this is harder.
I’m not scared about standing in front of people and talking. But preaching – especially trying to say something that doesn’t just feel obvious, or vacuous – is hard work. I used to be able to knock out a script for a sermon in about 2 hours. But every time I go back to re-preach one of the 20 sermons in my archives, I’m bemused at its lack of quality – so sorry to the people who had to sit through those the first time around… The process of refining a sermon down to memorable chunks, and figuring out how you’re going to remember to logically link the chunks, is really hard work.

Familiarity with your material breeds contempt…
This isn’t just a reflection on preaching without notes – but I think the process I went through in the last two weeks, with two old sermons, gutted, and renovated, left me pretty bored with my content – I spent hours writing, rewriting, editing stuff down to dot point size, making powerpoint slides, and thinking about how this was all going to work. And because I’d gone over it so many times by the time I got up to share it, it just felt bleeding obvious. And boring. Even though I was talking about a dragon at Christmas, and the great news that we are called to be part of the work of the gospel. I certainly felt this more than I ever have when the last few days before a talk have just involved tweaking a written script.

If you bomb it – you really bomb it
I haven’t had a lot of sleep in the last two days – because of our adventurous turtle – so I was ridiculously without energy at our first morning service this morning. And I sucked. I fell apart. I lost the plot. I plodded. I made stupid mistakes. I said some things too early for them to contribute to the logic of my talk, and some things too late. I got the order of a couple of points in a list wrong – and then repeated myself the second time. It stank. Between services I was wondering if I could miraculously restore my full script, and preach from it the second time around. Part of the problem was that I was really tired, but I’m not sure what else contributed. It was the worst I’ve ever preached. Horrible. I felt so deflated.

You can’t do this when you’re really, really, ridiculously tired
This point is related. There is no doubt that talk wouldn’t have been so horrible if I had it all written out. The logic would have worked. And I wouldn’t have been thinking on my feet. My Christmas Eve service, at 11pm, was similarly muted. It was late at night – I think it would’ve been significantly better a little earlier. And my second and third talks today – one after a strong coffee, and with the benefit of hindsight, and the other after a long afternoon nap – really helped. By tonight I’d really figured out what bits to keep, and what bits to ditch – and the flow between points.

Some bits are going to get forgotten – so make sure you have a powerpoint slide that covers the really important points
Each time I spoke today I missed some of the really nice phrasing I’d worked up, and some really nice connections across the passage I was looking at (Matt 9:35-10:22). Some of these bits were more important than other – none were really pivotal. We’re talking stuff that added a bit of richness to what I was saying.

The adrenalin rush is bigger
The stress is bigger. The stakes are higher. But it’s also more fun to think on your feet a little. Each of these elements (though the first two seem closely related) add a chunk of adrenalin to the process.

When it works – people seem more engaged
Tonight felt really good. Better than the two morning services – and better than times I’ve preached with full text. People afterwards seemed to have followed what I’d been trying to say, and picked up bits of application that I was most excited about.

The capacity of the memory is huge – especially with tricks, and powerpoint

By the third time around today – at our 6:30pm service – I didn’t even look down at my dot points, I did look up at my powerpoint slides – projected on the back wall – but I knew where I was going. I knew how it fit together – and I remembered the important stuff I’d forgotten and left out in the earlier services (I did leave out some of the stuff that was actually really good – that I wish I’d said.

Powerpoint slides – not filled with comprehensive karaoke styled renditions of your entire sermon – but that are actually useful and memorable – work for your audience and for you. They take a lot of the guess work out of the memorisation process.

In all, it was a pretty interesting experience – and I’m going to give it a few more goes before I decide on its value.

The memory stuff is key – that’s one of the take home ideas in Webb – and it’s also one of Cicero’s pillars of successful oratory. Here’s some Cicero, to finish…

Cicero on remembering stuff (and on powerpoint)

Cicero had some cool tricks for memorising stuff that he goes through in De Oratore – using a mnemonic technique where you take visual cues from your surroundings – assigning certain points in the space you’re in to certain points in your argument, and glancing at them as you go… slides make that a lot easier.

He says the guy who invented mnemonics did so after his memory of where people at a dinner party were sitting helped identify their bodies after a roof collapsed.

“…this circumstance suggested to him the discovery of the truth that the best aid to clearness of memory consists in orderly arrangement. He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty must select localities and form mental images of the facts they wish to remember and store those images in the localities, with the result that the arrangement of the localities will preserve the order of the facts, and the images of the facts will designate the facts themselves, and we shall employ the localities and images respectively as a wax writing tablet and the letters written on it…”

Memory, when you’re preaching without notes, is important because you need to remember where you’re going – and how a point relates to what comes before, and what follows.

“Consequently only people with a powerful memory know what they are going to say and for how long they are going to speak and in what style, what points they have already answered and what still remains…”

He thinks memory is a gift you’re born with – but that hard work can help the gifted, and the ungifted…

And consequently for my own part I confess that the chief source of this endowment, as of all the things I have spoken of before, is nature ; but the efficacy of the whole of this science, or perhaps I should say pseudo-science, of rhetoric, is not that it wholly originates and engenders something no part of which is already present in our minds, but that it fosters and strengthens things that have already sprung to birth within us ; though nevertheless hardly anybody exists who has so keen a memory that he can retain the order of all the words or sentences without having arranged and noted his facts, nor yet is anybody so dull-witted that habitual practice in this will not give him some assistance. “

Powerpoint – used alongside the memory, rather than instead of it, is a really useful way to put all your visual cues in one physical space – a screen. With a picture. Or a couple of words. Or a couple of verses.

Here are some anachronistic principles from Cicero, bolded in this quote, for putting together a powerpoint…

“It has been sagaciously discerned by Simonides or else discovered by some other person, that the most complete pictures are formed in our minds of the things that have been conveyed to them and imprinted on them by the senses, but that the keenest of all our senses is the sense of sight, and that consequently perceptions received by the ears or by reflexion can be most easily retained in the mind if they are also conveyed to our minds by the mediation of the eyes, with the result that things not seen and not lying in the field of visual discernment are earmarked by a sort of out-line and image and shape so that we keep hold of as it were by an act of sight things that we can scarcely embrace by an act of thought.

But these forms and bodies, like all the things that come under our view require an abode, inasmuch as a material object without a locality is inconceivable.

Consequently (in order that I may not be prolix and tedious on a subject that is well known and familiar) one must employ a large number of localities which must be clear and defined and at moderate intervals apart, and image that are effective and sharply outlined and distinctive, with the capacity of encountering and speedily penetrating the mind ; the ability to use these will be supplied by practice, which engenders habit, and by marking off similar words with an inversion and alteration of their cases or a transference from species to genus, and by representing a whole concept by the image of a single word, on the system and method of a consummate painter distinguishing the positions of objects by modifying their shapes.

But a memory for words, which for us is less essential, is given distinctness by a greater variety of images ; for there are many words which serve as joints connecting the limbs of the sentence, and these cannot be formed by any use of simile — of these we have to model images for constant employment ; but a memory for things is the special property of the orator — this we can imprint on our minds by a skilful arrangement of the several masks that represent them, so that we may grasp ideas by means of images and their order by means of localities.

1. Use images that play off your senses – visuals are powerful.
2. Use images to represent the key words or ideas.
3. Good planning prevents you from boring your audience.
4. Space them well – so that you can move smoothly between ideas.
5. Picking good visual clues develops with practice.
6. If you’re going to use a word, or words, on your slides, less is more.
7. Connect those images and words in a sequence that makes your talk make sense, and keeps you disciplined and structured.

What are your thoughts – as a listener or preacher? Are notes the bees knees? Are power points useful or distracting? Where’s the trade-off between accuracy and being engaging?