On treating performance (and other things) as word ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is all.