why should I care?

I’m increasingly convinced that preachers and Bible teachers need to do more than just explain what a passage means and what its implications are. They mustn’t do less than that. But they also need to help people answer the question:

Why should I care?

Often we’re relieved of the pressure to foreground this question because we operate in a ministry context in which the majority of people are already serious about the Bible. (Maybe among high school or university students who are more or less used to pursuing truth for its own sake. Or perhaps among those who’ve developed the perfectly admirable assumption that the Bible is intrinsically worth listening to — because that’s where we hear God speak, etc.)

But my hunch is we’re not getting through to more people — or even grabbing their attention — because we don’t work very hard at helping them see why they should care about what the Bible is saying.

So I’d love to hear what sort of things have helped you care about what the Bible is saying (e.g., about a particular issue). Fire away!

12 things good preachers do well

Over at Euangelion, Joel Willits summarises a new book profiling 12 gifted contemporary preachersExcellence in Preaching.

Some may have a bone to pick with one or two of the preachers singled out as excellent (and I haven’t even heard of a few of them — although maybe that says more about me than it does about the list). But there’s plenty to learn from 12 the things they do well:

  1. Show an awareness of cultural and philosophical challenges to the gospel.
  2. Inspire a passion for the glory of God.
  3. Allow the Bible to speak with simplicity and freshness.
  4. Be a Word-and-Spirit preacher.
  5. Use humour and stories to connect, engage and dismantle barriers.
  6. Create interest and apply well.
  7. Preach with spiritual formation in mind.
  8. Make much of Jesus Christ.
  9. Preach with urgency and evangelistic zeal.
  10. Persuade people with passionate argument from the Bible.
  11. Teach with directness, challenge and relevance.
  12. Expose all of God’s word to all of God’s people.

I can hardly claim to even begin to come at one or two of these.

But it is interesting to note how few of these are just about our style or effectiveness as communicators. Most are far more substantive matters relating to the message we proclaim and our awareness of the real life situation, struggles and questions of the real people we’re speaking to.

Says something perhaps about the kind of ‘training’ that will best equip people to be excellent preachers.

the Sermon on the Mount – resources

I guess it’s more or less obvious after months of posting that I spent a good chunk of last semester giving talks on the Sermon on the Mount.

It was challenging, exciting, confronting, challenging, inspiring, and did I mention challenging?

Here are the resources I leaned on in putting together these talks:

As I reflect on the series, two overriding themes emerge.

The first theme is my attempt to apply the Affirmation And Antithesis model of cultural engagement laid out by James Davison Hunter in his important book, To Change The World.

Each week I set myself the challenging of engaging a group or ‘live issue’ on campus or in the wider society, highlighting the radical and often surprising way Jesus would speak to that issue (as best I could determine from the Sermon on the Mount), and opening up the conversation to see where it took us.

So we explored what Jesus would say to The Socialist Alternative, The Secular Society, The Islamic Society, and even the Christian Union. We tried to tune in to what he’d say about Indigenous Reconciliation, Lady GaGa, and our career plans. And we didn’t shy away from considering what he’d say to us.

It was a hoot!

The second theme is the strengthening of my existing conviction that a Christian ethic proclaims and embodies the gospel.

Spending so much time sitting at Jesus’ feet — and listening to the direct and uncompromising words of his mouth — drove me to appreciate his goodness and his grace all the more (and not in an ‘Oh, my gosh – how can we possibly live up to that? We’ll need to throw ourselves on his mercy’ kind of way).

To the students and staff of the La Trobe Christian Union, thanks for bearing with me and letting me lay some occasionally off-the-wall stuff on you. And thanks for chipping in, sharpening me up, and carrying the conversation forward.

I pray that the Lord will continue to show us how we can find our truest and best humanity by entrusting ourselves to him and walking ever more confidently in his ways.

why it’s so hard to explain how the cross works

I don’t know if you’ve ever found it hard to explain (or illustrate) how the cross works — how God achieves what he does through the execution of Jesus.

How does the cross demonstrate God’s character and inner nature as Father, Son and Spirit?

How does it accomplish the defeat of Satan and the hostile ‘powers’?

How does it effect the condemnation of sin?

And how does God reconciles sinners to himself through all of this?

These are huge questions. And the answers aren’t always straightforward.

Of course, that there’s a problem may never have occurred to you. Much popular Christian piety works hard to reassure us it’s all very simple.

The songs we sing, the sermon illustrations we hear time and again — all of them beckon like the Sirens: God punishes Jesus in our place. That’s how it works. Easy…

And there’s something to this. The New Testament does tug us in this direction. Think of Jesus’ cry from the cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Likewise, the language of exchange — of substitution — is shot through the ways Paul, Peter, John and the others explain Jesus’ death.

And just as the reality of holy God’s fierce and personal response to human wickedness and hard-heartedness — his wrath — can’t be avoided, so Christ’s bearing of that wrath is (at least) implicit everywhere.

But we must resist.

We must resist the Siren call. Because divine child abuse is only the most extreme charge that can be levelled against us if we head this way.

And we’ve got to stop short at the edge of the abyss. Because the New Testament does.

Consider the language of ‘condemnation’. Who or what is condemned to secure a condemnation-free future for us?

God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh. (Romans 8.3)

God condemned sin. He didn’t condemn Jesus.

Father and Son (and Spirit) are united in the achievement of the cross. They’re working together as active, loving, and willing subjects.

So where does that leave us in trying to explain how the cross works?

With a problem!

As Graham Cole points out, ‘Perhaps trying to illustrate … penal substitution is like trying to illustrate the Trinity. The analogies and illustrations fail at crucial points because the Trinity and its involvement in the atonement is sui generis.’ (God The Peacemaker, page 255).

how to use the Old Spice technique to promote Jesus

Well, I reckon it’s safe to say that the current Old Spice advertising campaign is a marketing hit — if not a phenomenon! Although I’m not sure how much Old Spice it’s selling (UPDATE: its apparently boosting sales 107%), it works a treat for raising brand awareness.

And it’s got me thinking about what technique Christians should use to promote Jesus.

Try to picture this situation:

A work colleague asks, ‘What do you make of the whole boat people situation?’ You desperately want to give an enticing and distinctively Christian response. You know, something gracious and seasoned with salt? Something that points to Jesus in a compelling and meaningful way without hijacking the conversation altogether. But what you manage to blurt out sounds a lot like the Old Spice add –‘Look at your question … now look at Jesus … now back to your question … now back to Jesus … Jesus is on a horse’.

Sound familiar?

Maybe I’m being unfair. I’m sure your responses usually makes more sense than that. But that’s how I sometimes feel when I’m trying to articulate why I believe in Jesus and how that makes a difference to my whole life.

Obviously there’s work to be done in joining the dots — figuring out how to get from Jesus to our urgent real world problems and questions (and back again). But I wonder if the Old Spice technique is really all that bad. I suppose it probably depends on how high we set our expectations. On what we hope to achieve in those few moments before the topic of conversation changes.

Would it be so terrible to embrace raising Jesus’ ‘brand awareness’? After all, we know that not everything necessarily hinges on that one moment of conversation. And yet in terms of the rich tapestry God is weaving even such a slender thread may prove incredibly significant. Especially if it declares: ‘This Christian person is actually convinced that Jesus makes a difference — a real difference’.

you need to read novels

Michael has recently picked up on Justin’s suggestion that you need to read poetry to become a better Bible reader — and proclaimer. I whole-heartedly agree.

But the flip-side to being able to feel your way into God’s word, is a kind of prophetic ability to get under the skin of those you’re serving and speaking to. I want to suggest that reading novels can help us with this. Big time.

On the one hand, a typical trashy airport novel reveals loads about the fears and aspirations of … well, most of us!

It does so largely by the assumptions it makes. Assumptions you’re invited to share (at least for the duration of your reading experience). Assumptions about what’s valuable, exciting, significant, etc. And, best of all, assumptions that come packaged in a more or less gripping plot.

Reading trashy novels gives you practice decoding such assumptions. Identifying the desires (and anxieties) they tap in to. And feeling their pull for yourself. It’ll help you ‘exegete your audience’, as they say.

Great novels, on the other hand, do a lot of this work for you.

They go about this in various ways. Producing the effect that the amusingly-named Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky has dubbed ‘defamiliarisation’.

According to Shklovsky, ‘The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar”, to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged’. That is, it’s about slowing you down and making you pay attention to what you’d otherwise rush past and take for granted.

Which is why a great novel is typically more demanding than an airport novel. But it’s worth it because of the questions it raises, the light it sheds on human behaviour and motivation, and the stunning vistas it opens up on life.

That is why you need to read novels.

living in the victory?

Colin Gunton makes a comment that has captured my imagination (The Actuality of the Atonement, p 183):

The test of the church’s form of life … is not whether it merely preaches against contemporary idolatry and lies, but whether, first, its manner of proclamation truly reveals things for what they are, idolatrous perversions of God’s good creation; and, second, it develops a way of being in the world in which they are seen to be in the process of defeat.

Speaking the truth about contemporary idolatry and lies must involve more than a knee-jerk reactionary We Told You So kind of triumphalism.

For example, it’s not enough to simply point to the bankruptcy of the modern financial set-up in the wake of the GFC (like everyone else). We’ve got to be able to bear some sort of witness — however tentative and provisional — to God’s alternative. And that’s a lot more challenging. But what if we actually took this seriously? What would our preaching be like?

Likewise, becoming communities in which the victory God has won in Christ is actually being realised in anticipation of its final implementation is a big ask. It’ll need to take us far beyond being known simply for what we’re against.

How beautiful would it be if Sydney Anglican churches were known as places that love life — that go all out to see it flourish, to see new life welcomed or the end of life met with dignity and grace — rather than that simply institutions that stand against various forms of death (abortion, etc)? I know that many churches already are these kinds of places — or at least long to be. But can you get a sense of the possibility of becoming communities in which lies and idols give way to God’s victory?

do we proclaim the message Jesus did?

emptychurchOccasionally Christians are accused of failing to proclaim the message Jesus did.

Often this is connected to a perceived intolerance or lack of concern for the marginalised on the part of Christians (the assumption being that Jesus was ever-tolerant and always passionately concerned for the marginalised).

But my usual reflex in the face of such accusation is to search out even greater continuity with the proclamation of Jesus.

I’ll either point to the oddly astringent fact that this one who was supposedly so tolerant also had some of the hardest words to say about imminent judgement and the need for faith in Him. Or I’ll wonder whether or not there may be things about the way I proclaim the good news (and conduct my entire life) that are in fact out of line with my Lord.

But Oliver O’Donovan offers an alternative: own the difference!

At the start of a chapter of The Desire of the Nations that every Christian — or at least every theological college student — really should read, he says (p 120):

Jesus proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God, but the apostolic church did not. It told the story of what happened when the Kingdom came: its conflict with the established principalities and powers and its vindication at God’s right hand through Jesus’ resurrection. What the church proclaimed was not what Jesus proclaimed, because it stood on the other side of that great crisis which his proclamation evoked. Yet it claimed continuity with his proclamation, because he, and his message of the Kingdom, had been vindicated.

Way to take the fight to ’em! Right?

the temptation to proclaim ourselves

One wonders if, in the contemporary ecclesiological consciousness, we are being tempted to simply proclaim ourselves as the church rather than Christ as Lord. (Halden at Inhabitio Dei)

Early in the life of this blog, I reflected a little on some temptations bound up with the current focus on church and community.

In light of this I want to take a second look at my series on how to become a church of irresistible influence. There, I invested quite a bit of energy in thinking through the task of building bridges — good will and meaningful connection — between local churches and their surrounding communities.

But did I trip over unintentionally and plunge head first into one of the chief temptations of community?

Have I invested so heavily in pointing out the benefits of Christian community in such a way that the church effectively appears as an end in itself rather than as anchored in and thoroughly dependent on its personal life-source and master, the Lord Jesus?

I think I still believe we need to invest in bridge-building, just like I still believe that the church has stack to offer the world — including a gracious, growing community. But the danger is that our attention can be (disastrously) diverted from what God has already done: He has built the unique and only reliable bridge into this dark world, lovingly giving His Son so that all who believe in Him may have life.

What I want to know is, how — without missing out on the very real gains of ‘the contemporary ecclesiological consciousness’ or underestimating the benefits and appeal of Christian community and behaviour which adorns the gospel — we resist the temptation of proclaiming ourselves…

what’s a sermon?

Off the back of Natalie’s challenging series on her top 10 presentation offences, I’ve been pondering whether a sermon is a speech or a presentation.

What’s the difference? Well, the distinction, as one blogger with a fair deal of experience in this area puts it, runs like this:

In his autobiography, regarding his stand-up comedy years, Steve Martin writes, “If you don’t dim the lights… the audience won’t laugh.” This subtle, paradoxical observation is the core difference between speeches and presentations. In a presentation, half of the art is figuring out how to create an environment where your audience can actively participate without knowing they are participating. In a speech, the audience may laugh or cry, but they are not required nor encouraged to participate, because, during a speech, the spotlight never leaves the speechmaker.

So … what do you reckon a sermon is: speech or presentation?

Now, I’m really not interested in reviving the sterile debate about whether extemporary or scripted preaching is better or more ‘Spirit anointed’ (interestingly, Bill Hybels’ preaching which usually feels very extemporary is amongst the most scripted). Likewise, I’m pretty cool towards the whole issue of point form v full text notes — you can give a speech from point form notes and a presentation from full-text notes (and vice versa) so that hardly cuts ice.

Go on. Have your say. Leave a comment!