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Variety And Creativity In Preaching?

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Date February 2, 2006

Recently, I took an intensive one week course on preaching. I was eager to strengthen my homiletical skills, having, in the past, neglected this subject entirely (choosing instead to take all New Testament classes in seminary rather than any homiletics).

What I witnessed during this week was truly alarming! I spent 5 dreary days in the embattled minority among older and more “polished” pastors – most advocating a philosophy of ministry which I abhor. [1]

The goal of the class:

The goal of the class was to cultivate variety and creativity in preaching. Sounds good! Where do I sign up! Every pastor wants to be able to communicate God’s truth more clearly from God’s Word.

God’s Word is alive; therefore we should be lively. The text should effect us and motivate us with an eagerness and an active zeal in our preaching. Due to the high respect for the ministry and the exaltation of the Word of God, we preachers ought to strive to be fresh in our preaching, lively in our presentation and clear and interesting to listen to as we exposit the text of Scripture. We stand before the dear Saints of God on Sunday. They deserve our best – both in preparation and delivery.

However, we should strive to be both interesting AND faithful to the text. Creativity and variety in preaching should never come at the expense of faithfulness to the Word of God. We train our voices. We restrict any odd mannerisms. We polish speaking skills. This is not to glorify the speaker or to be innovative, inventive or clever. We do so out of respect for the Word of God, which is the power of God to save.

I believe that all preachers ought to try to “improve” their preaching. This is due to the high respect for that office.

The opening paragraphs of the required textbooks, however, seemed to set a different tone. Their motivation for improvement seemed to be a motivation to find a method that “worked.” Refinement of homiletical skills was not motivated by a deep respect for the office, but seemed to spring forth out of a mindset that preaching didn’t really work, after all. Preaching is innately boring to begin with – so let’s make the most out of this defective medium! This is what the textbooks seemed to communicate.

This attitude towards homiletical improvement is not my attitude. My attitude towards improving one’s preaching is this: “The preached Word is powerful, let us improve ourselves out of love for it.” The attitude, however, of many preachers today seems to be, “The unchurched do not like preaching, and churchgoers can barely stand it – let us dress it up so that it is more palatable. Let us give a little sugar to make the bitter pill go down…

Below is a selection of opening words found in these required textbooks on preaching:

* A cynic once defined preaching as “the fine art of speaking in someone else’s sleep.” The problem with cynics is that sometimes they are right.
* The unchurched choose to stay home Sunday mornings because they suspect what churchgoers already know: that it is more comfortable to sleep in a bed than in a pew.
* Christ told Peter to “feed my sheep”, but sleeping lambs do not eat. If we preachers cannot captivate people’s minds, we will never capture their souls.

Ouch! What a painful indictment on preaching. How was I to respond as I prepared for this course? What was I getting into?

My internal dialogue went something like this: “Okay, okay, this sounds disrespectful of the minister’s call…but let me glean something from this. Though, this appears to show a low reverence towards preaching, let me allow that perhaps much of this is true…” And so, I read the textbooks thoroughly. I sat eagerly in my desk on the first day of class – awaiting words of counsel concerning how to improve my preaching.

What I learned in class:

It soon became apparent that I was a minority in my views regarding the ministry! My views on even the basic aspects of worship were not shared by most. Wait a minute! They are speaking the same words – but they are not defining them the same way that I did.

What is preaching? How do we define preaching success? What is an “effective” preacher? What is the role of the church? Are church services primarily for the lost, or for the saved?

Here is a sampling of the concepts that I was taught. In these descriptions below I have merely quoted or paraphrased the very words of the teacher or the required texts:

Inductive preaching:

Description:

One of the creative methods that I was taught was the inductive preaching style. Inductive preaching claims to “turn apathy into involvement, make listeners out of the listless…It claims to be “preaching that works.” Rather than the deductive “top down” approach, inductive preaching takes the listener on a journey.

The preacher is not an authority, stating a set of logical summations of the truth. He is the “leader of an exploration group.” He involves the listeners in a living story. He is not to dissect the text, but merely retell it.

Instead of abstract points in an outline, the preacher gives illustration, anecdotes, stories from real life, concrete examples instead of abstractions. Proposition statements, outline bullet points and bottom-line-up-front statements are to be avoided. From the textbook:

The following observation shows the need for inductive preaching, “Did you ever notice what happens when a story is interjected into a sermon? There’s almost always a discernible change in the congregation. Eyes focus, ears are tuned, fidgeting stops. Stories almost always involve people….(page 37 of Inductive Preaching: Helping People Listen, by Gregg and Ralph Lewis).

Jesus primarily used the inductive method – the parable. Therefore, by preaching inductively, we model the pattern of Jesus’ speech and teaching. Inductive preaching pragmatically secures success for the preaching. Just look at the statistics and market research:

Almost 83 percent of the respondents [of a church interview] judged warmth, friendliness, and kindness in a minister’s sermon just as important or more so than theological expertise or intellectual soundness.

And also,

The science of market research has transformed the advertising sales and communication industries of our day. If we really desire effective preaching, perhaps we should listen a little more to what the researchers say about demographics, psychographics and felt needs.

By inductive preaching, the preacher can connect with his people. He conveys more transparency as he asks questions alongside the parishioner. He is not giving them answers, but is journeying alongside of them. He is a fellow traveler towards truth. He is causing the hearer to visualize a story, a ready medium to convey truth today.

My comments:

Yes, it is true that some of the New Testament and much of the Old Testament is narrative – and, therefore, inductive. We do, indeed, have a responsibility to make this information come alive. God delights in variety when conveying truth. Therefore, we should do likewise.

We do so, however, not merely to retell the story and captivate the audience. We do so to glean insights from these accounts, to apply the principles involved and to bring out general (hmmm….deductive) principles from the stories. Retelling a story by use of a story is merely storytelling. Preaching, even involving narrative texts, is to unfold the text and apply its truths to the reader. Exposition, by its nature, is deductive. Therefore, the only way for inductive preaching to increase is for expository preaching to decrease. [2]

The Homiletical Method:

How do preachers craft messages? How do they determine what they will bring to their people every Sunday? How is the minister to prepare a sermon? What is the best methodology utilized in crafting their words?

I was shocked at the homiletical methodology advocated in the required textbooks.

First, I read, the minister is to make a list of helpful topics. Then he narrows the topic. Then he finds a text that matches that topic. Once the topic is decided upon, then a text is found to match it. This is how the required textbooks taught the methodology of sermon-crafting.

Wait! Isn’t this backward? The minister selects a topic, and then finds a text? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Laying aside preconceived notions, shouldn’t we go to the Scriptures to bring something out? The preacher is not trying to speak his own words, but the words of God.

Too many times, I have heard preachers say, “I wanted to speak to you on this topic. Therefore, I picked this verse.” He has just proclaimed that he is merely using the Bible as a port to launch his own ship, a nail on which to tack his own philosophy, window dressing for the desires of his own heart. We need more of the Word and less of the Preacher.

First-Person Narrative Preaching:

Description:

Another “creative style” of preaching taught in this course was the first-person narrative sermon. Below is how this style is described by its proponents:

The Bible is a grand drama. Therefore, we should bring it to life. First-person preaching is a “creative way to reach people who tune out of traditional sermons.” What does the first-person narrative approach advocate? In this form of preaching, “The preacher enters into the story via one of the characters, bringing the biblical text to life in the imaginations of the congregation.

In other words, the preacher selects a character from the Bible and acts out that character’s story…sometimes even in costume!

In a sociological study mentioned in the required textbook, it was shown that people learn best by being taught using a variety of mediums. Therefore, the book concludes, “It means that both in the classroom and in the pulpit, there is no “ideal” or “best” way for all people to learn.

Are you having trouble visualizing what a first-person narrative sermon would look like? Do you need some examples? Well, one of my classmates told how he dressed in a robe and played the Inn Keeper for his Christmas sermon (“They were a poor couple, I saw that from the very start. And she was an unwed mother, I noticed, as they approached on their donkey…“).

A VHS tape was also played of one young preaching student. He was in full Israelite garb (looked like he was wearing a bathrobe and sandals) and he held a mock sword. He enacted the story of Gideon. He even had a piece of white, furry carpeting, which he threw down to test whether his fleece would come out wet or dry in the morning!

Another example given in the book was of Samson. Here are a few “sound-bites” from this sermon:

* “As a young man, I fell in love with the wrong kind of women,
* “As I’m walking along the road to Timnah thinking about my wedding night and the plans that have to precede it, this lion suddenly lets loose a roar and launches itself through the air towards me. I just caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye before it reached me.
* “I said to them:” Guys, it’s OK. The Philistines don’t know who they’re messing with. What I want you to do is to tie me up with two new ropes.” Not the kind of ropes that you are thinking of! Not binder twine. Not that skimpy yellow stuff you use around the house…

My comments:

Form and content cannot be easily separated in preaching. Medium and message are always linked. One cannot alter the medium of preaching without altering preaching itself.

I do admit that several of the examples given followed very closely to the text. The medium, however, is all wrong. No matter how closely one dramatizes the text and transforms the text into an “act” one does irreparable damage by the change itself. If preaching changes into acting, it cannot still be called preaching – even if the acting is based upon a text of Scripture. It is a telling admission that the pulpit was referred to multiple times as “the stage” in this course.

My observations on the preachers:

During this last week I observed many alarming things concerning preaching. I also observed many alarming things concerning preachers. The form of the Message that I was taught was very troublesome. Some of the Messengers, too, were also troublesome in their remarks.

I was criticized by several men during this course – men who were older and more “polished” and “refined“; men who excelled me in speech; men who carried themselves with dignified poise and always had an educated manner of presenting all their ideas.

Men who also looked down on their congregations! Men who also found themselves in a rut concerning the Word of God! Men who fought tedium and monotony as they labored in their calling!

I dare not say that these men were not godly or sincere. I cannot comment negatively on their lives, manners or walk with God – only their statements. I struggle and fail in many ways myself and speak unwisely many times also. It did appear to me, however, that many spoke with a deficient view regarding preaching and with a low view of the local church. Several candid and common complaints that I heard this week were as follows:

* I have gotten stale in my preaching.
* I struggle over what to preach.
* I seem to have run out of material.
* I often end up hammering out a sermon on Saturdays, often on Saturday night.
* I don’t have 10 or 20 hours per week to prepare sermons.
* My people are so uneducated and most of them just aren’t very smart.
* My congregation is mostly rednecks.

Also, I received these criticisms below when either presenting my possible sermon outlines to the class or when engaged in personal conversation with some of these men:

* You mention several subjects in your sermon. Stick to one simple subject. Your listeners cannot handle more than that
* You are preaching on doctrines that are confusing to people – go to the people where they are.
* Your people can’t understand that. Why even mention it?
* That subject is disagreed upon by many – why not avoid it entirely?
* You are nit-picking!

During one personal conversation, an older pastor (the one who dressed up like the Inn Keeper) told me of his congregation and how uneducated they were – “They are a bunch of rednecks,” he declared, “Do you have to put up with a bunch of rednecks, too?

I responded as follows:

If they are saved, then they are the saints of God. They are the church of the Living God – the Apple of His Eye. I owe them my best. I feel bad because I cannot give them better and they have to put up with me.

I believe that our two contrasting responses show the contrasting effects of our theologies. His theology and outlook on the ministry was one of easy-believism and Arminianism. I was graced by God to be matured under sound preaching that exalted the Glory of God.

I mention our contrasting responses not to give me any glory – for this man excelled me in speech and “ability.” I am often unpolished, unrefined and full of nervous energies and mannerisms which I struggle to contain. Due to the grace of God, however, through the Christian nurture of a sound local church, at least I have a message to preach.

My final reflections:

By age 18, I was an atheist. During this journey into unbelief, I did seek out truth (when it was convenient to me). I sporadically attended several Methodist churches. Never did I hear any power in the preaching; just stories – a string of cutesy, hokey, syrupy tales. Those preachers definitely had a gift. They could take the high truths of God, the astounding statements of Scripture, and shrink them into some saccharine formula or trite sound-bite of “be nice” or “accept everyone” or “help your neighbor.”

Only when I attended a “dull, doctrinal, deductive” church, as our textbooks described churches that majored in exposition week after week, did I ever spiritually profit. The Scripture is the Word of life, I decided. Under deductive, expository, doctrinal sermons I matured and was called into the ministry.

Concluding remarks:

I learned much about the present state of the church from this course. Thankfulness for my own local assembly and their faithful exposition of the Word, week after week, was reinforced. I strive to labor to improve my own skills, first and foremost giving heed to that which counts most – faithfulness to a steady diet of the Word.

Here are some concluding thoughts – things that I learned or truths that were reinforced in my mind this past week while studying about the ministry:

* Paul lays out no qualifications for drama team ministries, puppet show ministries or mime ministries.
* The New Testament church did not march forward despite persecution because it followed “Forty Days of Purpose.
* How a pastor could take a glorious text containing deep doctrines such as the dual natures of Christ, substitutionary atonement, unmerited grace, election, and get from them, “Ten steps to financial security” is beyond me! This is merely scraping shallow dirt, instead of digging precious stones.
* The pulpit is not a stage and the preacher is not an actor.
* Skit is a 4-letter word!
* Simple congregational singing can glorify God, even without the aid of a “praise and worship team.
* By pinning the title of “worship leader” to the song leader, much of the church has revealed their basic assumption – that preaching and hearing the preached Word is not worship!
* We already have a Gospel ordinance whereby new believers give public testimony to faith in Christ. It’s called baptism! We need no “third Protestant sacrament” of the altar call.
* “A dynamic leader with a passion to facilitate growth” is not an appropriate description of what a church should desire in its pastor – but is all too often the criteria used.
* By stretching the use of the term “ministry” (such as in “mime ministry,” “puppet ministry,” or “drama ministry“) you can do nothing but degrade and devalue its meaning.
* Church is not primarily for unbelievers or “seekers.” It is for the gathering of disciples and for the edification of the saints.
* Preaching shouldn’t require props, costumes or a “stage.”
* Preaching is not public speaking. A sermon is not a speech, a rhetorical essay or a dramatic recital. The preacher is not a rhetorician, a public lecturer, a mere speechmaker or actor.
* All the statistics and studies concerning popular speaking styles and learning patterns bear no weight when God has commanded, “Preach the Word.”

What is needed? What is the pressing need?

More exposition and less exhibition. More Shepherd-ship and less showmanship. That old-time religion, not that Show-time religion.

In closing, I have added Spurgeon’s fine denunciation of “innovation” in the pulpit – “Feeding Sheep or Amusing Goats.” Remember! Spurgeon wrote more than a century ago. If abuses were bad in his day, how much worse it is today!

FEEDING SHEEP OR AMUSING GOATS

The mission of amusement fails to effect the end desired.

An evil resides in the professed camp of the Lord so gross in its impudence that the most shortsighted can hardly fail to notice it. During the past few years it has developed at an abnormal rate evil for evil. It has worked like leaven until the whole lump ferments. The devil has seldom done a cleverer thing than hinting to the Church that part of their mission is to provide entertainment for the people, with a view to winning them. From speaking out as the Puritans did, the Church has gradually toned down her testimony, then winked at and excused the frivolities of the day. Then she tolerated them in her borders. Now she has adopted them under the plea of reaching the masses.

My first contention is that providing amusement for the people is nowhere spoken of in the Scriptures as a function of the Church. If it is a Christian work why did not Christ speak of it? “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” That is clear enough. So it would have been if He has added, “and provide amusement for those who do not relish the gospel.” No such words, however, are to be found. It did not seem to occur to Him. Then again, “He gave some apostles, some prophets, some pastors and teachers, for the work of the ministry.” Where do entertainers come in? The Holy Spirit is silent concerning them. Were the prophets persecuted because they amused the people or because they refused? The concert has no martyr role.

Again, providing amusement is in direct antagonism to the teaching and life of Christ and all His apostles. What was the attitude of the Church to the world? “Ye are the salt,” not sugar candy-something the world will spit out, not swallow. Short and sharp was the utterance, “Let the dead bury their dead.” He was in awful earnestness!

Had Christ introduced more of the bright and pleasant elements into His mission, He would have been more popular when they went back, because of the searching nature of His teaching. I do not hear Him say, “Run after these people, Peter, and tell them we will have a different style of service tomorrow, something short and attractive with little preaching. We will have a pleasant evening for the people. Tell them they will be sure to enjoy it. Be quick, Peter, we must get the people somehow!” Jesus pitied sinners, sighed and wept over them, but never sought to amuse them. In vain will the Epistles be searched to find any trace of the gospel amusement. Their message is, “Come out, keep out, keep clean out!” Anything approaching fooling is conspicuous by its absence. They had boundless confidence in the gospel and employed no other weapon. After Peter and John were locked up for preaching, the Church had a prayer meeting, but they did not pray, “Lord grant Thy servants that by a wise and discriminating use of innocent recreation we may show these people how happy we are.” If they ceased not for preaching Christ, they had not time for arranging entertainments. Scattered by persecution, they went everywhere preaching the gospel. They “turned the world upside down.” That is the difference! Lord, clear the Church of all the rot and rubbish the devil has imposed on her and bring us back to apostolic methods.

Lastly, the mission of amusement fails to affect the end desired. It works havoc among young converts. Let the careless and scoffers, who thank God because the Church met them halfway, speak and testify. Let the heavy-laden who found peace through the concert not keep silent! Let the drunkard to whom the dramatic entertainment has been God’s link in the chain of their conversion, stand up! There are none to answer. The mission of amusement produces no converts. The need of the hour for today’s ministry is believing scholarship joined with earnest spirituality, the one springing from the other as fruit from the root. The need is biblical doctrine, so understood and felt, that it sets men on fire.

C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892)

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