Monday, May 29, 2006

Why Babies are like Churchgoers

Having a two-month old son is a load of fun. We love watching him laugh and smile, seeing the expressions on his face and wondering what is going on inside his little head. By making funny noises and talking in strange ways, we have found it pretty easy to make him laugh, unless he is in a really cranky mood like he was after getting his shots last week. We have found that it really doesn't matter what you are talking about. It is all about how you say it. Say it just right and a huge grin will break out on his face and his little hands will be going a mile a minute. Say the same thing in a normal voice and he just stares at you, clearly unamused.

Which reminds me a lot of modern day churchdom. It doesn't really matter what the preacher says, so long as he makes it funny and says it in a way that grabs attention to himself. There is little discernment about what is being said. The focus is on how it is said.

We preachers need to be constantly aware of the temptation to seek for approval by watching the faces of our hearers, to judge the power of a biblical text by the silly grins of the people in the pew.

It seems we have cultivated two kinds of preachers in our day. The first kind believes power in preaching can be measured by the response of the people. Among some this requires preaching on the big themes of pants on women, (Amen?) and the old King James Bible (Amen?), and all those rascally compromisers out there who stopped wearing a tie to the office on Tuesdays (Amen?). They shout really loud and beat the pulpit hard. They judge their message by the number and volume of the "Amens" and "'c'mon-now-preachers" they can elicit from their audience. There are also some among this first kind who could not be more opposite in their methods, but alike in their philosophy. They too judge the success and power of their message by the response of people—the number that pour through the doors, the number of hands raised and bodies swaying during the band's music set, the amount and volumes of the laughs at the Top Ten list, or the drama. They don't beat the pulpit hard. They may not even have one. (Which I am not saying is a bad thing). Both of these preachers stick their finger in the congregational wind to find out what will elicit a response, and then go after that response very hard. They have studied people hard and have learned much about them.

The second kind of preacher is the kind that has mistaken exegetical lessons for preaching the word. He discusses the semantic range of the hiphil use of the imperative, and labors long on the datives in Paul's soteriological writings. They believe that good preaching is marked without respect to any response from the audience. Their outline of the text is flawless and their manuscript is full. They "hold forth" for a long period of time with little audience connection. Their illustrations, if they exist, confuse the audience rather than clarify. Their applications, if they exist, miss the audience because they have nothing to do with the lives they live. He preaches much on what is interesting to him, because he has not studied his audience enough to know what is interesting to them, or how to make the text come alive in their minds. So the audience is confused, disinterested, bored, and apathetic. These preachers have studied the text hard and have learned much about it.

I believe preachers need to be different. We need to be men of the text, who know what God has said, who have done the work in the original languages and historical context, who have placed the text in its original setting, and understood what the author was saying to the original people. We need to be men of the congregation, who have studied our people and our communitities, who understand the lives that they live and the battles that they face, who understand the culture that we live in, and how the culture processes information and draws conclusions.

We need to be men who can marry the text to the congregation. The truth is the same for all congregations, but the application may be different from a church in suburbia to a church in urbania. It may be different for a church of middle class professionals than for a church of drug addicts and alcoholics. The illustrations that connect with a businessman making six figures a year may not connect with the single mother who doesn't know where her next meal will come from.

Men, when you have studied the text forwards and backwards, assembled your exegetical outline with all the linguistic and lexical work, you are only half done. We must study our people in order to communicate clearly and effectively with them. One pastor says he likes to prepare his messages in the food court at the mall, or in a coffee shop, or city park. He imagines in his mind that the people he sees passing by will be the people who listen to him preach. "Will they understand it?" he asks. "Will it make any difference to them?"

So use humor, human interest stories, life application to explain the text and apply it to your hearers. Don't go for the cheap laughs and silly grins, no matter how rewarding they may be. Save that for your two-month old.

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