Friday, October 26, 2007

Excellence in Preaching (3)

One of the great things we can do in our preaching is to explain our faith and to justify it. In other words, preaching is an opportunity to strengthen faith through reason. It is also an opportunity, of course, to strengthen faith through inspiration, warning, humour and testimony. But in this posting I offer a few thoughts about the role of the preacher as apologist - that is, one who explains our faith and justifies it.

Take, for instance, aspects of modern life which confront us these days on a daily basis such as 'the threat of militant Islam' and 'the breakdown of Western society'. How is the preacher to engage with these issues? Harvey Cox, a theologian at Harvard (Cambridge, Massachusetts) wrote this recently,

"The real challenge of Islam to Western intellectual discourse is for us to ask ourselves whether our unprecedented modern experiment of conducting political life with no transcendent values is really working out as well as we once hoped."

In one sentence Harvey Cox combines both issues, leads us to see the deeper meaning of each issue, and consequently opens up the possibility of considering a response to each issue which invites every hearer or reader to be part of the solution - and a non-violent solution at that!

Its worth taking a few moments to think about how Harvey Cox does all this in one sentence ...

(Hint: note one technique, inviting the hearer or reader to engage with a process of self-reflection and self-examination rather than to take up a stance of blaming or cursing).

But Harvey Cox is also taking up the preacher's role of apologist. With this one sentence he justifies the existence of Christian faith in Western society. He nails the fact that it has experimented with neglecting transcendant values (code for, neglecting its Christian origins). He highlights the consequences it is now confronted with: not only things not working as well as hoped for, but the rising challenge of Islam. He then charts a way forward if the question he poses is taken up, engaged with, and answered: the challenge of Islam can be met, and things will work out better when Western society re-engages with Christianity.

When we preach, among our hearers will be people who wonder what's going on in our world, and where Christianity fits into the great scheme of things. It would be surprising if people thinking in this way do not sometimes wonder if Christianity is irrelevant to the world. What might we say that explains the relevance of Christianity and justifies its continuing role in our lives?

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