Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mark Thompson: Now What was that Text Again

Mark Thompson teaches at Moore College, Sydney; and was a recent William Orange lecturer in this country. Here I pinch his whole column on preaching from Sola Scriptura:

"In the 1950s and 1960s, John Stott, amongst others, raised the bar in evangelical preaching. Stott, in his preaching and in his commentaries, showed three generations of preachers how to expound a biblical text. He unfolded the text, showed what was there, connected it with life, and did it all with passion and a clear, memorable structure. Those who heard Stott and the very best of those who preached like him, knew that they had been addressed by God. They knew why this part of the Bible mattered, why God wanted us to have it, and the difference it makes to life as a disciple of Christ. Whether they were being challenged or comforted, they were gripped by the teaching of Scripture and excited about studying the Bible. This style of preaching nourished faith, revitalized churches and taught people how to read the Bible for themselves.

But nothing good seems to last forever, and expository preaching of this kind has been dealt some body blows in the last few years.
At one end of the spectrum, some practitioners have fallen into dull, lifeless analyses of Bible passages with little sense of their connection to life and little obvious passion and commitment to these words as life-giving and life-transforming. The message they preach terminates on the words of the text, rather than pointing us to the living God who addresses the world we live in and who has something life-changing to say.

At the other end, and perhaps in reaction to what they have seen as growing dullness in many pulpits, others have returned to the launching pad sermon. Nothing they say is untrue, generally. It might be even be genuinely helpful. But the sermon’s relation to the biblical text is impressionistic. The Bible passage suggests a theme, which is handled with a string of anecdotes—some funny, some profoundly moving. People who listen hear the gospel—no question about it. But the message could have been preached from any text, and we aren’t learning how to read the Bible for ourselves anywhere near as much.

Of course, other factors play a role as well, such as the massive internet presence of some very powerful preachers who do not follow the expository model. They are often great communicators and insightful critics of contemporary society, and they are absolutely orthodox in their theological commitments, but the Bible, while open, slides quietly into the background. Add to this the way the basic foundations of confidence in the Bible have been shaken both inside and outside the churches, and can we expect people to listen to what this book has to say anymore? In some quarters, a fascination with technique, which is evident in so many other areas of life, has distracted preachers as well. And perhaps most subtly and yet most insidiously, the desire to be (or to be seen to be) a great preacher can so easily eclipse the desire to preach a great God.

The best preaching I hear is biblical, profoundly theological and thoroughly engaging. It is suffused with a sense of urgency and importance—not the self-importance of the preacher, but the importance of the living God and the word he wants us to hear. The worst preaching I hear might as well be the rehearsal of tomorrow’s shopping list—almost as coherent and every bit as memorable.
Of course, good expository preaching doesn’t have to sound like it comes from the 1950s. It doesn’t have to bore the socks off all who try to listen to it. It can cut through the confusion of our present circumstances and, at the same time, teach us how to read the Bible responsibly for ourselves. And it builds deep Christian faith, rather than itching ears. We will suffer and our churches will suffer if it is lost to us.

We need a serious conversation about what preaching really is, why good sermons succeed and bad sermons fail. And perhaps—just perhaps—we need to learn again that the way we preach and what we preach are inseparably connected. So if we do really believe in a God who is not only living, but present, as we preach, what difference will that make?"


liturgy said...

Would Jesus, in his preaching, have reached the bar set by John Stott? Or was he guilty of "launching pad sermons"?

Mark Hollingsworth said...

Great post. I think we can preach both expository and exciting sermons that uplift Christ and the Cross.