Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Essence of the Essence

I think most preachers will agree that their weekly sermon preparation both disciplines and nourishes their own spiritual life. The more time you spend in Scripture, seeking to hear God's word for yourself and your hearers, the deeper and more authentic a person you will be. For itinerant preachers like myself (who have a bag of 'oldie' sermons) it is vital to keep immersed in Scripture and stay spiritually fresh.

So, over the last few weeks I have been dwelling again in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10). Someone has called them 'the essence of the essence', seeing the whole Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) as the essence of Jesus' teaching and these opening eight sentences as being their essence.

These eight beatitudes are truly remarkable. Compact, paradoxical and disturbing they seem to sum up so much about Christian living. Indeed, when you unpack the doctrines that lie behind each, they seem to cover everything that matters! In fact, I ask what is missed out! They introduce key Christian words like blessing, kingdom, meekness, righteousness, heart and peace.

In the weeks ahead I have two opportunities to preach on these eight sentences. First, at a family conference at Green Lake, called Northern Pines, I am the evening speaker (July 31- August 6). In this concentrated week, I am inviting the conference to memorize the Beatitudes and help flesh out both their teaching and their application. Preaching on consecutive days to a serious audience is a rare privilege. And, yes, some hard preparation work still needs to be done this week - prayer is welcome!

Second, on five Sundays beginning August 21st. I shall preach at Elmhurst Christian Reformed Church in the last weeks of their interim before their new senior pastor begins. Having worked on the Beatitudes I asked the associate pastor whether this might be a suitable short series. To my great joy I discovered that the incoming pastor proposes beginning a series on the Sermon on the Mount(!), and is graciously happy that I introduce his own theme. How much a God-incidence is that?

I intend using my blog to collaborate with the worship planners at Elmhurst and any of the congregation who would also like to share this latest venture. So, you will catch sight of some of my outworking of these amazing eight sentences in future weeks. I have looked at several translations of these beatitudes and wonder if you have a favorite translation? And, have any of you memorized your favorite version? As always I shall be most grateful for any insights you have, as well as your prayers.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Meeting a visionary

Today I shared lunch with a preaching visionary - Dr. Dwight Moody. Three years ago he founded the Academy of Preachers ( Maybe that doesn't sound too visionary. After all there are several organizations for preachers already! But this is aimed strictly at young people aged 14-28. At various "festivals" around the country, with a national festival in January, all these young people are encouraged to preach. They are promised not only the practical (and invaluable) opportunity to preach sermons (on a selected theme), but also to receive ongoing guidance and feedback.

Dwight commented that if young people can be enthused and trained in other interests early in their teens, such as sport, music, and their studies, why not enthuse them about the highest way of serving Jesus Christ - being preachers? He has found (and I am sure he is correct) that keen young Christians often dismiss preaching as a serious option. They completely miss its prime strategic importance for telling out God's good news and building his kingdom. (Incidentally, Dwight has also recently read O. C. Edward's book on the History of Preaching and he almost 'repeated' my blog of a few weeks ago -not that he had seen it you understand - about the significance of preaching in church renewal through history!) So, with great energy and vision he is organizing and networking young people for this great task.

Of course, reading this you will likely have many questions, such as: Isn't 14 too young? What about testing a call? Where's the accountability? How do you ensure biblical integrity? Aren't they likely to be mimicking others? What happens when they reach 28? Isn't this all a big risk? You maybe will have more queries. BUT the more I listened the more I sensed how worthwhile this risk is. How it is releasng a fresh passion for preaching among the young.

Dwight shared many interesting details. One that sticks in my mind is his observation that the younger the preacher, the more authentic they seemed to be, and the more able to speak to their own generation. That's why they begin at 14! I know all this is "out of the box" and risky, but as Dwight left to fly back to Louisville (where the academy is based) I couldn't help but feel exhilarated about vision and what God can do through this for his kingdom. Do you know any 14-28 year olds who would respond positively?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Celebrity Preachers

That startling quotation from Kierkegaard in my last post obviously assumed that pastors/preachers belong to communities where relationship are close enough for them to be known personally. Within local churches they may preach not only by word but by the quality of their lives. Such communication is sometimes called "incarnational" - the enfleshing of truth and grace that is best expressed when Jesus "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us"(John 1:14). Though any preacher's living out good news is pock-marked by failures and disappointments, it nevertheless remains part of the high calling to preach.

I was interested to read in the latest edition of Christianity Today that some US mega churches with celebrity preachers are developing expansion plans in other states. They claim that their particular "brand" based upon a well-known preacher is well suited to reach unchurched people in far off places using satellite links etc. Now, there have always been celebrity preachers in the history of the church and undeniably they have a particular role especially in evangelistic preaching (I think of Billy Graham), or prophetic preaching (Martin Luther King).

But it remains vital that the bread-and-butter task of Jesus building comunities of local churches (with people like us) requires incarnational preachers who live close to their people. Very few will be "celebrities" but by the witness of their lives (with inevitable mistakes) and the truth of their words, the gospel is preached. This is a steep challenge - impossible without God's grace. That's why preaching is a high calling, isn't it?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Silence on Sundays

I came across this quote today from Soren Kierkegaard:
Order the pastors to be silent on Sundays. What is there left? The essential things remain: their lives, the daily life with which the pastors preach. Would you, then, get the impression by watching them, that it was Christianity they were preaching?

Alongside was a comment by Jerome: A minister of Christ should have tongue, heart and hand agree.

Presently I am busy preparing a future preaching series, but these remind me of essential things before ever a word is spoken!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

History of Preaching (3)

My reflections on vacation reading have been (inevitably) disturbed by the pace of life reasserting itself. Several other summary issues interested me but let me mention one more in particular. O.C. Edwards says that, looking back over 2000 years of preaching "one of the few sweeping generalizations I can make about preaching through the ages that, with rare exceptions, the most effective preachers have not preached from manuscripts"(page 836).

My students early in each course discover that I insist they preach without notes. They should so "live in" the Scripture passage that the delivery of their sermons "lives out" its message today. So preaching comes from within them, out of the "heart," as urgent truth that matters. Now, this is not to be confused with extempore "winging" a message. Actually, it takes more time to internalize a message that is preached without notes. And this is not suggested as some technique that guarantees effectiveness. Remember my last post - a good mind, rhetorical reflex and personal holiness are essentials. But how interesting that Edwards should say that preaching without a manuscript is one of the few sweeping generalizations his study reveals. This is ammunition for my future classes!

Though other projects now claim my attention, I know this summer reading will surface again as I prepare two new lectures in the Fall (for Evangelical Seminary, Myerstown, Penn). This week I was given the theme for my lectures - "New Directions in Preaching." Aha! What an opportunity to reflect on the present in the light of the recent past. O.C. Edwards calls these last four decades "a crisis in communication"! Closer to the event I shall post some blogs. Thanks for sharing a little in my "history project."

Saturday, July 2, 2011

History of Preaching (2)

Another generalization that O.C. Edwards makes from his overview of 2000 years of Christian preaching concerns the qualities of effective preaching. As he sums up: "all truly effective preachers have at least three qualities in common:

  • a good mind

  • a rhetorical reflex...a native sense of how to get one's point across when addressing a group

  • personal holiness."

It is clear from so many of the individual preachers cited how these three qualities are highly significant - together. No one quality should be lacking - otherwise their effectiveness is seriously impaired. And it is clear in preaching history that "a good mind" is not about elitist education (though sometimes that helped - I was intrigued to see how significant Cambridge and Oxford Universities have proved)! Rather it's an ability to work deeply with Scriptural truth for the sake of ordinary people. Plenty of unschooled preachers have turned out to possess extraordinary acuity - like the early African American preachers.

Yet good minds are only effective when constrained by personal holiness. This spiritual quality of personal devotion to God by holy living is a remarkable hallmark of effective preaching. And, of course, good minds and personal holiness can only be effective when preachers have this "rhetorical reflex" that is sensitive to culture.

I am not sure that many local churches when considering the call to a preacher would place these three qualities in top place! It's worth pondering what other qualities should displace them!