For our denomination’s area meeting this Spring (what we call District Council), I was asked to give a workshop session on combining an expositional preaching style with what you might call week-to-week applicability/relevance/practicality, etc. The basic issue I was asked to address is the reason why so many evangelical churches have moved away from sermons that begin and end with a biblical text – the fear of irrelevance. The talk I gave, The Dogma is the Drama, emphasized the need to begin with a commitment to Scripture and keep in mind what you might call the prophetic element; the present-day realities and needs of the congregation.
I was asked a question at the end about how a pastor can go about building this kind of point of view and effectiveness from week to week. I gave an off-the-cuff answer that was pretty thin (sorry, Bob!). But after a little more reflection, I might have a better answer. So how does a pastor go about getting to know both Scripture and the culture well enough to build a pulpit ministry that is faithful to Scripture first and foremost, and yet speaks wisely into current issues and cultural settings?
First of all, there is no substitute for biblical literacy, and because it should go without saying, I won’t spend any more time on it. But what does need to be said is that pastors need to deepen what else they read. We are in the business of handling the mystery of the gospel of Christ, and thus we should be in the regular habit of reading thoughtful and intelligent books. We ought to put down Olsteen and pick up the Stotts. We should read a little less off the “Christian Inspiration” shelf and a little more off the “Theology” shelf. Most of what passes for Christian best-sellers are pretty thin on substance, and if that becomes our primary mental diet, we ought not be surprised if our sermons follow form.
I have another pastor friend who always has at least four books going in four areas: theology, philosophy, science, and Bible. While that might be a heavy load for some, it is an example of where we ought to be headed. What was the last good book on theology you read that stretched you? Have you ever read anything by a Christian philosopher?
I would like to add to the list of potential books works by dead people. There is a perspective that comes from faithful Christians in different contexts that becomes invaluable to us over time. A thoughtful pastor ought to read Baxter’s Reformed Pastor – it is worth 100 current books on pastoral leadership. The journey of discovery, confession and conversion in Augustine’s Confessions is priceless.
My original answer in the workshop was along these lines: I read a lot of things that frustrate me. Reading up on what the secular culture thinks about spiritual things can be very enlightening. At the very least, it helps to get us out of our comfort zones and puts us in contact with people who think and believe very differently than we do.
Francis Schaeffer is probably our modern North-star when it comes to this. He read, understood and could communicate with the disciples of Nietzsche. Can I read, understand and communicate with the modern disciples of Hitchens, Singer, and the like? If not, I might be unnecessarily limiting my spheres of influence.
The Weekly Conviction that Scripture Speaks
All this folds into how we approach Scripture. Do I need to “make” it relevant? Do I have to pull in some outside source to help the dry text communicate well? Do I need to buy illustrations off the internet about perseverance?
The Scriptural text is like the oven that bakes all the influences together into a tasty treat. All the flotsam and jetsam is consumed in the heat, and the various ingredients are subsumed by the larger purpose of the text itself.