Wednesday, June 17, 2015

It's Not As Easy As It Looks

In a recent interview with Ed Stetzer promoting a new book the popular pastor, Andy Stanley, said some rather provocative things about preaching (part 1 of 5). His book is about effective communication and when he was asked about what he thought of preachers who went through the Bible book-by-book and verse-by-verse, he answered:

Guys that preach verse-by-verse through books of the Bible-- that is just cheating. It's cheating because that would be easy, first of all. That isn't how you grow people. No one in the Scripture modeled that. There's not one example of that. 

All Scripture is equally inspired, but not all Scripture is equally applicable or relevant to every stage of life. My challenge is to read culture and to read an audience and ask: What is the felt need? Or perhaps what is more important, what is an unfelt need they need to feel that I can address? Because if they don't feel it, then they won't address it.

Other parts of the interview linked above contain more information on his philosophy of preaching.

As I read this and other parts of the interview to make sure I was getting appropriate context (which may be one of the cardinal flaws in his view on expository preaching, but I digress), I am struggling not to say, "this is one of the dumbest things I have heard a pastor say in a long time." So I'm going to try not to say it.

I believe his view of expository preaching is dangerous for the church and for Christians, and here are a few reasons why.

To begin with, expository preaching isn't easy. Apparently he was taught to do it and did some of it when he was younger, and if that is the only exposure he has to the weekly grind of submitting to the narrative and logic of the text, he doesn't know what he is saying. Earlier in the interview he expressed his philosophy of leading people through a journey that includes the Bible (find a felt need, tell people why they need it fixed, pick a passage of Scripture, and finish with "wouldn't that be nice?"). Expository preaching is letting the narrative and argument of the text lead you through the journey, and that is often tough ground to till. Forget working through Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezra - try every chapter and verse of Acts. It isn't as easy as he says it is - at least not if you are trying to do the text and the people in the pews justice. So when he says it is cheating, he is flat wrong.

Then he appeals to Scripture to support his philosophy of communication above expository preaching. The problem is that Scripture does not teach or even model a single form of appropriate pastoral communication. People who say the kinds of things Stanley said often point to the parables as if those were the only things Jesus ever said. The New Testament is loaded with commentary on Old Testament Scripture, and it is clear within the text that the early church revered the epistles beyond the context of the original audience. In other words, though Ephesians is an occasional letter, it wasn't left there. It became holy writ for the entire church outside of the immediate context of the Ephesians' "felt needs" and their desire to have God meet them.

Stanley's vision of expository preaching reduces Scripture to a tool to be used by a clever speaker to touch on an exposed nerve of the listener. It is an instrument to be wielded to achieve a pre-determined result. (I preach expositorily, but have no quibbles with those to hold Scripture in high regard and preach by issue or topic. I am particularly worried about Stanley's apparent out-of-hand dismissal of submitting to the text on a weekly basis.) His is the Aristotelian and Roman model of rhetoric - know your audience and tailor your message to them in order to get them to respond the way you want them to. The problem for the pastor is that we are not given the right or the power to predetermine the outcome. Our variable is the work of God in people's lives, and we are not allowed to coordinate the outcome. We are tasked with rightly dividing and communicating the truth and wisdom of God and letting God do the work that needs to be done (I would cite Malachi 2:4-7 here, but Stanley might categorize that as not applicable to him at this point in life. That's too bad for Scripture - maybe it will catch up to him someday.) Stanley is just another pastor in a long line of American pastors who has apparently succumbed to an entirely corporate model of preaching - the only difference between the board room sales pitch and the sermon is a few carefully chosen verses from the Bible.

Christians raised and weaned on this model of preaching are trained to approach Scripture by waiting for it to submit to them and their "felt needs." They will be trained to read the Bible like the Farmer's Almanac or take it in like snippets of Oprah's advice. Over time peoples' habits and preferences will slide downhill, and they might learn that they can get the same kind of advice from non-preachers and avoid the stewardship campaign. On the other hand, Christians who learn to endure in faithfulness in all seasons of life learn to submit to the text no matter their "felt needs" and learn how to come to terms with a holy and glorious God who would rather their soul be right than their "felt needs" be met.

I really do hope and pray that the church Stanly pastors is full of the transformational power of God from week to week, and that people are being brought to the feet of a holy and great God. I just don't think it is smart or wise to say such ridiculous things about the discipline of letting the text, instead of perceived "felt needs," set the agenda for the pastor and the church.

1 comment:

Eva Lind said...

My favorite quote from D. Martyn Lloyd Jones, whose expository preaching is legendary (His preaching on the Sermon on the Mount runs to 585 pages): "A detailed, microscopic study of any one section of Scripture is generally much more profitable than a telescopic view of the whole Bible (or topical snippets E.L); because if you make a thorough study of any one section, you will find that you will meet all the great doctrines sooner or later."

As a Precept teacher for 18 years, I find that immersion in a particular book has been the most satisfying way to study God's Word. Furthermore, my students and I have always felt that the book we are studying right now is the precise one chosen by the Holy Spirit for our needs right now.

Eva Lind