Cotton Candy Preaching

At Preaching Today, Haddon Robinson describes the type of sermons we hear when our preaching is light on doctrine:

They end up being nothing more than moralisms: We should, we must, we ought. Or, here are three ways in which we can be better off financially. A sermon I heard a while ago on how to deal with procrastination had as its first point to get a Day Timer. You knew you were in trouble when you heard that. I have no doubt that when people left that church, if they were procrastinators, they thought it was a helpful sermon. But it was simply something that a motivational speaker could have done.

If people are raised on cotton candy, they are not going to grow as Christians. When Paul writes to his young associate Timothy, he says that 'all Scripture is inspired by God,' and that all Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for teaching, for putting the fundamental truths in front of people, and for 'reproof, for correction, for instruction in right living.' We have ignored that first affirmation - that the Bible is given to teach doctrine. It's not the only thing it does, but doctrine is first, and out of that there is reproof and then there is correction and then instruction in right living.

Just Preach the Gospel

Selected quotes from an excellent article by Marianne Meye Thompson:

To preach the gospel is to proclaim the accounts of the Scriptures in light of the fact that their central character is God, and that the gospel is from God and about the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit.

It is so easy to make the most powerful of Gospel stories center on human action and not on God, to think that somehow our actions, our decisions, are the heart and center of the gospel story. To make that move is to sell out the gospel.

To be guided by the gospel is to remember that the gospel is first and foremost about what God does, and not about what we do.

Preaching should help people locate themselves in the context of the biblical story of God's creation of the world, call of Israel, sending of Jesus Christ, and promised consummation, because it is there that we find our identity and purpose. Preaching helps people to identify their stories with and submit them to God's grand story as found in the Bible; to find their identity, meaning, and hope in the purposes of God. Preaching narrates our individual, particular lives into the grand narrative of God's purposes and work in the world. Often, however, our stories get the banner headlines, whereas God's story is delegated to small print on the fifth page. It ought to be the other way around: God's story deserves the banner headline; our little stories deserve far less space.

Presbyterian theologian John Leith once wrote a book subtitled What the Church Has to Say That No One Else Can Say. This subtitle is an obvious pun: the church has as its gift something to say; but the church has that something as its responsibility or obligation as well. Advice columns can advise people about their problems; therapists can help us in our relationships; but the church can help people to situate their stories in the biblical narrative in a way that illumines their meaning. The church can and must speak the gospel. That is to say, the church articulates what it means that we live in a world created by God, tainted and marred in every way by sin, and straining for redemption.

Preaching helps people to understand this story, this "gospel of God," and to see their own stories as part of the larger story that begins with God's action and longs for the time when "God will be all in all."


Christless Christianity

Michael Horton reminds us of the absolute importance of preaching Christ:

What would things look like if Satan actually took over a city? The first frames in our imaginative slide show probably depict mayhem on a massive scale: Widespread violence, deviant sexualities, pornography in every vending machine, churches closed down and worshipers dragged off to City Hall. Over a half-century ago, Donald Grey Barnhouse, pastor of Philadelphia's Tenth Presbyterian Church, gave his CBS radio audience a different picture of what it would look like if Satan took control of a town in America. He said that all of the bars and pool halls would be closed, pornography banished, pristine streets and sidewalks would be occupied by tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The kids would answer 'Yes, sir,' 'No, ma'am,' and the churches would be full on Sunday ... where Christ is not preached.

From the May/June 2007 issue of Modern Reformation

It's hard to be seeker-sensitive when you work for Jesus

An article by William H. Willimon (PDF) on the danger of focusing on felt needs:

We live in a consumer-driven, avaricious society where everything is turned into a commodity, even the gospel, and life is said to be fulfilled only through our choices, our ability to consumer cars and clothes and, even Christ. In such a climate, we must be careful about turning Sunday worship into just another opportunity to say, "Give me some of that."

...Jesus is not simply about meeting my felt needs; he is also about rearranging my needs, not only about fulfilling my desires; he is also about transforming my desires. Jesus is wonderfully nonchalant about so many of my heart-felt desires. It's amazing how many of my needs (material affluence, security, sexual fulfillment, happiness, etc.) appear not in the least to interest Jesus...

I recall that great preacher, William Sloane Coffin, telling us Yale students, "I don't see how you can attract folk to Jesus by appealing to their basic selfishness - 'Jesus can fix everything that's wrong with you' - and end up offering anything like the self-less, self-denying faith of Jesus."

When, in Seeker Services, do we pull out the cross? When, as we're touting all the benefits of Jesus, do we also say to them, "By the way, Jesus said that anyone who bought into his message would also suffer and die."

I believe that today's "Seekers" are seeking many things, but I am unsure that many of them are seeking a cruciform savior or a cruciform life. That's fine since the Bible hardly ever, almost never depicts anybody seeking Jesus. Rather, the story is about God's relentless seeking of us in Christ.


Kevin Vanhoozer on recovering imagination

From an interview with Kevin Vanhoozer:

The problem in too many evangelical churches is that we know what we're supposed to believe, but we're not sure what practical difference it makes and so we're unable to bring it to bear on everyday life. To be sure, biblical and theological illiteracy remains a problem too. But that doesn't really explain why even in churches where the Bible is faithfully preached the congregation doesn't look that different from everyone else.

My own hunch is that we need to recover the imagination in order to set the cultural captives free. I believe that many people in today's society, and church, suffer from an impoverished imagination. By imagination I mean the cognitive power of seeing things together, as wholes; clearly a worldview is an affair of the imagination, at least in part. In any case, I believe that our imaginations are captive to secular stories/worldviews that do not nourish our souls. Eugene Peterson says something similar about the function of the 10 plagues of Egypt: they were intended to free the imagination of the Israelites from thinking that the power of Egypt was sovereign. The plagues systematically deconstruct Pharaoh's power. It takes imagination to see that what God is doing with a small tribe of slaves is greater than the might of Egypt or the grandeur that was Rome. Similarly, it takes imagination to see that North Americans are not in bondage to similar powers and principalities: consumerism and therapism, to name but two. I wonder whether in our haste to preserve doctrinal truth, we have not done our evangelical churches a disservice in surrendering our imaginations to stories (and advertisements) that serve the interest of some worldly empire (or multinational corporation) rather than the kingdom of God.

Pastors need to make it a priority to teach their congregations how read Scripture theologically, and this requires the imagination, the ability to make sense of thing by fitting the little bits into larger patterns - the big canonical picture. It takes imagination to see the Bible as a unified whole, and then it takes even more imagination to fit one's own time and place into this biblical drama of redemption.