The heart of theocentric preaching

I've been thinking over the past couple of days about the question of what is at the heart of a theocentric approach to life and ministry. I think it's two things.

It's first a foundational assumption that our lives are part of something bigger, "an adventure that is nothing less than God's purpose for the whole world." This quote is from Resident Aliens, and it gets to the heart of a theocentric approach to all of life:

By telling these stories, we come to see the significance and coherence of our lives as a gift, as something not of our own heroic creation, but as something that must be told to us, something we would not have known without the community of faith. The little story I call my life is given cosmic, eternal significance as it is caught up within God's larger account of history. "We were Pharaoh's slaves..., the Lord brought us out...that he might preserve us." The significance of our lives is frighteningly contingent on the story of another. Christians are those who hear this story and are able to tell it as our salvation.

That is the key difference between an anthropocentric and a theocentric approach. An anthropocentric approach is about our little stories, but it never connects these little stories to the true and expansive story of what God is doing in the world. In a theocentric approach, our little stories still matter, but they are swept up in the much larger adventure of what God is doing, in which we play a part.

Too often, we depict salvation as that which provides us with a meaningful existence when we achieve a new self-understanding...Here, with our emphasis on the narrative nature of the Christian life, we are saying that salvation is baptism into a community that has so truthful a story that we forget ourselves and our anxieties long enough to become part of that story, a story God has told in Scripture and continues to tell in Israel and the church.

Its secondly a hermeneutic. It is about translating Scripture not as a set of propositions or as a devotional model, but as the true story of the universe, of which we are a part. It isn't about making the Bible intelligible and relevant as helping people become relevant to the adventure of which their lives are a part.

This is the heart of theocentric preaching.

The problem with preaching to felt needs

From Albert Mohler:

The idea that preaching should be addressed to the self-perceived "needs" of the congregation is now well ingrained in the larger evangelical culture. The argument behind this is almost always missiological -- just preach to the needs people already feel and then you can point them to a deep need and God's provision of the Gospel.

There are several basic flaws with this approach. In the first place, our "needs" are hopelessly confused - even hidden from us...

Second, our perceived or felt needs almost always turn out to be something other than needs -- at least in any serious sense...

Third, preachers who believe they can move the attention of individuals from their "felt" needs to their need for the Gospel will find, inevitably, that the distance between the individual and the Gospel has not been reduced by attention to lesser needs. The sinner's need for Christ is a need unlike all other needs -- and the satisfaction of having other needs stroked and affirmed is often a hindrance to the sinner's understanding of the Gospel.



In The Church in Transition, Tim Conder talks about some of the ways that we devalue Scripture and limit its voice. One of them is what he calls moralism.

Moralism reduces the Bible to moral lessons and imperatives, robbing Scripture of its narrative quality. So much of the Bible is the scandalous story of humans asserting their own agendas or trying to accomplish God's agenda apart from God...they include few moral lessons that can be simply incorporated into our decision-making.

He offers this example, from one of the most clearly theocentric books in the Bible (a theocentric book that never explicitly mentions God):

The story of Esther offers a great example of the damage we can do to the Scriptures if we try to read them simply as a moral directive. During the Jewish nation's captivity under the Persians, a beautiful Jewish woman named Esther is placed under King Xerxes' harem and eventually becomes queen. Her status and favor with the king allows her not only to stave off a planned genocide of her people, but also to punish the people who plotted the destruction of Jews. This amazing story graphically portrays the sovereignty of God despite the greed and immorality of humanity.

But if we read it as a morality tale, we might draw the following lessons:

  • Join a harem and things will go better for you and for those around you!
  • If you are physically beautiful, you can rule the world. If not, better luck next time!
  • Manipulation works - ask for favors the right way and you'll get your way!
  • When you finally get the upper hand, use it as an iron fist and take revenge on those who have threatened you.

He concludes, "Moralism dehumanizes the characters of the Bible, blindly canonizes many of them into sainthood, and directs our attention away from the only hero of the Scriptures - God."

Yesterday's seminar

I listened to a podcast this week that said when you do version 1.0 of something, your goal should be just to survive. "Just get through it the first time. You can try that stuff you read about in magazines later."

Yesterday I rolled out version 1.0 of a seminar on theocentric preaching, and I think it's safe to say we all survived. We had fun and I think we might have thought through some important issues. I couldn't have picked better people to attend and to interact with the topic.

The best part of the seminar was the interaction. Most of the interaction seemed to be about two issues. First, what does it mean to be theocentric when God and Scripture seem to focus on humanity? Second, what does theocentric preaching look like in practice? All kinds of other issues surfaced too, such as how to interpret and apply Scripture accurately (hermeneutics, especially relating to modern methods which may be too neat and reductionistic), and the hot button issue of exemplary preaching (preaching biblical characters as models to emulate).

People felt free to push back, which I appreciated. I found some areas where my thinking is still fuzzy, and I realized that I need a lot more concrete examples. Still, I was pleased that some of my findings seemed to strike a chord, and it was clear that we were talking about issues that everyone felt a need to discuss.

Although I tried not to do this, I still make a rookie mistake: I had way too much content for the amount of time. I think if I did it over I would send out a brief paper with introductory material, and then teach the session inductively. Learning is much more effective when you learn yourself rather than when someone else tells you what they've learned. We ran out of time for the hands-on part; I really had more there than we could accomplish in four or five hours.

I was glad when it ended, because I was exhausted. Today, though, I wish we could go at it again, because I loved thinking things through with a group of people. There's a lot to be said for learning in community.

Now I have to summarize the feedback, add it to my thesis, and send it in. Good to be coming to the end, but I hope that the type of learning experience I had yesterday will continue in some form.

A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future

Worth reading: (and signing):

The Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future challenges Evangelical Christians to restore the priority of the divinely inspired biblical story of God’s acts in history. The narrative of God’s Kingdom holds eternal implications for the mission of the Church, its theological reflection, its public ministries of worship and spirituality and its life in the world. By engaging these themes, we believe the Church will be strengthened to address the issues of our day.

More on the Call at Christianity Today

The large, immense world of God's revelation

Eugene Peterson warms us of the mistake of thinking that the biblical world is smaller than the secular world, which leads to all kinds of mistakes, including anthropocentric preaching.

Tell-tale phrases give us away. We talk of “making the Bible relevant to the world,” as if the world is the fundamental reality and the Bible something that is going to fix it. We talk of “fitting the Bible into our lives” or “making room in our day for the Bible,” as if the Bible is something we can add on or squeeze into our already full lives...

As we personally participate in the Scripture-revealed world of the emphatically personal God, we not only have to be willing to accept the strangeness of this world – that it doesn't fit our preconceptions or tastes – but also the staggering largeness of it. We find ourselves in a truly expanding universe that exceeds anything we learned in our geography or astronomy books.

Our imaginations have to be revamped to take in this large, immense world of God's revelation in contrast to the small, cramped world of human “figuring out.” (Eat This Book)