Bread & Circuses

The recent implosion of James MacDonald’s ministry is a sobering reminder of how easily beguiled the church is by a pretty voice. Not only is the unfolding debacle painful to watch, it also ought to send a chill of fear down the spine of pastors and church leaders. MacDonald was no heretic. He was and is a biblical conservative. His failure, if the reports are true, was one of leadership character. I am not saying this as a mitigating factor. The pastoral epistles are clear that character and leadership style are as important in determining whether someone is fit to lead as doctrine.

My point is that the church is easily swayed by those who are compelling speakers. This is not a new problem. Paul complained about it in the Corinthian letters. Church history’s hall of shame includes many notable pulpit masters who made a name for themselves as speakers while engaging in behavior unbecoming to their office. What is surprising is not that these leaders sinned but that the church found it so easy to overlook their behavior.

We often plead grace in our attempt to excuse ourselves. Our preachers and leaders are sinners like us. They are “wounded healers.” We are sometimes reluctant to apply the biblical standards of leadership too rigorously to them out of fear that we will condemn ourselves in the process. But more often than not this kind of talk is just a smokescreen that obscures the real root of the church’s failure which is due to something far shallower. Simply put, we like a good speaker. If that requirement is met, we often don’t care about much else, as long as their weaknesses are not so public that they force us to take note of them.

The simplest explanation for such a one-sided evaluation on our part is that we have to listen to these people week after week. We would much prefer to listen without feeling that the experience is torture. But I do not think that this simple explanation is adequate. The opposite is more often the case. Many congregations tolerate preaching that is mediocre or even less because they are being cared for by a genuine shepherd.

I believe two other factors have caused the church to elevate speaking ability over spiritual leadership and even moral character. One is the church’s marketplace orientation. The other is the congregation’s growing tolerance for a distance between the church’s pastors and its members. These two are related. Churches tolerate good speakers who are weak pastors because they rely on the pastor’s speaking ability to market the church to non-attenders. This is especially true of churches that have grown large and where the pastor has become the brand. They  are “too big to fail.” There is too much at stake. The fortunes of too many people are tied to one personality to jeopardize it all by holding these leaders accountable. More than one fallen leader has sought protection from the consequences of their failure by threatening to bring the temple down on the heads of those who sought to expose them.

The popularity of the megachurch model, even though only a small minority of congregations can actually achieve it, has changed the way church members relate to their pastors. It has also changed the way Bible colleges and seminaries train for ministry (or don’t). We are being pressured to train performers and administrators instead of pastors. Those who attend megachurches do not expect to be pastored. They do not expect to relate to the preaching pastor at close range. They do not expect the pastor to invite them over to dinner or to show up at the hospital and pray for them when they are sick. They do not expect him to come to their home and ask about their spiritual well-being. They do not know what kind of office hours the pastor keeps if the pastor keeps any at all. They do not know what the pastor’s salary is, because it is masked in the budget, lumped together with all the other staff salaries. Indeed, the typical church attender has been trained to think that the pastor’s salary is none of their business. As a result, all the average worshipper knows about the preaching pastor is what they hear when the church gathers for worship. The resulting distance makes it impossible for the congregation to hold the pastor accountable for much of anything.

These cultural shifts are having a profound effect on the way churches think about pastoral ministry. The pastor is no longer a shepherd or even a preacher. The emphasis in today’s branded culture is on personality and performance. The difference is immediately felt when one hears them preach. One of my colleagues recently contrasted this new model with the pastors and Bible conference preachers of a generation ago. “Those old preachers were mostly men in grey suits, unimpressive in appearance but powerful expositors of the word,” she said. They were not interested in their image. They did not focus on style.

I do not think that she meant that they had no style. They certainly did, but theirs was the kind of style reflected in Philip Brooks’s definition of preaching as the communication of “truth through personality.” Brooks didn’t mean that the preacher should try to be a personality. “The truth must come through the person, not merely over his lips, not merely into his understanding and out through his pen” Brooks declared. “It must come through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being. It must come genuinely through him.”

There is more to what Brooks describes in these words than what is popularly called “transparency.” Brooks did not merely mean that biblical truth is expressed through the container of the preacher’s personality. Rather he meant that the preacher is someone who has been shaped by the truth. In the language that Paul uses in 2 Timothy 2:15, the preacher is someone who makes every effort to present themselves to God as an approved worker in the word, not only handling it rightly in terms of its interpretation but reflecting its truths.

These days instead of “studying to show ourselves approved” it is our preaching that has become studied. By that, I mean that our overemphasis on personality and style has made our preaching self-conscious. It is affected. From dress to tone to the way we stroll about the stage, we seem to be as interested in crafting an image as we are in communicating a message. The congregation is complicit in this. Like the ancient Romans, the average church member no longer sees it as their responsibility to weigh carefully not only what is said, but the one who says it. They have traded this duty for bread and circuses. What the preacher is off the stage does not matter so much as long he holds our attention while on it.

James MacDonald is not the first nor is he the worst preacher to be accused of incongruity between life and message. I am not saying this in his defense. But I do think that he is too easy a target for us. It is easy to pile on after the fact and demand an accounting.  But he was not the only culpable party. In this image-driven age, when the church prefers circuses over bread, why are we so surprised?

The King’s Speech

My wife Jane and I went to see a movie recently and had an unusual experience. When the movie was over the audience applauded. Not the half-hearted formal applause that you sometimes hear when people feel obligated to do so. But genuine, heartfelt applause from people who had been genuinely moved by what they had just seen and heard. It is the sort of thing that happens in politics once in a while. Less often in church. At least in the churches I attend. But I have hardly ever seen it take place in a movie theater.

 What made this even more remarkable was the fact that the movie was about a speech therapist. The King’s Speech tells the story of King George VI of England. A royal son who never expected to become king, he was eelevated to the throne at the beginning of the war with Germany and was called upon to address the nation over the new medium radio. The film not only traces the king’s struggle to find his voice, but portrays the growth of his friendship with speech therapist Lionel Logue, a commoner and an Australian whose controversial methods focused not only the technique but the reasons behind the king’s impediment.

 As a preacher I can identify with the king’s dread of public speaking. The expression on Colin Firth’s face as he approaches the microphone for the first time captures the dread felt by anyone who must make a public address. As someone who teaches others to preach, I identified with Lionel Logue, winsomely portrayed by Geoffrey Rush, whose performance captures the thrill of pride every teacher feels when a student makes genuine progress.

 As a Christian and a preacher, I could not help thinking how important the voice is to the Christian faith. As Stephen Webb observes in his book The Divine Voice: “Christianity has an oral quality.” Christianity and public speaking are bound together. St. Francis is supposed to have told his followers to “preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words.” If this is true, it was foolish counsel to give. The gospel is a verbal message. It cannot be communicated apart from words. As those who speak for the king of Kings, this is not only our duty. It is our great privilege.

The Preacher Who Failed

I was deeply moved the other day by David Grayson’s description of the Scottish minister in his book Adventures in Contentment:

 The Scotch preacher was finding his place in the big Bible; he stood solid and shaggy behind the yellow oak pulpit, a peculiar professional look on his face. In the pulpit the Scotch preacher is too much minister, too little man. He is best down among us solvent. Is there a twisted and hardened heart in the community he beams upon it from his cheerful eye, he speaks out of his great charity, he gives the friendly pressure of his large hand, and that hardened heart dissolves and its frozen hopelessness loses itself in tears. So he goes through life, seeming always to understand. He is not surprised by wickedness nor discouraged by weakness: he is so sure of a greater Strength!

 A little later Grayson writes:

 As I remember it, our church was a church of failures. They sent us the old gray preachers worn out in other fields. Such a succession of them I remember, each with some peculiarity, some pathos. They were of the old sort, indoctrinated Presbyterians, and they harrowed well our barren field with the tooth of their hard creed. Some thundered the Law, some pleaded Love; but of all of them I remember best the one who thought himself the greatest failure. I think he had tried a hundred churches — a hard life, poorly paid, unappreciated — in a new country. He had once had a family, but one by one they had died. No two were buried in the same cemetery; and finally, before he came to our village, his wife, too, had gone. And he was old, and out of health, and discouraged: seeking some final warmth from his own cold doctrine. How I see him, a trifle bent, in his long worn coat, walking in the country roads: not knowing of a boy who loved him!

 He told my father once: I recall his exact words:

 “My days have been long, and I have failed. It was not given me to reach men’s hearts.”

 Oh gray preacher, may I now make amends? Will you forgive me? I was a boy and did not know; a boy whose emotions were hidden under mountains of reserve: who could have stood up to be shot more easily than he could have said: “I love you!”

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #9: Preaching Beyond Our Experience

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I once heard a pastor lament, “My prayer is better than my preaching and my preaching is better than my life.” One of the great challenges of the pulpit is that of preaching beyond our experience. We are the first to feel the sting of the sermon’s reproach. In preaching against the sins of others, we censure ourselves. This is not hypocrisy. Those preach to others must preach to themselves first (Ro. 2:21; 1 Cor. 9:27).  

Preaching also takes me beyond my own experience because by it I offer hope for those whose sin or suffering may exceed my own. I do not have to have personally experienced all that those who hear me have experienced in order to speak with authority about their situation. I do not need to become an alcoholic to offer hope to the alcoholic or an adulterer to speak with authority to the adulterer. Jesus has already “been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). The word of hope that I have to offer is based on his experience not my own.  

 One obvious implication of this challenge is that those who preach must do so with humility. We do not speak as those who have mastered all the disciplines of grace. There may be many in the congregation who are further along in their walk with God than we are. But we need to be just as wary of exaggerating our sins for the sake of credibility as we are of exaggerating our victories. We do not preach ourselves but Christ. It is God’s word not our personal experience that is the standard by which others should measure themselves.  

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #8: Prophet or Priest?

I first felt a calling to preach when I was in my teens. To my surprise my mother, who was not a church going woman, beamed with pride when I told her about my intention. “Oh, Johnny,” she gushed, “you’d make a darling minister.” I did not want to mouth poetry in a clergyman’s tame frock. Camel’s hair and thundering declamation were more my style. I aspired to the prophet’s mantle.

 The parallel between the preacher and the prophet is obvious. But prophet is not the only metaphor that should shape our pulpit ministry. There is also a priestly dimension. Priests, like prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s word (Lev. 10:11).  The priest, however, differed from the prophet because he shouldered an additional burden, serving as the people’s advocate. Priests were not only “selected from among men” but were “appointed to represent them” (Heb. 5:1).

 Like the priest, the preacher does not stand apart from those who hear but is called from among them in order to sympathize with them.  Whenever we take our place before God’s people to declare his word, we also take upon ourselves this responsibility advocacy. We may stand above or before the congregation in order to be seen or for the sake of acoustics, but our true location is in their midst. We speak to the people but we are also for them.

 The key to priestly advocacy is identification. This means that the priest/preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the word of God on their behalf. The prophetic nature of preaching gives us authority to make demands of the listener. But it is the priestly nature of preaching obligates us to make demands of the text. It compels us to take our cue from the patriarchs, the psalms and the apostles, as well as from the prophets, and ask God to justify himself: Will not the judge of the earth do right? How long, O Lord? Why have you afflicted us?

Our priestly responsiblity compels us to give voice to the silent questions that plague our listeners. Our prophetic obligation means that we will refuse to smooth out the sharp edges of the text. These two dimensions work in harmony.

Helmut Thielicke: Preaching Amidst the Rubble

During the last days the Third Reich, as the Nazi terror struggled in its final throes and allied bombs rained down on Stuttgart, Helmut Thielicke preached a remarkable series of sermons based on the Lord’s Prayer. These were days of uncertainty and death. On more than one occasion the shriek of air raid sirens interrupted the sermon.

Thielicke writes that during this period there were times when he felt utterly stricken: “My work in Stuttgart seemed to have gone to pieces; and my listeners were scattered to the four winds; the churches lay in rubble and ashes.”

In one of the messages from this series, based upon the petition “Thy Kingdom come,” Thielicke describes an encounter with a woman from his congregation. It happened as he was standing in the street looking down into the pit of a cellar­–all that remained from a building that an allied bomb had shattered. The woman approached him and declared, “My husband died down there. His place was right under the hole. The clean-up squad was unable to find a trace of him; all that was left was his cap.”

What does a pastor say in a moment like this? “I’m sorry,” hardly seems adequate. But the woman had not come to Thielicke for sympathy. She wanted to express her gratitude. “We were there the last time you preached in the cathedral church” she continued. “And here before this pit I want to thank you for preparing him for eternity.”

This is as good a definition of preaching as I have heard. Better, perhaps, than many, because of its stark realism. Preaching is preparing others for eternity. Preaching is having the last word. To preach is to take your stand before the pit and bear witness to the rubble of this ash heap world that the Kingdom of God is at hand.


Worse Things Have Been Said

 

Not long after I graduated from seminary, I spoke to a friend about my discouragement with the church I was serving. Looking back I realize now that things were not as bad as they seemed. The opposition I faced was the sort that every young pastor deals with, especially when he is eager to prove himself. But at the time it seemed to me that I had made a terrible mistake.

Some of the church’s charter members were grumbling about changes I had initiated. A few even hinted that I had bullied the church’s leaders into seeing things my way. Their criticism was unfounded but it stung just the same. I began to wonder if I was wrong to accept a call to this congregation. My friend listened to my tale of woe but was unsympathetic. “Worse things have been said about better men” he told me. I was annoyed by his blunt reply but could not disagree with his point.

Jesus warned those who speak in his name that they will also share in his reproach: “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!” (Matt. 10:24-25)

The problem here is ultimately one of authority. Christ’s words serve as fair warning to all who preach that divine authority does not guarantee a smooth path. We would like to think that God given authority also gives us leverage with our hearers. “Listen to us,” we want to say. “We speak for God.” But the same Bible that gives us our authority also offers ample proof of the congregation’s capacity for discounting that authority.

Preaching is an awkward business. The preacher does not give advice, the preacher declares. The preacher tells people what is right and what is wrong. When they turn to the right or the left, the preacher stands before them like the angel who stood in Balaam’s path, and says, “This is the way, walk in it.” What right do we have to make such demands? Who are we to tell others how to live?

Preaching is impolite. When we preach we draw public conclusions about the motives of our listeners and impugn their character. We utter things from the pulpit that we would not dare to say in private conversation, at least not to strangers! 

This is the preacher’s prophetic responsibility. “Prophetic preaching does not necessarily imply that the preacher assumes the role of Jeremiah or Amos, but that the preacher remains faithful to the prophetic dimensions of biblical texts” Thomas G. Long explains. “If the word comes from God in the biblical text, the preacher remains true to that word, regardless of the reaction or the cost.”

Unfortunately, the prophetic mantle cannot guarantee that every barb that aimed in our direction is undeserved. Some of the complaints leveled against us are warranted. The reproach we bear is not always the reproach of Christ. Sometimes it comes as a result of rash decisions we have made or right words spoken in the wrong spirit. My friend was right. Worse things have been said about better men. And just as often better things are said about us than we deserve.

Preaching and the Authority of the Text

Preaching derives its authority from the text of Scripture. Our work of correcting, rebuking and encouraging all flow from a more fundamental command: “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 2:4). Without the authority of the biblical text there would be no authority for preaching.

There are some who prefer to point past the text and locate the preacher’s authority in the ideas of Scripture, generally in the gospel or more particularly in the person of Christ. In his book Homiletic, for example, David Buttrick writes: “Of course, when we claim that the Bible is our ‘authority,’ we are pointing past text, and past even the gospel in scripture, to God-for-us in Jesus Christ.” Buttrick admits that there are many who believe that God has conferred authority on the Scriptures themselves and are convinced that “the Bible has been designated ‘Word of God’ by divine fiat to rule the church.” But he clearly sees this as a problem.

Buttrick is right to say that the Scriptures point beyond themselves to Christ. Jesus asserted as much when he told the religious leaders: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). But Jesus also testified to the authority of the biblical text, down to the smallest letter and to the least stroke of the pen (Matt. 5:18). He said that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35). 

It is certainly possible to misunderstand the Scriptures. We can intentionally twist the Scriptures. But we cannot put Jesus at odds with the text of Scripture without putting Jesus at odds with himself. To attribute authority to Christ but to deny it to the Scriptures is a contradiction. The Scriptures bear witness to Christ and Christ bears witness to the Scriptures. They both speak of each other and they both speak with the same voice.

On Preachers and Preaching: The Divorce Between Theology and the Pulpit Part II

The church’s suspicion of the practical value of theology, though misguided, is not without some basis in experience. Helmut Thielicke’s humorous portrait of the young theological student who comes home from seminary and unleashes his learning on an unsuspecting church reflects the perception of many laypeople when it comes to theology: “Under a considerable display of the apparatus of exegetical science and surrounded by the air of the initiated, he produces paralyzing and unhappy trivialities, and the inner muscular strength of a lively young Christian is horribly squeezed to death in a formal armor of abstract ideas.”

In its healthy form the speculative nature of theology can enable us to uncover hidden depths of God’s revealed truth. It is the role of theology to help us probe questions we have not thought to ask. But theology can also take unhealthy forms. It may elevate small points and magnify textual obscurities to the degree where all that the theologian has to offer the church are “paralyzing and unhappy trivialities.”     

The use of academic language when discussing theology is only one of the factors which contributes to this. The root problem is the theologian’s aim. The goal of most theological writing today is not to theologize the church. The real prize is the recognition and respect of those in the guild and the best way to obtain these is by doing battle. Consequently, the theologian does not approach his subject like a shepherd who is concerned for the well being of the flock but like a knight arrayed for battle. Theological discussion is a jousting match with other members of the guild.

Furthermore, theology’s preoccupation with the interests of the guild breeds an air of condescension, if not outright contempt, towards those who are not members. The average church member senses this and concludes that the task of theological reflection is beyond his grasp. In this way the guild mentality actually fosters the very theological ignorance it condemns. Since the guild is made up primarily of academics, the perspective of the majority of pastors is excluded from the conversation. As a result, pastors read theology for their own personal benefit but do not know how to draw the congregation into the discussion.

On Preachers and Preaching: The Divorce Between Theology and the Pulpit

Preaching and theology were lovers once. Though inseparable and mutually devoted to one another at the beginning of their relationship, in these latter days they have become estranged. They are not exactly enemies, but they are hardly friends any more and they are certainly no longer partners.

As is so often the case in these matters, each is inclined to blame the other for the separation. And as is also so often the case, there is some truth in the complaint that they make. Both are guilty of mutual neglect. And both, sad to say, have at times been unfaithful to the other.

Still it must be recognized that if preaching and theology have since found more interesting companions, it was not their original intent. They began their relationship with a common sense of purpose, supported by vows of mutual fidelity. In order to better accomplish their goals, they decided to divide the work between them. Theology was to focus its attention on the higher matters of God, creation and redemption, while preaching would devote itself to the “lower” but equally important concerns of the flock. They did not at first see these tasks as being mutually exclusive. Indeed, they believed that they contributed to one another.

Yet in time the two “grew apart.” The noble questions which first occupied the attention of theology have given way to more obscure matters, many of which prove to be at odds with the bread and butter interests of preaching. Theology prefers the thin air and heady conversation of the classroom and the philosopher’s salon to the dishrag speech and knee scrape anxieties which so often seem to occupy the attention of preaching. Preaching, for its part, has grown impatient with the endless speculation and impractical theorizing that theology loves so much. Preaching criticizes theology for being too detached. Theology accuses preaching of being too parochial.

The sad truth is that neither is very far off the mark.