Preaching in a Crisis

One of my former students recently asked me how I thought the COVID-19 crisis was affecting pastoral ministry and preaching in particular. How do you preach in an environment like this? The simple answer is that you do the best you can, given the circumstances. Preaching is challenging enough under ordinary conditions. The nature of the current crisis has completely upended our normal patterns of meeting and communicating. Preachers are speaking to empty seats and recording their messages for broadcast over social media. As one popular meme observes, we are all televangelists now.

The answer to my student’s question involves more than the medium, though much could be said about that as well. The medium of delivery matters, but the content of the message is always primary. Whether we preach live or by means of a video, we are still saying something. What should we say? The Sunday school answer to this question, of course, is that we should preach the gospel. There is a sense in which preachers only have one message to deliver. Our determination, like the apostle Paul’s, is to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Yet as true as this may be, to put it this way in answer to this particular question seems like and oversimplification. It is not.

Preaching More than the Facts

The gospel offers hope for the present life as well as for the future. It is about living as much as it is about dying. Living the Christian life is more than a matter of willpower and information. The Christian life is Spirit-driven and grace enabled. It is a life that is lived not only in response to the gospel but through the power of the gospel. Paul’s letters are proof that the saints do not need to hear a different gospel after they have believed than the one that was preached to them prior to faith. The apostle was just as eager to preach the gospel to the saints at Rome as he was to proclaim it those who had never heard Christ named (cf. Romans 1:15 with 15:20). While the saints do not need a different gospel, they do need a gospel which is explicated in terms of their experience.

Preaching the gospel to the saints during in the age of COVID-19 demands that preachers do more than state the facts of the gospel.

This means that preaching the gospel to the saints during this season of COVID-19 demands that we do more than state the facts of the gospel. What is especially needed is gospel preaching that demonstrates priestly sensitivity. In the Old Testament priests, like prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s word (Leviticus 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” (Hebrews 5:1). Preachers, like the priests of the Old Testament, do not stand apart from those who hear them. The default disposition of every sermon is one of sympathy. Priestly sympathy is not pandering but a compassionate ministry that is born of shared experience. Priestly advocacy should not be confused with trite slogans, pat answers, or simplistic explanations. Unfortunately, our culture’s bent toward pragmatism makes us especially vulnerable in this area. We are too eager to come to God’s defense–too quick to fill in the silences God leaves behind and attempt to explain what he himself has not explained.

Similarly, it can be tempting for preachers to use a crisis like this to leverage their favorite rebuke. If the posts I see from pastors on social media are an indication of what we are saying in our sermons, not a few of us have seized the opportunity afforded by the pandemic to teach the church a lesson about our favorite cultural or congregational irritation. We are saying that this crisis has come upon us because of abortion or that it is God’s judgment because of homosexuality. Some suggest that God sent it to show us that we are spoiled or that He allowed the churches to be shut down because we took worship for granted. Some are saying that God has forced us out of the building so that the church could be the church. The intent of these assertions, I think, is to be prophetic. Unfortunately, such varied explanations merely gives the impression that God cannot make up His mind about why He is angry with us. He is just mad. I am not saying that God would never deal out judgment on a national or even global scale. The Scriptures show that He has done so in the past and will do so again. What troubles me is the underlying note of smugness that seems to attend so many of these kinds of statements. Perhaps before we try to call down woes upon the nation like the prophet Jeremiah, we ought to learn how to weep like him first.

Some of this comes from the pressure we feel to exonerate God. Like many others, I have had more than one person ask me what I thought God was up to by allowing such a devastating pandemic to occur. In our effort to provide an answer, we may overreach. We can make the mistake of thinking that since we speak for God, we may also speak as God. Like Moses at the rock, we speak rashly or out of spite (Numbers 20:10). We jump to conclusions about God’s intent. We make statements about God’s motives and reasoning that sound like certainties but are really only speculations. It is not wrong to address the questions that people ask. One of the preacher’s most important responsibilities is that of leading the congregation in the collective practice of theological reflection about the questions and challenges which are peculiar to their context. But they must do this with what I describe as priestly advocacy.

The key to priestly advocacy is identification (Hebrews 2:17). This means that the preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the word of God on their behalf. Because we stand in the place of our listeners, we ask the questions they would ask. Some of these questions are obvious. Many are mundane. If we are to be true advocates for them, we must also ask the questions our listeners would like to ask but dare not. We can give voice to the questions that plague our listeners, but we cannot always answer them. Our priestly role demands that we speak the truth, and the truth is: God does not always explain himself. Part of the priestly responsibility of preaching is to give voice to the congregation’s unspoken questions and then listen with them to the awkward silence that sometimes ensues once the words have been spoken. It is not our job to answer all the congregation’s questions. When we try to say what God has not said, we inevitably replace God’s judgment with our own.

What We Can Say

What, then, can we say? We can affirm the congregation’s questions and fears. To admit that we don’t know what God is doing is not the same as saying that God is doing nothing. To acknowledge fear, grief, or uncertainty can itself be a great relief in times like these. Of course, it is crucial that we not stop here. More needs to be said. We do not want to only point at the problem. But if preaching aims to facilitate an encounter with God,  a precondition must be that we face God as we truly are, with all our doubts, fears, and questions in plain sight.

If our aim in preaching really is to help our listeners meet God through His word, then the second thing we can do in the sermon is to speak of God. More particularly, we can speak of God as He has revealed Himself to us through the person and work of His Son Jesus Christ. This may sound too simple, so let me make clear what I do not mean. I am not talking about hawking God as a product by selling the audience an airbrushed version of the Christian life. Such sermons try to resolve every serious problem within a matter of minutes, much like the television dramas and commercials that so often provide contemporary pastors with their themes. This “airbrushed” portrayal of Christianity is not preaching at all but a form of sentimentalism that trivializes the gospel. Trivialized preaching is triumphalistic. Triumphalism is a perspective that grows out of our evangelical heritage of revivalism. The revival tradition of preaching emphasizes the transforming moment, when the listener’s life is forever changed. Certainly this is true of the gospel. We are forgiven in a moment. But the redemptive process takes much longer. Triumphalistic sermons give the impression that every problem can be solved in a matter of moments simply by leaving it at the altar. Undoubtedly there have been remarkable instances where this has been the case. Sinners plagued by long standing habits leave the sermon miraculously freed from bondage. Yet for many others–perhaps even most others–the experience is different. For them transformation is progressive rather than instantaneous. These believers do not skip along the pilgrim path but “toil along the winding way, with painful steps and slow.”

Directing our listeners to hope in Christ is not a platitude. 

Preachers who do not acknowledge this resort instead to clichés and platitudes. Their sermon themes are flaccid and the remedies they offer mere placebos. Such sermons are unable to provide any real help to those who hear. How can they, when truism stands in the place of truth? In order to be true to our audience’s experience, preaching must reflect the reality of living in a post–Eden world in anticipation of a new heavens and earth that have not yet come to pass. Times like these, where not only our congregation but the entire globe must deal with the collateral damage that sin has wreaked upon us, are uniquely suited to such a task. Never has Paul’s statement that creation itself is in bondage to decay as a consequence of Adam’s sin been made more vivid (cf. Romans 8:21).

Directing our listeners to hope in Christ is not a platitude. The root of our fear in this current crisis is the fear of sickness and death. Some would like to promise that Jesus will protect us from all such threats. But this is not the hope that the Bible offers us. The message of the gospel is not only the story that Jesus died and rose again. It is the good news that Jesus suffered death “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). The gospel does not assure us that we will be able to avoid the experience of physical death. It tells us that Christ will meet us on the other side. This promise is no small hope.

A Distanced Congregation is Still the Church

A third thing that we can say, especially at a time when our normal community life has been so disrupted, is to remind the church that they are still a church. Some Christians seem to feel a kind of glee over the fact that the church cannot meet together during this season of social distancing. “At last,” they seem to say, “the church can finally be the church.” I find this reasoning odd. The language that the Bible uses to speak of the church implies proximity. This aspect of the church’s nature is best expressed by the phrase Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11:18, “when you come together as a church.” The fact that the church comes together is not a weakness. It is not an indulgence. The church is, by its nature, an assembly.

I find it ironic that while some Christians seem to be celebrating the fact that the church cannot meet, the rest of the world recognizes the need for a sense connection. Nearly every commercial I see on television that mentions the pandemic also says, “We are in this together.” They assure me that “We will get through this.” What surprises me the most is how moved I am by such assurances. Those who record their sermons while preaching to empty seats need to remind the congregation that the bond they share with one another in Jesus Christ has not been diminished by physical separation. They really are in this together. The church will survive, and one day we will come together again as a church. But even though we are now separated, we continue to be “members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25).

The scope of the COVID-19 pandemic may be unusual but the experiences of fear and uncertainty are not. If you doubt this, just take note of how many times God tells His people not to be afraid in the Scriptures. Those who preach often speak to people in crisis. While not as massive as a pandemic, each individual crisis a listener faces under ordinary circumstances can be just as shattering. Pastors and teachers were not an invention of the church. Ephesians 4:11–12 says that they are Christ’s gift to God’s people. The church needs its preachers. What is true during this singular time of crisis will still be true when things return to normal. How should you preach during this season of the coronavirus? You should preach like someone whose hope is cast upon the word of God. Speak the truth with priestly sensitivity. Point your listeners to Jesus Christ. Do the best you can. You can do no more.  

If you want to learn more about preaching, check out John’s books Folly, Grace, & Power: The Mysterious Act of Preaching and The Moody Handbook of Preaching. To see several short videos about preaching, click on the Tips for Preaching tab on John’s website.

The True Prosperity Gospel

According to a recent survey by Lifeway Research, about a third of Protestant churchgoers believe that God will bless them if they put money in the offering plate. Two-thirds say that God wants them to prosper. One out of four believes that they have to do something for God in order to receive a material blessing in return. I’m not really surprised. I’ve been hearing some version of these ideas all my Christian life, mostly from preachers that nobody would ever accuse of promoting a prosperity gospel.

Every November was declared to be “Prove Me Month” at Calvary Baptist Church in Hazel Park, Michigan. Perhaps it was no accident that this giving campaign always came just before the December slump when the bills came due for the church’s annual Christmas extravaganza. Calvary wasn’t the first church I ever attended but it was the first where I heard serious, expository preaching on a regular basis. There was a lot of Bible at Calvary, far more than is typical of churches today. The pastor, an old school Fundamentalist, preached every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. In fact, on Sunday nights he actually preached two messages. One was essentially a verse by verse commentary on some book of the Bible. The other sermon was an expository message that always concluded with an invitation to trust in Jesus. The choir sang “Just as I Am” as the congregation waited, with heads bowed and eyes closed, for convicted sinners to approach the altar. I often peeked.

During Prove Me Month, the pastor quoted Malachi 3:10 (from the King James Version, of course): “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” God will be no man’s debtor, we were told, and if we dared, we could test God on this point. “You shovel it in, God shovels it back, and God has the bigger shovel!” the pastor promised.

Despite the language he used, I never took this to mean that I could manipulate God with my money. It sounded more like a matter of priorities. If I made God’s interests mine, I could trust Him to look after the things that were important to me. This was no guarantee of riches but an assurance of divine care. In those days I was still living at home and working for just a little more than minimum wage. I drove a car with dents in the door and holes in the floor and had no idea what direction my career was supposed to take. The thought of living on my own, being married, and owning a home, all seemed impossible to me. I used to worry about it a lot.

As a remedy, I would often turn to Matthew 6:31-33: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Perhaps it was the pastor’s preaching that pointed me to this verse. Maybe I found it on my own. I can’t honestly recall. But the promise was clear to me. The message was not, “Give to God and you will get whatever you want.” It was, “Your Father in heaven knows what you need.”

The church has gilded this promise so much down through the centuries that it now feels like a Hallmark sentiment to most of us. Yet as pastor and theologian Helmut Thielicke has pointed out, it was made by someone whose life was far from gilded. “Were not the somber shadows of the Cross already looming over this hour of the Sermon on the Mount?” Thielicke observes. “Was not Jesus already seeing the ‘tomorrow’ of his own life, the tomorrow which he bids us not to worry about, filling up with dark clouds from which very soon lightning will flash upon him?” In a very short time, Jesus would come to a tomorrow that would make Him tremble with fear and cause Him to beg His heavenly Father to let that cup pass from Him if it was at all possible. It wasn’t.

The kind of carefreeness that Jesus promises is not freedom from concern. It is not “financial freedom,” whatever that is. It is certainly not a blank check which guarantees that God will fulfill all the items on my wish list. It is the freedom of faith, a childlike trust that God has got my back. He has my front too, according to Psalm 139:5: “You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.” Such a promise is, as the Psalmist rightly observes, too wonderful to grasp.

After sixty-five years, one wife, two children, three houses, two dogs, and several careers, I find that I still worry about the future. Will something bad happen to me or to the people I care about the most? How long before my body finally betrays me and my health breaks beyond repair? When I retire, will I feel like I don’t have any value anymore? Sometimes questions like this keep me awake. On those long nights, when I cannot seem to find rest, I take refuge in one of the first promises I learned as a young believer. I am not an orphan. My Father in heaven knows what I need. Jesus is the proof that this is true. When He passed through the darkest night that anyone has ever known, He found God on the other side. You will too.

The Myth That Became Reality

nativity

Once upon a time there was a young girl who lived in a small village. She was poor but virtuous. One day, shortly before her marriage was to take place, she was startled by an unexpected visitor. “Do not be afraid,” the visitor said. “I have good news for you. You are going to have a child. He will be a great king.”

Sound familiar? This could be the beginning of any number of stories. But it is the beginning of one particular story. None of the Gospels opens by saying, “Once upon a time….” Yet when we read them, we get the feeling that they might have. The mysteries and wonders they describe are the sort one reads about in fairy tales. A peasant girl gives birth to a miraculous child. A star appears in the heavens and announces his birth. Magi travel from a distant land to pay homage to him. The hero descends to the realm of the dead and returns.

This is the stuff of myth and fantasy, except the Bible does not call it by either of those names. The Bible does not even call it a story. Not really. According to the Scriptures it is truth. It is “good news.” The Gospels do not spin tales, they bear witness. Yet the Gospels’ embodied and historical nature does not negate the mythical quality of the real events they describe.

In an essay entitled “Myth Became Fact,” C. S. Lewis described myth as “the isthmus which connects the peninsular world of thought with the vast continent we really belong to.” Myth in this sense not a fanciful story although, as Lewis observed in An Experiment in Criticism, myth always deals with the fantastic. It is an account which connects our experience with a realm of truth that would otherwise be out of our reach.

But the historical events the Gospel’s describe go beyond myth. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” Lewis explains. “The Old Myth of the dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.” In the fantastic but true account of Christ’s birth we meet the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Although He is “not far from each one of us,” without the Gospel record of these events He would be forever beyond our reach. No wonder the ancient church sang:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Thanks be to God.

Offering the Hope of the Gospel in the House of Death

I was once asked to perform the funeral for a neighbor’s son who had committed suicide. He was a hard living man who plied the waters of the Illinois River working on a barge. During his life he expressed little interest God.

God alone knows the heart, but by all outward appearances, this lack of interest did not change on the day he took his life. Like so many others in this sin torn world, he lived without God and died without him.

I felt nervous when his parents asked me to officiate at the funeral. They were not church going people. They did not want church music. Instead, they asked the funeral home to play “Proud Mary,” the song made famous by Creedence Clearwater Revival. I breathed a sigh of relief when the funeral director politely informed the family that he didn’t have a copy of that particular song on hand. But I worried that they might ask me to recite the lyrics like poetry.  I imagined myself standing before the coffin chanting:

Big wheel keep on turnin’,
Proud Mary keep on burnin’,
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river.

 Instead, I preached a sermon about the foolish man who built his house on the sand: “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matt. 7:27).

How do you offer comfort to people who have no reason to hope for it? What can you say to those whose loved ones have ordered their lives in such a way that they have left little room for God? I thought about the advice we had been given in seminary for dealing with situations like this. Back then an old school preacher with a booming voice and a soft heart who taught courses in preaching and pastoral care had urged:  “Gentlemen, don’t say anything about the destiny of their loved ones. Leave that to God. Just preach the hope of the gospel and make the condition of faith plain.”

 I confess that at the time I wondered if this approach was a little soft. “After all,” I reasoned, “if these people have rejected Christ, why not come right out and say it? The shock might do the mourners some good.” That was when I was young and brash. It was only after pastoral ministry took me to the bedsides, emergency rooms, and funeral visitations of my congregation that I really learned to look into the hollow eyes of grief.

So when the time came to do the funeral, I followed my old professor’s advice. I chose to trade in hope not despair. I preached the hope of gospel, making the need for faith in Christ clear, and left judgment of the deceased in the hands of God. I’m glad I did. He can handle the responsibility better than I can.

How ‘Christ Centered’ Should Our Preaching Be?

One of disparities between apostolic preaching and our own is the degree to which we have marginalized the gospel. We have not abandoned the gospel, only relegated it to the outskirts of our Christian experience. As a result, the message of the cross is primarily reserved for those who are on the threshold of faith. The gospel has become one of the “elementary truths” believers expect to “leave” when they are ready to “go on to maturity” (Heb. 6:1).

This is a conviction shared by our listeners, whose hearts often sink if they suspect that the sermon is “just a gospel message.” The gospel is something they have already heard. They believe and appreciate it. But now they want to learn about the God who gave the gospel. They do not want to be like those about whom the writer of Hebrews complains, who should have been teachers but needed someone to teach them the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.  

These assumptions, while understandable, are problematic. It is true that there is more to God’s word than the gospel both theologically and practically. The horizon of subjects upon which the Bible touches is as wide the scope of human experience. Its concerns span all the theological categories from theology proper to eschatology. But if our goal in preaching is for people to know God, it must be asked whether this is possible in any meaningful way apart from the gospel.

 Preaching, since it has to do with God, is dependent upon divine self-revelation. We could not know anything about God if he had not taken the initiative to reveal himself. It is, of course, possible to know things about God apart from Christ. The heavens declare the glory of God. Our consciences reveal his eternal power and divine nature.  But it is not possible to know God relationally except through Christ. The God who in the past spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, has in these last days spoken to us through his son (Heb. 1:1-2). Jesus is God’s final and best word about himself. This side of the incarnation, all that we know about God must be seen and understood through the lens which Christ provides.

Ministry Monday: What Happened to Bob?

Something happened to Bob during the sermon yesterday. He got saved. I’d like to take the credit, but I am afraid that I had very little to do with the whole affair. As he explained the experience to me after the service, it seemed to me that what he heard had little correlation with what I actually said.

 I do not blame Bob for this. He was doing his best to pay attention. But a third party distracted him. At some point the Holy Spirit drew Bob aside and resumed a conversation that the two of them had begun earlier. When it was over, Bob was in tears. He prayed with one of the church’s elders after the service and committed his life to Christ.

 It would be nice to think that the incisiveness of my reasoning, the power of my delivery or the clarity of my outline pushed Bob over the line. But the more he thanked me for the message, the more I felt like an awkward bystander who has stumbled upon someone else’s intimate conversation.

 I am not saying that my words played no role at all. I was, after all, preaching about Christ. I think the outcome would have been entirely different if I had been reading recipes from a cookbook. But I have been preaching long enough to know that the power does not lie in my rhetoric or my structure, as important as those things are to my preaching. This is not the first time that the Holy Spirit has stolen my thunder.

 In his book Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd Jones speaks of the “romance” of preaching. One dimension of this, according to Lloyd Jones, is the element of surprise: “…you never know who is going to be listening to you, and you never know what is going to happen to those who are listening to you.” I would add that you never really know how it will happen. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going” Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:8, “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Thanks be to God.