"But Will it Preach?" -- A Response to Jay Akkerman's article in Grace and Peace

The editor of Grace and Peace asked me to write a response to Jay Akkerman's article on preaching in the August-October, 2010 issue.

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I really appreciated this article and it pushed me to think theologically, homiletically, and practically about the preaching event. I agree with Doug that the way we Americans preach has a lot more to do with being American than being biblical. I think our model of the Senior Pastor/ Preaching Pastor comes more from an American view of “superman” leadership than it does from any biblical model of ecclesiology. As a result, most American pastors do not like to give up control of “their pulpit.” Consequently, research has demonstrated that the profession of pastor has a tendency (along with medical doctors and lawyers) to attract a disproportionate number of narcissists.

Additionally, I resonated theologically with giving people a voice and not dismissively writing people off. I think that one of the biggest sicknesses of our day in the way in which we Americans talk to each other. Often dialogue devolves to not trying to convince each other with truth but to win. Most of us have learned this behavior not from the way of Jesus but by watching cable news.

Often, we Americans don’t look at people that disagree with us politically or religiously as human beings who have some goodness to them, some positive nuances, or some valid point of view that makes them believe something different than ourselves. Instead, we often caricature them as stupid, wrong, and what is wrong with the world. This kind of bad “dialogue” used to permeate our collective conversations before political elections but now it seems omnipresent.

It truly would be salt and light to our American culture if the church could be a sanctuary from the emotional immaturity of cable news and could be a model of how to be generous to people that we disagree with. The church could be a voice of sanity if we could be emotionally
humble enough to move past viewing people as caricatures. In this regard, I loved Doug’s approach. The idea of reading the Bible as a community and allowing our dialogue to shape our journey together has the potential of being formative. Additionally, I resonated with how Doug tied this approach to the elevation of the priesthood of all believers.

THE USE OF POWER AND THE GIFTS OF THE BODY

In spite of the great potential in Doug’s approach, I’m not sure if the priesthood of believers is the best way to frame the conversation about teaching/preaching. I think the conversation is better framed in terms of Paul’s image of the church as the Body of Christ. It seems pretty self-evident from a cursory reading of Paul that those with particular gifts should use them to serve and build up the body of Christ. Some people are better at teaching than others. They are gifted by God, trained for it, and more experienced at it.

If one considers a different avenue of serving the church, it might seem a little more obvious: What if when it came to the music ministry in our churches we said, “It doesn’t matter who is the most gifted or trained or experienced musician in our church, everyone should have a musical voice.”? Most of us would agree that the best people to lead the music in worship in our churches are the most gifted among us. (After hearing me sing, my church is very grateful that we do not take this egalitarian view of musical leadership!)

I both understand and appreciate that Doug is trying to avoid power dynamics that can be dangerous and dysfunctional and give voice to people who may otherwise be marginalized in our churches. Yet, ecclesiologically speaking, leadership in the church is not about power but about serving the church through our various gifts in our own unique ways. I have often told the many music pastors that I have had over the years that their job is to be a servant of the church first and

an artist second. Preaching is very much the same – we are servants to the church first and teachers second. Getting this ecclesiology correct would go a long way in correcting the power dynamics that Doug is trying to avoid.

I’ve known Doug for a dozen years or so and while I understand the power dynamics he is trying to avoid, Doug is 6’5” tall, imposing, handsome, very intelligent, and highly educated. When he speaks, people listen. (I know I do.) He may not have a formal position in his church’s dynamics, but he may be a bit naïve about how much informal influence he has and how that influence overshadows other people.

A WESLEYAN VS. REFORMED WORLDVIEW

In the article, Doug observes, “The point that I want to make there is that when we read these stories we ought to say, to borrow a phrase, ‘How then shall we live if this is the case?’ as opposed to saying, ‘How can I use that story somehow to fit my circumstance?’” I like where Doug is going with this. It is easy to project God in our own image to fit what we want him to be. But this quandary is not necessarily solved by more community dialogue. I think the problem of biblical application is solved by learning to ask better questions of the text. And people who are trained and gifted in teaching should be better at asking good questions of the text.

I certainly understand where Doug is going with this line of thought. Human nature is that we naturally ask, “What is in it for me?” Perhaps this is where Doug and I’s theological underpinnings begin to show. As a Wesleyan, I am confident in the Holy Spirit and God’s prevenient grace in the preaching event to point to places in my life (and the lives of the other
listeners) that I might not have thought of. I know Doug comes form a more Reformed tradition and may not have as optimistic a view of grace as I do.

I can imagine Doug pushing back by arguing that the Holy Spirit is active in the community. To which I would say, yes – which is why the community is the one who affirms the gifts and graces of the preacher/teacher who, in the words of Thomas Long, comes from and speaks on behalf of the community.

Additionally, in the article Doug uses a bit of a straw man argument to indicate that all preaching tends to be passive. I agree that there is a lot of bad preaching out there (especially deductive preaching) that leads to passivity. However, newer trends in homiletics tends to assume a dialogue between the preacher and the congregation and an inductive journey with an open ended response that is written (hopefully) by the Holy Spirit in to the hearts of the listeners. Again, my optimistic view of God’s grace allows me to be more optimistic about the preaching event than maybe Doug is.

LIVING THE STORY

I liked the image that Doug used about what the preaching looks like when he said, “I think that’s what the Bible ought to do: thrust us into a story, not have us pull out some principle from it.” I couldn’t agree more -- when we “pull principles” from the scripture, preaching tends to be moralistic – “pray more” “love more” “give more”, etc. Some of the worst preaching I have heard falls in to this category. I love this image because it means that I am being called to sanctification, not for just my own sake, but because I am part of a much bigger story.
Yet, again, I’m not convinced that this problem is necessarily solved by more community dialogue but by better approaches to the scriptures. As my colleague George Lyons is fond of
saying, “Many people use scripture the same way bad boys use girls.” It is not just preachers who have a tendency to misuse the scriptures for their own agendas.

A PRACTICAL RESPONSE

From a completely pragmatic perspective, Doug’s approach to preaching is very slow. And time is something that we ministers do not have a lot of. In my own ministry, we have used a hybrid of Doug’s model – a “creative team” that helps flesh out the message and provide some ideas to make it stick better with the congregation. And I think the Holy Spirit works through this group in amazing ways at times.

My own bias is that too much of any one kind of preaching can be wearisome for a congregation over the course of time. What I took from this article is that a dialogical approach may be another approach to add to my annual preaching calendar along with exegetical sermons, inductive sermons, and topical sermons.

Dana Hicks