Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Why is preaching so bad?

Why is preaching so awfully bad? A decade at seminary, and longer than that in pews and (sometimes) in a pulpit, coupled with a stint or two in choosing pastors and locating pulpit supply all add up to this one odd question: why is preaching so awfully bad?

It isn't that the training is not available; it most certainly is! There are as many preaching manuals as preachers, and many of these offer fine advice. Further, the Doctor of Ministry (DMin) degree has exploded over the last 15 years into a major cash cow for every religious institution that can scratch up a program. When this net is widened out to encompass training as basic as college speech classes and high school debate teams, the question assumes even more poignancy: why is preaching so awfully bad?

Some of the blame rests squarely before the drooping eyes of parishioners. If that adage is true that expectations govern results, then certainly our expectations are low. We listen to a sermon like we read Reader's Digest's Quotable Quotes on the john, and many times are more impressed with the latter. But, from a preaching perspective, audiences complain when they are shaken. Mention a theologian or brush up on a technical term and expect you have lost most of your audience. It is a sign that the assumption of what a sermon is for - indeed, what Christian worship is for - has gone wide the mark of its Creator's intention.

Nevertheless, preachers themselves heap on most of the load. Rudderless, aimless, uninteresting, poorly read, disinterested and bored with their own words. They have barely tried to wrestle with the text before them. Most don't even realize that there is a problem. They aim at bagging a lion by wandering around telling a few jokes upon the face of whatever continent their space craft has managed to land upon. Easy enough for they and their hearers to become food for the lion.

How many times have I stirred in excitement when the speaker of the moment has actually cited a text! How many times have my eager fingers turned quickly to said passage, waiting to be swept into an examination that removes the distance and brings me face to face with the argument of the creator Holy Spirit! How many times has this happened, only to discover that the citation was merely a bullet point, a Quotable Quote dangling at the head of some feeble, pop-psychology like a whore vulgarly trapsing around the pulpit, dragging the bloodstained garment of Christ behind her, and stepping and tripping on it as she goes.

Now here are two responses that one might receive upon such a complaint. (1) You can't expect everyone to have gone to seminary. I don't, but I do expect mature Christians to know the pittance it takes to determine the marriage-words of Christ from the pillowtalk of the whore. This excuse is a lie, and those who use it should examine themselves. (2) Perhaps this is a sign that you yourself are called to preach. Churches are forever doing this. The minute some soul shows an ounce of common sense--religious or otherwise--they try and foist them into a position of leadership. The assumption here is that laypeople just don't ask questions. Despite the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy that the Holy Spirit would be poured out upon everyone so that all are priests (who read and interpret Scripture, intercede for the elect and encourage the progress of godliness and the obeyance of the law of Christ), the assumption is that only preachers and those in leadership can be informed in the tiniest way about the things of God. What is this but the Hebrew cry for a king and the ecclesial cry for an elected, priestly class? Is this why Luther, hiding under threat of death within the walls of the Wartburg, translated the Bible into colloquial German? Is this why Tyndale was hunted like criminal every day and night of his life even as he translated the Scriptures? Is this why Huss was betrayed and burned alive, tied 20' up the pole? Is this why Anglican Separatists and Puritans, fleeing persecution, died from disease and starvation on the shores of Massachusetts? Further, the minute one gives into this system and becomes an officer in the church, paid or unpaid, then the amount of influence possessed diminishes accordingly. Make us a king (so we can rebel and ignore him). Give us priests (so they can go off and do their priestly thing and leave us alone.)

So here is what I want. I want (1) the text read and explained; (2) the obvious questions dispensed with quickly; (3) the real issues brought to the foreground, whether these are problems of language, interpretation or culture; (4) those issues sent to war against the philosophies and idolatries which the Scriptures call "The Spirit of the Age" so that I am forced to realize my faults and accept and praise God for his remedy for them. Maybe this seems like a good deal. I don't think it is. Even something approaching it would significantly lighten the tepid abuse which is normally suffered upon both the text and the hearers. Why is preaching so awfully bad? I do not know. It would be so easy for it not to be, but it is.

; .