Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Classic way of being church -- preaching

Series Index to The Classic way of being church:
An Apologia

A quick reminder, this series is about why at this time and place I find a fit in the more traditional way of doing church. This is not a statement of whether classical church is superior to house church or multi-site church or any other mode of doing church. Think of it simply as my testimony.

I enjoy the classical church's mode of proclamation: preaching. Of course this puts me in an awkward place, for I am a preacher. The cynic may see this as rank self promotion of my profession, while others may say "but of course -- you should love what you do." Permit me to explain.

I find my heart and mind stimulated by an extended reflection upon and interaction with the Biblical text. There's an art form to being able to speak well for 30 minutes or so -- it is the art that some would call rhetoric (though that term does have negative connotation). The capacity to organize thoughts, to have a reasonable flow of logic, to balance illustration and explanation and application, and to muster up the physical energy to connect with the people assembled before you expecting Lord only knows what -- that is a art form just as much as music, drama, and dance.

Like any art, such preaching can be done well and done poorly. When done well, it isn't simply a monodirectional eruption of data aimed at the heads of those sitting there. When done well, it is borne out of hours of conversation -- the preaching speaking with, listening to, and reflecting upon the hopes and dreams and fears and triumphs of those all about him. When done well, it is birthed from a lifetime of extending that conversation to the saints of the past -- listening to their voices found in the books and creeds and sermons of old. When done skillfully, it is embellished and filtered through conversation with the culture at large -- using the arts, news stories, and movements of the day not as ends in of themselves but as signposts to point us back to the eternal never-changing Triune God. When done faithfully, it is rooted and grounded in disciplined conversation with the Living and Loving God through the prayer and spiritual exercises of the preacher humbly seeking the Holy Spirit's empowerment.

I was blessed to sit under the preaching of two of the great preachers of our time: Bill Bouknight and Howard Edington. I observed that they were able to forge in their sermons a blend of story, historical understanding, knowledge of the human heart, and faithfulness to the intent of scripture. That's a pretty darn big undertaking for a week-in-week out responsibility. Their sermons were stimulating -- stimulating conversation and reflection and action within the congregation. It was the privilege of seeing a unique kind of folk-art on display and letting that folk art not be distanced as in a museum, but a part of the cadences of our lives.

Are there abuses and misapplications? Sure. There are plenty of burned out preachers who go through the motions. Plenty of demagogues erecting a cult of personality. Plenty of churchgoers who just dont appreciate the unique folk art of preaching (after all -- where else in our week can we regularly hear a well crafted piece of oratory anywhere?). There's plenty of misuse of preaching. That's part of what it means to live in a fallen world.

A quick caveat -- I'm not here speaking about the theological reasons for preaching. The Holy Spirit will move to work on people's hearts wherever the word is proclaimed, whether in a classic church, house church, small group study, etc. The theology of preaching is a very different matter. I'm again speaking from my heart about how God has touched me. He has used great preaching to stimulate my mind, give me an appreciation of a world much larger than my parochial interests, challenge my assumptions about myself, recognize the grandeur of Jesus Christ and also the humanity of Jesus Christ.

I long for my sermons to be faithful and inspiring and used by the Holy Spirit. I long for my sermons to present the truth about Jesus Christ and His compelling call upon our lives. I long for my sermons not to fall flat on the floor and lay there as people shuffle out to drink coffee at fellowship hour. One of the highest compliments I've ever been paid was by one of our congregation members who told me "Russell, I don't always agree with what you say, but you always make me think." I may not be the oratory artist of Bouknight or Edington, but I cannot deny that their heart for preaching has shaped my love for the art form. And I pray that I'm similarly used.

Soli Deo Gloria