By David Fitch on Feb 20, 2014
There's a difference between safe, enjoyable preaching and challenging the listener. How do you divide the two?
A couple years ago now we had a large group over to our house for the Super Bowl. I ended up sitting with a lot of people in a room where there was no TV. I think we talked all night. I didn’t see one play of the football game (the Hamilton Tiger Cats weren’t playing). I end up sitting with this guy named George (name changed to protect the innocent), and we started talking about preaching.
He says to me the following on the difference between preaching at Life on the Vine and other churches he’s been to.
“When I’ve been at other churches, I walk away saying 'That is something I need to work on for my Christian life.' At the Vine, I am confronted with a reality that I see I am not quite there yet and I’m invited to enter. I feel the tension. I can’t go there yet. I’m not ready. Yet I have to respond.”
Then he said, “And when we have the communal response … it is so painful … because I know if I pray it out loud, if I respond and put it out there in words … things have forever changed.”
All this was unprovoked and fascinating for me to listen to. It illustrates for me the difference between teaching and preaching. Teaching is informational. We are digging into the backgrounds of texts, the meanings of words, explaining what the text means in terms of its original context. It is heavy with information.
Preaching is proclamation. It declares the truth of God in Christ. It proclaims the reality of Jesus as Lord over us as we submit and what that means for our lives right here and right now. And then we are invited into that reality. It is the Kingdom breaking in by the work of the Spirit. And we, if we hear God speaking to us, we have to respond to Him.
At the Vine, there is always a time after our preaching when we respond, most often in prayers of the people when we are given a liturgical prayer for which to fill in the blank. Being in the midst of those prayers is an oasis of the Spirit. It always reminds me of the words of Paul: "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
The “being saved” that is happening here in this meeting room after we have just heard the Word proclaimed is the whole entering into the reality (gospel) that God is working in the world. This is why preaching can be God’s instrument to transform the world.
There is always the awkward moment when I meet people after the Sunday gathering just after I have preached. People don’t really know what to say. But I confess, one of the things that makes me cringe is when someone says, “I really enjoyed your sermon.” Ouch. I know what they mean. I should be more gracious. And they are being incredibly encouraging. Yet, when they say this, it reminds me too much of Zizek’s dictum (I’ve read too much Zizek, I know) that saying “I enjoy my religion” implies I mustn’t take it too seriously.
Instead we are “enjoying” it, keeping it at a distance, so as to not let it endanger our lives. This distance is subtle. It was what George was describing so skillfully above. I think classical expository preaching that focuses on information borderlines on providing this distance. I think that’s ironic, because I think it was originally devised to keep the preaching as close to the Word of God as possible. I wrote a whole chapter on this dynamic in The Great Giveaway many years ago. In the process it informationalized preaching. Gave us an excuse to say, “Hmmm, that is something I have to work on in my Christian life.” And so we never get to it.
For all these reasons, I much prefer telling the preacher after the gathering: “Thank you, God really used you to destroy my world” (versus “I really enjoyed your sermon”). If someone would say that to me, I would also have to confess that I have been destroyed as well and need to trust in Jesus as Lord to do His work in us. I confess I have had my world destroyed more than a few times at Life on the Vine gatherings, by the sermon in worship. And it’s been good.
What do you think about all this? What would you prefer to say to the preacher (or have had said to you after you’ve preached)? Is there something to be learned from George about the way we preach?