The owner of a manufacturing company had a policy recognizing employees on their first anniversary. He would walk into the plant, give a short speech to the first year employee, and then present a gift, the company’s logo on a sterling-silver tie tack. He presented the gift in a velvet box with much fanfare. One day, he was making such a presentation to one of his employees who had completed his first year. The young man opened the box, took out his beautiful silver tie tack, and said to his boss: “Righteous!” Then he calmly inserted it into his earlobe.
What a graphic picture of our day! Things are changing all around us.
Leadership guru Tom Peters has said “forget the word change.” The word for today is revolution.[M,P,6,3]
A high tech product hits the US marketplace every 17 seconds [C,S,33,88].
A single week-day edition of the New York Times contains more information than a 17th century person encountered in a lifetime [C,W,15,14]
There is a new Web page every two seconds.
World knowledge now doubles every eighteen months.
A graphic picture of this change was captured in a little ditty I read last week:
I bought the latest computer;
It came completely loaded.
It was guaranteed for ninety days,
But in thirty was outmoded!” [M,S,13,16]
Dee Hock, in his book Birth of the Chaordic Age, puts it this way: “Whether we recognize it or not, whether we will it or not, whether we welcome it or not, whether it is constructive or not, we are caught up together, all of us and the earth as well, in the most sudden, the most profound, the most diverse and complex change in the history of civilization. Perhaps in the history of the earth itself.” [M,H,7,239]
One reflection of this dramatically changing world is the way in which people process truth, a new way of thinking captured in the term POSTMODERNISM.
So what is POSTMODERNISM?
Ronald J. Allen is probably right when he says that Post-modernism is less a tight philosophical construct and more an ethos [P,A,12,47]. Yet, to give some basic structure to the term, let me suggest that Postmodernism is characterized by at least these three basic conclusions:
Truth is subjective and therefore the Postmodern listener rejects any claim of objective truth.
Power is corrupt and therefore the Postmodern listener rejects authorities that try to manipulate and control.
Truth is local and therefore the Postmodern listener rejects any metanarrative that explains the overall purpose of history.
It is in this cultural context that our sermons today are delivered. And the changing culture around us calls for some changes in the way we preach. Let me offer these suggestions as a starting point.
Suggestion Number 1: We need to reflect more humility in our approach to preaching. Instead of demanding ascent to the authority of the Bible as a requirement to have conversation, we need to encourage our listeners to examine God’s Word with an open mind and allow them to experience first hand the beauty and wisdom of God’s Word, remembering the invitation of the Psalmist to: “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).
This does not reflect less confidence in the Bible on our part but instead it indicates more confidence in God’s Word, the kind of confidence articulated by the prophet Isaiah who said about God’s Word:
“It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11).
Suggestion Number 2: Instead of simply presenting to the Postmodern listener the conclusions of our faith, we need to allow them to see the process by which we arrived at these conclusions.
Ronald J. Allen summarizes the new context like this: “Premodern preachers could simply invoke Christian tradition as basis for their construals. The modern preacher could invoke the authority of science or rational deduction. The preacher in a postmodern setting must help the congregation explore why a Christian interpretation of life is trustworthy.” [P,A,12,48]
This calls for a more inductive approach in our preaching that will enable us to lead the listener from
Twice in Acts 18, Luke tells us that Paul “reasoned” with his audience – in Corinth (18:4) and then again in Ephesus (18:19). This Greek word we get our word “dialogue” from. It means to ponder over something and then dispute it with others. Such an approach is called for today in our Post-modern world.
Suggestion Number 3: We need to limit the number of ideas we introduce into each message. Our tendency is to deal in a shallow way with a number of ideas –
twelve steps to spiritual victory or
ten truths about the cross or
seven reasons why we believe Jesus rose from the grave
– all clearly illustrated and conclusively affirmed in a twenty-two minute sermon.
When we deal with so many ideas, we don’t have time to elaborate on any of these ideas in detail. And consequently we produce more confusion than clarity.
Instead of preaching sermons that are a hundred miles wide and one inch deep, we need to reduce the number of ideas we introduce into the sermon and then spend more time unpacking each of these ideas.
Suggestion Number 4: We must demonstrate in our lives that we believe what we preach.
A pastor of a church adjacent to the college campus encouraged evangelism by identifying the one who had been instrumental in leading the person to Christ. One Sunday morning, a college student moved to the front during the invitation time and announced to the pastor his decision to become a Christ-follower. The pastor asked who had influenced him most to make this decision, and the young student told the pastor, “You did.” The pastor was surprised because he did not recognize the student and had not spent any personal time with him. So he asked for an explanation. And the college student explained: “I came each Sunday to hear you preach, and I watched your life during the week, and the two added up.”
Living authentic Christian lives in the world during the week will validate what we say in the pulpit on Sunday morning.
Peter expressed the same idea in his epistle in the context of the first century: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet 2:11).
We have two choices as preachers in the 21st century world. We can stick our heads in the sand and deny the changes around us, and keep on doing what we have always done in the way we have always done it. Or, we can flesh out in our pulpit ministry the pattern followed by the Apostle Paul who once said,
“I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Co 9:22-23).
But is simply adjusting our preaching style enough?
Some church leaders today think not. Simply adjusting our preaching to the cultural context by implementing strategies like the ones I have suggested is to them a band-aid fix for a problem that can be corrected only by radical surgery. To do kingdom work in a time of change, they say, demands a completely different approach to communicating the gospel.
For example, in his book Preaching Re-Imagined, Doug Pagitt concludes that preaching, as we have known it in the church the last several centuries, simply does not work in our Postmodern world. Coining the term “speaching” to describe traditional preaching, he recommends instead what he calls “progressional dialogue” – a preacher-led dialogue instead of a traditional sermon.
Some of what Pagitt affirms is accurate in light of today’s changing world. But many of his assumptions about traditional preaching trouble me.
Pagitt assumes, for example, that in traditional preaching “the context of others is . . . inconsequential” [p. 29]. That assumption doesn’t fit any preacher I know who takes his task seriously. Most of us preaching pastors today recognize that the context of others is not inconsequential in our preaching but is instead an essential part of our preparation and delivery.
Half a century ago, Harry Emerson Fosdick testified, “I found my sermons become more and more cooperative enterprises between the preacher and the congregation” (B,F,10,96). Effective preachers today still believe that.
Pagitt further assumes that the traditional preacher is “disconnected from her hearers.” [p. 32] That certainly should not be the case. Most of us who preach in local churches find our lives integrally intertwined with the people to whom we preach every Sunday. After living with my congregation now for nearly sixteen years, I don’t think anyone could say that I am disconnected from my hearers.
In addition, Pagitt assumes that the traditional preacher offers the congregation comfort in place of life-changing spiritual formation and concludes that life-changing spiritual formation can only come through “progressional dialogue” [p. 50] This assumption attributes too little to traditional preachers and too much to those who lead in progressional dialogues.
Pagitt also refers to speaching as “an act of relational violence” and concludes that traditional preaching – speaching to use his term – is “detrimental to the very communities we are seeking to nurture.” [p. 26] I’m not even sure how to respond to such a pejorative accusation.
All of these assumptions I have noted grow out of Pagitt’s basic assumption – which he never proves but simply states – that traditional preaching doesn’t work in today’s world.
I’ve been around long enough to observe these criticisms of preaching through the lens of historical perspective. Simply put, I’ve heard most of these criticisms before.
For example, here are some quotes from another negative critique of “traditional preaching.”
The author says: “In our age . . .preaching appears to many eyes to have shrunk to a futility.” (p. 3)
About the preacher, this critic concludes: “Some curse him; a few laugh; most are unaware of his existence.” (p. 4)
And then the critic cites these reasons for the demise of preaching:
Preaching is autocratic, a style no longer accepted.
The preacher is isolated from life and therefore cannot possibly know what the members of the congregation are thinking.
Other methods of communication – the press, radio, movies, etc – are more effective.
The pulpit has lost its authority because the minister is no longer the best-informed man in his community, and the appeal to fear has lost its force.
The preacher’s authority has been undermined because the Bible is no longer the final court of appeal.
This is a telling argument against preaching today – one that parallels Doug Pagitt’s criticisms – except that this critique of preaching I have just summarized was described – and answered with aplomb – in a book published in 1931. [From George A. Buttrick, Jesus Came Preaching. Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1931]
Sermons have never been all they could be.
And preaching has always had its critics.
This is no new phenomenon in our day.
But by simply tearing down a straw man we construct of preaching at its worst, we cannot assume to have successfully eliminated the appropriateness in our Post-modern world of preaching at its best.
For the Postmodern world, the Biblical mandate remains in effect:
“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Rom 10:14).
We do not need to discard preaching. We just need to make sure our preaching connects with the cultural context in which we live.
So how can we do that?
The answer, which can be simply stated, is far from simple. It is the complex and challenging call to live in the world we inhabit. The answer is INCARNATION.
Do you remember Jesus’ challenge to the disciples in the Upper Room on the night before he died, a challenge recorded in John’s Gospel?
“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you" (Jn 20:21).
That is more that just a strategy for evangelism. It is also the pattern for preaching pastors in this 21st century Postmodern world.
The process by which Jesus left heaven and became involved in the world is captured in the word INCARNATION.
And that is the pattern for us as we relate to the cultural context for preaching – to live in the world we inhabit.
Now this is a dangerous undertaking for it is difficult to live in the world and not allow the world to live in us. As Richard John Neuhaus once warned, “linkages [with the world] have an insidious habit of turning into sponges” that absorb the necessary distinctions between the life style of the Christ-follower and the non-believer. [P,N,3,146]
And yet, there is no other way to be able to speak to the world than to be connected with the world. Incarnation.
Early in The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo says he wishes the master ring had not been found in his lifetime.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Some of us today might wish for the old days, but they are gone forever.
God has placed us here today.
This is our time.
It’s up to us now to decide what we will do with the time God has given us. The best advice I can offer is the advice Paul gave to the Ephesian Christians:
“Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity” (Eph 5:15-16).