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Friday, September 30, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: Preaching or Peddling?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Mike Leake has a few words to say here about stewardship of the word of God. Leake says that preachers and teachers tend to approach their responsibilities one of two ways. In Scenario 1, like the servant in the parable of the talents. In Scenario 2, like Paul instructed Timothy, guarding “the good deposit”.

Tom: One approach attempts to improve on what has been given while the other simply attempts to retain what has been given.

What do you think of his analysis, and how do you approach the word of God when you’re responsible to share it with others, IC?

The Parable of the Stewards

Immanuel Can: Hmm … well, my first question would be, “What reason have we to think that the Parable of the Stewards is intended by the Lord to be applicable to the habits of modern preachers?”

Tom: A reasonable question.

IC: Now, to be fair, maybe he’s not saying it is, but just that it could be used as a parallel for what many mistaken preachers think. But I’m not sure they take that parable as he says they do; and if he’s not saying they do, but rather is using it as a loose analogy for his own point, he has another question to answer: “What makes it okay for him to make the jump to that application?”

Tom: Fair point. I think it’s the latter option myself: he’s using the parable as a loose analogy for his own point.

I suppose we could argue that the parable is about service. The Master is looking for a better return on his investment than he’d get from a bank, so he gives three servants the opportunity to be creative about taking what belongs to him and getting him a return from it. The sort of service is not specified. I think it’s probably fair to look at the responsibility of teaching from the word of God as a stewardship in much the same way.

But of course if we’re going to do that, we’d best make sure we apply it correctly.

Guard the Good Deposit

IC: I suppose one could argue as well with his use of the instruction to Timothy. We could question how wide to make its application to modern situations. But I won’t, in this case. What we do know is that the Timothy passage is post-Pentecost: a church existed to which it could potentially apply more broadly. Not so the Parable of the Stewards. It was pre-Pentecost, when no Church existed, so any direct application to the Church has to be questioned. Indirect applications may be possible, though: we could say that the Lord requires ALL his stewards, for all time, to “add value”.

Tom: I think that’s fair.

IC: But once we do that, we now have to ask what “add value” would mean. Does it have to mean, as Mike takes it, that we would have to think we need to “add value” to the word of God itself? That seems not only presumptuous, but quite impossible as well. But I would say that it encourages us to “add value” not by adding to the word, but by discharging our own stewardship of that word in such a way as to create new opportunities, and so-to-speak “adorning” the doctrine by good conduct and an appropriate manner of speech so as to optimize our usefulness, our working together with God.

“Adding Value” to the Message

Tom: Now I will say that whether or not we bring the parable into it, I think Mike has hit on a genuine area of concern: the tendency to bring our own cleverness to bear on a passage. That can happen for various reasons: trying to make something that is unpalatable more palatable to an audience; trying to deliver a message with personality and style; trying to impose a structure on a passage that is not actually there (and so missing much of the point).

I’ve sat through messages like that, and I may have prepared a few too.

IC: Yes, absolutely. All of the above are problems, and are reasons why people make the mistake he points out. I’m just not at all sold on the interpretation of scripture he employs to get there; but once he arrives, I agree. We must not try to “add value” to the message itself by those sorts of strategies. The chief value we “add” must be our own obedience and industry, under the humbling guidance of the Spirit. Faithful and simple is better than flashy and full of errors and misdirection. I’ll give him that.

Tom: Maybe trying to add a little too much value ...

Adequate Stewardship of the Word

IC: If I flip this around, though, taking for a moment the view of people of whom Mike writes, is there not some value in a preacher trying to choose his words carefully in advance, thinking of the best and most effective means by which to share his insights of the word of God, realizing he’s talking to people who have not studied the same passage so intently as he, and perhaps even suggesting applications through anecdotes, explanations, demonstrations, diagrams, pictures, personal experience sharing, and so on?

Or to ask it another way, is it fine for a preacher to wander thoughtlessly into a group of people he perhaps barely knows, bark out a message, and at the end, as long as he has not departed scripture, to have really done what he ought to have done? Is such an approach an adequate “stewardship” of the Word?

Form and Content

Tom: No, absolutely not. Any message has both form and content. We need to use the mind God has given us to correctly understand scripture; to know the truth. That’s the content of a message. But we must also reverently determine the best and most memorable, helpful, effective way to present it. All the various techniques you’ve listed come in there by way of aiding in the communication of the oracles of God. That’s form.

I think there’s always an obvious temptation to play with the content of the message to make it more pleasing to an audience. You never want to be the bad guy. But for those of us with ease in front of people and facility with language, there may also be a temptation to play with the form of the message to draw attention: to be clever when clear would do just fine; to be funny when it detracts from the point we are trying to make; to be excessively dynamic just because it’s our style.

Personality and Performance

IC: Yes. This is the phenomenon of the “Superstar Preacher” or “Superstar Pastor”, the one who makes people say, “He’s really great”, and “I love to hear him speak”. Those sorts of comments are invariably about the guy’s personal style, because if it were really about how much one is benefiting from the word of God, it would be coming from multiple sources, not just one: from various speakers, from personal time with the Word, from one’s daily walk … it would be an all-around thing, unattached to a particular personality, wouldn’t it?

Tom: I always like how when God presented himself to Elijah, he wasn’t in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in a “low whisper”. There’s nothing wrong with our individual personalities coming out a bit when we preach or teach; that’s one of the ways in which the Church is wonderfully diverse. But when we go beyond personality to performance, that’s a problem.

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