Thursday, April 05, 2018

Inbox: The Problem Begins at the Platform

In response to Tom’s post Five Lessons We Can Learn from Jordan Peterson, Russell writes:

“In the local church context, based on 40+ years of listening to sermons/messages, I would say there are a rare few who can hold people’s attention for more than 15 minutes. They present material in a boring and unorganized fashion. They are unaware of the learning and comprehension level of their audience. They are very very detached in their application to where people live their daily lives. Shame on them for being such poor communicators of God’s truth. Shame on us for propping up a system which perpetuates bad messages.”

Now, we might bridle at that — especially those of us who have a favourite speaker. We might say, “That’s not fair, Russell; I know Mr. X, and he’s really profitable and interesting: I could listen to him forever.”

Maybe. But how many Mr. X’s are there? Be honest now.

Reality Check

Isn’t it quite obvious that the reason you value Mr. X is that he’s awfully rare? In fact, don’t you spend most Sunday mornings wondering just how good the preaching is going to be this week, and in some particular cases, even dreading the thought of the message starting at all?

Sure you do. Russell’s got things about right: a good speaker might keep you interested for a quarter of an hour; very few will be so good as to hold you longer. In fact, I’ll bet you can think of a handful that don’t even manage do justice to their allotted fifteen minutes of obligatory fame.

Something’s not right here. And it’s not your fault. I know people will tell you that it is, and if you want, you can chastise yourself for lacking motivation, or being a poor listener, or whatever you want … go ahead. But I think the problem begins at the platform; and if you think about it a little, maybe you’ll even agree with me.


The problem is that we lay everything on the platform. The success of the church, the spearhead of our spiritual learning, the flag around which we all rally every Sunday is the performance executed by just one man in a nice suit. We have a mania for platform ministry.

But just think for a minute. What is the nature of a sermon? I don’t mean the content of any particular sermon; I mean the features common to every sermon, regardless of its quality.

Let’s start with the good stuff about lectures. As a format, they work very well when you have:
  1. a lot of dense, rich and important content and a very limited amount of time in which to deliver it;
  2. a highly-motivated audience, one that has strong incentives to receive and apply what you’re offering, and has the necessary background in knowledge to make quick use of what you deliver in such a dense, rich stream; and
  3. a presenter capable of holding an audience for a long period of time, so as to dispense this dense, rich stream of information.
In such cases, the lecture format is unparalleled. You can deliver a lot in the minimum amount of time, and your audience has the equipment to make use of what you deliver. Great.

Where doesn’t it work well?

In all other situations.

Taking Stock of the Situation

So we’ve got to ask ourselves, is the a), b), c) situation what we have, and should expect to have, on a Sunday morning?

I submit to you, that is not what we have, and not even what we ought to expect to have — at least, not until we’ve done a whole lot of other kind of work in helping our speakers to become more skilled, and in helping our fellow believers to become the kinds of listeners the lecture format presupposes. Until we’ve got that, the lecture format has some very serious weaknesses.

In fact, it has some weaknesses even when we DO have that. Take a look.

Lecture Liabilities

The lecture format is:
  • For the head. The supposition of the format is that people want to know stuff. The doing, it is assumed, can be left until later.
  • Not a responsive format: the supposition is not that the audience will ask the questions, and far less that they will drive the agenda forward.
  • Not an embodied format: it’s done while people just sit. Our bodies are not involved in acting, engaging with, or performing what we hear; that’s left for afterwards.
  • Not a dynamic format: how could it be, when you’re sitting all the time, and even any potential applications are simply given by mouth to the still ear?
  • Not a recursive format: it has no opportunity for practice and improvement cycles (think of trying to learn how actually to swim or to ride a bike, but using nothing but lectures with no practice).
  • Not a linear, sequential format, unless it’s a series produced by a single lecturer, covering a particular span of scripture. And for the same reason, it’s often ...
  • Not a contextualized format, not whole-scripture teaching, but rather individual fragments of teaching, broken into disparate parts by the rotation of speakers and the preference of most present-day ministry for topical rather than consecutive teaching.
  • Not a demonstrative format: unlike the Lord, and unlike Paul, the lecturer does not offer himself as a personal example of what he tells people to believe.
  • Not a productive format, in the sense that nothing is actually produced by the lecture itself, and no product can be evaluated as part of the process of the activity of lecturing … so no quality control is possible on the output end, and it’s up to the individual believer to figure out his particular application, embody it in some way, produce the required result, recognize success and failure, evaluate his achievement and return to the next lecture with a definite idea of where he now is on his spiritual-maturation journey, and what he might need to get next — which he probably won’t get anyway, since he is not empowered to ask for it (and anyway, I hear that the lecture is on the Prodigal Son again this week).
In short, essentially, the lecture format says, “I’ll tell you what to think; the responding, resolving, applying, examining, producing and embodying, that’s all up to you. Figure it out.”

What’s Fair?

Now, is that fair?

The churches seem to assume it is: it’s the job of the pastor/speaker to lecture, and it’s all on the individual Christian to make the rest happen.

I don’t doubt that that sort of hands-off, I’m-not-helping-you approach works for some people, in some situations; but I think it’s not for most, and not most of the time.

But this I have to say, in all honesty. Though Tom and I have been in more churches than most people will ever see, and though I have spoken many, many messages from platforms and pulpits all over the place, and though by profession I am a communicator of information … I am not as good at doing it as, in his secular way, is Jordan Peterson. I’m nowhere near as good as the best preachers under whose ministry I have occasionally sat. And I’m not close to a Billy Graham, a Ravi Zacharias, a William Lane Craig or a Dave Hunt, let alone to the Apostle Paul or the speaker of the Sermon on the Mount.

When it comes to sermonizing, I might be able to crank out a fair fifteen minutes occasionally, just as Russell says — but forty-five minutes is a lot longer than most people care to hear any of us talk, and I’m not so foolish as to imagine I’m exempt from that assessment. What I can offer is not on the level you’d like to hear every week, and certainly well below the best for which you could hope.

You might say that at best, I’m a “fair” speaker. And yet, people still tell me it’s my spiritual gift, and I can get invited to the platform very easily.

I think something’s really wrong there.

It might be me. It might, as Russell says, also be our lack of standards. But it surely also is a problem of the platform: we just expect too much of that wooden box.

Changing It Up

So what am I going to advocate?

The short story is that I am advocating for everything the lecture format lacks; specifically, that we must find ways of providing better edification for the Lord’s people, through methods that involve more than talking heads and passive ears. We need to create opportunities for feedback from ordinary Christians, so they can ask questions, pose problems, suggest their needs to us, and in short, help we who teach to see “where they’re really at”.

We also need to get their bodies in motion: to hear has to be much more tightly linked with the commandment to do, so that passive listening becomes a less possible option. And in their activities, we need to give them recursive opportunities to obey, serve, minister and improve — in other words, we need to practice and perfect our Christianity, through a continuous, cyclical process of obedience, punctuated by times of self-scrutiny and thoughtful evaluation of results.

We need our teaching to reflect the natural shape and emphasis of the scriptures themselves. We need to teach whole books, and to place all that we learn in the larger context. We need to hear God speaking as he spoke in the first place, not as we would selectively find it pleasing to hear him speak.

We need leaders who go first. These are men who set a higher standard for themselves, who lead by example, and who teach out of a deep knowledge that is grounded in their own practical obedience to what they teach. Our teachers should not talk longer than necessary to communicate for the edification of the moment, and should hold themselves accountable for what they say. Those who have no gift for teaching should be encouraged to use the gift they have been given, not the gift they want but actually haven’t got.

And we need to judge ourselves periodically, to see how we are progressing in obedience, and whether or not we are being productive of the kinds of goods the Lord has commanded us to produce — things like good works, sound doctrine, faithful witness in the world, service to each other, sincere worship, holy living and growing disciples. But in this, we need to focus less on judging how others are doing, and more on ourselves. And when we do so, we must judge not by some legalistic standard of our own, and certainly not by some preoccupation or preference of one person over another, but by the truth of the word of God itself, correcting ourselves as we are personally convicted. For at the end of the day, it is to our Master that each man stands or falls.

Changing the System

If all this doesn’t sound easy to do within the context of a once-a-week lecture format, then you’re right: it’s not. We will need to change the way we spend our time, and all the conventional formats of our church lives will have to come up for review. To the extent that some of these formats have been edifying, some can be retained; to the extent that they, like the lecture format, have become less than edifying, they must be reformed. But the focus must be on what’s working for the purposes intended by the Lord; not what’s traditionally been done.

Radical enough for you? Maybe not radical enough yet.

What Russell is pointing out, I think, is that lectures will never produce the kind of change we need. “Propping up a system which perpetuates bad messages,” as he puts it, will never make the status quo any better. He is clearly not issuing yet another of those general (and often only minimally effective) calls to Christians to “try harder”, or “be more committed”. Actually, we’ve had quite enough of being told from the pulpit that we need to renew our personal commitment, while the church itself continues to run unhelpfully, using methods two centuries old.

The individual Christian does have responsibility; but on his own, he can only do so much, since the Lord’s plan for our growth also depends upon a healthy relationship with a local church. Where that does not exist, lone Christians are still called to private commitment to Christ, but it is not the ideal plan of the Head of the Church that Christians should bear lone responsibility for their growth … that’s an emergency measure only.

It’s not the private believer but rather leaders, teachers and other functionaries of the church establishment who can make the kind of change we need on this particular issue: those who have the authority under the Great Shepherd, who have the influence among the people of God, and who have the biblical knowledge to judge what a speaker is saying, according to the measure of its consistency with the word of God. They can change the way we do business, whereas the ordinary congregant cannot. For us to move beyond pulpits and lectures, change has to start at the top.

What Next?

We need leaders who are courageous enough to review our old methods, habits and traditions in light of scripture, and realign our church activities with the paramount Biblical goal — edification. That which “builds up” or educates people by teaching the truth effectively should continue; all the practices that inhibit that must go.

And among these, lectures should be reserved for situations in which the three prerequisites listed earlier (under a, b, and c) are present. For everything else, we should select our methods based on what works best as a means of teaching the truth (provided, of course, we violate no principle of scripture in choosing our method).

The pulpit is not inevitable. It was not ordained by God and handed down to us by angels. It’s a cultural artefact that has, in most cases, outlived its usefulness. So it is not inevitable that we must sit and listen to teaching being badly done each week. There are many other ways for us to teach and learn. We’ve just got to realize the truth of what Russ has said, and care enough to change it.

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