Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Homiletic thoughts

Disclaimer: These are the words of an observer and listener, an analyser and participant in conversations about preaching. These are not the words of an experienced practitioner or someone with illusions about his own ability to preach or teach.

There is a kind of sermon in many Evangelical/Reformed churches that takes the text as a springboard for associated exhortation rather than something to be explained and applied. It is somewhat “old-school” today since John Stott’s influence has been making itself felt in the evangelical world via the Langham Partnership, the Cornhill Trust, etc – emphasis on actual exposition rather than pious, doctrinally sound homilies. Nevertheless, this “old-school” style has not yet vanished, unfortunately.

While the 3-point Stott sermon lasting precisely 22½ minutes might be lacking in some areas, at the very least it seeks to be faithful to the text. It may not be imaginative, and it may lead to a feeling of torpor after many weeks on the trot, but it is at least instructive in that it models how to do applied exposition through paying attention primarily to the text rather than to cross-references and juicy phrases from Spurgeon, Wesley et al.

Both methods in practice often involve relatively poor application – but that is more about the preacher and the expectations of the listeners than about the method. More on that below…

Recently, at a wonderful church Kate and I visited one Sunday morning, we heard such a sermon, and felt disappointed, despite the genuine eloquence of the preacher, his godliness and his concern for both his congregation and for upholding Reformation doctrine.

It was a classic non-exposition of Hebrews 5:11-6:3.

The first take-home message, a warning against spiritual immaturity, was grounded in the text. But the immaturity of the original readers was not related to any comparable temptations in the modern world. Partly this was because of a failure to look at the context. Although the Hebrews’ immaturity was linked to the diffiult doctrines about Melchizedek that begin chapter 5, we heard no more about that after the first few minutes and were left with the impression that it was a result of taking their eyes of Jesus. This may be true, but it’s not in the text, so we are no closer to understanding 5:11-6:3. This ‘sound’ manoeuvre led the speaker to another take-home message, “fix your eyes upon Jesus”. But this is more suited to Hebrews 12, which was frequently cross-referenced, not to Hebrews 5 and 6. After all, 6:1-3 specifically mentions that the original readers should have moved on from elementary doctrines about Christ, baptism, the resurrection, etc (and the speaker did not mention 1b-3 at all, probably spotting that it ostensibly undercut what he wanted to say). So although it is true that we must always fix our eyes on Jesus and it is important to teach and learn it, to communicate it clearly, that is not really what Heb 5:11-6:3 is all about. It’s not what 5:11-13 is about either.

And of course, although Stott-expositions can ramble, the old-school method, not tied to expounding this passage rather than that passage, is in particular danger of going on too long, of getting caught up in resonant sentences that paraphrase the last resonant sentence ad infinitum. The old-school method is heavily dependent on oratorical skill, which makes it vulnerable: when the speaker does not have vast rhetorical gifts can lead it to being an unhelpful experience for everyone.

There are other weaknesses particular to the old-school sermon, but let’s not get blogged down! My final note is about a general weakness in how the Bible is taught… This is a big problem in my preaching – I have not got it sussed by any means, but it’s an issue that needs to be brought out into the open.

Direct application of a practical nature was scarce. There was insistence on fine-sounding phrases (“fix your eyes on… concentrate on… meditate on…”) but no practical advice about how to do that. All preachers, whatever their style or method, run the risk of giving pious platitudes when it comes to application of the biblical text. What is needed is for preachers and teachers to confront the habits of everyday life, the psyhology of the modern Christian, the spiritual and devotional disciplines of the church, and bring those things together with the perlocutionary force of the text in hand. We must not be afraid to give specific advice about, e.g., how to resolve conflict with a fellow Christian, about the humility and brokenness and pain this might involve, rather than just paraphrase a bit of Scripture that commands that.

Here endeth the lesson.