The 3:00 A.M. Test For Preaching

3 amHave you ever sat through a sermon you couldn’t follow? You know the kind I’m talking about? Where the pastor is making a lot of, possibly interesting, points and observations, but you’re exactly sure how they all fit together? Now, it may be the case that you simply have a poor attention span and the listening skills of a junior higher. OR, it may be that the sermon lacked what the quality of ‘unity’, of actually having a singular, cohesive point that the preacher was aiming to communicate. When it’s not there, it’s pretty hard to find.

Preachers, especially young ones fresh out of seminary, you must struggle with the task of presenting to your people an actual message from the text, instead of a bunch of rambling observations, or disjointed exegetical insights. As interesting or complex as a passage or story might be, it’s okay to honor the text by acknowledging the inherent of it’s actual message (especially since its author probably had one in mind when they penned it.)

Speaking to the issue of unity in his book Christ-centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (pp. 46-47), Bryan Chapell gives would-be preachers two basic, but key steps to ascertaining the unifying theme of a text:

  1. Read the text with an eye towards finding the main idea the writer is communicating in the text, or a sub-theme with enough exegetical support from the text to be the point of an entire message.
  2. Boil that down into a simple sentence.

Sounds simple enough in theory, right? The problem is that many of us can’t really force ourselves to do that. If you’re fresh out of seminary, you’re too tempted to write out some complex thesis statement with 15 modifiers, sub-clauses, and so forth, because, hey, that’s what your profs liked in your exegesis class. This was one thing my old boss Jay always emphasized with me during my internship, because I tended to think in paragraphs, not pithy sentences.

Knowing this difficulty, Chapell gives a helpful (and challenging) test for preachers to determine whether or not their sermon has the unity of focus that it requires for their hearers:

You will have unity when you can demonstrate that the elements of the passage support the theme of your message and you can pass the “3 a.m. test.” The 3:00 am test requires you to imagine a spouse, a roommate, or parishioner waking you from your slumber with this simple question: “What’s the sermon about today, Preacher?” If you cannot give a crisp answer, the sermon is probably half-baked. Thoughts you cannot gather at 3:00 a.m. are not likely to be caught by others at 11:00 a.m. (ibid., pg. 47)

So what does would that look like? Chapell gives two examples, one of the sort that’s a good seminary thesis, but fails for a sermon:

When the sinful nation of Israel went into exile, its messianic hope and vision were mistakenly and faithlessly diminished because pre-Ezran and pre-Nehemiac proofs of God’s sovereign plan, purpose, and intentions for his people were obscured in Babylonian circumstances of incarceration and oppression that would not be relieved until the Persian emancipation and further covenantal revelation in advancing redemptive history.

And one that you could actually preach:

God remains faithful to his people.

Seeing it put that starkly, some pastors, especially the younger, bookish, ultra-academic ones, might chafe at this sort of abridgement. I know because part of me still does as well. That said, after 2 1/2 years of preaching to college students, I can attest that Chapell’s 3 a.m. test, while seeming a bit stringent, is probably a good rule of thumb.

Realize, Chapell is not advocating for simplistic exposition of the text, or avoiding delving into historical complexities, or even using words like ‘messianic.’ The point is that having a clear, concise, thesis statement gives you a base upon which you can organize all of those complexities in a coherent framework for your people to follow. Whether you state it up front, or weave it subtly throughout, simply having it will focus your sermon construction and keep it from becoming a rambling mess that the Spirit has to work despite, not through. And that’s a good thing, right? Right.

So, pastors, if you’re looking to preach in a fashion that your people actually understand the point you’re driving at, don’t forget the 3:00 a.m. test.

Soli Deo Gloria

Who Needs Preachers When You’ve Got the Bible?

preacherIf you’ve been around long enough, you’ve eventually encountered that guy. You know, the one who basically says all he needs is his Bible and the Holy Spirit. He’s got so much faith that he doesn’t need to listen to teachers or read commentaries. Really, nobody does if they trust the Spirit and the Word enough.

Right.

Well, if you haven’t had the blessing, don’t worry, you’ll meet him eventually. In any case, it’s a very old phenomenon that dates probably as far back as church history extends. It was certainly present in Calvin’s day. Commenting on Paul’s charge to teach the word in season and out of season (2 Tim 4:1-4), he pushes back on the same sort of fanaticism of some of his contemporaries in the Radical Reformation:

It is proper to observe carefully the word therefore, by means of which he appropriately connects Scripture with preaching. This also refutes certain fanatics, who haughtily boast that they no longer need the aid of teachers, because the reading of scripture is abundantly sufficient. But Paul, after having spoken of the usefulness of Scripture, infers not only that all ought to read it, but that teachers ought to administer it, which is the duty enjoined on them. Accordingly, as all our wisdom is contained in the Scriptures, and neither ought we to learn, nor teachers to draw their instructions, from any other source; so he who, neglecting the assistance of the living voice, shall satisfy himself with the silent Scripture, will find how grievous an evil it is to disregard that way of learning which has been enjoined by God and Christ. Let us remember, I say, that the reading of Scripture is recommended to us in such a manner as not to hinder, in the smallest degree, the ministry of pastors; and, therefore, let believers endeavor to profit both in reading and in hearing; for not in vain hath God ordained both of them. -Commentary on 2 Timothy 4:1

Calvin isn’t saying we shouldn’t read our Bibles on our own, or that the Holy Spirit can’t enlighten our personal study. No, there is real benefit there. But if Jesus says that there ought to be teachers the church, and that we ought to sit under sound preaching, who are we to be more spiritual than he is? Apparently there’s something to it.

Soli Deo Gloria

Top 8 Personal Highlights from #TGC13

TGC13This last week I had the privilege of going to the 2013 Gospel Coalition National Conference. While there is a grip of things I could say about the spiritual blessing it was to attend, I thought I’d limit it to 8 personal highlights:

1. Good times with friends. – First off, I was blessed to be able to go with a couple of ministry buddies of mine, Sean McLeish, and Jon Nitta. They’re excellent men to drive around in a rented car, eat too much BBQ, and talk about the Gospel with.

2. Finally getting to hear Tim Keller preach live. -I’ve listened to hundreds of Tim Keller sermons over the last few years. I honestly was kind of worried that it wasn’t going to live up to my expectations. Yeah, he pretty much killed it. I think I he made 4 points within his four points, each of which could have been a sermon on its own, and yet it didn’t feel forced or crowded. And I loved Jesus more at the end of it.

3. Getting a physical copy of Michael Horton’s lecture notes. -Yup. I got to listen in a Michael Horton’s lecture of feasting and hospitality in the Gospel of Luke, which was expectedy brilliant. Afterwards I caught him in the hall and asked him for his lecture notes which he kindly obliged me with. Turns out he is a splendidly humble man in person, beyond being an exemplary irenic theologian in print.

4. Finding out People are Actually Nice. – Following off of that point, it was nice getting to know that people are actually nice. I’ve managed to “meet” some bloggers online before, but at this conference I was able to face-to-face connect with them. The lovely thing was finding out that they’re actually as nice as their Twitter handle pictures. I would go into names, but I hate the idea of name-dropping. The only one I’ll mention is Greg Thornbury: hands-down the most surprising and interesting guy I met at the conference. Brilliant, delightfully humble, and a fabulous appreciation for the proper use of the bow-tie.

5. Books – I bought books for cheap. I think we all knew that was going to happen.

6. Getting Faked Out by Voddie Bauckham – All I’m going to say is, if anybody who knows him is reading this, call him “Joe Nitkowski” next time you see him.

7. The Holy Land Experience – We were too close not to go, so we visited. We didn’t go inside or anything, but experiencing the cheap animatronic animals outside, well–as Jon Nitta put it, “I’ve been born-again again.”

8. Gospel Everything – Seriously, no joke, it was all about the Gospel. The preaching and teaching, break-out sessions, and workshops were all about understanding and seeing the Gospel go forward in our the lives of our congregations, cities, and world. After a bit of a season of discouragement, and honestly, just exhaustion, I was convicted, blessed, and encouraged through the preaching and teaching, the conversations, and the worship to be humbly confident about the Gospel in my ministry. It really is that good of news.

Well, as always, there’s more to say, but all in all, I was truly blessed to by God through TGC13. God willing, TGC15 will be even better.

Soli Deo Gloria

PS. When the sermons start getting posted, I recommend going and downloading or listening to them. I’d particularly direct you to the sermons by Kevin DeYoung on Luke 15 that was convicting and quite humorous, Gary Millar on Luke 22 who killed it, and, of course, Tim Keller’s on Luke 24 and the resurrection.

Common? High? Pop? What Kind of Culture Is It? (With Some Help From Roger Scruton)

The notion of ‘culture’ has fascinated me ever since I first got my hands on Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society in which he lays out his vision for engaging Western culture for the Gospel. It was around the time that the whole emergent church thing was still a thing and it seemed like everyone was talking about the shift to “postmodern” culture and what that meant. In middle of that conversation I started to realize that ‘culture’ was an important issue for evangelism, discipleship, and just ministry in general.

As I went on to read more about the issue, I found that almost everybody in the theological literature agrees that if you’re going to do ministry, then you have to understand cultural context you’re set in. Whether it’s modern culture, postmodern culture, indigenous cultures, or church cultures, ‘culture’ is everywhere and ever-so-important. Of course, this raises the issue of what exactly we mean by the term ‘culture’.

Seems like something we ought to have nailed down if we’re going to be talking about it so much.

You can almost feel the philosophy coming off of him.

You can almost feel the philosophy coming off of him.

Now I’ve had my own working definition of it for some time. The problem I’ve found is that, depending on the publication, author, or discipline you’re reading, everybody seems to have their own definition of it, many which seem to be at odds with each other.

This is why I was so pleased when I found that in first pages of his insightful little work Modern Culture, Roger Scruton helpfully lays out three different senses of the term ‘culture’ that are typically used today:

  • Common – The first is what might be called ‘common’ culture. It takes its cues from Herder, whose notion of kultur indicated the unique spirit of a nation or people as opposed to zivilization which could be shared with various other nations. This, apparently, was taken up and developed by the German romantics who pointed to the idea that culture is what shapes and is found in the various songs, art, traditions of a nation. In this view, it is what is common to all the people in a nation or tribe. This means that nobody, “however ill-educated, is deprived of culture, since culture and social membership is the same idea.” (pg. 1) It is this interpretation that most of the early anthropologists and sociologists of our day work with.
  • High – The second is what might be called ‘high’ culture and takes its roots in a more classical understanding that is linked to the idea of culture as cultivation and virtue. It is not common to all, but must be acquired through education, which usually requires some intellect, as well as leisure and resources for study. To have culture on this view is the province of the few and the well-educated. It comes with a knowledge of the broad literary canon, an appreciation of the right sorts of music and the arts. Culture, in this view, is a sort of moral-technical expertise. This idea has been championed by literary critics such as Matthew Arnold, and later by T.S. Eliot, and of course, Scruton himself. In fact, the book as a whole should be seen as a defense of high culture. (pp. 1-2)
  • Pop- Scruton says that a third sort of culture has emerged recently from the battles between the two. As we noted, the idea of common culture is usually attached to a tribe or a nation, a set, identifiable grouping of people whose culture can be identified and is generally shared. One of main characteristics of the modern/postmodern world which we inhabit is the breakdown of the various tribes associated with ‘traditional society.’ (pg. 2) There are no uncontested practices, thought patterns, songs, and narratives which can be appealed to without a sense of irony. That being said, humans still have need for a sort of solid and stable identity-shaping environment just as the traditional societies gave. It is in this situation that what might be termed ‘popular’ culture emerges, as a sort of tertium quid, a third thing, both like and unlike both of the prior conceptions. Pop culture is the province of ‘cultural studies’ programs in college and is thought of by its defenders as an equally valid ‘culture of the people’. Essentially pop culture is what’s involved when the notion of high culture as something that is a feature of “choice, taste, and leisure” in the sense of cultivation is merged with the common such as pop art and entertainment.  (pp. 2-3) As Scruton notes, “Any activity or artefact is considered cultural, if it is an identity-forming product of social interaction.” (pg. 3)

Of course, Scruton looks upon this last development with dismay, and, as mentioned earlier, in the rest of the work will launch a defense of high culture against any relativistic, postmodern deconstructions, or anti-elitist protests of the equal validity of popular culture.That doesn’t concern me at this point.

For Christians and ministers of the Gospel in particular, there are a number of theses I would like to simply list for reflection, without much additional comment.

  1. While these categories are not air-tight, uncontested, or always easily-distinguishable, it’s good to have some baseline working definitions to think with, especially when you’re reading about cultural engagement. It’s helpful to know what your author is dealing with because prescriptions for one category don’t always carry into the others.
  2. Christians should be engaged with culture at all levels. Common, high, or pop, there is no level or layer that can be ignored by ministers of the Gospel. Anything that is forming our people for good or ill, is our concern.
  3. Accordingly, effective ministers will become students of the common culture of the communities they inhabit.
  4. Depending on the type of congregation, or minister, they should also try be serious, not merely cursory, students of both the high and pop culture that our people draw on for their social-identity construction. (I emphasize ‘try’ because pastors have a lot on their plate already.)
  5. Preaching that both affirms and critiques in light of the Gospel needs to be alert to both the unconsciously formative, and consciously chosen elements of cultural formation. Sometimes it is the common cultural assumptions that are most difficult to expose, simply because they are assumptions.

As always, there’s more to say, but I don’t want to say it right now, so maybe I’ll say it later. Or maybe you should say it in the comments. Knock yourself out.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Out with Philosophy! Just Preach the Gospel!” Or Something Like That

thinker

Looks like he’s philosophizing. STOP THAT!

For a long time now Paul’s discourse at the Areopageus in Acts 17:16-31 has been a favorite text of mine. As a philosophy student in college I loved the picture of Paul debating with the philosophers of his day, quoting their poets and philosophers, and engaging the best of their thought in order to clear the way for the proclamation of the Gospel. I’ve long seen it as a model for understanding how to properly contextualize and challenge the thought of the culture while at the same time maintaining a faithful witness to Christ.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I found out about a certain line of interpretation, particularly in some hyper-Reformed circles, that sees this whole engagement as a failure. The idea is that Paul here, instead of engaging in some straightforward Gospel-preaching like he does in other places, makes the mistake of trying to make the Gospel presentable to the philosophers, ends up getting laughed out of court, and from there on resolves to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:1-5) Silly Paul, philosophy is for pagans!

Now I’ve always thought this was a forced interpretation. Then again, what do I know? D.A. Carson on the other hand, well, he’s got an actual case for it:

There are good reasons for rejecting this false reading:

  1.  This is not a natural reading of Acts. As you work your way through that book, you do not stumble upon some flag or other that warns you that at this Paul goofs. This false interpretation is achieved by putting together an unnatural reading of Acts with a false reading of 1 Corinthians 2.
  2. The theology of the Areopagus address is in fact very much in line with the theology of Paul expressed in Romans.
  3. The Greek text at the end of Acts 17 does not say that “a few men” believed, as if this were a dismissive or condemning assessment, but that “certain people” believed. This expression is in line with other summaries in Acts.
  4. In Athens Paul had already been preaching not only in the synagogue to biblically literate folk, but to people in the marketplace who were biblically illiterate (Acts 17:17). What he had been preaching was “the good news” (Acts 17:18), the Gospel.
  5. Transparently Paul was cut off in Acts 17 before he was finished. He had set up the framework in which alone the Gospel is coherent: one transcendent God, sovereign, providential, personal; creation; fall into idolatry; the flow of redemptive history; final judgment. He was moving into Jesus’ resurrection, and more, when he was interrupted.
  6. Paul was not a rookie. He had been through twenty years of tough ministry (read 2 Cor. 11), much of it before pagan biblical illiterates. To suppose that on this occasion he panicked and trimmed the Gospel is ridiculous.
  7. Acts 17 shows that Paul thinks “worldviewishly.” Even after 1 Corinthians 2 Paul still thinks worldviewishly: 2 Corinthians 10:5 finds him still striving to bring “every thought” into submission to Christ–and the context shows this refers not to simply isolated thoughts but to entire worldviews.
  8. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 does not cast Paul’s resolution to preach nothing but the cross against the background of Athens (as if he were confessing he had failed there, but against the background of Corinth, which loved eloquence and rhetoric above substance. The apostle does not succumb to mere oratory: he resolves to stick with “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

-D.A. Carson,  For the Love of God Vol. 2, February 15

Kids, the moral of the story is that Paul isn’t confessing a ministry flub in 1 Corinthians 2, and repenting of his foolish decision to engage with the philosophers in a contextually-specific way. So if you’ve ever thought that it helps to know and be able to discuss the actual thought-processes of your neighbors and peers in order to present the Gospel to them effectively, don’t worry, so did Paul.

Soli Deo Gloria

Your Preaching Ministry is Only As Good As Your Praying Ministry

Another awesome beard.

Another awesome beard.

Young ministry-types like myself, especially in the Reformed tradition, are usually pretty concerned about the quality of their preaching. We study, we prep, we exegete, we outline, and practice, making sure that our sermons are sharp, sound, and culturally-relevant (well, some of us on that last one). There’s one key piece that’s often lacking in our zealous preparation–an area that God’s been convicting me about recently–the prayer prep.

J.C. Ryle has some convicting comments on that oversight. Commenting on Mark 6:30-34, here writes:

These words are deeply instructive. They are a bright example to all ministers of the Gospel, and to all laborers in the great work of doing good to souls. All such people should daily do as the apostles did on this occasion. They should tell all their work before Christ, and ask him for advice, guidance, strength, and help.

Prayer is the main secret of success in spiritual business. It moves him who can move heaven and earth. It brings down the promised aid of the Holy Spirit, without whom the finest sermons, the clearest teaching and hardest work are all alike in vain. It is not always those who have the most eminent gifts who are most successful laborers for God. It is generally those who keep closest communion with Christ and are most constant in prayer. It is those who cry with the prophet Ezekiel, “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live” (Ezekiel 37:9). It is those  who follow most exactly the apostolic model, and give their “attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Happy is the church that has a praying as well as a preaching ministry! The question we should ask about new ministers is not merely “Can they preach well?” but “Do they pray much for their people?” -The Gospel of Mark, pg. 90

Pastors, preachers, laborers for the Gospel in all forms, the message is clear: pray. Study, prep, practice, and strive as best you can to develop yourself as a minister and counselor of the Gospel. Don’t abandon the very necessary disciplines it takes to grow into the call God has placed on your life, but realize that without prayer, you’re trying to accomplish a spiritual work by purely human effort, trying to minister the Word in a way that effectively denies the Gospel of grace you’re supposed to be preaching. Let’s be blunt and say that this is folly. Remember, salvation “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”(Rom. 9:16) Instead, pray and seek to “move him who can move heaven and earth”, and wait expectantly with faith, looking for God to breath life into dry bones. He’s done it before.

I mean, you’re here aren’t you?

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #13: Try Reading It Out Loud

Out LoudMy dad used to always tell me to try reading my papers out loud in high school in order to proof-read them. Sometimes hearing yourself say it helps you figure out what’s wrong with an awkward sentence, or figure out where a comma belongs. It’s advice I still try to follow today. Sometimes.

I was reminded of that little nugget of wisdom as I was reading R.T. France’s commentary on The Gospel of Mark. Scholars have remarked over the years on the inelegant and choppy style of Mark’s prose in comparison with the other Gospels. Mark has a lot of abrupt transitions and repetitive phrases, and the Greek is really, in many ways, elementary. For instance, if you’re familiar with the KJV translation, there’s a frequent use of the word “and”, that gets smoothed out in more recent, less literal renditions because of its seeming pointlessness. In the past this has served to sideline Mark as less sophisticated theologically or literarily.

France explains that recently it’s been noticed that Mark’s writing style probably served a different purpose, causing scholars to re-evaluate their earlier judgments:

It may seem obvious that a book is intended to be read. But modern scholars are apt to forget that in the ancient world not very many people could read. It has been recently estimated that literacy in the ancient Mediterranean world was ‘probably no more than 10 percent, although the figure may have risen to 15 or 20 percent in certain cities’. Unless Mark’s work was designed only for the benefit of the small minority who could read, he must have reckoned on its being experienced by most of his target group as an oral text, read aloud probably in meetings of the local church; E. Best describes it as ‘preaching’. Recent scholarship has increasingly recognized this factor, and it is relatively common these days to hear Mark discussed as an oral text, or at least as a text intended in part for oral presentation.

–The Gospel of Mark, pg. 9

France then goes on to point out how these for various features of the text mentioned above, as well as others, can be accounted for when taking into mind the aim of helping a hearer. Instead of Mark, the sub-literate writer, we are given Mark the master storyteller, Mark’s approach creates dramatic tension, is accessible to the largely uneducated 1st-Century congregation, and enables his hearers to keep the narrative in mind when there wasn’t a readily available text to flip back and forth to consult.

There are a lot of things that could be said about this little tidbit. I’ll limit myself to a two quick points:

  1. If you get bored reading the Bible, try reading some of it out loud. Most of it was written in an oral culture and was intended to be heard. Paul’s letters were supposed to be read to the congregations. The Psalms were read in worship. The Prophets consist largely of sermonic oratory. The point is, some of this stuff really sticks and shines when you hear it.
  2. Preachers, read the Bible our loud to your people in your sermons. They’re meant to hear it–large chunks of it. That’s where the liturgical churches get things right. It’s okay for your people to hear the Scriptures without you breaking down every detail of the grammar for them. Also, read them with passion. I heard Albert Tate speak up at Forest Home camp this last year with my college students and, aside from being a stud preacher, that man read the Scriptures like they meant something, not just as a set-up for his sermon. Often-times the it’s more important for your people to catch your attitude of reverence and passion about the Word, than your specific insights about it.

So, for what it’s worth: try reading it out loud.

Soli Deo Gloria

Preaching A and B (Or, How Preaching is Like Feeding Your Kids Vegetables)

I don't think I was ever this cute--my mom says I was cuter.

I don’t think I was ever this cute–my mom says I was cuter.

I didn’t like eating broccoli as a kid. I don’t think any kid does. In fact, I distrust people who tell me they’ve always liked it. I mean, I’ve made my peace with it over the years–I had freakishly high cholesterol for some reason, so my parents fed it to me almost every night–but you never really like broccoli. That’s why parents usually try to find some way of feeding it to their kids. It’s good for them, but they won’t willingly eat it. It has to be fed to them.

Biblical truth is like that sometimes. There are a number of doctrines that we need to believe for our spiritual health, for us to have a correct view of God, the Gospel, and our lives, that aren’t particular appealing to us given our life-circumstances, intellectual history, etc. This is true not just at a personal level, but also at a cultural level. Certain aspects of biblical truth are just going to be harder to swallow in each culture given the dominant paradigms within them. For instance, in our relativistic-individualist culture teaching about truth and authority won’t be particularly popular. Still, we need to understand the nature of truth and God’s authority or our lives will go off the rails. Or again, the doctrine of God’s judgment is ridiculous, harsh, and arbitrary to the vast majority of Americans and secular Westerners, but it’s a core biblical teaching we need to understand if we are to understand the Gospel of the Cross, the Kingdom, or God’s promised salvation.

So, how do we preach and teach these truths in our culture in a way that they’re received and heard?

Keller on Preaching A and B
KellerPreaching to skeptical Manhattanites Tim Keller’s become a bit of an expert on this sort of thing. In his book Center Church he says that preachers need to be able to distinguish two types of beliefs in our culture: “A” beliefs and “B” beliefs. “A” beliefs are those bits of biblical teaching that people in the culture already hold by common grace. For instance, after a couple thousand years of Christian influence, our Western culture places a premium on forgiveness, or on the notion of human rights, so they readily accept those parts. Still, there are “B” beliefs in the culture, beliefs that function as ‘defeaters’ that make other Christian doctrines seem implausible and problematic as we pointed out above. (pg. 123-125)  You’ll have to do some thinking and research on this because these will change from culture to culture.

Keller says there are two things we need to do once we’ve identified those two sets:

  1. First, we need to make sure and affirm the “A” doctrines. God’s common grace has given people in the culture real wisdom, real truth, and we need to be as positive about them and preach them as forcefully as we can and show them that, in fact, we believe these truths even more strongly. “You believe in human rights? Great! So do we, but even more strongly because of the doctrine of the Image of God.” We do so first because they are scriptural. I mean, we should be talking about forgiveness, the Image of God, and grace anyways. Beyond that though, these ‘A’ doctrines form points of contact with our culture that enable us to gain a hearing within it.
  2. The second thing we need to do is challenge the “B” doctrines that make the Christian faith implausible. We need to engage our hearers to show them that their doubts are rather doubtful, or more problematic than they realize. One of the ways we do this is on the basis of the “A” doctrines we already identified and affirmed. The goal is to show that their “B” beliefs are inconsistent with their “A” beliefs. This is why it’s particularly important to emphasize the “A” doctrines. Keller uses an illustration about trying to make rocks float. Logs float and rocks sink. If you’re going to get rocks and logs across a river, you have to lash the logs together and put the rocks on top and “float” them across. In a sense, the same thing is true with doctrines. Your goal in preaching is to connect the dots between doctrines that people like, their “A” beliefs, to the ones that they’ve rejected on the basis of their faulty “B” beliefs.

Making it Concrete
What does this look like? Well, an “A” belief we’ve already identified is that of human rights. Our culture has a particularly keen sense of the rights and worth of the individual. Despite the abuses and confusion surrounding the issue, I think that’s a good, biblical insight. As we already said, the Image of God gives us good reason for affirming basic human rights. Now, a “B” belief that our culture holds which undermines basic Christian doctrines such as sin, judgment, God’s authority, etc. is the pervading moral relativism that relegates moral judgments to the sphere of mere personal opinion. Our culture strongly assumes that everyone has the right to make their own judgments about what is acceptable behavior, and that no one view can claim to be the “right” one. It’s a matter of individual preference. But “A” and “B” can’t both be true. If you want a robust notion of human rights, you can’t keep your relativism. If you think the Civil Rights movement was a good thing, a right thing, a thing that ought to have happened, not just something that suits your particular fancies, then you can’t consistently be a relativist.

Again, I remember having a conversation with my friend a few years ago on how to preach the difficult doctrine of the wrath of God. In a traditional Reformed fashion he argued that God’s holiness and righteousness require his wrath against evil and that’s generally how he approached it. Now, I think he’s basically right, but still, when it comes to preaching I favor recent approaches like that of Miroslav Volf who argues for it from the reality of God’s love. He points out that most of us will concede God is a God of love, but if God does not have wrath and judgment against the creation-destroying sin we participate in, he can’t truly be love. A God who doesn’t strongly reject and judge that which destroys the objects of his affection, can’t really be said to love them. To have a God of love, you need a God of judgment.

Or again, our culture is currently rediscovering community. We realize that we need each other–we don’t function well as islands. That’s a thoroughly biblical thought, taught over and over again in the Gospel. At the same time, our radical individualism and worship of the autonomy of the sovereign individual makes any idea of standards of belief or practice very distasteful. No one has the right to tell me there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to believe and act that I don’t determine for myself. The problem is that any community, even the most inclusive and anti-authoritarian, if it is to remain stable and safe, needs standards and norms governing its shared life.  If you want community, any kind of community, you’re inevitably going to have to accept norms of belief and practice.

Examples like this abound (cf. Paul at the Areopagus in Acts 17 for a biblical model) but to sum up, in preaching and teaching you move to establish “A” because its right, but also because it is your best way of undermining “B”, enabling you to teach counter-intuitive but necessary truths to your people.

Conclusion
This is why preaching is like feeding your kids vegetables. Often-times the only way you can get your kids to eat their vegetables is to feed it to them clothed in other food, or connected to some promised dessert. To many these suggestions might seem like over-pragmatic suggestions to water down the Gospel. They’re not. God’s truth ought to be proclaimed and I’d never ask anybody to not speak the difficult truth. I think it’s perfectly fine to affirm God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice in and of themselves, especially in theological discussion. I’m just saying it’s better to not adopt the “you’re gonna sit there and you won’t eat anything else until you eat these” school of preaching.

The point, as always, is to “preach Christ and him crucified” like Paul, knowing that our words will be foolishness to the Greeks and an offense to the Jews (1 Cor 1-2). At the same time, like Paul, we should care about getting our hearers to listen to us so that they might come to know the beautiful Gospel of Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria