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

Coffee Shop Ministry Revisited (Or, Keller on the Coffee-Shop as City)

I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. I think I’ve mentioned this already. It all started in college right around the time I began reading Kierkegaard and decided to take up a caffeine addiction. It was new and cool and made me feel older and sophisticated. I eventually got over that, but in grad school I didn’t have an office, so renting space at 2 bucks for, like, however long you wanted to stay wasn’t a bad deal.

Still, after nearly 6 years, a few forests worth of coffee, and getting a job with an office, I find I still spend a lot of time in coffee shops. Why? Well, because coffee-shops are mini-cities within the city. That makes them ideal for ministry.

Keller on the City
Once again, I’ve been reading through Tim Keller’s Center Church on doing Gospel-centered ministry in your city. In it he has a chapter on a biblical theology of the city. He points out that the defining essence of the city in the Bible is “not the population’s size but the density.” See, “A city is a social form in which people physically live in close proximity to one another.” (pg. 135) You didn’t have to have a certain population number to be called a city. Most cities of the day would have been the size of my old high school. The point was that they are condensed clusters of life.

He goes on to point out three characteristics that mark the city in biblical thought (pp 136-138):

  1. Safety and stability – Cities had walls, the beginnings of a legal system, etc. that contributed to social stability and safety.
  2. Diversity – Cities are safer places to live for minorities, and are centers for racial and cultural diversity.
  3. Productivity and Creativity — Human culture and technology flourishes in cities. Greater proximity, and less space between people, means exponential sharing of ideas and resources

Drawing on Jeremiah’s letter to the Exiles in Babylon (Jer. 29), the story of Jonah (Jon. 4), and the movement of the early church (Acts), Keller goes on to makes the case that churches ought to go to the cities for various reasons such as, once again, the sheer population density, as well as the cultural influence the city exerts on the culture. (pp 146-163) Paraphrasing Woody Allen, he says, cities are like everywhere else, only more so.

Coffee-Shop as City
The Starbucks in the Orange Circle near my place is like that. I think most coffee shops are. Think about it. Condensed clusters of life, where the space between people is typically removed is a perfect description of a coffee shop. With all of the students studying, and business types, entrepreneurs, writers, and such hanging out there to get their work done, they are centers of productivity, and idea-sharing. I don’t know about how much safer they are, but there is at times that feeling of safety in numbers at the community tables. Also, finally, they are probably the most diverse spots in any city. Everybody drinks coffee: rich business-owners, soccer-moms, retired types, college kids, and homeless people with spare change. They’re all there.

I’ve realized this is part of why I find coffee-shops ideal for ministry. Coffee shops keep me in touch with people I couldn’t engage with if I just stayed holed up in my office or waiting for them to show up at my bible study. More importantly it puts me in contact with them in the middle of their real life, when they don’t have their church game-face on. I’ve found for myself that even if the conversations I have there don’t lead to somebody showing up at church, or my group, I’m still more likely to teach in a way that engages my own students where they’re actually at.

For ministry types looking to stay culturally-engaged, to go to the city even if you live in the suburbs, I recommend checking out your local coffee shop. Don’t worry about not being a coffee person. Most of them have tea too.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #9: Tim Keller on 3 Things You Should be Praying for Your Church

This man is praying. Also, he has an amazing beard. Two reasons to imitate him.

So, as I already mentioned, I’ve been working through Tim Keller’s book on Gospel-centered ministry, Center Church. It’s really a must-read for anybody in or even connected to ministry, whether pastors, elders, directors, group leaders, volunteers, admins, etc. I cannot recommend it highly enough. One section that really convicted me last week was in the chapter on Gospel renewal in a church. First off, you should know that Gospel-renewal is “a life-changing recovery of the gospel.” (pg. 54) At the church-wide level it has historically been called a revival. (Think the first Great Awakening–you know, the good one.) Keller lists a few things that contribute to Gospel-renewal in a church including preaching, which is what most of the chapter is dedicated to, but right at the top of the list is “extraordinary prayer.” (pg. 73)

Drawing on the work of C. John Miller, he makes a distinction between “maintenance prayer” and “frontline prayer.” Maintenance prayer is focused on keeping the church going–maintaining what’s happening currently. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s not particularly passionate about the mission. By contrast, frontline prayer is focused on the advance of the Gospel, the forceful spread of the Kingdom in human hearts. He lists three particular traits these prayers possess:

  1. A request for grace to confess sins and to humble ourselves
  2. A compassion and zeal for the flourishing of the church and the reaching of the lost
  3. A yearning to know God, to see his face, to glimpse his glory (pg. 73)

As I mentioned, I was very convicted by this. I mean, I pray for my ministry, for my students, but to be honest it’s mostly been maintenance work. I haven’t been on my knees pleading with the God of heaven that we might be a people humbled, confessing, and passionate to see his glory for a while. I think many could probably relate. In the flow of ministry, prayer doesn’t so much get lost, but squished in between everything else.

Last week I resolved to repent of this and have these three traits mark my prayers. I would encourage you to do the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pastor, or not. If you’re a part of the body, then you’re in ministry. Pray for these traits to mark your church and your church’s prayers–not in a rote, mechanical fashion, but from the heart. You can’t manipulate the Spirit into working for you on command. And remember, he’s the one doing the renewing; Gospel-renewal is a gift of grace. Still, pray boldly. Pray this for your members, your pastors, the congregation, the preaching, the worship, the service, and everything else connected to the church. Pray and look for God to move.

Soli Deo Gloria

Quick-Blog #8 Tim Keller on the Way the Gospel Frees Us to Witness

I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s new book on church, Center Church and it is everything they say it is: amazing, rich, deep, helpful, game-changing, etc. One gem of a chapter so far is chapter 3,”The Gospel Affects Everything”, on the way that the Gospel has deep implications for all of life–it’s not just the “ABCs but the A-Z” of Christianity. In one section Keller takes the time to outline the way that the Gospel gives us a third way to think about various subjects (family, human authority, community, sexuality, etc.) It’s not moralism, nor relativism, but a different thing entirely.

One little chunk in particular chunk that caught my attention was the one about witness. Here’s what he says:

The moralist believes in proselytizing, because “we are right, and they are wrong.” Such an approach is almost always offensive. The relativist/pragmatist approach denies the legitimacy of evangelism altogether. Yet the gospel produces a constellation of traits in us. We are compelled to share the gospel out of generosity and love, not guilt. We are freed from the fear of being ridiculed or hurt by others , since we have already received the favor of God by grace. Our dealings with others reflect humility because we know we are saved by grace alone, not because of our superior insight or character. We are hopeful of everyone, even the “hard cases,” because we were saved only because of grace, not because we were the people likely to become Christians. we are courteous and careful with people. We don’t have to push or coerce them, for it is only God’s grace that opens hearts, not our eloquence or persistence or even their openness (Exod 4:10-12). Together, these traits create not only an excellent neighbor in a multicultural society but also a winsome evangelist. –Center Church, pp 49-50

For Christians looking to be salt and light, witnesses in the culture who don’t downplay the Gospel, or add unnecessary offense to it, Keller points us to the way the Gospel itself is the answer to evangelism–it is the power of salvation unto all who believe, (Rom 1:16) and even changes how we invite people to believe.

Take some time to think through your approach towards witness and evangelism. Ask yourself some questions:

Am I controlled by fear?
Is my approach humbly confident, or nervously arrogant?
Are their people in my life I’ve given up on because they’re “hard cases”?
Am I a good neighbor to those with whom I disagree?

Pray over these and see how God might be calling you to either move out of moralist arrogance, or relativist indifference. Most of all, meditate on the Gospel–let Jesus do the work of turning you into a witness.

Soli Deo Gloria