I’ve said before how much I love preaching as an art.
As a result, I listen to a lot of preaching, past and present, and find something beautiful in almost every message.
There’s a contemporary trend that seems to be wildly popular and often the homiletical approach of some preachers of very large churches – as well as some very normal sized churches.
Honestly, it has much more to do with orientation than it has to do with size.
This trend usually develops a message in one of two ways with both achieving the same broken result.
The first way which seems very popular today is the allegorical sermon. These practitioners and artists will spend a lot of time in the Old Testament turning the narrative into allegories about modern day struggles and issues and how to overcome them, how to live in victory, be a success, get a win.
It’s very American, very much in tune with our modern zeitgeist.
The second way which also seems very popular today is (what I will call) the therapeutic sermon. These practitioners and artists will take a relevant, contemporary topic and piecemeal scriptures together (or sometimes not) that support their thesis about how you and I can deal with common problems, struggles and issues we face and come out as winners, overcomers and with the best life now.
Several years ago, I was part of a 3-week summer English camp in mainland China. Our goal for the camp was to teach conversational English to teens and young adults as a means to building relationships and sharing our faith. One method we used was to share Bible stories as English lessons and in the midst of our lesson, bring up our faith. I was surprised, the very first time I did this, to discover that my “atheist, communist” students already knew the stories I was telling them. Instead of being surprised by the parables or the stories, they spoiled the endings which they knew by heart.
I was confused. So I asked them to tell me more.
What I discovered was that in the same way I had been taught Aesop’s fables or tales of Greek mythology, like Pandora’s Box, these students had been taught a lot of the Bible but it hadn’t told them anything about Jesus. The story of the Prodigal Son was, for them, a lesson on the importance of family loyalty. David and Goliath, overcoming adversity. Loads of Bible. No Kingdom. No Jesus, the Autobasileia. It was like getting a vaccination, just enough to immunize us from the real thing.
And this is what scares me about a lot of preaching I listen to. Lots of stories with life lessons, lots of allegories that turn the Bible into a cleverly disguised self-help book, great moments that would easily make an Oprah segment or a TED talk, but they’d play in atheist classrooms in China as easily as a gathering of saints in Chicago. As a pastor I get emails offering to teach me or sell me programs of successful preaching plans for a year. Ways to plan your preaching around peak times of the year for visitors and ways to capitalize on the natural rhythms of holidays and special events to build interest and attendance. I have friends who visit other churches or watch them on-line like I do and I inwardly cringe as they extol the buzz they feel coming away from these services that are obviously designed to, like Hans and Franz, pump *clap* you up. But my taste in Germans leans much more towards Bonhoeffer than it does Hans and Franz.
My personal litmus test has become “David and Goliath.” If a preaching pastor takes that text and turns into a Malcolm Gladwellian story of triumph over adversity or any version that makes the story of David about how you and I can face down the giants in our lives, I know that the paramount goal of the message is not the Kingdom, it’s the crowd. It’s not telling the story of Jesus, it’s telling the story of me, in which Jesus briefly appears as a supporting character. It’s not about transformation, it’s about self-actualization.
If the medium is the message, the message is, “it’s all about you.”
Stanley Hauerwas once said, “…the story that we should have no story, except the story we chose when we had no story, it is a story that has at its heart the attempt to make us tyrants of our own lives. But no one is more lonely than tyrants. Since they must always distrust everyone around them, because they know that they want their place…” The unintended consequences of preaching us into the center of the story is, as Hauerwas observes, that we are made tyrants of our own lives. This kind of message, unintentionally, does not bind us together, it drives us apart. We’re always at odds with each other and in conflict or tension with one another as we vie for our place at the center of the story. And there can be only one.
But Jesus tells a better story, Jesus is a better story, and his Kingdom offers a better story than our self-centered services and self-centered messages tell. Jesus is the center of the story, and we’ve all been invited to join a story that formed us and forms us, we did not form it. We become a part of the story and that story makes us open to the stranger, the other and causes us to recognize that this isn’t my story, it’s not about me, my rights, my destiny but about Jesus, the Kingdom and his story, the one he tells and the community tells together.
There is a better story than the one that’s all about you, and I’m very sure there’s a better story than the one that’s all about me. And I think the best preaching we can all do is to tell the story of the Autobasileia. That means we’ve got to immerse ourselves in our story and live that story, not just talk about it. Especially not just talk about it. That story needs to permeate our day to day lives, our relationships, our vocations, our conversations, our calendars and our check/cheque books.
I know, I'm not the official voice on "how to preach right," I'm just a nobody who isn't impressed with the Emperor's new clothes. And I'm convinced if I let the Emperor go out like that, I'm complicit and responsible by virtue of my silence. There is a better story.