Preaching styles and thinking styles

I read an article last week that talked about the method behind the madness of those scam e-mails we get. As the article summary says, “An analysis from Microsoft Research suggests that Nigerian scammers need to sound as ridiculous as possible, so that only the most gullible will reply to them.” Interesting.

Somehow, my mind connected that with a study that Flavil Yeakley did years ago, an in depth study of the Boston Movement done by invitation of Kip McKean and staff. One of the most helpful parts of the study, in my opinion, was a look at what other churches could learn from the methods being used in Boston. Among other things, Yeakley pointed out that the outreach methods used by the Boston group were much more likely to appeal to extroverts, whereas the methods used by traditional churches of Christ tended to appeal to introverts.

Those two unrelated bits of information swirled in my brain and got me thinking about evangelism and preaching. Specifically, I was thinking about how a certain kind of person is reached by a certain kind of teaching and, conversely, different people are attracted to different teaching styles. That’s hardly big news, yet it would explain the gulf that tends to grow up in every movement between “traditionalists” and “progressives.”

Does that make sense? I could throw out some examples that come to my mind, but I’d rather hear yours. Can you think of ways in which this would be true? If it is, then how do we achieve unity in spite of this trend?

Preaching through the Book

Here we step firmly into the realm of opinion. I believe in preaching through books of the Bible. I firmly believe that is the healthiest form of preaching for churches. I know that there are lots of other styles that are favored by other preachers. Let me tell you why I think this form is the healthiest.

When I was growing up, I thought the New Testament epistles were something like the book of Proverbs, a series of generally unrelated statements that were placed together. I would hear a verse quoted from this book, then one from that book, then this verse from another. I had no idea that the letters had a flow to them, that arguments were being created by the author, building on ideas presented earlier. Context was a foreign concept to me.

Those were the days of the slide rule Bible verse tools for personal workers. Want to talk about infant baptism? Here are some verses. Need to explain why we meet on Sunday? Here are the verses. Naturally, when I went to prepare my first sermon, I turned to a concordance. How else could I find all the verses that talk about a certain subject?

That’s part of the reason I feel the real need to model something different from the pulpit. To say, “This is the text that we’re going to wrestle with today, not to get my thoughts, but to try and hear God’s voice.” People need to see that the Bible isn’t a reference book where we go to find information on this subject or that subject; the Bible defines the subject, then gives us the information.

I believe that preaching through an entire book of the Bible forces the preacher to address subjects he wouldn’t have touched on otherwise. In the same way, I believe such preaching gives the Holy Spirit more freedom to speak to the needs of the congregation. I’ve seen time and again the situation where the preacher is merely dealing with the next part of the book being presented, yet the subject matter is exactly what was needed at that moment in time. This also gives the preacher the freedom to present that word without charges of subjectivity; the topic hasn’t been chosen because of any one person or situation. No one is asking, “I wonder what happened this week to make him feel like he needed to talk about that?”

We also find that the Holy Spirit knows how to arrange things better than we do. He will lead us, as we work our way through Titus, to teach grace in order to produce works; my human wisdom would have never thought to do so. He will balance the story of the Good Samaritan with the story of Mary and Martha, showing us that piety without service is inadequate, but so is service without piety. If we preach our way through biblical books, we will hear more of God’s voice and less of man’s.

On a personal level, I think the preacher is forced to grapple with God’s Word in ways that he wouldn’t otherwise. How does this passage relate to what’s been said before? How does it fit into the overall themes of the book? I was vividly reminded of that the last few weeks as I was working through Hebrews for the radio program I do. I’ve preached Hebrews 10:19-25 numerous times, yet never had the force of the text been made so clear to me as it was last week. Because I was thoroughly immersed in the previous chapters, I could present that passage with the message it was meant to convey.

I’m not convinced that the preacher can do that when dealing with multiple passages in a given lesson. And I’m afraid people come away more of the preacher’s thoughts and ideas than the Word of God.

There’s lots more that could be said, but it’s time for me to be quiet and listen a bit. I’m looking forward to hearing different perspectives on this subject.

photo from a stock.xchng user

Hearing God’s voice

The discussion of the last few days made me remember a quote that I’ve really taken to heart. With several of you commenting on preaching and teaching, this is a good time for a value check, to see if you think this quote is valid or not. (You can also help me identify the original source; I can’t seem to find it)

Here’s the quote:

You can’t overhear the voice of God.

I’ve very much taken that to heart in my own ministry. The weakest lessons I’ve given were things that I tried to craft thinking about what God had to say to someone else. The most powerful lessons I’ve been able to share were when I spoke to others something that God had put on my heart.

When I read a passage thinking, “This is what Brother Finkleberg needs to hear,” I’m not getting everything out of the passage that God has for me. When I look at Brother Finkleberg’s situation and relate it to ones I’ve experienced, I can say, “Here’s what God had to say to me at a similar time in my life.”

In the same way, I’ve found that when I choose to preach or teach through a book, time and again someone says, “That’s exactly what I needed to hear today.” When I point out a way in which God is seeking to correct something in my life, I often find that others need the same message.

So what do you think? Can you overhear the voice of God? Or is that quote just a pithy saying?

Why some fear expository preaching

Back when I was in college, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, the Abilene Christian University Lectureship was in its heyday. Attendance was high, and the quality of teaching was excellent. Churches of Christ across a wide spectrum of our brotherhood supported the event.

It was a Wednesday evening lecture. I think I remember who gave it, but I’m not sure so I won’t name him. But I remember well the concerns he expressed. He felt that churches of Christ were getting soft in many doctrinal areas, and he placed the blame squarely on expository preaching. There were certain vital doctrines, he sustained, that could only be taught via topical sermons.

At that time, I thought to myself: “If it can’t be taught expositorily, it doesn’t need to be taught.” Though I’ve changed my mind on a lot of things over the years, I still feel that sentiment is accurate. If we can’t teach something supporting it with a full text, then maybe we aren’t teaching what the Bible says.

Is that going too far? Some, for example, might point out that some major themes can be present in an entire book, yet not be shown easily from just one passage. Others might argue that it takes many different verses to properly shed the light on a given subject.

What do you think?

Context and topical teaching

In our discussion on context last week, Scott brought up some interesting questions. He said:

What I wonder is this: when we see the sermons in the Bible (Peter, Stephen, Paul – all in Acts) do we not see topical sermons using scripture from various areas? Is not the very point made – that Paul’s letters have a clear message and should not be broken down into single verses – show that he has a topic, a theme in his writing of that letter? And could not the same imagery be applied in this instance – using certain threads of scripture to knit a complete message?

He also goes on to say that he had been taught that topical preaching was “wrong.” These are issues that I’ve discussed with others over the years of my ministry. Let me offer some observations:

  • I don’t think that topical preaching is wrong. However, I read the other day where a brother said that he typically uses 70 or more verses in every sermon he preaches. It’s hard for me to see how any concept of context can be given around that many verses, though I haven’t actually heard this man preach. Topical preaching has a place, a valid place, in our preaching. In fact, I think churches need a mix of topical and expository preaching. (Apparently expository preaching is playing the bad guy role in contemporary preacher training, much as topical preaching did in my day)
  • I think that topical preaching can be done contextually, sort of a combination of topical and expository. That is, when I’m asked to speak on a topic, I always try to hang that topic on two or three passages that can be looked at in depth.
  • As for the New Testament writers, I believe that they enjoyed a guidance from the Holy Spirit that we don’t. When we start playing cut and paste with what they’ve written, it’s almost like saying that we know better than the Holy Spirit how to address certain topics. To me, an excellent example is Titus chapters 2 and 3. In those chapters, the point is driven home that to spur people on to good works, you need to teach about grace. I don’t know that you arrive at that conclusion by doing a piece by piece study of the text; you’ve got to grab the large chunks.

Before asking for your opinion, I wanted to share one last context story that I happened to remember yesterday. Years ago, I was at a church service where an older brother got up to lead the closing prayer. During the prayer, he said, “As Peter said on the Mount of Transfiguration, ‘It is good that we were here.’” Nothing like quoting something that earned someone a healthy rebuke.

Now I’ll ask. How does topical teaching fit in with the idea of context? Is it legitimate, as Scott says, to take threads from many different places and sew them into one garment?