“I Want To Be Clear” – The Low Hanging Fruit of Bullet Point Preachers

We’ve been walking through the problem (and I do think it is a problem) of bullet-point style preaching. You can catch up in the conversation here, here, and here. I know that for many preachers bullet-points are preferable. The reason they cite is “clarity.” I want to address this issue.

The pressing question is this, Were the teachings of Jesus clear? You’re right, it’s a trick question. Some of the Lord’s teachings are clear. Take for instance Matthew 5:23-24, “Therefore, if you are bringing an offering to God and you remember that your brother is angry at you or holds a grudge against you, then leave your gift before the altar, go to your brother, repent and forgive one another, be reconciled, and then return to the altar to offer your gift to God.” The fact that this teaching is clear hasn’t stopped it from being almost universally ignored. There is no connection between the clarity of the teaching and the application of what has been taught. Preachers, let’s loose the illusions that clarity necessarily produces obedience.

At the same time, Jesus frequently ends other teachings with words like “let those with ears to hear, hear the word of God.” And perhaps most puzzling is the exchange between Jesus and His disciples after the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:

Disciples: Why do You speak to the people in parables?
Jesus: The knowledge of the secrets of heaven has been given to you, but it has not been given to them. Those who have something will be given more—and they will have abundance. Those who have nothing will lose what they have—they will be destitute. I teach in parables so the people may look but not see, listen but not hear or understand.

There is a deliberate lack of clarity in Jesus’ teaching. We can confidently draw from this that Jesus actually wants folks to not only wrestle to do His teachings but to wrestle to understand them. As any psychologist will tell you, it takes information about one’s self and the wrestling to understand that information to produce lasting change. It’s not just that the hearer “get it” (clarity), but that the hearer works to get it. It’s the wrestling that produces the change not the information.

Putting the two texts in dialogue – both from Matthew, mind you – we see that Jesus taught both to reveal and conceal. And He did them both without bullet-style checklist. Therefore, we can conclude two things: (1) You don’t need bullet-points to be clear and (2) You don’t always want to be clear.

There is a danger to overwhelming clarity. What is it? The shuttering of missional imagination.

I had a professor in grad school whose tests were relatively easy as long as you knew to only parrot what he had said. When he asked about a particular biblical text, the only appropriate answer was the one he had given in class. He had given us the bullet-point and our job was to give it back. But everyone who has taught or preached any texts knows that there is typically a field of meaning and application. In another circumstance, I knew a minister who subscribed to the formerly popular notion that all parables only had 1 point. That means that as soon as someone gleaned something other than that 1 point, they had missed the point. I bet if I asked 15 Christians the meaning of the Parable of the Sower, I’d get at least 1o different meanings. Why? Because we all know that there is more there. The Scriptures are deep and wide and  Jesus intends for us to struggle with His word, to work through it and work it out – individually and communally. As soon as I say “In text X, God is teaching us 1, 2, and 3,” I have been clear but curtailed the imagination of the hearer. This is a great way for preachers and theologians to stay employed. We can be the church’s Bible answer men, but we may not be serving the church.

Now, someone will certainly say, “Sean, you’re calling for uncertainty and confused teaching.” Not really. What I’m calling for is the embrace of Jesus-style preaching in the contemporary church. When Jesus describes the Kingdom of God it is like…a seed…a man who…a net…new and old treasures…etc….Get the point? The teaching of Jesus expands the imagination. It paints pictures. There is a stark difference between Van Gogh and my 5-year old’s connect the dots. Guess what? The connect the dots is much clearer. I know what it is and how she got there without any thinking, analysis, or struggle. But is is also rudimentary and, quite frankly, disposable.

Just in case what I’ve posited in not clear, here’s a similar word from Eugene Peterson:

 

 

2 Responses to ““I Want To Be Clear” – The Low Hanging Fruit of Bullet Point Preachers”

  1. Kraig April 12, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    You’re a clear thinker, Sean, and your post is very clear!

    There is a difference between great art and connect-the-dots. There is also a difference between crappy art and connect-the-dots. Jesus was the best of artists. It’s the best I can do to just begin to understand, at an elementary level; I need connect-the-dots. Sure, I could try and understand (and teach) stuff without a demand for clarity and precision, but I’m pretty sure I’d end up with crappy art. It seems to me that crappy thinking, like crappy art, too often gets rationalized through an appeal to some vague notion of hiddenness, imagination, narrative, or what-not.

    There are some true geniuses who, like Jesus, help people understand deep and important concepts in ways such that the clarity and precision of their teaching is not always obvious. But those geniuses are few and far between. There are far, far more Lyotards than Kierkegaards, and even the Kierkegaards sometimes, in the name of imagination or self-discovery, produce confused and unhelpful teaching.

    That being said, I’m a fan of (sometimes) purposely clouding one’s clarity. It is often helpful to teach in a way that requires the learner to think and/or reflect before the learner can understand the teaching itself. I don’t think Jesus was ever unclear, though I do think he intentionally obscured the clarity of his teaching. I also think that the clarity of his teaching is sometimes necessarily obscure for broken people like you and me.

    How can clarity ever be obscure? Good question! I should be clear about what I mean! Think of a beautifully clear teaching of some sort that is hidden at the end of a long treasure hunt. The teaching itself is perfectly clear, but for one to see it, one must do some things. For those with ears to hear, Jesus’ teachings are perfectly clear. For those who don’t have ears to hear, Jesus’ teachings are still perfectly clear; unfortunately, those people aren’t in a position to see the clarity – either because they haven’t grasped or properly valued some central and essential concept or because they haven’t seen the teaching in the proper context.

    We are all sometimes included in that group of people who are not in a position to see the clarity of Jesus’ teaching. This is all scalar, or course. When we fully see God (that is, when we, by God’s grace, achieve a full conceptual understanding of the nature of God – if such a thing is possible for us, even in heaven), the clarity of all that Jesus said will be completely obvious. We’re just not yet the right kind of people to see it. Maybe one day, we will be such people. Nothing is unclear to God, the perfect thinker.

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  1. Six Days to Sunday - (Part 1) | The Palmer Perspective - April 23, 2012

    […] Every Christian has some thought, idea, or question about preaching. What we like. What we don’t like. Who we believe is effective and who isn’t. Since Christians spend a fair bit of time throughout their lives, sitting in pews and listening to preaching, it’s fair to assume that each would have opinions. Therefore, I’m not surprised to find an increasing number of people asking me about the preaching event and preparation for preaching. In recent weeks I’ve been contacted by preachers, youth ministers, lay persons, elders, and all other stripes of church members about my preaching, their preacher, their preaching, or becoming a better preacher (This is not necessarily because I am a great preacher, but rather because I’ve become well-known and greatly teased for my all too frequent railing about bullet points). […]

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