People question my insistence that preachers should ditch their points. Points, I have argued, are planted and buried with story, whispers and the inspiring word. People don’t need or want step-by-step directions and we’re not interested in the points. Do you need proof? Just think about the last time you read a “User License Agreement” on a computer program. Oh, wait, you didn’t read it. The reason is simple, you want to get on to engagement. Engagement rarely comes in 1…2…3. Below is perhaps the greatest proof ever.
Sunday night my wife, Rochelle, and I accepted an invitation from the Yaseen Foundation to attend Iftar – the sunset, fast-breaking – at a local mosque. As a member of the board for the Peninsula Clergy Network, the professional association for Bay area clergy, I was glad to accept the invitation from one of my fellow board members, the Imam of the mosque. Since 9/11, Americans, in general, have learned a great deal – though certainly not enough and not always correct – about Islam; the month of Ramadan being chief among these learnings.
As you know, during Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from dawn until sunset. The fast is intended to teach Muslims about patience, humility, and spirituality. In the past, friends of mine, for want of learning, fellowship and understanding have participated fully in Ramadan and found it to be a moving and productive time. Rochelle and I did not choose to join the fast, but we did want to learn, directly from practitioners, what Islam and Ramadan are about. Over the next little while, I’ll post some thoughts about our experience.
When people learn that we participated in Iftar, the first question is always, “Why?” Why would devoted Christ-followers, which Rochelle and I are, choose to participate in a ritual and prayer service from another religion? It’s a fair question, I think, so here’s our reasoning.
- What most Christians know of Islam is what they see and hear in the media. Unfortunately, both for Christians and Muslims alike, the focus of the media and Islam is on terrorism. That’s understandable given that the perpetrators of 9/11 and other terrorist acts have claimed Islam as their religion and justified their actions as both faithful to and in concert with the Qur’an and religious purity. Thinking Christians, however, know that White-Supremist and other bad actors in history have misrepresented the Christian faith in order to justify their own twisted perspectives. Is my church, and nearly every Christian I know, represented by the Ku Klux Klan, the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Christians who supported slavery and abortion clinic bombers? I think not. To understand what a religion truly is, people of good faith and intent must listen to it’s best practitioners and allow the religion to speak for itself. As the keynote speaker at our Iftar said, “In every religion there are people intent on distorting the religion.” Apparently, there is a darkness in the human heart so twisted that it seeps out in every worldview, religion, and perspective.
- I didn’t know any Muslim. It’s very easy to caricature people you don’t know. It’s even easier to fixate on the differences that live on the surface – dress, language, skin color, etc… – all those things that are highly visible but fairly superficial. Regardless of who it is, when humans sit at table with actual people, we discover that we share a great deal. We all have a desire to see our children prosper, a want to live in peace, to exercise our freedom of religion, and preserve the goodness of the Earth God has given us. As one who continues to believe in the supremacy of Christ, I enter these relationships always hopeful of Christian conversion, but even short of that, engaging with practitioners of another religion, profits me the opportunity to represent Christ to others who may have misconceptions about Christianity and Christ.
- To learn something. Oddly, there are pockets within our world that are firmly anti-intellectual. There are some people who are suspicious of people who read “too much,” study “too much” or have advanced education. Do we really believe that it’s better to know less rather than more? Ignorance leads to fear and “fear to the dark side.” As someone charged by God to teach, experience and information are not only the tools of my trade, but the way I “face” the world – to borrow and image from F. LeRon Shults. As our country becomes increasingly polarized, knowledge of one another and the ability to listen to and not speak past one another are keys to regaining civility and advancing our shared hopes and dreams.
I’m reminded at this moment that Jesus hung out with a lot of people that the good, church-going religious folks shunned. When I die, I want people to be able to say the same thing about me.
(to be continued)
Take the “How Well Do You Know Islam Quiz” here.
In the previous post, I began making the case that preacher’s should ditch their points (or at least the way we usually make them). So if you decide not to deluge your audience with points when you preach, what should you do instead? It’s a good question. First, I must restate the simple fact that scripture does not come step-by-step, point-by-point. The entire canon forms one grand narrative. Scot McKnight’s, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, is an excellent source to help you unearth this truth. Therefore, when you and I decide to abandon the “points-preaching model” and adopt a more narrative form, we are not losing a sacred pedagogical tool; rather we are assuming (and it is an assumption), that teaching like Jesus taught is a better model. As a Christian, I assume that everything Jesus did, He better than anyone else did. Insomuch, Jesus should be imitated whenever possible.
So, you ask, what should we do then after we ditch our pitiful points preaching? My answer, “Do what the text does.”
Here’s how to get started:
Assume the text(s) knows how to tell a story. When preparing your sermon try following the story of the text you’re preaching and sketch it out as one would a cartoon strip. Each move of the sermon should form a picture that tells a story, or at least part of one. The sermon then moves from beginning, middle and end becoming a story itself. Obviously, the various content and genres available in scripture mean that sermons look different from one another. An orienting text such as Proverbs or James is much more hard and fast than Jesus’ explanations of the Kingdom in the gospels. Sermons should reflect the nature of the text being preached. When Jesus says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” the Savior is allowing for imagination, He’s encouraging it. “Thou shalt not kill…” is a different kind of text, birthing a different type of sermon. Therefore, you do what the text does.
Assume relevance. Preachers prostitute the text with points when they think no one will care what the text actually says. As a matter of fact, I recently heard a preacher that I like and respect say, “I want to share 4 points with you. Now, I just made these up…” Really? What he’s actually saying is, “I don’t think this text is relevant to your felt needs, so I’m going to make it relevant. Therefore, I will twist and turn this text into an answer to a question.” I may be naive, but I’m going to assume the text is relevant. Not all texts are relevant at all times and in the same way; that’s a pastoral decision for you to make in the planning process. The idea many write sermons with is that these events happened long ago and life has changed so drastically that I must close the distance between my congregation and the Bible. Unfortunately, this move actually increases the distance and leads listeners to the unfounded belief that scripture is boring and just not for them. Any faithful Bible student knows, however, that Scripture is incredibly present. It just takes reading and faith.
(to be continued…)
As we continue to examine preaching and the preaching imagination, let’s turn again to Mark’s announcement in Mark 1: “…after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news (1.14-15 NRSV).” Previously we took a brief look at what it means that Jesus’ proclamation occurred, “after John was arrested,” but the next statement is equally as thought-provoking. It is a statement about location and speech; “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news….”
I note here that Jesus began his teaching in a place of His own choosing, but more importantly, He began His preaching to an audience of His choosing. I have noticed that a great deal of contemporary preaching is aimed at people and populations that are not present in the room. I once had a mentor tell me about a 25-year standing men’s prayer group. Early on the group decided to talk only about themselves. At no time were they permitted to talk extensively about their wives, work or children. The rule: Don’t talk about people who aren’t in the room. Another way of saying this is “take responsibility for you own stuff.” It is a move to end the deflection and obfuscation that all too frequently occurs within groups. While keeping the world outside of church building ever-present and a pressing concern of our worship, I’m arguing that the preaching event should address the people in the room.
Preaching should announce the good news with which the present hearers must deal. Too much preaching talks about “those people,” the people that “aren’t us.” I recently heard a TV preacher railing against federal, “activist” judges. I immediately wondered: How many federal judges are members in his congregation? In the end, preaching that launches attacks or feigns “concern” for people not in the room is largely useless and oftentimes far more reveals the self-righteousness of the preacher and the perceived “goodness” of the congregants than announcing the good news of Jesus. Unfortunately, this move contributes to the divisions and distance between those inside the church and those not yet inside; adding to human nature’s “us-versus-them” tendency.
Jesus announces a public word! No person or population is excluded and/or targeted. God’s will for the one is God’s will for all. No “us” and “them.” He is not trying to scandalize “them,” He’s scandalizing us “all.” He’s not offering freedom and hope to “us,” but freedom and hope to “all.” Therefore those within the room, should hear in the proclamation a call to make those outside the room both their destination and ally, rather than the opposition and enemy. The word is for all, entering the world through the ears of those who have already heard the word.
What if modern preaching approached its task as Jesus did, reversing the typical, “us-versus-them” orientation and called the church to deal forthrightly with her call – which is to announce “good news” to the all rather than proclaiming bad news just for the people we don’t like? Nietzsche commented, “the harm the good do is the most harmful harm.” He meant that good people, coming to believe that they possess goodness – by contrast, those who differ must be preternaturally evil – do violence because they do not consider the potential for their own evil. This, to me, is why, preaching must resist polarizing narratives that target and divide those within the ecclesia from those without. We are all, and at all times, in need of “the good news.” That, this Sunday, is what you should preach.