There once was a church that was totally centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Above the entrance to their meeting place hung a sign that read, “We Preach Christ Crucified” (cf. 1 Cor 1:23). Everyone in that church knew what their purpose was in this world.
Over the years, ivy began to grow up and around the entrance, and it obscured the last word of the sign. Soon it simply read: “We Preach Christ.” The members of the church never really noticed the change because the sign accurately reflected what was going on inside. Rather than preaching the crucified Savior as they had in the past, they were now just preaching Jesus as a loving man—an example of how to live—but no death on the cross to atone for our sins.
As the years passed, the ivy continued crawling over the sign, which now read, “We Preach.” Again, the parishioners hardly noticed the change, as the message of the church had become more of a lecture about morality than a proclamation of the good news—that God gave his Son for us that we might have life in his death and resurrection.
Sometime later, the ivy crawled even further and covered more of the sign, to the point where it simply read, “We.” Again, church folks hardly noticed because they had become inwardly focused and only interested in themselves. Finally, the ivy covered the entire sign, and the church died. Such is the fate of any church that minimizes the central truths about Jesus Christ and fails to carry out its mission in this world.
In 1 Timothy 3:15, the Apostle Paul called the church of the living God “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” In other words, the mission of the church is to preserve and promote the central truths of the living Christ. The problem, of course, is that a vast majority of people today no longer believe in the concept of truth. Specific objections to the Christian faith include the following:
“All religions are equally valid and basically teach the same truths.”
“Each religion sees part of the spiritual truth, but none sees the whole truth.”
“Religious belief is too culturally and historically conditioned to be universally true.”
“It is arrogant to insist that your religious truth is right and try to convert others to it.”
“We will never have peace on earth as long as religions make exclusive truth claims.”
This message tackles each one of these objections, seeking to demonstrate that “what I am saying is true and reasonable” (Acts 26:25). It then presents the simple message of the person and work of Jesus Christ, who reveals the Father, as Paul outlines in this passage:
Incarnation: “He appeared in a body . . . .”
Resurrection: “. . . was vindicated by the Spirit . . . .”
Verification: “. . . was seen by angels . . . .”
Proclamation: “. . . was preached among the nations . . . .”
Salvation: “. . . was believed on in the world . . . .”
Exaltation: “. . . was taken up in glory.”
The doctrines represented in the lines of this early hymn quoted by Paul are true. To surrender them is to let the ivy obscure the church’s message.
“Oh. My. Word.” That was my unsophisticated reaction to reading Ike Lasater’s Words That Work in Business: A Practical Guide to Effective Communication in the Workplace. (Yes, bad pun intended.) I always like to be pleasantly surprised by titles I thought would be underwhelming to read, and this little gem sparked something in me that will long endure. It gave me a new perspective on several key areas of my personal and professional life, so I needto spend more time with it. I wasn’t expecting much from this book, but I was riveted by it—and then jolted.
The author assumes prior knowledge of Marshall B. Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. But even without that knowledge, the reader can still infer the basics of NVC from Lasater’s book, consulting Rosenberg’s seminal work later. (NVC is about connecting with ourselves and others from the heart. It’s about seeing the humanity in everyone and recognizing our commonalities. It offers a simple yet effective framework to bring awareness to what we’re thinking, saying, and doing, and how we’re listening to other people so we can communicate with better clarity and compassion. Rather than judging, blaming, or criticizing, we start on neutral common ground to share what’s important to us in order to connect with others on a more empathetic level by tuning in to what they’re needing, hoping, or desiring.)
I’ve already acknowledged in this series that sometimes my words are not vehicles of love—toward God or others. Too often they’re self-centered or dispiriting. Too often they’re unhelpful or unkind. I admitted my need to be less of a “negaholic” and “complainiac” at times, but I wasn’t always sure how to go about doing that. In the previous post, I also noted that I need to “stay in conversation” and improve my skills in that area, too, but I wasn’t always sure how to do that, either. After reading Lasater, I had a much better track to run on for charting a new course.
The Past Is Present in Our Speech
In many ways, Words That Work in Business is something of a psychology of personal interaction. In it Lasater describes my upbringing perfectly:
I was implicitly taught how to analyze who was at fault, and thus who was to be blamed and punished. I learned how to protect myself from criticism, avoid punishment, and redirect blame. The results of this not-very-conscious process of blame and shame determined how I felt. My learning was how to avoid being blamed and punished; thus, I learned how to avoid what I did not want. This process did not help me learn what would enable me to flourish and throve or how to create the life I wanted.
Can I just go back in time and teach this book to my 17-year-old self? Better yet, can someone teach it to my parents so they can teach it to me? Or is it too late? If so, maybe I can just learn the principles in this book and model them for my grandkids (if I ever get any). Until then, maybe I can just start practicing with my colleagues until I get it right. Lasater’s “training wheels sentence” for NVC newbies is this:
“When I hear __________ , I feel __________, because I need __________. Would you be willing to __________?”
The concept is simple, but the implications for personal interaction are profound. In my world, for example, I’ve heard dozens of sermons on not judging others, but most of them were just negative approaches. “Thou shalt not!” But what is the positive practice to replace our incessant judging and criticizing? Lasater shows us. In fact, never before have I been so “lit up” by the appendices of a book. There Lasater gives us lists of helpful words and strategies for each of the blanks in the above “training wheels sentence.”
Preaching without Being Preachy
Does evangelicalism need a pioneer to explore these issues when it comes to homiletics? Which theological traditions might be open to such principles? Which would probably dismiss them out of hand? I have a few hunches, but that’s beside the point. I just placed another Rosenberg title on my Amazon wish list to help me pursue these stirrings: Practical Spirituality: The Spiritual Basis of Nonviolent Communication. All preachers want their words to “work” in the pulpit. Maybe there’s something here that can be helpful to us.
Quite honestly, I need to sit with this for a while. I think God is inviting me to something, though I’m not entirely sure what it is yet. In part, I’m wondering how NVC could apply to weekly preaching—where much damage is often done by our “violent” words to the congregation, unintentionally so but definitively, nonetheless. Alas, we preachers give ourselves a pass, ardently claiming “faithfulness to the sacred text” (and therefore faithfulness to God), even though we’re likely doing a lot of damage in the name of God. How can this be? I’m thinking more here about our homiletical posture than our sermonic content. How we say something can be just as important as what we say (cf. John 12:49).
Patience When We Blow It
Part of the joy in this approach is Lasater’s encouragement for us is to stop judging ourselves so harshly when we stumble in this area. This verbal life takes practice, he insists. Lots of it. “Make requests of yourself and others, not demands. Learn the difference. Feel the difference. Learn to learn.”
But therein lies the problem. There’s too much I want to learn. And read. And study. But if I try to do it all, I suspect I’ll never get around to writing this dang dissertation that’s hanging over my head. So, I need divine grace at any moment to know which areas of study God wants me to pursue. On my own, I have too many. Maybe there’s a book out there that can help me with the Faustian curse that still haunts me from time to time. That, too, is likely connected to my own history of “growing up messed up.”
Thank God, then, for grace. When the Lord spoke his ultimate “Word” to us, it was Jesus, his divine Son, full of “grace and truth” (John 1:14). Consequently, there’s always hope.
Review of Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “The Crisis in Expository Preaching Today,” Preaching (September/October 1995): 4-12.
As the title indicates, Walter Kaiser believed there was a “crisis in expository preaching” in the pulpit. That was 25 years ago this month. Has the situation gotten better or worse over the past two and a half decades? A recent Gallup poll suggests that “sermon content is what appeals most to churchgoers,” and not just any sermon content, but content based on the Bible. Maybe Kaiser’s warning was heeded after all.
Kaiser argued that there never was a widespread demand in the American church for systematically laying out and explaining biblical texts for contemporary listeners. That was a crisis to him because only expository preaching could afford the Scriptures their rightful place in setting both the agenda and the diet for a congregation’s spiritual health.
Moreover, the much revered Old Testament scholar contended that only expository preaching could successfully confront the crisis of truth and the widespread assault on authority that was rampant in society at the time. Postmodernism eroded the concept of truth and rendered the Bible a mere “dialogue partner,” he said. Scripture was the main casualty of the revolution, having been lost in the clamor for relevance, relatability, and the trendy “meeting of needs.”
“Rather than Scripture declaring what God wants to say to us, the crowds that come dictate what is acceptable, popular, nonthreatening, and preachable for modern audiences” he warned. The absurdity of this reversal is that “the people, who theoretically are in need of spiritual help, are prescribing for the spiritual physicians what it is they need!”
“Rather than Scripture declaring what God wants to say to us, the crowds that come dictate what is acceptable, popular, nonthreatening, and preachable for modern audiences.”
The remedy for this “contemporary morass that preaching has fallen into,” he said, was to preach the whole canon of Scripture—faithfully, exegetically, and systematically. This includes the Old Testament as well as the New. Parishioners must see the organic unity of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
“Modern congregations have lost their sense of direction because they do not know either the beginning, middle, or end of the plan that God has laid out so clearly in the Bible,” he wrote. Preachers must avoid getting “stuck” and simply going over and over again the same old elementary truths of the gospel, thereby serving only milk to their people and not solid food.
Given our gravitation toward those portions of Scripture we know best, preachers must endeavor to exegete for their people the whole counsel of God, he said—book by book, chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph. “A consistent and systematic exposition of the Scriptures will help restore order, end the habits of a violent society and repair damaged relationships at every level of society,” he wrote.
Kaiser made a strong case for the preacher’s systematic and exegetical approach to expository preaching. “If the sermon is to have any authority in this day and age, it must have the divine authority claimed in the text as its warrant,” he noted. This kind of logic, which permeates the article, is as inspiring as it is foundational.
“If the sermon is to have any authority in this day and age, it must have the divine authority claimed in the text as its warrant.”
Kaiser probably could have addressed other important homiletical issues in his article, such as cultural intelligence, the ethics of persuasion, and communicational effectiveness in our day. After all, our society as a whole doesn’t seem to be any healthier than it was back in 1995, despite the uptick in biblical exposition. What good is expository preaching that doesn’t connect, inspire, or persuade?
Still, as many pulpits began slouching toward a foggy future at the behest of spiritual gadflies and cultural malcontents two and a half decades ago, Kaiser envisioned a glorious church whose life would be built squarely and unashamedly on the firm foundation of God’s authoritative truth—the sacred Scriptures.
Gallup seems to agree. At least for now. Not that Kaiser needed the confirmation.
Review of John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, rev. and exp. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015). ISBN: 978-0801017087. (Page numbers refer to the 1990 edition.)
The Supremacy of God in Preaching is an exhortation to those who exhort. Brief yet piercing, the book serves as a clarion call for preachers to strike the right balance of gravity and gladness in today’s pulpit, while setting forth a clear challenge for more God-glorifying, Christ-honoring, and Spirit-empowered proclamation. “Our people are starving for God,” says John Piper, former senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “Preaching that does not have the aroma of God’s greatness may entertain for a season, but it will not touch the hidden cry of the soul: ‘Show me thy glory!’” (9, 11).
Writing from a Reformed Baptist perspective, Piper passionately contends that a weighty, theocentric sermon is not primarily the product of homiletical technique, but rather the result of the preacher’s personal holiness and a God-immersed life. Citing Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Piper contends, “It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God” (11).
The book is divided into two parts. The first is titled “Why God Should Be Supreme in Preaching.” Here Piper offers four chapters on what he considers to be, “The Goal of Preaching,” “The Ground of Preaching,” “The Gift of Preaching,” and the “Gravity and Gladness of Preaching.” The second part of the book focuses on the practical outworking of these chapters and is titled, “How to Make God Supreme in Preaching: Guidance from the Ministry of Jonathan Edwards.” Here Piper develops three chapters on a set of imperatives taken from the life and pulpit ministry of his hero Jonathan Edwards, the famous American philosopher/theologian/pastor: “Keep God Central,” “Submit to Sweet Sovereignty,” and “Make God Supreme.”