Have We Forgotten the “Foolishness of Preaching?”
When does the climb for deeper teaching become dangerous?

I sat over espresso with a friend this summer. Being passionate about such things, we talked about churches.

He'd just come from a conversation with a mutual friend, the lead pastor of a rural Midwest congregation. The topic of preaching had come up. He'd asked his friend what the goal of his preaching was. After a moment of thought, the pastor replied: "My goal in preaching is for my church to understand the meaning of the text."

We sipped our drinks and picked at the statement a little. To understand the meaning of the text. A good goal. But is it enough? After all, a congregant can understand the text and remain aloof, untouched by the Spirit, disengaged, unchanged, hard of heart.

A listener could get big-headed if a preacher stopped at "understanding the text" … with the same puffy cerebellum that can lead to porch-chair critiques of another man's ministry philosophy.

And there's the rub, Paul, a voice said inside. There's something wrong about it, but it's in you, too.

Bible students or closet Gnostics?

Earlier this year, I sat over a different espresso with Jeff Vanderstelt of Seattle's Soma community.

"I'm convinced" he said "that many of us look at Bible study as self-righteousness. We think that the more we study and preach the bible the more righteous we are. It's a stream of Gnosticism, though—this thought that the more knowledge we have the more spiritual we become."

"Like we'll ascend to some hidden knowledge?" I volunteered, playing off the Gnostic idea.

"Exactly" Jeff said. "You hear people saying, ‘Man, I just need deeper teaching.' And I think What? You have Jesus! Like the Pharisees, we can go to the Scriptures but fail to come to Jesus. People can get to the Scriptures and never get to Jesus."

At what point does my search for scriptural knowledge become a distraction from discipleship? When does my yearning for wisdom conflict with closeness to Christ? How does my well-meaning desire to teach deeply, to understand, depart from the path of discipleship?

I don't know yet.

While best known for heresies related to spirit and matter, the real root of various Gnosticisms' divide with orthodoxy is a character-of-God issue. While the Christian God is a God who reveals, the inverted Gnostic deity keeps cruel secrets. This is why gnosis—"knowledge"—is the path to enlightenment. Truth is for initiates, the select few. Truth is high, humanity is low, and therefore, humanity must ascend.

Wisdom is up there somewhere. Start climbing, kid.

But the Christian story is that God has sent Wisdom among us. He came down. Our key doctrine is not gnosis, it's kenosis—"the emptying". The incarnation is a descent that shames our every attempt at elevation. As a result Christian initiates are the meek, the poor in spirit, the scum of the earth. The lame and the blind.

October 28, 2013

Displaying 1–10 of 14 comments

bahnfire

November 11, 2013  6:22pm

As an experienced climber, I can definitely testify to the difficulty of climbing downward rather than upward. I like the analogy you gave here in how we receive knowledge of scripture and hear truth. Lots of times, sermons at my church were a bunch of head knowledge that people heard and that was the accomplishment, the fact that they were able to sit there and hear what the pastor had to say, then go about their week feeling accomplished. Hard to believe that this was a Church of the Brethren, but our traditions were still alive. What point is there then for people to sit there and listen about God's Word if there is no application to their own lives. The pastor would go up front and preach a sermon on God's love and then the next week might be on some other topic. Point being we didn't take the time to really understand what we already know. Sure God loves us, but it should take more than one Sunday service to talk about! No we wanted to learn something new next Sunday so the knowledge can just keep piling in our heads. I am a man of simplicity and practicality, so when preaching does not present application to here and now, what is the basis of preaching it? I believe that a pastor should preach until what he/she is preaching is practiced in the congregation.

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bahnfire

November 11, 2013  6:21pm

As an experienced climber, I can definitely testify to the difficulty of climbing downward rather than upward. I like the analogy you gave here in how we receive knowledge of scripture and hear truth. Lots of times, sermons at my church were a bunch of head knowledge that people heard and that was the accomplishment, the fact that they were able to sit there and hear what the pastor had to say, then go about their week feeling accomplished. Hard to believe that this was a Church of the Brethren, but our traditions were still alive. What point is there then for people to sit there and listen about God's Word if there is no application to their own lives. The pastor would go up front and preach a sermon on God's love and then the next week might be on some other topic. Point being we didn't take the time to really understand what we already know. Sure God loves us, but it should take more than one Sunday service to talk about! No we wanted to learn something new next Sunday so the knowledge can just keep piling in our heads. I am a man of simplicity and practicality, so when preaching does not present application to here and now, what is the basis of preaching it? I believe that a pastor should preach until what he/she is preaching is practiced in the congregation.

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bahnfire

November 11, 2013  6:20pm

As an experienced climber, I can definitely testify to the difficulty of climbing downward rather than upward. I like the analogy you gave here in how we receive knowledge of scripture and hear truth. Lots of times, sermons at my church were a bunch of head knowledge that people heard and that was the accomplishment, the fact that they were able to sit there and hear what the pastor had to say, then go about their week feeling accomplished. Hard to believe that this was a Church of the Brethren, but our traditions were still alive. What point is there then for people to sit there and listen about God's Word if there is no application to their own lives. The pastor would go up front and preach a sermon on God's love and then the next week might be on some other topic. Point being we didn't take the time to really understand what we already know. Sure God loves us, but it should take more than one Sunday service to talk about! No we wanted to learn something new next Sunday so the knowledge can just keep piling in our heads. I am a man of simplicity and practicality, so when preaching does not present application to here and now, what is the basis of preaching it? I believe that a pastor should preach until what he/she is preaching is practiced in the congregation.

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Bill Dhea

November 05, 2013  4:21pm

I preach at a community church in a small Northeastern Kansas town. I have preached on and off for almost 40 years and I have a very simplistic view of preaching/teaching ( I connect the two since, unlike some, I see them in perfect harmony). I have three simple objectives that I try to reach. There are in no particular order, although different occasions may promote one over the other. They are: share the gospel message with as many people as possible, instill in the believers a passion for the Scriptures, and challenge them to be partners in ministry. Preaching and teaching in a small mid-west town is a truly humbling experience.

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Tim

November 04, 2013  4:40pm

Richard C Klueg No one here has "pilloried" anyone. This is good old "exhort one another daily". "In fact, anything less would be sinful neglect of our responsibility as heralds of the Almighty." This article is not suggesting less than "efforts to exegete the Word as accurately as I am able, and to communicate it as clearly as I am able...". It is suggesting and I added extra for a dynamic far greater than merely accuracy. To begin with, limiting the preaching of the Word to one hired expert delivering in one-way communication with zero participation and zero reproduction such that the saints consume 75-85% of their giving to accomplish this dynamic, is not an accurate reflection of truth expression when the saints gather. How the truth is delivered and the goals of it's delivery are equally important to what is said. This requires stepping out of Ur.

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sheerahkahn

November 04, 2013  12:20am

Paul, I'm thinking that perhaps...and this is just me...gnosticism...probably not a good example to illustrate your point...and to put this out first, I got what you are saying...just...choice of examples...anyway, I think I have a better word/example for you to convey what you're getting across: hyponatremia

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Richard C Klueg

October 30, 2013  10:26am

Well, in the midst of all this positive feedback, let me rise in defense of the pilloried pastor who was raised up as the starting point for all of this introspective hand-wringing regarding preaching. Do you seriously think that he is not interested in a heartfelt, obedient response to the Word accurately proclaimed to his hearers? Do you imagine that he does not pray for this? And are we assuming that the Word of God, accurately proclaimed, is not transforming lives by the power of the Holy Spirit? I see nothing wrong with setting as our goal the accurate communication the meaning of the Bible to our hearers. In fact, anything less would be sinful neglect of our responsibility as heralds of the Almighty. It is a false dichotomy that sees a conflict between knowing the Lord Jesus and growing in knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures. And I hardly think that the problem with the church today is that we know the Bible too well. So, I'm going to stick with my efforts to exegete the Word as accurately as I am able, and to communicate it as clearly as I am able, praying for the Lord to continue to bless these efforts as He as promised. Oh, and I'm not sure you all really understand what Gnosticism is, either. It is really not an apt term for what you seem to be describing, unless you using the term very, very loosely (in which case perhaps you should not capitalize it).

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David Flowers

October 29, 2013  3:03pm

Perhaps one factor that has been left out of the discussion is temperament, or spiritual pathways? I'm a head person. Knowledge moves me deeply to worship. Knowing/learning leads me to a sense of the presence, peace, and power of God. (Of course I face the danger of misusing knowledge, but we are all in danger of turning our gifts into weapons.) So for me, knowledge leads to transformation. The times when this isn't the case are worth looking at. When I read something I agree with, and I don't change as a result of it, most often that is because I'm not "there" yet. I may see the truth in my head, but it hasn't reached my heart. Even if I try to obey I will eventually fail, because I am trying to do something for which I lack the spiritual capacity, like a child trying to walk in his father's shoes – stumbly, awkward, perhaps even dangerous. The idea that we should focus on obedience doesn't quite sit right with me because it seems to assume that just because we read something true, we are therefore automatically capable of living in a different way. For most of us, there is a journey required between finding truth and finding ourselves able to follow it. So for me, the question is, "How is God beckoning to me in this moment? How is this an invitation for me to know God better, to surrender attachments I need to surrender, to stop resisting the call to love?" Those questions, when asked consistently, lead me on the journey whereby I will encounter God, and the truth of what I have read will work deep down into my life, producing transformation I could never bring about simply by trying harder to be obedient. Maybe in all this I have said the same thing Paul Pastor was trying to get at – allowing a text to get deeply down into us, going way past merely understanding meanings, and moving into the heart where God dwells and transformation happens. I guess the part I missed was the often-lengthy journey that is usually necessary for this to happen on any deep level.

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Kyle

October 29, 2013  2:36pm

Well said, Paul. My brain is in "classroom teacher" mode right now, so pardon the comparisons between teaching and preaching (since they aren't the same), but I think Webb's Depth of Knowledge hierarchy does bring some good stuff to the table. If preachers are trying to convey a "deeper" knowledge of the Bible, they can't stop at revealing new Bible facts (level 1). They can't stop at identifying patterns or themes in the Bible (level 2). They can't stop at using the Bible to critique, assess, or hypothesize about culture (level 3). Reaching the highest "depth of knowledge" in relation to the text involves taking those previous levels and applying them to life, and using them to create something new and beautiful (level 4). It's fascinating to me that in this hierarchy, application is associated with the highest levels of knowledge, not a return to the basics. It doesn't propose that we forget the complexities to focus on the simple applications. It reminds me of playing tuba in band. Practicing scales, proper breathing technique, and the right embouchure are vital to playing well. But these things aren't enough, in and of themselves. Musicians may compete over who can play the highest or lowest note, hold the longest note, etc. (just like I've sometimes sought knowledge for knowledge's sake). But people pay to hear musicians with a deeper understanding of their craft–cooperating with other musicians, conveying the emotion inherent in a piece, following the lead of a conductor, knowing when to blast out a piercing note, knowing when to support the melody being played by a different instrument, knowing when to sit back and just count rests. When we start to see the difference between breadth and depth of knowledge, we'll seek a deeper understanding of the Bible–one that results in application and construction; not just memorization, comparison, or critique.

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Marshall

October 29, 2013  11:56am

I greatly appreciate this post. You've put your finger on a sensitive spot, Paul. Many of us in ministry miss the target because we aim at the wrong goal. Preaching is not (1) unloading previously unknown Bible facts (2) moving an audience to laughter and tears or (3) presuming it's my job to convert somebody. Although at times, I'll admit, each of those has been my goal. Lately I'm impressed with what Jesus said: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses ..." Witnessing to the power and glory and goodness of God, through Jesus, and thus making disciples and teaching them to obey everything he commanded. Now that's the job description I'm focusing on these days.

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