Words are very important to me. I am a bit of a pedant; I get annoyed when people mix up sliver and slither, or sheaf and sheath, and I always write a sermon with a thesaurus beside me. I am always learning more about words. At university in 1969, I discovered to my surprise that in spiritual terms I am an “evangelical “, when I found that the Christian group with which I had most rapport was the “Evangelical Union.” I had to unlearn my assumed definition of evangelical, which to me was all to do with street preaching and altar calls (ie, actually what “evangelistic” means). “Evangelical” I learned, is simply a term that points to the evangel, the good news, and is used, in the Western world anyway, to distinguish a view of Scripture and faith that sees the good news of Easter as having a personal impact. A writer called Richard J Coleman – not the one I married! – wrote a book way back in 1972 that defined the emphasis quite helpfully:
“A living faith in a personal God and Saviour, a vital witness to Jesus Christ, and a deep concern for biblical and orthodox Christianity…. to be biblical in this way means not literalism, but fidelity to the essential truths laid down by Christ and recorded in the Bible.” (Coleman, Issues of Theological Warfare, p 27, 29)
So the Bible is of huge importance to an evangelical, though we do not use it in the same way as fundamentalists. For adherents of that persuasion – in Judaism and Islam, as well as Christianity - the actual words of holy writings have an intrinsic power and authority that holds sway over the practice of their daily life. Orthodox Jews follow the Torah literally, and for Moslems the Koran is seen as God's true, final, and eternal message. Evangelical Christians, however, see God’s true final and eternal message as being found in the person of Jesus Christ – the carpenter of Nazareth, the risen Lord. We discover him in the Bible, and many of us would not have come to faith without the words and stories and teachings of Scripture. But for us, Jesus has stepped off the pages of the book and become part of our lives. Christ is a living reality, beyond the printed page.
These thoughts have been roiling round this week as my days of sermon preparation were followed by a one-day conference on “Kiwi-made” preaching hosted by the evangelical organisation Langham Partnership. The smorgasbord of 25 presenters (from which attendees had to opt for just five) addressed a wide range of issues to do with the preaching of the Word in a contemporary Kiwi context. It was a wonderful day, and every option I chose was well worth the listening. I came away with a renewed sense of my call to preach – that is, to utilise Phillips Brooks’ definition, to present God’s truth through my personality. The day included debates about the length of sermons, the use of visual aids, the place of commentaries, the issue of plagiarism and the practice of collaborative preparation. For me, the most engaging topic was one on which I heard two different perspectives. A woman pastor addressed the question “Must every sermon leave listeners with something to do?” and a Carey College lecturer looked at “adding learning outcomes to the sermon to ensure its effectiveness.” The pros and cons were fascinating. Emphasising “application” may undermine the message of grace, encourage inappropriate moralising, and do violence to the genres of scripture. On the other hand, all preachers have some sense of what outcomes they expected from a particular message, and articulating the goals could be helpful in both preparation and soliciting feedback.
Underneath it all was the question, “What is a sermon for?” Are we as preachers the theologian-in-residence or one beggar telling another where to find bread? The answer is that we are both, and that is at once an awesome privilege and a daunting responsibility. Words have power, and Word and Spirit together have life-changing power. JB Phillips once said that translating the epistles was like trying to rewire an ancient house without being able to switch off the mains (preface to Letters to Young Churches). Marva Dawn employs the notion that Word and worship should “kill us” – an Americanism not particularly resonant with Kiwis, but a good reminder that God’s Word rightly read and heard will shake us to the bones.
Conference speakers acknowledged that contemporary culture requires that we develop skills in the multidimensional ministries of the Word; the overlapping semantic fields of information, declaration, exhortation, persuasion and conversation were named (from Peter Adam).Several referred to the fact that telling the Christian story might require that we tell it in symbol, story, and praxis, rather than propositional truth (see Tom Wright) But I came away assured that the sermon still has a place, and a decent length one at that. I see my particular calling – whether in preaching to the gathered church, or sharing with an individual or small group – as helping people see where their own human story connects with the Big Story of God. Evangelicals are utterly convinced that there is a big story, a metanarrative that Tom Wright says rings true because it runs so much deeper than the world’s story.
Sermons are powerful because they shape the lives of their hearers. I know that from my own experience of being touched by God as others speak his Word, and from listeners who have told me my human message, prepared with humility and hope, has mediated God’s Word to them. Telling the stories of faith has the power to make God’s invisible presence visible, in past events and present experience. As with the couple on the Emmaus Road, opening the scriptures has the potential to set hearts on fire.
meet to offer praise and prayer,
may we find in fuller measure
what it is in Christ we share:
Here, as in the world around us,
all our varied skills and arts
wait the coming of His Spirit
into open minds and hearts.
Here are symbols to remind us
of our lifelong need of grace;
here are table, font and pulpit,
here the cross has central place.
Here in honesty of preaching,
here in silence, as in speech,
here in newness and renewal
God the Spirit comes to each.