I’m writing to you because I’m concerned that you’re not doing your job. Sure, if you’re the average preacher, then you’re preaching to a robust group of a hundred or two, you manage to stay out of the TBN gutter, you try hard to craft topics that are Biblically faithful, and you also manage to keep your talks lively and encouraging. What more could any Christian ask, right?
Well, I wonder if you’ve spent any time recently considering where spiritual Dark Ages come from? This question bothers me a lot, because it seems to me we might be heading there soon enough. Consider this quote from our friend Richard Dawkins:
“As long ago as 1954, according to Robert Hinde in his thoughtful book, Why Gods Persist, a Gallup Poll in the United States of America found the following. Three quarters of Catholics and Protestants could not name a single Old Testament prophet. More than two thirds didn’t know who preached the Sermon on the Mount. A substantial number thought that Moses was one of Jesus’s twelve apostles. That, to repeat, was in the United States, which is notoriously more religious than other parts of the developed world.” (The God Delusion, ch.9)
So 50 years ago, in a self-consciously Christian America, Moses was an apostle, for all they knew. And I can’t imagine that Christians are doing vastly better since then. One of those prophets that two-thirds of Christians couldn’t name gave us a fair clue as to the nature of spiritual famine:
“The days are coming, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I will send a famine through the land— not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the LORD, but they will not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12)
Amos speaks of days when people will long to hear the Word of the Lord, but no-one will be speaking it. No doubt, Amos was referring to the 400+ years of prophetic silence from God before finally John the Baptist spoke up, but I’m equally certain that this verse is true of any age in which preachers begin to fail in their one and only task. I think, friends, that we are heading into those days.
“Nonsense!” you will protest. “Thousands of preachers continue to speak boldly about the gospel and the scriptures!” Well, yes and no. The problem is, we’re content to see the ‘Word of the Lord’ as any quotation from the Bible, and preaching as ‘a talk with a Christian theme’. But is a bit of scripture the same as ‘the Word of the Lord’?
Well, a single Bible word won’t do, obviously, because it might have come from anywhere; we need at least two. That brings us into ‘shortest Bible verse’ territory, so we’re doing well. But people can (and do) make little bits of Bible say anything they want, as long as you don’t worry much what the Lord meant when He uttered those words. So, to avoid being tricked by tongue twisting, we need to have a good idea of what our Bible quotation meant in it’s original setting. And to do this, we need to know what whole books of the Bible are saying. And to do any of that, we also need to know where the book fits into the whole picture of the Bible. And so before you know it, you discover that, for us to have a fair shot at hearing ‘the Word of the Lord’ at any given place in scripture, we need to be working with the message of whole books, and indeed the whole Bible. It’s called ‘exegesis’ in the study, and ‘exposition’ in the pulpit.
But when I look around at the churches, the good, vibrant, full churches, what do I see? Topics. Topical preaching. That is all. Almost without exception. There are Bible verses being used, to be sure, but do you think anyone knows what they really mean? Probably not. They’re taking your word for it, dear preacher, because they have no idea what was said before that verse, or what will be said after. And Moses might as well have been one of Jesus’ contemporaries, because we jam their words together all the time, but do our listeners now how to untangle our links? They know some of the things that the Bible says, but do they have any idea what the Bible means?
You still don’t believe me? Allow me to suggest a helpful social experiment for you. Preach from a novel for a month. A nice, long, little-known novel. Choose random pages, write down quotes of about 3 0r 4 lines a piece, and take a few of them into the pulpit each week. Feel free to group quotes into themes if you like, and preach about whatever the quotes seem to be saying. At the end of a few weeks of this, get your congregation each to write out a plot outline of the book.
How do you anticipate they’ll do? I think they’ll do horrifically. We routinely practice the belief that to understand a novel, we must read it from start to finish. But when it comes to the Bible, we expect that we’ve done our job if we string cheery aphorisms together. And so our people make a horrible mess of trying to understand books of the Bible, because they’ve never been confronted with what it means. Even if you happen to know what’s going on in scripture, I shudder to think what the next generation will have understood and what they’ll be teaching. Our people are fed with plenty of words, some of them even Biblical, but they starve for lack of the Word of the Lord.
Preaching the ‘Word of the Lord’ is not actually about words. It’s about a message. It’s about meaning. And how are your people ever going to hear a message emerging from the text if you don’t start explaining it to them, from the beginning of a book to the end?
“But that’s going to take work! Lot’s of care and study and prayer!” Yes, it is. And that’s the first sensible thing you’ve said since I began.
I’ll talk to you again soon,