What Place Should Preaching Hold?

Thursday, June 07, 2012

I'm Thankful for the Reformation When it Comes to Preaching

If there is one feature of Reformed theology that has come to concern me greatly in the last several years it is the extraordinarily high view of preaching which birthed and sustained it from the Pre-Reformation days of John Hus to the Post-Reformation present.  There is little doubt that the church of the "Dark Ages" had, by and large, spiritually exhausted and depressed and even oppressed people.  Preaching in a language the people couldn't understand, combined with the dumbing down of the masses by making them think they were too stupid to read the Bible for themselves, converged to created a church that for hundreds of years was largely powerless.  

To be sure the church still had a mission, and even better the mission still had a church.  There have always been and always will be bright spots of the biblical gospel doing what it does best among the church and throughout the lost world.  A study of church history will reveal multiple seasons in a variety of places around the world where the Spirit of God was invading new territory through the church.  And it almost always included a combination of ministry efforts, with preaching being only one.

I'm Not Thankful for the Incomplete Nature of the Reformation When it Comes to Preaching

My concern today is mainly summarized in my sense that Reformed theology today has gravitated to an almost fixed position of...and this will no doubt hurt a bit...of talking people to death.  I have felt for many years now that it has created and nurtured and atmosphere of information dispensing, data dumping, or expositional exhaustion.  What merely included a restoration of the biblical gospel through preaching and teaching has almost consummated in merely...talking.

There is a justifiably high place that should be given to bible study, hermeneutics, and exegesis.  I spent eight years of my life in formal, theological training to learn it, do it, and apply it.  No person in their right mind can deny the reality that thousands of years between us and the biblical texts means historical, cultural, and literary gaps that must be assessed and filled in order to understand so much of what was going on in the Bible.  Issues like "authorial intent" are crucial, since understanding what the original author was trying to say means understanding what GOD was originally trying to say.  This in turn forms the basis for applying what GOD wants to say to us today.  Reformed theology has definitely got this nailed down.

From my perspective, however, as one who has been "Reformed" for over half my life, reformed theology has become a heady fraternal order.  It attracts heady people, primarily.  Those who tend to gravitate toward study, scholarship, academia, theological information, and smart stuff have always seemed to make up the majority of reformed fellowships, and without any doubt the leadership as well.  The problem here is that the study of Scriptures, exegesis, hermeneuetics, biblical doctrine, systematic theology, and the application of it all through writing, preaching and teaching seems to have become an end in itself.

There are a wide variety of readers on this blog, most of them from outside the United States.  They will have little exposure to reformed theology and will not understand the context of my commentary here.  These saints would have a wider exposure to a more well-rounded, biblically-healthy version of Christianity where preaching is absolutely crucial, but where it is also one of many missional tools the church must use.  There will also be a wide variety of readers here in the states, some of whom have complained to me before in private that biblical preaching is almost non-existent in their circles.  These saints would be hungry to hear the biblical truths handed down to us in Scriptures and feel a sense of spiritual starvation when sitting in front of a pulpit of lectern.  But I am not writing to either of these groups in this series of posts.

I Have Two Legitimate Fears About Reformed Theology's Preaching-Centric View

I am writing to those in my theological heritage, to those who have unwittingly allowed a thirst for knowledge and the communication of that knowledge to become an end in itself.  There are two reasons why I am fearful for the future legacy of this heritage.  

First, it leads to a false sense of security.  I have witnessed first-hand the  damning impact of people listening to "solid" biblical, exegetical, expositional, theological, doctrinal, preaching, week in and week out, yet only to discover later that they are not actually born again.  How could that happen?  For a variety of reasons, no doubt.  But surely one of those reasons is the deceptive nature of information and knowledge itself.  

It is not only entirely possible but entirely probable that many "reformed" people believe that they are right with God and are born again simply because they believe or give consent to or mentally agree with the information with which they are being presented.  In other words, they think that because they believe in the doctrines of grace, or in a particular method of preaching, or the sovereignty of God, or whatever other biblical pet doctrine they happen to have an affinity for. 

They may even be persons who have no real life-dominating sins that we see or know of.  Some are just plain old, ordinary people who have jobs, raise kids, pay taxes, watch tv, go on vacations, and just do life.  Maybe you are one of those.  And maybe you have sensed every now and then that something is missing.  There's a spark plug in life that seems absent.  Even though you believe in the things you hear preached week after week and know they are biblical, you simply attend, listen to it, agree with it, study it a little bit, read a book or two about it.  And yet...something is missing...something seems wrong.  

How close is the fellowship in your reformed church?  How intimate are the personal relationships you have with others in the congregation?  Is there a bond between people that you not only observe, but that you participate in?  

How about the prayers?  Are yours filled with power?  Or do they seem like the recitation of truths you believe?  Do they seem like prayers that are just another sermon or bible study lesson?  Are they filled with faith to ask God for the moving of mountains, along with the earnest expectation that He will do just that?

What about hospitality?  When was the last time you were invited into another person's home to have dinner and hang out for the evening?  If you have been recently, what were the prayers like at the dinner table?  What was the atmosphere like in the home with the kids and/or grandkids?

Have you sensed a deep, intimate, genuine, authentic communion among the people with whom you attend church?  You may be attending church together.  But are you really...together?   You may all agree with the stuff you're hearing preached and taught.  But are you all really...in agreement?  Perhaps you get the sense of the italicized words I'm using here.

Not to make you more uncomfortable than you may already be, but tell me about the giving and sharing.  Is there a second-nature, sacrificial sort of giving that goes on in your fellowship?  When someone is hurting, do you and everyone else hurt with them...I mean genuinely, compassionately, authentically hurt with them...and does everyone stop and make that person or family the center of their universe temporarily to see help, comfort, and healing come?  

Is there genuine gladness and joy present?  Or is it just a superficial, happy-face place?  

This all leads to my second fear with a preaching-centric local church:  it is not and cannot be a biblically genuine instrument of mission in the world.  Too many reformed folks make the mistake of assuming that preaching the gospel IS the mission of the gospel.  But it's not.  If it were, then why are there so few people being genuinely and radically born again in reformed churches?  

Reformed people point the finger of blame at megachurches which are preaching a false gospel.  My experience has been that some...not all...megachurches are simply preaching a biblically simple gospel which makes them long for and run to the open arms of Jesus for forgiveness and healing.  My reformed experiences have preached a complicated gospel that makes someone feel like they've got to know too much to be saved.

My Beef With Preaching-Centric Reformed Theology

Preaching the kingdom was a part of the mission of the church.  But it was the church being the church that gave credence to the preaching.  That is my "beef" with reformed theology today.  In Acts 2:42-47, there are seven reflections of the Holy Spirit in the life of a local church.  Preaching is just one of them.  Too many people in too many reformed churches have complained of something missing in their groups, congregations, and fellowships.  Their leadership and church gets the part right about devotion to the apostles' teaching.  But they seem to hardly get anything else right.

TWO: In verse 42, we are told that they were also devoted to the breaking of bread.  That's communion with one another through communion with Jesus at the Lord's Table.  There's a meaningful, spiritual, mystical, deep, intimate relationship with Jesus to be experienced at the Lord's Supper.  Sadly, too many reformed preaching centers have turned the Lord's Supper into a relationship with knowledge about the Lord's Supper, or Jesus' death, or that they have to repent of their sins before they can partake.

THREE: In verse 42, we are also told that they devoted themselves to prayer.  That's talking to God and listening to God.  Most reformed people are scared to listen to God.  That's because they believe God has only talked once...in the Bible...and to believe that He will talk to us today is mystical, subjective nonsense that leads to chaos and disorder and even demons in the church.  Yet Jesus said His sheep would hear His voice and know Him and follow Him.  Prayer is not supposed to be repeating the stuff we believe back to God, or to others who you hope are listening so they will start believing what you think they should believe.  It is the believer's way of living what they say they believe by worshiping God, recentering ourselves on His kingdom, asking for provisions and protection, and stepping out in faith to live like it will all happen.

FOUR: In verse 43, there is a strange sense of reverence and awe that the church had.  In fact, the text says everyone had it.  Why?  Because the epexegetical conjunction "and" joins signs, wonders and miracles to the mix.  In other words, when you have miracles occurring, people wake up and want in.  Unfortunately, reformed people's erroneous view of preaching and the Bible completely displaces the continued work of the Holy Spirit today.  When you believe that God is done speaking and working miraculously as He did in the NT church, then all you have left is preaching about what He did in the NT church.  But that produces a mindset which does not and cannot expect Him to do the same today.  Consequently, there cannot be an atmosphere of reverence and awe...at least of the kind that Luke refers to.

FIVE: In verses 44-45, there was an uncommon unity among the people of God.  They were not just together, worshiping, hanging out and stuff.  They were together in almost every sense of the word.  Some lived together, and there was a togetherness about their stuff, their material possessions, that made them almost like public property.  In fact, they were in many cases merely assets to be liquidated in order to financially help those who needed help.  I have experienced this once, as I recall, in all the reformed churches I attended.  When preaching takes center stage, there is a critical, judgmental undertone that develops among people, causing them to look the less fortunate with suspicion, wondering if they are suffering because they are not believing the right truths.

SIX: In verse 46, there was just this insane, amazing, radical, intense, intimate fellowship they had with each other, usually in their homes.  Their homes were hotels for saints and sinners.  They shared their homes, their food...their lives.  And they did it with glad and humble hearts!  They were actually joyful about it...radically joyful...in ways that the world would look at and wonder if they were doing drugs.  In reformed circles where preaching is the central thing, homes were places to sit and discuss...reformed theology...and perhaps share a beer together.  Any lost people who happened to tag along were usually "heady" unsaved folks who were there for a good discussion or to challenge and "sharpen" the reformed people.

SEVEN: In verse 47, the saints were praising God and enjoying a great reputation in town.  In other words, the goodwill they were exercising in the community left a good taste in the mouths of everyone.  As it was said during the days of one particular Roman Caesar, if the Christians of the NT disappeared, the community would suffer greatly since the Christians were so heavily involved in practical ministry.  In reformed churches however, there is hardly an impact on their local community in this way.  Rather, there is this strange sense of exclusion, circling the theological wagons to make sure the church is not infected with the world, a place where the legalism of independent Baptist churches, or holiness churches, intermarries with reformed theology.

Concluding Thoughts...and Challenges

These descriptions tell us of a church that was not filled with preaching persuasive words of wisdom and bold exposition of scripture, but a church with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Cor. 2:4).  Such a church is founded on and grounded in the power of God as opposed to the human effort of communication (v. 5).  From God's perspective, it's all about the power.  And preaching isn't powerful unless it produces powerful results.  Information does not and cannot lead to transformation.  Bottom line.  It just can't happen.

Which descriptions are more accurate of your church?  Do you have solid, biblical, theological, expositional preaching?  If so, don't praise God too quickly!  It may be expositional, but is it truly "biblical."  Where preaching is central, preaching will replace the other six manifestations of a biblical church of Jesus Christ.  It will control them, as a matter of fact.  It will dictate what those reflections can and cannot look like.  In places like this, preaching is exalted to the highest reflection and position in the church.  The dispensing of biblical information is believed to be crucial, even to the expense or sacrifice of the other manifestations of the Holy Spirit in His church.

About the Author: Rob is a entrepreneur in Statesboro, GA, where he envisions and pursues missional-shaped business for the kingdom. He and his wife Sherri have been married for 18 years and together have three sons and a daughter. Rob believes the mission of the gospel is summed up in four simple phrases: know God, obey Jesus, make disciples, and plant churches. This is the pursuit of his life, as well as the point of his blog.

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