Preaching to Bored People

Preaching to Bored People

The sermon is entering its most challenging season ever.

It’s obvious that our cultural ability to pay attention is shrinking. Microsoft tells us (even though its probably their fault) that we have 8 second attention spans, which is worse than a goldfish. 1)Christopher Hooton, “Our attention span is now less than that of a goldfish, Microsoft study finds”, in The Independent, published on May 13, 2015, available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/our-attention-span-is-now-less-than-that-of-a-goldfish-microsoft-study-finds-10247553.html Along with this, “the average person over the age of sixty-five watches forty-eight hours of television per week.” 2)David Hinckley, “Americans spend 34 hours a week watching TV,  according to Nielsen numbers”, published 09/19/2012, available from: http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv-movies/americans-spend-34-hours-week-watching-tv-nielsen-numbers-article-1.1162285. One consequence of living in a visual culture is that it primes people to expect the same level of excellence they see on TV in their churches, but most “preachers do not have access to the resources of George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic. Nor can we ask the London Philharmonic to provide the sound track to next Sunday’s sermon. So how can local pastors meet the impossibly high expectations of their parishioners?3)J. Kent Edwards, Deep Preaching (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2009), Kindle Location, 220.

Honey I Shrunk the Sermon:

One response to shrinking attention spans is to shrink the sermon’s length. Recently the Vatican recommended that homilies should take no longer than eight minutes 4)Riazat Butt, “For Flock’s Sake: Keep Homilies to Eight Minutes, Vatican Tells Clergy” The Guardian, accessed May 7, 2015, available from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/mar/12/vatican-advises-shorter-catholic-sermons. Across denominations, trends are increasingly showing shorter sermon sizes:

Sermon Length ChartMarginalizing the Word:

On average, the above chart shows that conservative Protestants are the last holdout keeping the sermon central to church gatherings. Given how the preached word is central in Protestant theology, this shouldn’t surprise us. 5)See especially, “The Reformation: Closing Eyes and Opening Ears, http://www.joshchalmers.com/2015/03/19/the-reformation-closing-eyes-and-opening-ears/. Yet, some fear this is the beginning of the end of the Reformation’s rehabilitation of the preached word. As P. T. Forsyth warned us over a century ago: “I will venture to say that with its preaching Christianity stands or falls…. Wherever the Bible has the primacy which is given to it in Protestantism, there preaching is the most distinctive feature of worship.” 6)P.T. Forsyth, Positive Preaching and Modern Mind, Second Edition: The Lyman Beecher Lecture on Preaching, Yale University, 1907 (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2008), 3. If this is true, does it mean that Protestantism is losing its theological distinctive? Today, Carl Trueman claims that “the importance of words to the Christian church is a question of theology, not methodology: to marginalise preaching in our church life and outreach is to marginalise words; and to marginalise words will inevitably involve marginalising the Word himself.7)C.R. Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Criticial Writings on Historic and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus Publications, 2004), Kindle Location, 873-879.

Reformation Telos:

Although I sympathize with Trueman and those like him, I suspect they are overlooking something important: what we are experiencing today is not the undoing of the reformation, but its ultimate end. As Allister McGrath documents in Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, placing the printed Bible in the hands of all Christians eliminates the need for middlemen; hence, the Reformation’s motto: the “Priesthood of all believers.” However, the unintended consequence of this move is the democratization and privatization of God’s voice, which eventually becomes the “Prophethood of all believers.” 8)Alister E. McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution–A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 427 quoting Roger Stronstand.

The prophethood of all believers is expressed most clearly amongst Pentecostals, who naturally believe God speaks to everyone by His Spirit. 9)See my post “God Hates Long-Distance Relationships”, http://www.joshchalmers.com/2014/08/30/god-hates-long-distance-relationships. Unlike other versions of Protestantism, which lean toward cessationism, or a static interpretation of Scripture so that the text can only mean what it meant, Pentecostals “stress the multiple dimensions of meaning that arise—not on account of the indeterminate nature of the text, but on account of the ‘leading of the Spirit’ into the true meaning of the text.” 10)Mcgrath, 438. In other words, personal experience is an essential part of the Pentecostal hermeneutic. For this reason, I believe that Pentecostal theology and practice provide the best way forward for preaching in an age that values both image and word.

The Why behind Preaching:

Unquestionably, we are facing a crises moment in sermonic history. How we respond today may impact the future of the church for a long time. Consequently, now is a good time to remind ourselves of the reason behind preaching. If we look at the first Christian sermon in Acts 2 we find that the reason for Peter’s message was to respond to a false accusation. Acts 2:13 tells how the crowd mocked the disciples, saying “They are full of wine.” In other words, “A careless, scoffing comment prompted the first Christian sermon.” 11)Lloyd John Ogilvie, Acts (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1983), 69. To make this plain, the reason for the first sermon was to explain an event—the first sermon was a word about a lived image!

This reminds me of how Ravi Zacharias describes postmodern people. Postmoderns are those who “listen with their eyes and think with their feelings.” 12)Ravi often uses this phrase in his speaking, but I can’t find it published except as an endorsement for his book Is Your Church Ready at the end of Ravi K. Zacharias, Has Christianity Failed You? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 236. In Acts preaching was most often accompanied by, or the action following signs and wonders. For Pentecostals, the preached word is important, but it’s not usually the end goal of gathering; Pentecostals also want something to happen, hence are sometimes overwhelming emphasis on altar calls and personal testimony. 13)James K. A. Smith, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2010), 62 ff. When Pentecostalism fires on all cylinders, preaching is paired with personal/miraculous experience, a combination which makes the word visual before our very eyes.

The Preacher’s Role – Helping People Imagine the World Otherwise:

In this framework, the preacher’s job is to create space for people to believe that something can actually happen—to stir up faith that the world can be different. Surprisingly, there is one other popular kind of long-form communication in our day that does this well. TED Talks are also aimed at the imagination, and end by challenging the audience to change their lives. If you read books about what makes a TED Talk work, the most obvious component is the power of story. 14)For example, Jeremey Donovan, How to Deliver a Ted Talk: Secrets of the World’s Most Inspiring Presentations (CreateSpace, 2012). Specifically, stories help us feel what’s wrong with the world, and then they train us to imagine the world differently 15)See Nancy Duarte’s fantastic TED Talk: “The Secret Structure of Great Talks” available from: http://www.ted.com/talks/nancy_duarte_the_secret_structure_of_great_talks. Similarly, James Smith emphasizes that Pentecostal preaching and practice “is enlivened by a vision of a coming kingdom that imagines the world otherwise — a world no longer plagued by racism or disease or poverty — the world as envisioned at the end of the book of Revelation. However, to be able to imagine that, our imaginations need to be converted.” 16)James K. A. Smith, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2010), 84.

If your people are bored with your preaching, don’t scold them, scold yourself …To a rational preacher (and all are not rational) it must seem essential to interest all his audience, from the eldest to the youngest. We ought not to make even children inattentive. ‘Make them inattentive,’ say you, ‘who does that?’ I say that most preachers do; and when children are not quiet in a meeting it is often as much our fault as theirs. Can you not put in a little story or parable on purpose for the little ones? …You must have sufficient leverage in your discourse and its subject to lift them right up from the earth to which they cleave, and to elevate them a little nearer heaven. 17)C. H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1972).

Preaching to Bored People:

If preaching is to be effective in our multimedia world, we must do much more than talk. By this, I mean more than simply adding multiple mediums or props to our sermons. 18)Consider the pragmatic approach taken by books like: Rick Blackwood, The Power of Multi-Sensory Preaching and Teaching: Increase Attention, Comprehension, and Retention (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008). Instead, the only kind of preaching that captivates attention spans acclimatized by the Internet is preaching aimed first at the imagination, not the intellect.

“The key pathology of our time, which seduces us all, is the reduction of our imagination so that we are too numbed, satiated, and co-opted to do serious imaginative work.” 19)Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 199.

If we are going to preach to convert the imagination we must realize how hard this task actually is, for once it has been captured the imagination is a stronghold that won’t easily surrender. “The main reason idolatry has such totalizing power is that, at bottom, idolatry is an act of the human imagination. … Idolatry is an attempt of the imagination to take the divine and make it visible, to make it understandable, to make it manageable. It is one’s imagination that gives life to what have been called ‘counterfeit gods’.” 20)Gene Edward Veith and Matthew P. Ristuccia Imagination Redeemed: Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your Mind (Crossway, 2014), 75. These gods promise so much, but the preacher’s role is to be a whistle blower, showing all false gods to be nothing more than scam artists. But it is not enough to show where the imagination has been led astray, the preacher’s job is bigger than that!

The main task of the preacher is to make Christ great so that our imaginations are completely converted. As Skye Jethani put it: “before we can live in full obedience to God we must be given a flaming vision of such an existence. This burning image comes to us through our intuitive faculties.” 21)Skye Jethani, The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), Kindle Location, 437. In theology classrooms, this idea is often summarized as “the expulsive power of a new affection”, a phrase which was coined by Thomas Chalmers from a sermon with that title. In this sermon he provides helpful advice for today’s preacher: “The love of the world cannot be expunged by a mere demonstration of the world’s worthlessness. But may it not be supplanted by the love of that which is more worthy than itself? The heart cannot be prevailed upon to part with the world by a simple act of resignation. But may not the heart be prevailed upon …” by placing “before the eye of the mind Him who made the world?22)Thomas Chalmers, The Works of Thomas Chalmers; Complete in One Volume (Towar, 1830), 384. In this sense, preaching that makes Jesus great is the only kind of preaching that can convert the imagination.

Consequently, preaching aimed at the mind misses the point, as Soren Kirkegaard, in his harsh way, makes clear: “human beings, sly as always with regard to God and divine truth, have directed all our attention to understanding, to knowing. We make out as if the difficulty were there and as if it would follow naturally that if we only understand the right it follows automatically that we do it. … Thus, however much an earlier age in Christendom may have erred, Christianly it nevertheless was, compared with our age, generally right when it immediately translated Christianity into action…the real simplicity, the truly simple exposition of the essentially Christian is—to do it.” 23)S. Kierkegaard, H.V. Hong, and E.H. Hong, Kierkegaard’s Writings, XXI: For Self-Examination / Judge for Yourself! (Princeton University Press, 2015), 115-116.

Like a Clear Glass:

So the climax of all of my reflection on preaching in our multimedia world is this:

Today’s preacher must go beyond talking about Scripture to embodying it. By combining the word and image in this way, we become living parables.

Tim Keller describes this well in the conclusion of his fabulous book on preaching: “What you are calling people to experience you must be experiencing yourself. What the Holy Spirit is to do in the hearts of your listeners he will normally do first in and through you. You must be something like a clear glass through which people can see a broken but gospel-changed soul in such a way that they want it for themselves.24)Tim Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Penguin Publishing Group, 2015), 204. Only then can a world that listens with their eyes become able to understand with their hearts, and bend their imaginations to the truth of the gospel.

3487800795_337763e1fd_oStay tuned for a follow-up post to this series in which I will provide practical tips for preachers who aspire to preach in a way that converts the imagination. If you haven’t yet subscribed to get my blog posts by email, please do so at the top right of this screen.

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