Theology

I’m listening to Ryan Adam’s Prisoner album tonight. I don’t know why, I’m just in the mood for some moody rock and technical musicianship. That can happen after lesson planning for the week after being in traffic for a few hours. 

The title may lead the reader to think I’m about to dunk on some specific bad preachers. I’ve made a habit of such practices in that past, but not tonight. I’m not in that bad of a mood. What I do want to talk about is the nature of bad preaching, and the practice of noticing it, assessing it as such, and doing something about it. At root is really the challenge of coming up with a consistent definition of what preaching is, and what makes it bad and/or good. My dad is a full time preacher and I’ve grown up around it all my live long days. After swearing off public speaking when I was 10 years old, I have preached at least monthly since I was in high school, in some format at least. I was a total boss at 10. Something else I grew up around was opinions on preaching. I got one sermon per week, but I got endless opinions on said sermon. Likewise, regarding my own preaching, I give one but the opinions are many. And these opinions take all the many shapes in like manner to the blogesphere’s eruption of opinions on all things foodie, political, and cultural. That is to say, they are endless. When I was little my parents listened to one other pastor on the radio other than the sermon my dad gave every week. That was about the only variety in homiletic consumption they had. Today however, it’s easy and common to inundate oneself with an ever flowing sermonic fountain. There are worse things to listen to, for sure, but it begs the questions regarding not only the quality, but the assessment of the quality by it’s hearers.

I’ve been thinking that the same thing I think is wrong with bad preaching is also what is wrong with bad opinions about preaching. Weak theological education, which is an extension of weak discipleship. There is a bit of a vicious circle when it comes to this. The ill-formed disciple hears a bad sermon and thinks it’s good, or thinks it bad but for the wrong reasons, and then times this cycle of possibilities across a given congregation, and now multiply that by the internet. The exponential disaster that is the aforementioned scenario aside, what really bothers me is the preaching that comes out of untold thousands of dollars of theological education and still doesn’t even come close to the mark of being good, but yet gets popularized and then bolstered as legitimate because of the paper that hangs on the preacher’s office wall. So what is good preaching anyway?

I had a simple formula come to me from several teachers in my life. Without going into detail the basic idea is that true Christian preaching proclaims the central message of the Christian Bible, which itself is the core teaching of the creator God, and his primary act was sending his son Jesus Christ to die for the sins of mankind to save them for himself, such that good preaching proclaims the whole of the Bible through the lens of this central, divine, act of salvation, and making clear all it’s depth and all it’s ramifications. The proclaiming act for the Christian preacher involves both clear and cogent teaching on relevant subject matters related to any given text from the Bible one is preaching from, but also, very importantly, to be emphatic and passionate (at some level in line with one’s personality, not fake) in the declaring of the truth of the good news of God’s kind rescue of mankind. The ditches that bad preaching finds itself in, now and through history, is related to either not teaching the whole counsel of scripture, or not proclaiming it’s central theme, usually favoring secondary themes that obscure Christ’s work in favor of man’s. There a listing effect that occurs when preachers, churches, or denominations decide something other than all of Scripture is really where the power of good preaching, and by extension the Christian life, is. Furthermore, even where all of the Bible is taken seriously, there can be an aversion to center the preaching and therefore the life of the church on the finished work of Christ. This may all seem dogmatic for a late night blog. At the least I will lean on one of our agreed upon intellectual betters, dear reader. The good chap Chesterton said the following, and I know we’ll both agree. “A teacher who is not dogmatic is simply a teacher who is not teaching.”1 I’m a teacher, and I intend to teach something here if for no other reason that you will know precisely what it is you are disagreeing with. However, at the best, what I’m really saying is this.

If the Bible is God’s word, and if Christ is central to it, and if central to Christ is his work on the cross, then what is it in one of his preachers that drives them away from it? Can it be said to be anything good in the end? And yet today our sermons are often filled with anything but. Why? Why self help? Why prosperity? Why moralism? Why not the cross? These questions have book length responses elsewhere, but tonight I reflect on where asking these questions lead, and it’s to some dark truths about the health of today’s churches in many cases. And as a bit of preacher myself, I look inward to where it’s darkest, and the only light there is Christ. And he’s enough. And he’s who I’m going to share.

That’s it dear reader. My Monday starts tomorrow where I am. Wherever you are I hope the light of Christ is there, and that you get a better glimpse at it from what happens on your Sunday. 

  1. Chesterton, G. K. (1910). What’s wrong with the world. (p. 246). New York: Dodd, Mead and Company.

Every year at least once, sometimes two, three or ten times, I rewatch Lord of the Rings with my wife and/or friends. This year I managed to watch the extended additions with her and showing significant portions of the theatrical version of the first two films to all six of my classes while they were given time to finish their final projects in the last weeks of school. We suffered a pretty major earthquake a couple of months ago, so the whole school is in what I call an “earthquake grace” mode, giving a bit of mercy all around. Lord of the Rings and class time to finish projects felt like an appropriate mix of therapy without sacrificing my educational agenda. It’s on Netflix in Korea so there are Korean subtitles, and surprisingly many of my students had never seen it, or only seen it once when they were much younger. Few to none properly understood the themes nor the source material or any information on the source himself, Tolkien. I was able to educate them properly, having haphazardly put the movie on at first, I’m now planning an Inklings club for next year to make sure the Korean youth in my care do not escape their educational experience without proper and full immersion into Narnia and Middle Earth. God forbid!

This time watching it I was also in the middle of assessing the spiritual formation efforts at our school, and in general I tend to think about pastoral care as I go about my business day to day. My dad is a pastor, and even though I’m adopted I think it’s safe to say it’s in my blood. Watching LOTR over and over with my classes and then at home while thinking about spiritual formation, for some reason I singled out the storyline of Frodo in my mind. While watching Fellowship of the Ring a few of my classes happened to end when Frodo was in Rivendell taking up the mantle of ringbearer while the pantheon of warriors fought with each other. My students were positively transfixed (and angry about having to wait until the next class to continue on). They feel small and powerless, and now understanding the context of the story and who the author was, and what the Hobbits represented, it honestly inspired them. Many of them have suffered severe spiritual abuse from family and churches. There are many awesome Christian people in Korea, and many wonderful pastors. But there are also regular scandals that would make the worst of the western evangelical industrial complex  blush. Regularly in the news are things like pastors killing people including family members, fist fighting during meetings, embezzling money, having affairs with significantly younger women, so on and so forth. One student told me about an article that detailed a pastor bringing a gun (illegal to own in Korea) to a meeting and hiring mafia bodyguards to intimidate his own elders at a meeting. Aside from the inspiration for a film script that I hope to submit to Netflix, I was stunned and completely ashamed this behavior was associated with church leaders here. The impact has been huge, and in this neo-confucian culture a lot of times they deal with shame by erasing it as quickly as possible, not processing it at all. This has left many of the youth very unsure about how to move forward with their faith, or if their faith is secure, with their churches. I’m sure many of my western readers of faith (or of former faith) will have little trouble relating to that. Just imagine if our culture was built on collectivist honor and shame more than individualist innocence and guilt, and try to process how a child would navigate these issues. How do you trust spiritual authority? How do you process the evil in your own life when such evil is dominate in those who are supposed to be guiding us into the light?

Enter Frodo. The humble among the powerful know they can’t handle the ring’s power, starting with Gandalf and ending with Galadriel. The scene when Galadriel was tempted by the ring had my students convinced she was evil. When I explained her backstory and what that scene was really showing, that even though she was good she could be corrupted, they expressed tangible fear and dread, and remained glued to the story. How could Frodo withstand the temptation? How could he carry such evil to its destruction when all the high ranking and powerful characters could not?

These little souls carry many burdens and they are desperate to share them. When they do, they give the listener power. This is part of the pastoral experience and a big part of the life of a Christian community. If we don’t have openness and honesty coupled with wisdom, love, humility and care, we have serious danger. With each relationship and each conversation, little rings of power are being handed over to those in leadership. Those in pastoral care are trusting those doing pastoral care to help them destroy the evil in their lives, whatever form it may be, not to use it against them. And yet even Frodo faltered at the end, but he had his Fellowship, and the one remaining member with him, Sam, to get to the precipice. Even then, without a demon creature to exploit Frodo’s weakness with his pure rage, no goodness from within Frodo would have finished the job. It took a divine plan from outside of him to properly do what needed done, and in ways that none of the Fellowship would have planned or thought of.

As I watched this year I thought of how I want our spiritual formation at the school to look a lot more like Frodo. We aren’t wizards or kings or warriors. We’re common people with an uncommon task. I wish more pastors felt this way, and more training was done in this tone. For now I know I can’t leave my students with swords and shields and traditional forms of power, but with the apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer. Somehow, in unexpected ways, through these means the light reaches into the darkness, and evils are vanquished.

Preaching is proclaiming and teaching is explaining. There is more that can be said of course, but this summary is true. Too often there is a harsh dichotomy of emphasis placed between these two. There is also too often a false confluence, that if one has preached they have also taught, or if they have taught they have also preached. These errors may seem small until you witness the results, which are usually some kind of confusion on a spectrum of severity. I’m thinking about it now because I see the results in my students all the time. They have been proclaimed to their whole lives with very little explaining, and have even been told that asking questions is bad. Has this kind of discipleship achieved the desired results? No, it hasn’t, not here in Korea nor in the USA. We don’t want an unquestioning faith, nor a questionable faith. The Bible presents it in balance and Christians are always to strike the balance. The issue is how well we do.

My contention is that there are few to no opportunities for doing the explaining ministry of biblical teaching as well as can be done in Christian secondary schools. Between 7th and 12th grade, six years of education, longer than any Bible college or seminary program and in a much more holistic environment, students under solid instruction and guidance with appropriate curriculum, have the best opportunity to experience the fruit of teaching ministry. I must add, this is not all that is needed for true discipleship and spiritual formation. The word must be proclaimed from pulpits and lived out in homes, and teaching happens in those contexts too, just not like it can and often does in school.

There are many questions that need to be sorted out to do this well, issues protestants, especially of the non-denominational variety tend to avoid, such as what’s the distinction between the role of parents, churches and Christian schools in the character formation and biblical literacy of their children? Answering these questions will also help solving the category errors I wrote about before, such as the distinction between pastors, parents, lay church teachers, and Christian school chaplains and Bible teachers. What I see happening now in my context, and why I’m thinking and writing about it, is that my students are confused and therefore have shut off much of their attention from what they rightfully perceive as a chaos of authority. Their church proclaims a neutered gospel and a fundamentalist ethical system. Their parents proclaim society’s expectations for academic and financial success. And at school they get everything in between. When I try to both proclaim in chapel, and explain in class, the reality and centrality of the Gospel of Christ, I’m looked at with no small amount of confusion. They are too busy avoiding the sins their pastor told them about to consider the majesty of Christ, and they are too busy trying to get in to the best university they can to understand and own their identity in Christ as a gift that changes them, and not something they earn with their good works as defined by neo-Confucian social ethics and modern materialistic standards of living, all baptized into a syncretistic theological soup.

I’m hopeful, because God is the one who unwinds all our confusion for us, but he also ordains his people to be part of that process, and uses the friendships, fellowships, churches, families and schools those relationships build and maintain to do his work. He gives the gifts of teaching and preaching, and it’s his work. He’s done it from the beginning and he’ll continue. But the process of doing it is part of the his refining for those doing the work, and it should be taken seriously and worked at with discipline and thoughtfulness. We live in thoughtless times, the body of Christ should be known for more, and what I’m talking about here is a big part of that.