Bad preaching

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.
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A different shade of brown

I’m attempting to post a blog from my phone for the first time. Probably not that big a deal, but a first for me. I’m visiting family in another city in Korea. My wife’s sister and her husband teach at another international school here, and have for many years. They are good fiends and mentors to us in our common work.

I always get away for a bit to have some bro time with my brother in law. He’s been in the big leagues of international education for his whole life. He graduated from a top tier international school in Seoul and has always worked as an international teacher or administrator his entire career. For someone like me, who has worked many different jobs and now works at a school that just barely qualifies as an international one, learning from his experience is quite valuable.

Tonight he told me he was recently at a gathering of a lot of other international school administrators in Japan, and like in any field they all shared battle stories. Some of these other folks worked for schools that were started and are maintained by the United Nations, and for him that’s his dream job. But, as they all shared he realized that all of them had their version of jobs that were greener grass, and usually at schools either directly represented at this meeting or schools very much like those represented. He came away thinking that what the reality is is that it’s all just a different shade of brown wherever you go.

I have to agree from my experiences as well. The grass is indeed not greener, as the old adage tells us. We just need to determine what shade of brown we can live with sometimes, or as I’d really like to think of it, the brown God has called us to make as green as we can. The ground is cursed after all, but one day it will all be made green again.

That’s it for now dear reader. May God’s kingdom come, and will be done on your patch of brown grass as it is in Heaven.

Bonhoeffer, Religious Education, Secularism, and the quest for a dissertation topic

Going for the trifecta here this week. 

For those interested I’m listening to nothing but the faint hum of my desktop computer fan as I write this. I’m too mentally tired to go to the trouble to pick a song to listen to while I write, but not too tired to write. Does anyone else understand this phenomenon?

About a Friday a month I hang out with one of my wife’s colleagues who has become a good friend. He’s an English professor at the university that my secondary school is located on the campus of. He’s currently working on a dissertation with the University of London on Bonhoeffer’s contribution to philosophical ethics, and tonight we were so tired that he shared the details with me at length. Have you ever been so tired that you were too lazy to summarize anything? I think many have experienced this. In any case, to summarize now it was rather impressive and I look forward to his finished product. Another colleague of his and of my wife just finished a dissertation from a South African university, where he is from, on the distinctives of religious education in comparison to secular education by doing original research on a Jewish school, a catholic school, a protestant school and I believe a public school. The results were fascinating and really close to home for me, as a Bible teacher in a school that is accredited with both the Korean government and the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI). My school lives in a constant identity crisis of how much to bend our emphases toward the demands of public universities and what each faculty and admin thinks regarding the rubric for distinctive Christian education. Somehow we educate children in the midst of these regular hot takes. God’s grace alone, perhaps. 

Last year and on into the early part of this year I was doing research on a dissertation in the area of cross-cultural leadership. I got just far enough into it to realize I wouldn’t have time over the next three years to complete it, nor the stable environment with which to work on original research on my school. We’re in the middle of some major transitions, including some that double and possibly triple my workload. That’s just life. However, I’m still on the quest for a dissertation topic related to missiology and religious studies. It’s very challenging to narrow one’s interest down to the level of a specific research topic to focus on and write about for several years, and I’m really impressed with my friends who are doing it or have done it. I think education is a wonderful and powerful thing, and a gift from God in fact. I take pleasure in learning in such a way that I find it worshipful, as it stirs my heart toward affection for the Creator even as it stirs my mind toward deeper knowledge in any given field of study. I hope my students come out of my classes, and our school, with the same feelings and thoughts. 

That’s it for tonight. I’m finally too tired to even write. Goodnight and Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends.