Too Clever, Too Crafty, Too SystematisedNovember 21, 2007
I’m indebted to the blog Daylight for referencing some thoughts of Simon Manchester (St Thomas Church in North Sydney) on four common preaching errors. These comments are taken, I believe, from the monthly journal The Briefing.
Error 1. Clever beats Substance
There is a strange idea around at the moment that clever beats substance. Put more crudely, this view seems to think that the Bible is pretty dull and hard to sell, but with some marketing, we can sneak it past people’s guard. This loss of proper confidence in the Bible confuses the power of the clever gimmick with the substance of the powerful Word. But once a preacher has grasped the way God works (by his word) and the impact of his message (in the Word), it lights up everything he says, and people learn quickly who to trust. 20 minutes of straw followed by five minutes of wheat at the end is a strange way to feed your listeners. Somewhere the preacher has to think (and say), “Here is the book that will explain your life and the God behind everything. Now listen!” It’s embarrassing to treat Scripture as weak or dull.
Error 2. Craft Beats Meaning
Another (similar) idea around today is that craft beats meaning. No-one would put it this foolishly, but there is more attention paid (in this error) to the presentation than to the meaning. What is the long-term benefit of a passage used devotionally (without proper biblical theology) if its packaging is better than its truth? What is the point of abusing a text to sell a clever idea? Some sermons are so formulaic in their presentation, only a discerning person realizes that its all ‘form over facts’ – and that’s the sad problem! Sermon craft is a great servant in preaching; it helps the communicator and the listeners. But its a bad master when it pretends that there is an only way to do things (clever story to begin, three points and a bombshell to finish). The Bible is bigger than our craftiness
Error 3. System Beats Text
Even more common than this manner-over-matter preaching is the system-beats-text preaching. This is the widespread danger of dragging every text through the grid of one doctrine that ignores the point of the original passage. For example, one overseas preacher seems to put every passage through the ‘justification by faith’ grid. He is clever and insightful and searching – you’re on the psychiatrist’s couch in no time! – but there is this sa/bad taste left in your mouth that the biblical book was in the service of an idea. ‘Bible-combing’ preaching also has its systematic strengths but often seems to neglect each biblical writer’s specific point in favour of the biblical overview. For example, if Jesus is teaching on people in prison (Matt 25:31-46), it is dangerous to start collecting ‘prison’ references and miss the point in the passage that Jesus will one day announce those who took his ‘brothers’ seriously. Much better to stay with the text in hand until the main point is clear.
Error 4. Teaching Beats Learning
A final danger I would mention is the teaching-beats-learning syndrome. This is the style – often picked up by the pew more than the pulpit – that the message has had no effect on the communicator. When the word of God is passed from an unaffected preacher to some unaffected listeners, the result is unworthy of God and discouraging to people. We must cry to God to search us because if the word of God that is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16) does none of these things, who has the problem? There is an arrogance in some preaching that imagines that the preacher is ‘up there’ with the word of God, not ‘down there’ with the humble listener. To preach cold food every week (and not warm transforming food) is proof that something is wrong. May God help us.