Friday, 18 May 2018

Preaching in Context

The below article, written with my friend and colleague Neil Hudson, has been posted on the website of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity as a supplementary piece to the resource on whole-life preaching. It is the fifth in a projected series of six short pieces exploring different aspects of preaching in a way that is alert to the everyday lives of Christians.

Ever had one of those moments when someone thanks you for saying something in a sermon, but which you can’t recall saying, or which you never intended to be taken that way? Or ever preached a sermon that seemed very effective in one church only for it to fall flat in another church?

The difference often comes down to context.

1. Understanding the significance of context

In What Do They Hear? Building Bridges Between Pulpit and Pew (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), Mark Allan Powell explores why what a congregation ‘hears’ is not always what the preacher ‘said’. One of the reasons is that how we read and receive Scripture is shaped by our social locations.

Describing an experiment conducted with students from different backgrounds, Powell uses the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32 as an example. His American students tended to overlook 15:14 (‘there was a severe famine in that whole country’), while most Eastern European students identified the famine as crucial to the story. Students from Tanzania noted 15:16 (‘no one gave him anything’), highlighting the way the people of the distant land exploited the son’s desperation instead of helping him. Powell also demonstrates how, in reading stories in the gospels, clergy tend to identify mostly with Jesus, whereas lay people are more inclined to identify with other characters, such as the disciples or the Pharisees.

Here, if we need it, is a reminder that we don’t preach biblical passages into a vacuum. We preach to particular people from particular backgrounds with particular responsibilities and concerns as they gather at a particular time in a particular place. The people in our congregations live out their identity as disciples of Jesus in particular circumstances.

Scripture itself leads us to expect nothing less. God’s word doesn’t float free in a contextless ‘ether’. It’s rooted in and flows out of particular on-the-ground situations – whether it’s the different types of Psalms arising out of multiple moments in the life of faith, Jeremiah in Jerusalem or Ezekiel in Babylon, Matthew or Mark telling the story of Jesus for early Christians, Paul writing to the Galatians or to the church in Corinth, Peter writing to Christians who, like exiles, are scattered across Northern Turkey, or John writing up his visions from Patmos for those being persecuted for their faith. God’s word addresses God’s people where they are.

So, we preach it as a word which flows out of particular contexts in the life of God’s people to be addressed back into particular contexts in the life of God’s people.

2. Taking account of contexts

This being the case, in our preparation for preaching we engage carefully with the biblical text, but we also reflect (insofar as we are able to do so) on the various contexts in which our people find themselves – the places where they live out their discipleship to Jesus.

Taking context into account allows our preaching to be timely, grounded, and personal. We sometimes think that the more we speak in general terms, the wider we’ll reach; but that doesn’t mesh with the reality of people’s lives. Preaching is for real people in real contexts, not generic people in generic contexts. We do not escape our everyday reality to hear a promise or a rebuke or a command from God’s word; we hear those in our current, concrete, and often complex circumstances – a promise or rebuke or command that addresses us where we are.

‘Context’ might be global, regional, local, or personal. Personal elements of context might include situations at home, at work, wider social activities, with family, colleagues, friends, acquaintances. Ideally, we focus on where people are. Starting globally might feel remote and overwhelming for many listeners, but we can start with the home situation or something in the neighbourhood or an item in the news, and perhaps draw wider implications for the national or international context.

We don’t take account of context in order to appear ‘relevant’, but to give our hearers an imagination for seeing their context as part of the larger world in which God is working. Sometimes our engagement with Scripture may provide a mirror that reflects something of our context back to us, helping us to understand it more deeply. On other occasions, it may engage with aspects of our context and challenge us to envision alternative possibilities. How might things be different where we are – at home or at work?

3. Preparing sermons with contexts in mind

In some respects, taking account of context is less about adding a further step to our preparation, and more an awareness that permeates the whole process. Even so, it might be helpful to reflect self-consciously on some of the specific situations of congregation members known to us and bring these to our engagement with the text. Below is a series of questions and prompts we have found helpful to consider in preparing to preach from biblical passages:

(a) What does this passage reveal about God/Jesus/the gospel?

(b) How does this passage shape our understanding of what it means to be a disciple?

(c) Knowing where at least some of the congregation have been this week, and being aware of their contexts:

• What might I want to highlight and explore from this passage?
• What might connect with their situations?
• What would offer a challenge?
• What would offer encouragement?

(d) Reflecting on this passage would lead us to pray that...

(e) Living out this passage over the next week might involve...

The order of the questions is significant. We don’t want to impose our congregation’s personal needs or their particular situations too quickly on to the passage without hearing first what God has to say through it. So, we begin with a question which asks what the passage affirms about God, Jesus, the kingdom, the gospel, and so on – these are given priority.

And then, we ask how the passage might shape our understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Only then comes a question related to context. Here now is an opportunity to reflect on the daily frontlines of the members of our congregation and ask how this passage – given what it says about who God is and what God has done in Jesus, and given what it says about discipleship – might address them, where they are.

Out of that then flows a prompt about prayer and a prompt about action.

Give the questions a go with your next sermon.

We don’t need to become professional ethnographers in order to do this task well. We learn it over time through observation and conversation – paying attention to people, asking questions, listening to stories, gathering insights – all of which can make a difference to our awareness of where people are at.

Importantly, preaching is not the only way to address a congregation’s context – the sermon is not a self-contained entity. But it takes its place in the dynamic of the gathered worship, and so is integrated with confession, praise, prayer, song, silence, communion – all of which form us as followers of Jesus for our everyday frontlines.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Mission Frontiers 40, 3 (May-June 2018)

The May-June 2018 issue of Mission Frontiers, published by the U.S. Center for World Mission, contains a number of articles devoted to the topic of ‘Inside North Korea: Bringing Hope and Healing to the Toughest Places’

They write:

This timely May-June issue highlights some of the extraordinary things that are happening in North Korea thanks to the dedication, tireless work and prayers of many. You will read about the inroads being made to provide for basic needs including medicine and clean water as well as the groundbreaking treatment for children with developmental disabilities. This issue also includes a personal tribute to Jim Downing; the sixth member of the Navigators, survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack and author at age 100, among numerous other celebrated accomplishments.

Individual articles can be accessed from here, and the whole issue can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Themelios 43, 1 (April 2018)

The latest Themelios is online here (and available here as a single pdf), containing the below articles.

D.A. Carson
The Postmodernism That Refuses to Die

Strange Times
Daniel Strange
A Wiser Idiot

Scott R. Swain
B.B. Warfield and the Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity 
B.B. Warfield’s 1915 ISBE article on the Trinity presents the Princeton theologian’s mature thinking on the biblical bases and meaning of the doctrine and offers a revisionist interpretation of the personal names of “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit.” Instead of interpreting the personal names of the Trinity in terms of relations of origin, Warfield argues that the personal names only signify likeness between the persons. The present article locates Warfield’s revision within its immediate and broader historical contexts, critically engages Warfield’s proposed revision, and discusses the importance of a traditional interpretation of the personal names for Trinitarian theology.

Fred G. Zaspel
Reversing the Gospel: Warfield on Race and Racism
The giant of Old Princeton, B.B. Warfield, outspokenly condemned the racism and rigid segregation of American society of his day. His views were remarkably ahead of his time with regard to an understanding of the evil of racism and even somewhat prophetic with regard to the further evil that would result from it. His convictions were explicitly grounded in an understanding and faithful application of the unity of the human race in Adam and the unity and equal standing of believers in Christ. This brief essay surveys Warfield’s arguments within the context of his day.

Bruce Riley Ashford
A Theological Sickness unto Death: Philip Rieff’s Prophetic Analysis of our Secular Age
Philip Rieff’s sociological analyses explore the implications of Western Civilization’s unprecedented attempt to maintain society and culture without reference to God. He argues that this attempt to desacralize the social order is deeply detrimental and encourages Westerners to resacralize the social order. For Western Christians who wish to help facilitate a “missionary encounter” between the gospel and our secular age, Rieff’s work will pay rich, albeit uneven dividends. His work is most helpful when diagnosing the ills of our secular age but is less illumining in its prognosis and prescription. Thus, a Christian framework of thought must be employed to evaluate Rieff’s work and leverage it for the Christian mission.

Geoffrey Chang
Spurgeon’s Use of Luther against the Oxford Movement
Nearly three hundred fifty years after Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the castle church door in Wittenburg, Charles Haddon Spurgeon confronted the growing influence of Roman Catholic teaching within the Church of England. Led by Edward Pusey and others, the Oxford Movement called the Church of England to return to her pre-Reformation traditions and teaching. Spurgeon considered this a betrayal of the gospel and, beginning in 1864, would take a Luther-like stand for the truth. This essay will argue that Spurgeon drew from Luther’s model of bold leadership and teaching on justification by faith in his battle against the Oxford Movement.

Andrew G. Shead
Burning Scripture with Passion: A Review of The Psalms (The Passion Translation)
Brian Simmons has made a new translation of the Psalms (and now the whole New Testament) which aims to ‘re-introduce the passion and re of the Bible to the English reader.’ He achieves this by abandoning all interest in textual accuracy, playing fast and loose with the original languages, and inserting so much new material into the text that it is at least 50% longer than the original. The result is a strongly sectarian translation that no longer counts as Scripture; by masquerading as a Bible it threatens to bind entire churches in thrall to a false god.

Michael Strickland
When (and How) English-speaking Evangelicals Embraced Q
This article considers the emergence of an evangelical endorsement of the Two-Source Hypothesis as a solution to the Synoptic Problem in the first half of the twentieth century. Conservative scholars such as B.B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos, A.T. Robertson, and W. Graham Scroggie considered the hypothesis, and its concomitant Q document, to be amenable to evangelical sensibilities. Specifically, the article details how the scholars considered the Two-Source Hypothesis to be a scientific conclusion, and one that presented an early source for the life of Jesus with a high Christology.

Book Reviews

Monday, 30 April 2018

Powerful Deliverance

I contributed this week’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. This is a lightly-edited re-run of one from August 2013.

LORD, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.”
But you, LORD, are a shield around me,
my glory, the one who lifts my head high.
I call out to the LORD,
and he answers me from his holy mountain.
Psalm 3:1-4

Psalms 1 and 2 are clear and confident: the righteous prosper and the wicked are blown away like chaff; God is in charge of the world, and the nations will serve him and his Messiah. Except it doesn’t always feel that way, does it?

The need for the assurance of Psalms 1 and 2 becomes clear with the first lines of Psalm 3. But that Psalm 3 comes so early in the Psalter seems appropriate, given how many of the psalms arise out of the experience of being attacked, of feeling ashamed, isolated and abandoned, of wondering why the ungodly prosper when those who serve God suffer. That bundle of emotions and more was likely true of David who, according to this Psalm’s title, wrote it when he fled from his son Absalom, a story told in 2 Samuel 15-18.

Interestingly, David’s foes were not saying that God does not act; they were saying that God does not act for David – ‘God will not deliver him’. They consider David to be cast aside by God, a failure, defeated. Of course, we don’t always need the ‘help’ of others to think that way about ourselves.

But as the Psalm progresses, David’s prayer becomes less a statement about his enemies, himself, or even his trust, and more a declaration about the Lord: ‘But you, LORD, are a shield around me.’ Shields are normally held in front of a person, but this shield encompasses him. In the place of prayer, where we see things we might not otherwise see, David confesses that God will protect him from attack, whatever direction it comes. It is the Lord who will lift his head high, removing his shame and restoring his dignity.

The final note of the Psalm is one of deliverance – ‘from the LORD comes deliverance’ (3:8) – even though it’s not clear that David’s situation has altered. For us too, the ‘problem’ itself might not immediately change – that illness we’re facing, or situation we find ourselves in, or task we have to do. What changes is our sense of dependence on God. Peace comes not primarily because we’re clever enough to work things out, but because of his power and promises of protection. Through prayer he moves us from fear to faith, from peril to peace, from a place of saying, ‘How many!’ to a place of confessing, ‘But you, LORD’.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Malyon Preaching Resources

I’ve enjoyed receiving Malyon Preaching Resources, an online resource from the Preaching Centre at Malyon College (available for free subscription here). Each edition contains a mix of feature articles, podcast reviews, book reviews, sample sermons, and other features.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Perichoresis 16, 1 (2018) on European Baptist Theology and History

Perichoresis is the theological journal of Emanuel University, Romania, published twice a year.

The latest volume, freely available from here, contains the below essays, continuing a series on ‘Celebrating 500 Years since the Reformation, 1518-2018’, with this issue devoted to ‘Insights into Contemporary Baptist Thought: Perspectives on European Baptist Theology and History.

Tim Noble
Nowhere is Better than Here: The Strengths and Weaknesses of Early Sixteenth Century Utopias
This article examines the utopian vision present in the eponymous work by Thomas More and in the early Anabaptists. In the light of the discussion on the power and dangers of utopian thinking in liberation theology it seeks to show how More struggled with the tension between the positive possibilities of a different world and the destructive criticism of the present reality. A similar tension is found in early Anabaptist practices, especially in terms of their relationship to the state and their practice of commonality of goods. The article shows that that all attempts to reduce visions of a better world to a particular setting end up as ideological.

Rupen Das
Becoming a Follower of Christ: Exploring Conversion Through Historical and Missiological Lenses
Conversion is a critical part of Evangelical theology and missiology. It has been defined as a crisis experience or a decision at a specific point in time. However, there is always an aspect of development, a process, involved. Increasingly, the phenomenon of conversion of those from non-Christian backgrounds, for example from other world religions, indicates that how they become followers of Christ is often characterised by a gradual journey, sometimes accompanied by visions and dreams. This paper looks at the phenomenon of conversion through a historical and missiological lens to explain and understand the dynamics of the conversion.

Marion L.S. Carson
In Whose Interest? Ante-Bellum Abolitionism, the Bible, and Contemporary Christian Ethics
Christians look to Scripture to inform their ethical decision-making, believing that God speaks through it. However, disagreement as to what the Bible requires us to do can often lead to acrimonious splits within the church. So long as sharp divisions amongst Christians over ethical issues remain, injustices continue, and the reputation of the church is undermined. This article suggests that lessons may be learned from the story of the use of the Bible in the American Abolitionism debate which can help the contemporary church to discuss and perhaps even resolve some enduring ethical questions which are dividing Christians today.

Stuart Blythe
Open-Air Preaching: A Long and Diverse Tradition
For many people, open-air preaching is associated with a particularly limited understanding of the nature of the event. In part this is related to the fact that open-air preaching has received relatively little serious academic study. From a variety of sources, however, it is possible to piece together something of a critically analytic sketch of the practice. This sketch demonstrates that not only can open-air preaching claim longevity but that in turn it is a practice with considerable diversity as open-air preachers seek to make meaning through their gathering and encounter with audiences.

Anthony R. Cross
The Place of Theological Education in the Preparation of Men and Women for the British Baptist Ministry then and Now
Using principally, though not exclusively, the learning of the biblical languages, this paper seeks to demonstrate four things. Firstly, from their beginnings in the early seventeenth century the majority of British Baptists have believed that the study of theology is essential for their ministers, and that the provision of such an education through their colleges is necessary for the well-being of the churches. Secondly, and contrary to misconceptions among Baptists and those of other traditions, Baptists have always had ministers who have been highly trained theologically, and that this has enriched their service as pastors. Thirdly, it reveals that Baptists today have a wealth of both academically-gifted and theologically-astute pastor-theologians and pastor-scholars. Finally, it argues that theology has always played its part in the renewal of Christian life and witness for which so many Christians today are praying.

Lina Toth
Strangers in the Land and True Lovers of the Nation: the Formation of Lithuanian-Speaking Baptist Identity, 1918-1940
How does an emerging community of faith develop its identity in the context of a semi-hostile and increasingly nationalistic culture? The story of the early years of Lithuanian-speaking Baptists provides an interesting and informative case study. This article focusses on the formative stage of the Lithuanian-speaking Baptist movement during the interwar period of the independent Republic of Lithuania (1918-1940). It considers four main factors which contributed to the formation of Lithuanian-speaking Baptist identity: different ethnic and cultural groupings amongst Baptists in Lithuania; the role of the global Baptist family in providing both material and ideological support; the community’s relationship with the Lithuanian state; and their stance towards the dominant religious context, i.e. the Lithuanian Catholic Church. Out of this dynamic emerges a picture of the particular ways in which these congregations, and especially their leadership, navigated their understanding of loyalty to the Kingdom of God in relation to their belonging to a particular national grouping.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

9Marks Journal (Spring 2018) on Political Witness

The latest issue of the 9Marks Journal, available from here in various formats and here as a pdf, is devoted to the topic of ‘Church Life: Our True Political Witness’.

Its North American provenance means some adjustment might need to made for other contexts, but there would seem to be wider applicability and thoughtful provocation in the articles.

In the Editor’s Note, Jonathan Leeman writes:

The goal of this 9Marks Journal is to redirect our political gaze from the nation to the church. Our political hope must not be in the next presidential election, or in trying to win the country “back” or “forward” to something different. Believe it or not, the political hope of the nations is in local churches...

Do you know where the world should first witness... just and lasting peace? In the life and fellowship of the boundary-defying local church. It’s in the local church where we first beat our swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. It’s in the church where one-time enemies learn to love one another.’