September 7, 2006
The Danger of Practical Preaching Part 2: Allowing scripture to civilize our thinking
Lee Eclov thinks people need more than helpful applications in a sermon. Rather than being told what to do in three easy step, Eclov argues that good preaching should teach people how to think differently. In the first part of his post he discussed the "bottom line fallacy." In part two Eclov uncovers the second danger - the practical fallacy.
I only vaguely recall the world of geometry - axioms, theorems, conclusions. I do remember the inevitable question: "Why do we need to know this stuff?" And I remember Mr. Cermak's answer: "Whether or not you use these formulae, geometry teaches you to think logically."
Some preachers are afraid of the question, "Why do we need to know this stuff?" so they try to make every sermon "practical," meaning it is about everyday issues like money or kids. Doctrinal preaching, or the week-by-week exposition of a biblical book appears not to scratch where people itch. People want sermons about things they can use on Monday. Like the sophomores in my geometry class.
But Paul tells us, "All Scripture...is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." All Scripture. All Scripture is practical. It is practical, not because it all addresses everyday concerns, but because it all "civilizes" our thinking.
As I preached my way through Colossians, for example, we gradually tromped out a wide path to the truth that simply trusting Christ equips us with greater wisdom and righteousness than any counterfeit wisdom can offer. Put that way, it seems like an esoteric, impractical truth, far removed from the water cooler and van pool. But it was Paul's purpose, and therefore mine, to show just how practical this is for the believer. How freeing, simple, and safe. When we eventually arrived at the "practical" passages later in the epistle - "clothe yourself with compassion," for example - we could see not only the command but we had come to better understand the spiritual thinking that makes Christian compassion possible.
The Bible spends much more time on shaping the spiritual mind than commanding particular behavior. We need far more training in the ways of grace, of spiritual perceptions, and of what God is really like, than we do in how to communicate with our spouse. Understanding the glory of Christ is far more practical than our listeners imagine. Properly preached, every sermon based on a passage of Scripture is fundamentally practical. Every author of Scripture wrote to effect change in God's people. It is our job as preachers to find the persuasive logic of that author and put that clearly and persuasively before our people through biblical exposition.
The Ready Mind
It may seem to us sometimes that the Christians to whom we preach are not interested in the truth trails of Scripture; or worse, that they won't get it. We hear so much about the postmodern mind that we assume our postmodern people will reject the absolute logic of the Bible. It is true that our listeners are susceptible to relativism. It is true that we must not only make clear what is true from the Word, but also demonstrate that other ideas they may hold are not true. But we may forget that converted people have transformed minds. Preaching biblical truth to unbelievers (in a seeker service, for instance) is an entirely different matter than preaching to believers. The truth isn't different. The capacity of the listener is.
God promised Jeremiah that in the New Covenant he would "put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts." New believers, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, almost immediately begin to understand spiritual realities that eluded them before. It is like a gifted child. Sometimes, even before a child starts school, we realize "that kid has a mind for numbers," or music, or science. We say that because when they are introduced to something new in that sphere they understand it much more quickly than other children. It is like they are already wired for that kind of information. Christians are, from the moment of their new birth, wired for spiritual, biblical information. We "have a mind for it."
Thus, when a preacher stands and opens before them the logic of the Scriptures - the contemplations of a psalmist or the doctrinal logic of an epistle - they understand it, like a gifted child. And the logic of that text gradually becomes the logic of their own minds.
Truth trail preaching, the careful and persuasive exposition of Scriptural thinking, shapes ready Christian minds for the everyday decisions unscripted in Scripture. When we face an ethical dilemma at work or a discipline problem at home, our minds walk the truth trails we have learned and we are able to reason our way, by the help of the Holy Spirit, to a biblical conclusion, even when no verse of Scripture directly addresses our situation.
When we preach only the principle, the bullet points, the bottom line, or when we try to make every sermon about an everyday problem, we may set truth in the minds of our hearers, but we do not set the logic and pulse of God into their minds and hearts. On the other hand, biblical exposition that lays out the Lord's own logic and heartbeat shapes "doers of the Word and not hearers only."