Thursday, December 31, 2009

Listening: Act Three

Listening to those you'll be speaking to is also of great importance. If you don't know the audience you're speaking to you're liable to speak over them, below them, around them, but not to them--let alone their hearts.

Consider the following words from Bonhoeffer:

The first service that one owes to others in community consists in listening to them. Just as love for God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God's love for us that He not only gives His Word but also lends us His ear. […] Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and, in the end, there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words.

Youth leaders, perhaps more than most other types of ministers, must be listeners first. In counseling, no doubt, but also--and perhaps more importantly--in sermon preparation. What do the voices of the students say? What do they love? What do they hate? What are their struggles? What are the obstacles they face in life? What are the intellectual issues the students wrestle with?

If you speak only exegesis you speak what you have heard from the text, but you don't speak it in light of community. The role of the preacher is to speak what you have heard from the text in light the community you are speaking to. Speak the text, proclaim the text, but speak it to the heart of the community.

Tim Keller says that all scripture speaks to 'defeater beliefs.' Defeater beliefs are intellectual ideas that silence the compelling nature of the Gospel and quench of the work of the Spirit. "How can a good God let evil exist?" "Christianity is just a moral strait jacket!" and so on. Thus as you listen to scripture, listen to your audience simultaneously. What are the 'defeater issues' in their context? Do their social aspirations prevent them from embracing the Gospel ("What will they think at work or at school?"). Do they have intellectual issues that keep them from embracing the Gospel? The role of the preacher is to discern what 'defeater' issues the text speaks to and offer scripture's response to the congregation. This isn't merely apologetics this is the beginning of crafting a challenging word that pierces the heart.

For Keller, serving in Manhattan, he is constantly meeting people who have intellectual objections to Christianity (below is a great article he wrote that unpacks all of these issues). When he prepares his messages he seeks to listen to how the scripture is challenging the 'defeater beliefs' that so many Manhattan residents hold to. How does this Psalm challenge defeater belief: "Christianity is just a moral strait jacket," etc.

While Keller's audience is primarily well-educated and upwardly mobile and thus more likely to have intellectual issues with the Gospel. Most audiences don't struggle as much with intellectual issues as they do with social issues. In fact many sociologists believe that social realities are more of a factor in determining what a person believes than logic alone. A person is more likely to believe something if someone they respect believes the same thing. That said, the preacher must listen to the text as it, by God's Spirit, confronts social and intellectual defeaters.

Example: In High School many students constantly feel on the margins. They long to be accepted. This often makes them act out and 'pose' to gain acceptance into a certain group. This line of acting takes them farther from the Gospel as it pushes them to conform not to the will of God but rather to a certain social group. The Gospel challenges this 'social defeater' by maintaining that acceptance is not based upon 'posing' but on the basis of Christ. If you are in Christ you no longer have to anxiously seek to find acceptance, you are fundamentally accepted.

What are some social and intellectual defeaters of your crowd?

The challenging word of the sermon rests partially on how you speak to the audience's 'defeaters'. Discerning their 'defeaters' begins with an act of listening.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Listening Act Two

[as my faithful readers may have come to understand, i'm working on a sermon training manual for laity. comments welcome]

It is also important to listen to people that are older and wiser, and those that have called on Christ in different historical periods--those that aren't you're contemporaries. There is an idea in contemporary evangelicalism that learning is not necessary, particularly book learning as it relates to the scriptures. It's thought that we have the Spirit who will lead us into all truth; God's revelation is immediate, why do we need then an intermediary resource, like a commentary?

It's interesting that throughout history this sentiment has often expressed by heretical groups and sectarian movements. The lack of interest in commentaries or learning from scholars and Bible teachers is often a mark of pride with a spiritual veneer. Also, it is most likely indicative of the enlightenments over-emphasis on the individual. The mainstream of the church has always believed that the individual is not independent but rather, inter-dependent, with regard to all things. The secondary act of listening in sermon preparation is to listen to the Church's voice expressed in commentaries and sermons on the relevant texts.

When reading a commentary you are able to sit at the feet of great scholars and Bible teachers. You are able to hear the text afresh and discern new ways to perceive and communicate scripture. You're able to stand on the backs of giants.

However, some might too quickly move to the commentary, this should not be done. Reading commentaries and listening to relevant sermons is a crucial act of sermon preparation but it should never precede a prayerful individual reading of the passage. It is incredibly important to familiarize yourself with the assigned passage, seeking God's leading in the interpretation of the passage, before you consult those older and wiser. In this way you are getting to know the text and thus the commentaries and sermons aren't speaking into a vacuum. Further, when you approach the commentary or sermon you bring your own learning to the discussion.

Pay attention to how the commentators divide the text (chapters and verses). What do they spend most of their time discussing? Do they offer important historical contextual points, things that make the text more lucid and challenging? Compare and contrast your reading of the text with theirs'.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Listening Act One

Read the assigned scripture.

Read the scripture surrounding the assigned scripture.

What is being communicated?

How is it being communicated?

How does it fit into God's story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration?

How is it pointing to Christ?

What issues is it speaking to?

How is it challenging you?

These questions shouldn't be mere inquiries into the text, as if you were interrogating it--or hunting for answers. Rather, they should be integrated into the preacher's approach to the text. All scriptural texts point to Christ. All scriptural texts exist in God's redemptive story. Listening to the text involves hearing the text's response to the questions.

Further, these questions shouldn't be asked as if you were above the text, analyzing it. They should be reverently asked, as if you were below the text.

The temptation is to ask only "How can I use this text to teach?" The preacher must begin with "What is the text saying." To start with "How can I use this text" short-circuits the process of listening to the text. Ask the Spirit to confront you through the text. Ask the Spirit to pierce your heart. Ask the Spirit to hear the challenging word, before saying the challenging word. This will revive your soul and will later be the 'raw material' of the sermon.

Take your time.

Listening takes patience.

You may think you have an 'answer'--don't move too quickly.

Listening is an act of prayer.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Primary Considerations: Listening, the All-Important Foundation

And now the end has come. So listen to my piece of advice: exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis! Keep to the Word, to the scripture that has been given to us.
-Karl Barth
(Just before Karl Barth was exiled from Germany in 1935)

“For what we preach is not ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as servants for Jesus' sake.”

2nd Corinthians 4:5

We don't preach ourselves, but the Word--the Living Word Christ (John 1) and the scriptural Word. The temptation is to build on a foundation other than the Word. We all have personal stories or great illustrations at the forefront of our minds, good and important though they are, they aren't the foundation of a scriptural message. It's perhaps tautology but the foundation of a scriptural message is: scripture and to that which it points, namely Christ.

In this section we'll look at what it means to do faithful "exegesis". Exegesis means: a critical explanation of a text. The preacher's first task is to be a student of the Word, drawing the meaning out. This requires an act of listening. Before you can draw out what is being communicated in the text, you must listen to the text.

I'm writing a little handbook on preaching for some of my adult leaders. This is the preface, so to speak. More coming.


There are many approaches to texts. Shuffling through pages, quickly hunting for summary statements and bold words--this is a form of reading that belongs to university libraries. A skeptical reading, looking between the words for cracks in arguments or faults in the story line--this is a form of reading suitable for debate or argumentation. Then we've all read several pages only to find that the words were merely white noise, nothing was retained.

Kierkegaard talks about the reading of scripture as an act of love, like reading a love letter. This is the only way to approach the reading of scripture. Listening to the scripture, within its context, is an act of submission to it--and by extension it is an act of submission to God. In listening to scripture you're setting yourself below the text. You don't offer anything to add, you are under it's tutelage. This is where the preacher must start, you must be under the scripture's tutelage. You must be under the Spirit's tutelage as he points you to the living Word Christ through the scriptural Word. Listening is the appropriate metaphor for the way a preacher reads scripture; before the preacher proclaims he must listen.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Book for purchase (at suggested donation)

I'm working on a devotional/commentary on the Gospel of Mark. It's turning out to have some promise. I'm self-publishing and the content is with High Schoolers to College students in mind. If you're interested in purchasing one, or you're strapped for cash and would like a free copy leave me a comment below. I'll get your info and alert you to when they're out.

You can read a few posts back for samples.