Teachers, Inspirers, and Great Preachers

Like any other person who has a craft they work to refine, I think a lot about the craft of preaching. I refuse to believe there are "bad" preachers. I believe that even the most difficult preacher to listen to has within them the Divine spark (because all humans do) and I can listen for that spark. 

While I do not think there are bad preachers, I do think there are three types of preachers which I label: Teachers, Inspirers, and Greats. 

Teachers are those preachers who are primarily interested in teaching. This style of preaching is gratifying because when you leave, you feel like you have expanded knowledge. Teachers include Seminary students and others who are learning new things they are excited about. Teachers also include those who find learning personally enriching. Teachers are good preachers. I am a teacher about half of the time. However, teachers can also be dry in content or, more often, operating under the Greek myth that knowledge leads to enlightenment. I learn a lot from watching the Food Network, but I am not any closer to being a chef. Knowledge of Jesus does not equate into being Christ-like. 

The Inspirers are preachers primarily interested in inspiring you to action. This style of preaching is gratifying because when you leave you feel pumped up or on a "spiritual high". Inspirers include those who are feel strongly that "faith without works is dead" and find being the hands of Christ personally enriching. Inspirers are good preachers. I am an Inspirer the other half of the time. However, Inspirers can be story-heavy and theologically light. Inspirers also can be overt with nostalgia or fear-mongering to manipulate action. Getting your "Jesus fix" each Sunday is often a nice way of being addicted to the evocative aspects of worship.

So of course the Great preachers interweave the head (Teacher) and the heart (Inspirer). This is more than obvious at this point. However Great preachers do two other things which are by far the most difficult things to do. The next post will expand on what the Great preachers do.

A Difference in a Sermon and a Speech

It is important that preachers pay attention to their context. For instance, if your ministry is in a college town and the parishioners are college-educated people who place a premium on learning, then you know that you are going to have to have a teaching element in the sermon or no one will listen to you. If you are in a context where people value being a church of "Go" then by goodness, you need to be sure to have a call to action in the sermon. 

Context matters, but it is not king. Christ is King. In this sense that means the contextual must be in service of the transcendent. A sermon that is trapped and cannot transcend the context is not a sermon in my book. 

Sermons are those declarations of Good News that speak to the context but then transcend it. So if your community values learning, then the sermon must not be only about teaching. It must include a teaching element and then transcend it so that there is a call to service. The church of "Go" needs to hear the sermon that calls to action but transcends that call to include a call to worship and be still. 

Sermons that are trapped in their context are just that - trapped. There may be a good word shared, but it is not Good News. It may make the community feel good, but if the proclamation does not include and transcend the context then it is a public speech, not a sermon.*

*This post is specifically directed to all the preachers named Jason Valendy.

A Chef and A Rabbi Help Explain Preaching

Not long ago I was eating with a chef and it reminded me of a Jewish Rabbi. Here is what happened. 

The chef and I were eating and she began to talk about how she would have prepared the dish differently. She had comments on the quality of ingredients and the role of salt at different stages of cooking. Due to her training and love of food, she could see and taste things that I could not. While she was talking about the brilliant use of the kalamata olives to balance the dish, I was thinking about why some olives are sold in cans while others are in jars. 

She and I were on different levels. And then I recalled Rabbi Joel Nickerson's interview by Rob Bell

In the interview Rabbi Joel said that in his tradition there is a way to do exegesis of the scripture and it has four layers: 

  • simple
  • hints
  • commentary
  • mystery

Here is a quick breakdown of these layers as I understand them (which is limited as I am not Jewish): 

The simple layer is just that. When you read a text there is a simple (literal) understanding. It is when you read the story of the good Samaritan and hear God saying it is good to take care of those in need. 

The "hints" layer is what many preachers do in their sermons. The preacher will then go though the scripture then point out all the other scripture that is "hinted" at in the particular preaching text. So when you hear about John the Baptist, the text hints at the story of Elijah. For many, this is the essence of what passes for "biblical preaching."

The commentary layer is that layer where one finds their own voice in the text and contributes to the story. It is the layer that some fear as "diverging" from the Word and is sometimes met with resistance with phrases like, "where in scripture do you read that?" or "The Bible says ..." Commentary is something that we all do, but not every tradition values as commentary.

Let me tell you a mystery...

The mystery layer is that layer that needs the Spirit of God to breathe upon us in order to expose. It is that layer that we get glimpses of at and it is this layer that makes Scripture the inspired word of God. It is a layer that is hidden in plain sight but we are often looking for other things or just plain blind to being able to see it. It is this layer that Jesus exposes the world to when he says, "you have heard it said... But I say..." or "Blessed are the poor..."

When I listen to a preacher, much like the chef I ate with, I too am busy analyzing the sermon, commenting on the delivery, making note on the way the "salt" was used. I am constantly in search of the preachers who expose the mystery. And too often I find myself frustrated at my own inability to expose the mystery as I only stay at the other levels. 

And so, for those who are feasting on the word of God in Christ it is my prayer that we may all find ourselves exposed the the deep mystery and not just fill up on the simple, hints and commentary.

Religion Bounces Back in the Age of Novelty?

Alain De Botton's book points out that  religion have at their core a sense of repetition. Be it annual feast days, repetition of the same story, recreating a previous event or common rote prayers, patterns abound in religion. In part the reason for all this repetition is due to a commonly held belief among religious types - human beings are forgetful.

This repetitive nature of religion can contribute to the feeling that religion is boring. As my high school english teacher, Mr. Ott, often quoted the Russian quip, "Repetition is the mother of learning and the father of boredom." In an effort to not be boring but instead to be fresh and new and exciting, many Christian churches have adopted a "TED" style of worship: Keep it novel every time. 

There is a fear among the Christian leaders that I know that if we are not sharing something each week that is new or groundbreaking or at least something that someone did not know before then we are failing. This pressure leads to some seriously cheesy sermon series all in an attempt to be novel

However I wonder if it is possible that because we are in an age of novelty that religion will see more people interested in it. As the non-fig based cookie man, Newton said, "Every action has an opposite and equal reaction."

We are constantly hammered with the "new" and the "latest" and the "breaking" the "update" that we become overwhelmed by all that we don't know. My list of books that I want to read grows four times as fast as the list of books that I have read. To which Botton states:

"We feel guilty for all that we have not yet read, but overlook how much better read we already are than Augustine or Dante, thereby ignoring that our problem lies squarely with our manner of absorption rather than with the extent of our consumption."

Part of the beauty of religion is that if forces us to return to the same stories and messages and ideas time and time again. Christianity forces me every year to ask the question, "What the hell is happening on that cross?" and "If you cannot believe that there is a divine spark in Jesus then how will you ever believe that there is divinity in you?"

Just as the new minimalism may be a reaction to the overconsumption that defined the baby boomers, so too could religion's repetition be a reaction to the Age of Novelty?