The Nature of Preaching: a reflection on the three-day lectures by Professor Thomas Long

The original Chinese article here.

 

A while back, I was talking about the character of the preacher. This installment, I’ll talk about the nature of preaching. Prof. Thomas Long, in his book, considers preaching as “witness.” Furthermore, besides witnessing, he also states in his seminar that preaching is confession. These are good starting points in looking at the nature of preaching.

What would cause us to think about preaching as confession and witness? Certainly, both ideas are not as prominent as others in biblical descriptions of preaching. There’s better vocabulary from the NT to describe the nature of preaching than those two words. I think our point of departure should surely come out of a church history and spirituality grid. What exactly does that mean?

Confession answers the question “What is my belief?” Witnessing answers the question “What experience do you have?” The former is an important recognition because my belief is quite different than what God actually revealed in the text. In saying “this is my belief,” we recognize the gap between the human interpretation and the actually divine revelation. The sermon is not divine revelation. Rather, it is an interpretation of the divine revelation. So, what are the measuring sticks when we look at the concept of “confession”?

I think one place to check my confession of belief is the broadest historical confessions of the church. The more we study the church fathers, the less we’re likely to think that we have the corner on truth. When we confess our belief, I think it is important to make sure our range of truth is wide enough to see the many possible facets of truths that had already existed in church history. Our individual confession is part of the greater confession of the church. This fact ought to keep the preacher humble to know that he has not possessed the corner on truth within the greater history of the church.

Another nature of preaching is witnessing. As I said before witnessing is about experience. In order to understand witnessing, we should contrast it against confession. Confession is about what I know and witnessing is about what I do with what I know. Witnessing links belief to praxis. Confession shouts, “I believe this is truth.” Witnessing shouts, “I’ve tried out my belief, and it works.” Witnessing is about practicing what one preaches. The practice of one’s belief does not merely touch on church tradition, but also touches on spirituality of the practitioner. Faith is translated into practicable form when the preacher sees preaching as witness. A witnessing preacher proclaims that a certain truth is indeed true and that this truth is practicable as well as relevant.

Confession and witnessing then become the expression of the church’s belief through the pulpit and through the words of the preacher. After doing all righteousness, confession and witnessing give the gift of the sermon to the church. The preacher himself does not own the sermon. He then builds it as part of the greater tradition through the ages in order to remind the church of what she ought to believe and do. In other words, preaching has a unifying effect on the congregation with the larger universal church.

What are some of the tools that will bring the confession and witnessing nature of the sermon back into the church? Long suggests usage of lectionary and series. The modern church mostly enjoys series because they are flexible and practical. The trouble is that the practicality of the series can take the church away from difficult passages. Lectionary has its lessons along with many resources to refer to. While the wider church can also refer to the lectionary, the preacher can feel insecure if he uses the resources, but he is missing the point of the lectionary because the resources are not exclusively his. Besides, reading the resources is one thing; using them wisely in the sermon is quite another thing. Lectionary can also unify the entire church to study something similar that is according to the church tradition without individualizing the sermon to the preacher’s own theological tastes. Certainly, it is better than making all the church pastors preach from the Purpose Driven Life and making the congregation do Sunday school on it. The lectionary is much safer and will enable the preacher to confess and witness for the faith of the church as well as his own faith.

Lessons about Church Growth from Other Cultures

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My recent visit to New Zealand and Singapore has been tiring but fruitful.  I’ve finally gotten over my jet lag.  I want to share one lesson I’ve learned from this visit.  This lesson is about church growth.

In the popular imagination (even among many pastors) here, a growing church seems to exhibit certain traits such as a younger demographic, cool lighting, strong sound system, loud and hip rock band, a pastor who doesn’t wear a tie when he preaches and so on.  If we look at all the mega churches in the US, almost all of them fit this profile. In fact this uniformity is yet another kind of culture, and it works marvelously so much so that it has turned into a formula.  Gone are the days when we go to church in our Sunday best, sitting attentively in our pews and listening to a well-dressed preacher talk about the Bible.  These days, we have some who act like pseudo comedians, whose jokes aren’t as funny as the comedy club but are funny enough to hold our forever shortening attention span.  Relevant issues range from how to raise children, how to live a fulfilling life, how to get the maximum return to your investment (no, I’m not joking) and how to have a white-hot sex life.

To be sure, like all American products, such a formula also has its exported versions.   In Singapore, we have City Harvest, Faith Community Baptist, and New Creation, just to name a few.  Having followed the news on these churches, they’ve landed on tough times.  Although on the outside they look fantastic as usual, whispers and charges of corruption are ever present.

One pleasant surprise in visiting Singapore was my meeting with the faculty of Trinity Theological College of Singapore, the oldest seminary created by the mainline denominations there.  One thing I’ve learned from our conversation, besides the problem of Singapore mega churches, is the growth that is happening in Asia.  In case we think that growth came out of the American formula, we would be far off base.  In our sharing, many colleagues laid out the form of church growth in some of the Asian countries.  I was surprised to find that there’s a resurgence of high church worship.  In fact, some areas experience extraordinary growth in high church worship (i.e. worship filled smells and bells).  This is contrary to our image of a relevant church growth in the West.

Although many attribute church growth to God’s Spirit working, the uniformity of our mega churches only shows that perhaps it’s  more of a social phenomenon than something uniquely supernatural. Although many attribute our church growth to our western formula, the same formula has created nothing but problems in Asia.  Church growth has many factors then.  A simplistic attribution to either supernatural forces or to a formula should have no place in any open mind.  What have I learned from our conversation?

I’ve learned that observation of growth only yields more questions than answers.  I’ve learned that equating the work of the Spirit with a formula based on a social phenomenon is dubious.  I’ve learned that statistics do not tell the whole story.  Church growth depends on too many factors to have any black and white answer.

 

A Short Preaching Lesson from the Rt. Reverend Paul Kwong

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The recent comments of the Rt. Reverend Paul Kwong, archbishop of the Hong Kong Anglican Church have inflamed the news media.  The comments came from one sermon he preached on the Occupy movement in Hong Kong.  The movement seeks to bring more freedom of speech, democracy and equality to the Hong Kong society.  This and other forms of civil disobedience have been at the center of the last few months.  The summer, after all, is the marching season in Hong Kong where people publicly demonstrate their frustration over the intrusion and hegemony of the mainland Chinese government.

Some of the comments that had incensed the local people include a call to not voice out an opinion about democracy.  Kwong is clearly frustrated with the question, “What does the church have to say about …?”  His remarks were extensive about not participating in “illegal” activities especially of the civil disobedience nature. He further remarks that the silence of Jesus should become the example to all.  I’m not going to address his exegetical fallacy or his theological errors or even his own integrity as bishop because many have already.  What I want to discuss is our tactic in speaking about social issues on the pulpit.  My simple advice is this. Put your exegesis first and social issues second.

Although in the Chinese circle I’m considered a fairly progressive homiletician, I’ll be the first to say that I’m still fundamentally quite traditional in my approach.  My sermon presentation or exegetical method may be progressive, but my basis is quite traditional.  No matter how we present the material, I advocate a strong expository element in the overall shape of the sermon.

My ultimate aim in this blog is not to disparage Kwong.  He’s accountable for his own words and has been raked over the coals by the media already.  I propose that we need to make sure that our aim of preaching a text should be governed by the text.  We should not make the text fit our agenda, no matter how admirable or updated our agenda is.  As preachers, we’re tempted to be relevant.  When we give into the temptation of ONLY preaching relevance, our pulpit presentation becomes a spiritualized report of current event.  This is why I advocate that we should only comment on current issues if our text clearly addresses them and our comment would be the best illustration of the issues from the text. I believe there’re many places in the Bible that can address such issues, but we must be so careful or our sermon time would be filled with such commentaries.

These days, many preachers are under the pressure to “say something … anything” about the current world situation.  I think it is important to have something from the gospel that connects to the world. At the same time, we’re in grave danger of hijacking the gospel for our causes.  I say this not only for Kwong but for both sides of the debate (between the Left and the Right).  Our biblical basis should be quite strong when we preach out of the text, but our logic should also be quite connected to the text.  When it comes to choosing between our admirable agenda or the text, we should always choose the text.  Do we really know what the text is saying? Are we doing what the text is doing?  These are the better questions to ask when we write up our sermons instead of “What does the church have to say about this or that?”  At the end, it is not our intention that counts.  It is our impact that gets us into hot water.

The Rhetorical Question in Preaching

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This is a short blog on the rhetorical question. In my observation of many sermons, preachers like to use rhetorical questions. A rhetorical question is a question that does not really want answer. Sometimes, its purpose is to cause the listeners to think. Other times, its purpose is to exhort the listeners to action. Whatever the purpose behind such a question (I’m sure my readers can name quite a few more), here are the observations on its usage.

The rhetorical question is like dessert. Eating too much of it will overwhelm your system. Some preachers get very excited in throwing in all sorts of emotive rhetorical questions to call the audience to action. No matter what the question is, every question is there to seek an answer, even if the answer is painfully obvious. By this bombardment of rhetorical questions, the preacher might cause the listener to feel frazzled. Thinking is great. Being badgered is not.

My suggestion on rhetorical questions is the same as for accessorizing men’s clothing or cologne. Less is more. If one rhetorical question, followed by a strategic pause, is good enough for the embellishment of the sermon, don’t use two. The audience will get the point of a well-placed question.

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Self-Analysis of a Sermon on Matthew 20.1-16

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I preached this sermon in Jan. 2013 at Kowloon International Baptist Church. I’ve done a different presentation in Cantonese here (it’s so good to be bilingual and bicultural).  This passage challenges out notion of God. Its narrative makes strange sense. Even though many might try to say that the landowner’s action was justified in the ancient Palestinian context, the hirelings in the story thought otherwise. This story then is open to the question of whether the landowner was fair or not.

The danger of reading this passage in a straightforward manner comes from the fact that the payment was unfair. The resulting conclusion would be to see the kingdom as being unfair.

My close reading brings me to Matt. 20.1 where the word “for” directs our attention to the story of the rich man and Peter’s boast of having given up all for Jesus’ call. In light of the discussion about fairness, Jesus already told Peter that reward would far outweigh the cost (19.28-30). The question of fairness only comes after Jesus talked about reward.

In light of such a situation, Jesus wanted Peter to know that Peter would receive his due reward, but that the call was originally more in the favor of all those who were called. Grace was never fair because the call could not be earned. Without the call, every hireling would still stand on the street corner waiting for work.

Overall, I think most make too much of the theological meaning of 19.30 and 20.16.  I think if we understand and resolve the tension of Jesus’ sayings, the meaning of those two verses as plain as day.  They merely mean that Jesus came and turned the world upside down, much like his parable.  His parable then illustrates his mission.

There’re risks involved with this sermon besides the obvious popular misreading of Matthew 20. My presentation took big risks simply because my serious questioning of God’s character in most of the sermon. At the same time, I think most Christians avoid the awkward moment when we begin to ask hard questions the text raises.  Although the risk is great, I feel obligated to challenge people to track with the text to experience the tension.  Most Christians want an easy life by resolving any tension the text may bring.  In its format, this sermon’s proportion is also not even in that I devoted most of the time questioning God. I did this because my audience is already familiar with me, having both attended and preached in this church for more than two years.

The top heavy inquiry about God’s character is true to the text though because the entire text without the Peter context amounts of God being a cosmic bully. I think Jesus wanted the audience to think about fairness, the call and free grace. The thinking process is full of tension and mystery. I tried to re-create both.

When I teach preaching, I always tell my students to leave the tension without resolving it until the end. My reading of the “for” in 20.1 gives me adequate firepower to answer the question. I sincerely hope that my risk does not outweigh the reward, no more than Peter’s risk outweighs his reward.

Storytelling in Preaching: a reflection on the three-day lectures by Professor Thomas Long

The original Chinese article here.

Children needs stories because of their imaginative disposition, but certainly stories are not limited to children. As I said previously, stories can also exist even in the metaphors within the “propositional” biblical text as long as the preacher can trace the story behind it. The preacher cannot get away from stories. With the richly imaginative film-making technology, storytelling is more popular than ever among popular preachers. So popular that Prof. Thomas Long said that maybe we need to get back more to the teaching style of preaching in the US. Perhaps, elsewhere in Asia, storytelling is still not so popular. Maybe for Asia, storytelling is needed. The fact is, stories should not just be told, but be told within the sound exegetical confine of the text. They also need to be told in an ethical manner. This installment will explore the importance of stories and their roles in our sermon making.

Storytelling has two dimensions, both of which need to be considered. First dimension is the way biblical narrator tells the story. The second dimension is the way the preacher tells the story. Both are artistic and both help with the communication process in some ways. We must make note of the two and see if we can (or cannot) the two when we think about the presentation style of a sermon.

There are different kinds of storytelling styles, according to Long. First, there is the half-turn storytelling. If we imagine a movie camera shooting a scene, the storytelling is not quite in the scene but is a passive participant. My example from the Bible is the “we-section” of Acts. The narrator was somehow a participant but the focus was not on him. Some scholars think that the section is fully first-person narrative which I agree, but the degree of participation is minimal. Other than showing strong historicity in using the “first person eyewitness” voice, the narrator does not do much more other than moving from place to place with Paul. The focus is on Paul, not on the narrator. Second, storytelling can take the form of fully personal story. This style is straightforwardly obvious that the storyteller is a participant in the story. In fact, more times than not, he may be the focus of the story. It may be filled with “I” such as “when I was coming to church, I notice … then I … afterwards I …” This style of storytelling has its opponents who think that personal stories put the focus at the center of the sermon. I can however argue the opposite. Personal stories take away the preacher’s unnecessarily hierarchical role and make him the practitioner of what he preaches. When it is done right, personal stories put the text “above” the preacher who gladly submits under its authority.

Besides the half-turn and fully personal story, there is yet one more style of storytelling according to Long. This is called the fiction story, a made-up story. There are many preachers out there, especially among the Chinese population, who oppose the fiction, but wait a minute. Can we really limit our Christian imagination to only real historical stories? It appears that we cannot. Jesus used made-up stories all the time just to illustrate the point. Why Christians stay away from fiction baffles my mind. Perhaps, it is due to the modern Chinese culture being highly practical. Is there any reasonable way of using a made-up story? Yes, there is. Long makes an excellent suggestion by bringing “Let us imagine” or “What if” into the introduction of the fictional story. This is a suggestion with integrity because it alerts the audience that this was not a true story. Honesty is the real key here. We do not want people to mistake the story to be true, but at the same time, we do not have any good theological reason to limit our stories to something historical. The Christian imagination ought to be harnessed with integrity and not by mere culture.

Regarding storytelling, Long talks about the need for variations. This is indeed a hard task to accomplish. Some of us men preachers often talk of sports while some women preachers talk much about family and so on (though I’m guessing the reverse could be true in many cases as well). The point is that there is a need to provide variety so that we do not get stuck in a homiletical rut. How will we break the limit? Long suggests that we live homiletically. In other words, in our daily living, think often of our sermons through our experiences and observations. This then makes a preachers’ lifestyle different from others. We do not just watch TV for entertainment purposes; we also watch it for concepts helpful to our preaching.

One last word on storytelling also is relevant to our modern situation. Long points out the importance of asking for permission to retell a story. Preachers need permission to tell stories about family members, congregational members and their friends. This ought to be common sense to every speaker, but in my experience, it is far from common. Preachers constantly expose their family members like their wives and children to unnecessary limelight just to accomplish their homiletical ambition. The integrity of the preacher ought to be guided by the need to protect those who are related to the story. In the long run, this approach is both healthy and necessary. No sermon is worth breaking up relationships.

Give Them What They Need III: form follows function in a reflection on the three-day lectures by Professor Thomas Long

This blog continues to reflect on what Prof. Long has said in a slightly different direction. I didn’t write a Chinese article for this one, but here it is.  This blog talks about the literary movement of a biblical text. This movement has to impact the sermon form. If not, then there is a dissonance no matter how “doctrinally right” (whatever that terms means to my readers) the preacher is. This installment then is about “matching” the form of the sermon with the content of the biblical text.

Long lists one of his favorite Good Friday sermons called “Friday is here but Sunday is coming” by Tony Campolo. The brilliance of this sermon is that the repetition of the title helps sets the tone of the author’s literary movement in any of the Gospel books moves just that way. The entire book guides the movement of this single sermon, as any sermon should. Even if we stick to “one” single book with “one” single text for sermon, we would have our hands full figuring out the movement without resorting to doing concordance proof texts from other parts of the Bible, but what about smaller units like the Psalms. The answer is quite a bit less complicated actually.

Long in his discussion uses Ps. 19 which is an all-time favorite Psalm for so many believers as an example. He notes that the Psalm has several movements, mostly likely indicating the well thought out compositional strategy of David. From Ps. 19.1-6, there’s a description of a heavenly song that no one can quite make out the words. After all, the heavens “declare” and the Psalms were originally set to music. What the heaven “says” and how their voice “goes out” in Ps. 19.1, 4, no one knows. However, the revelation of what it “says” is clear; God is glorious. David got the message. Then, the tone changes at Ps. 19.7-11, as David found real words from the Torah that could instruct him. Thus, the Psalm moved from a wordless and picturesque situation to a word-centered situation. The final move is in Ps. 19.12-14 where David ends in solemn prayer. In other words, the song moves from wordless to the Torah word to finally a personal word (“word of my mouth”). The movement of the Psalm starts light at the beginning and slowly moves with more gravity with the Torah and finally moves to a reflective prayerful mood.

Now, this is a great example of preaching the mood and form of the text. If we were to use all the rhetorical tools of the last installment of my articles, what could we do? We have to talk about what the audience needs. The sermon audience needs to have four things in order to understand any sermon according to Long: repetition; framework; transitions, and illustrations.

What should be repeated in order to show the real issue of this Psalm? I’m not going to provide an answer, but my readers should determine whether this Psalm is about the glory of God as Ps. 19.1 states or perhaps the importance of the Torah or the importance of both. Let me suggest some alternatives. If the thrust is about the glory of God, then, the repetition is easy. If it is about the importance of the Torah, then the repetition about the “heaven declares” ought to be followed by “more importantly, the Torah is where God’s will is really known”. If it is about both, then the repetition should be something like “since both the heaven and the Torah declares God’s majesty …” and then we put in an application or illustration right after.

We then have to decide the framework. What kind of framework fits the text of the Psalm? The answer is once again “It depends.” The Psalm has three movements which can create a three –point sermon, except the three points are not evenly distributed. Would a jewel pattern approach be better? Well, it depends on whether we see the text as having different aspects of “one major theme” from the beginning to the end. Would the “then and now” pattern fit? I suggest that this pattern is best served through historical narratives. Would the Hegelian “conflict and synthesis” pattern work? It may not unless we see the praise of heaven being in complete conflict against the Torah (some radical conservative may). Would the guessing game “Is the answer this, that, or the other?” work? I think the passage is clear enough to say that this guessing game approach does not work. So far, we can see that certain patterns work while others definitely do not.

We now have to decide the transition. Now, this step depends on the first step in terms of what needs to be repeated. The repeated phrase can be used to bolster the clarity of the outline so that the audience can follow the sermon. Finally, we have to pick illustrations. The illustrations can be an analogy, example or metaphor. The Psalms does not directly call for some ethical action, thus negating the need for plenty of examples for listeners to follow. Yet, the Psalm is highly descriptive of many images. So, a major metaphor may be easy to formulate. For example, when preaching this Psalm, I like to use the book as a metaphor with God writing a book of different chapters with first being nature and second being the Torah in order to show Himself. Thus, we can use this metaphor all the way through and use analogical stories about reading in order to enrich this sermon. This too would be most helpful.

Give Them What They Need? II: a reflection on the three-day lectures by Professor Thomas Long

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The original Chinese article here.

The last blog talks about the possible things the audience needs in order to understand a sermon. Professor Thomas Long gives four possible answers from the last blog. Here, he proposes four different answers of his own of what the audience needs.

First, Long states that the audience needs some kind of clue which answers the question, “What is this sermon about?” The tool by which they can learn the message is repetition. I have said in my exegesis classes that each passage, if our division of it is right, probably has one major point with a range of possible meanings within it. Yet, we do not depart from that major point into other “impossible meanings.” Yet, in my preaching class, I turn my attention to whether they all generally get that point. A lot times, when people are confused, they ask, “What’s your point?” The trouble with the sermon is that the audience does not often talks back until quite a while after the event. Therefore, the preacher ought to make his point clear as day so that there is no mistake as to what he is trying to say. Since he suggests repetition as a tool, our next question to ask is “What is worth repeating?” Based on my years in the pulpit, I would say two possible things are worth repeating, either the main issue or the main question. We may pick either one, but not both at the risk of confusing the audience. It is not that many in the audience cannot grasp the repetition of two simultaneous things, but there is always a risk when we add more into the mix.

Second, Long states that the audience needs framework. If a sermon is a nicely crafted piece of clothing, the framework is the best coat hanger on which the craftsmanship can be displayed. For those who think that if we preach using a storytelling style, we do not need an outline, Long would say, “Nonsense”. Long is a big advocate for outline. All outlines are not only exegetically based, but are in some sense, homemade. Each pastor has his own audience and pastoral situation which can inform him of the kind of outline is needed. Long lists some sample outlines that follow the following patterns. The patterned outline (e.g. three-point outline) creates a rhythm in the audience’s mind. The jewel pattern creates an impression that goes around a single point through different perspectives. The then-and-now outline (my own preferred framework for preaching biblical narratives) bridges the ancient and the modern worlds. The Hegelian pattern shows a thesis-antithesis-synthesis logic. The “guessing game” outline asks the big question “Is the answer this, that, or some others?” to which the sermon answers with an either-or solution or “a bit of both” solution. To me, these are all excellent patterns that will serve the preacher for a long time. The important thing for me is whether the passage under scrutiny fits this or that framework better. Sometimes, there is no right answer. Other times, the answer is as clear as the argument of the biblical passage.

Third, Long uses “follow-ability” to describe the hearing need the audience. This means that the sermon is not hard to follow in that the audience would not get weighed down by the large chunks of information. I think the best way to do this is to provide adequate transitions. The repetitions stated above can be good transition tools. Transition basically serves to show (but not necessarily tell) the audience what has gone on before and what is coming next. This is an important quality because by transition, we break up parts of the sermon into digestible portions much like the way we chop pieces of meat before stir frying so that we do not eat such a big chunk. Transition is the means by which the preacher keeps the audience from indigestion.

Fourth, Long talks of illustrations. He has named three different types: analogy, example, metaphor. It is natural to think about illustrations “after” our discussion on transitions. Storytelling style of preaching is attractive, except it also presents special risks to both preachers and listeners. Stories themselves are open to misunderstanding especially if the listener has an overactive imagination. The way to keep the illustrations from running away is to put a fence called transition around it so that the illustration is fenced in within its own section. That section with its own illustration should function alone by itself without contamination of other sections. Clear transition which divides up sections can protect illustrations. Now, we move on to the three illustration types. Analogy includes the word “like” in order to concretize an otherwise abstract concept into everyday life experience. Example should serve as the kind of exhortation that shows how certain principles work out in action. Metaphor, which Long considers the most dangerous of all illustrations, contains a condensed narrative which plays itself out in a singular figure. Sometimes its rich narrative world is sufficient to be used throughout the sermon starting at the beginning all the way to the end. In Proverbs, for example, a saying can have huge narrative world behind its metaphor. The preacher’s job is to trace back into the world of the story from the metaphor.

In conclusion, the suggestions above are very helpful only if the exegesis is in place. These tools can be misused when the preacher does not take the text seriously and focus on something substantial. The satisfaction of leaning on “traditional” (whatever that means) interpretation will do more harm than good when the preacher uses these rhetorical tools to express wrong ideas.

Give Them What They Need? I: a reflection on the three-day lectures by Professor Thomas Long

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The Chinese article is originally found here.

I’ve had the privilege of hosting Prof. Thomas Long (pictured having a banquet with us the night before the lecture), one of the best preachers and preaching professors of our generation in the Belote Lecture Series at HKBTS. Long taught in Columbia Theological Seminary and Princeton Seminary and is now teaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. I choose to interact with him not merely because I am the chair of this lecture series and not less because I was one respondent to one of his lectures, but because he and I are a lot alike in that we both advocate strong exegesis on the one hand and strong presentation on the other. I must say that the lectures have much food for thought, and I have learned much from this senior scholar-pastor in both my interaction with him as well as listening to his lectures. In the next series of articles, I wish to study this eminent homiletician as a springboard into issues plaguing modern preachers. For my readers, let me first summarize some of the ideas he has shared in this next series and then I’ll give my own reaction to them along the way to move the discussion to the next level. Without a doubt though, Long is a top-notch communicator who knows his Bible very well, not only in a superficial way but in a deep and theological (as well as spiritual) way. This has been my observation of his work and through personal interactions with him outside the lecture hall.

Theologically, Long is clearly Reformed, though he never shoves his theology down the audience’s collective throat. Although he brings a lot of narrative into his preaching, he does not fail to remind the audience that ultimately God owns this world and that justice belongs to God. The theological basics of “who God is” has never been too far from his paradigm. In his lecture, he talks about an important question, “What do the listeners need in order to understand the sermon?” This is a fascinating question which can be answered variously. Long attempts to answer the question in four ways.

First, Long states that some do not even believe this would be an appropriate question to ask. Certain conservative Reformed theologians would find this question taking away from God’s uneasy message to humanity. Some may even consider asking such a question fiddling around with the gospel. Long appreciates the objection but sees it as neglecting the highly sophisticated literary characteristic of the Bible. I too agree that while God’s message can be quite demanding, not every message is equally demanding. Besides, the rhetorical nature of all communications, with the Scripture not excepted, demands that the speaker takes seriously the need of listeners/readers. The modern listeners indeed need “something” in order to understand a very ancient (but nevertheless relevant) text. The Bible is not a book dropped from heaven given by an alien without any incarnational quality. I think those who question the need of listeners are the same people with a superstitious view of both preaching and the Bible.

Second, Long states that some preachers see the human psyche processing things in terms of narrative plot which has elements of conflict, clues to resolution, resolution, more responses to resolution and finally consequences. Long comments that not everything comes in terms of such a plot shape. Not every human thinks in plot-like manner. Later, he contrasts between listening of the engineer versus the artist. If a preacher was to preach a narrative-filled sermon, the engineer might find it wanting while the artist might be touched. Yet, the stereotype is not always based on profession either. Some engineers could be quite touchy feely while other artist could be quite analytical. The point is this; a sermon hits everyone very differently. Long’s assumption once again is right on because any assumption about the human brain functioning only one way should be questioned. Sure, we may have some experience with one kind of audience, but that is different than saying that all audiences are alike simply because they’re human. In his discussion about listening, Long states that just because there is one sermon, it does not mean that the three hundred plus people listening are hearing the same thing. In fact, in a church of a thousand, one thousand variations of that sermon is heard. Trouble comes when they near one thousand “completely different” sermons which would then indicate a breakdown in the communicative skills. This and many other reasons is why I challenge my students to take a survey of various kinds of listeners in the congregation and see what the main message the audience got from the sermon. If the end result is approximately the same, then the communication of the sermon was a success. If the end result varies as much as the number of samples taken, then the sermon was a dire failure in communication.

Third, Long states that some preachers see the audience’s brain functioning like a camera which focuses, renames, and snap pictures. The listening experience would become a series of photo opportunities. Indeed this image would most certainly appeal to the visually oriented person. In fact, a descriptive sermon would fit this category nicely. What I mean by “descriptive” is not just describing the text or the event of the text, but that the sermon itself is filled with rich imageries and metaphors. The vividness of such a style of preaching will create word pictures. All this would depend on the sophistication of the speaker’s everyday vocabulary. The trick though is how we move from one image to another image without losing the argumentation of the point. To me, each section or imagery needs to be consistently self-contained. It should be apparent to the audience that the image for one section is indeed working for that section only. I suggest that we have clear transition between sections of images like, “Now, we can live our lives like …” or “now, that’s just like when Jesus died for us …” A conclusive statement acting as a transition surely helps harness an image without the image running away into the next section and causing some misunderstanding of the next section.

Fourth, Long states that some preachers focus different types of audience. Some suggest that women listen differently (in general) than men. In his general observation, women use language cooperatively while men use language instrumentally. Women then are more about being while men are more about doing. While many may fault him for gender stereotype, there is clear linguistic evidence of this fact just in the way little baby girls and boys learn language. There may be something to that observation. In other words, preaching to diverse audience is not easy at all. Many Chinese church pastors complain about the challenge of speaking to both generations with one speaking Chinese and the other English. These challenges are also quite real, but imagine if the audience is also diverse in its hearing of the “same” language. Many West Coast American churches are now filled with diverse ethnicities. They may speak the same language but their backgrounds will cause different kinds of hearing. Speaking then is as much of an art as it is science. This observation by Long certainly points to the need for the pastor-congregation connection that is much needed to make this “artistic” preaching workable. The art then is not merely about rhetoric, but it flows out of the pastoral ministry of the preacher. The above four points are the issues that homiletic scholars have paid attention in recent years. What actually does the audience need? Long gives four simple answers. We shall go through the four simple answers in the next installment.

Cultural “War”??? … Metaphors Matter

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In the best tradition of the Apostle Paul, Ephesians 6.11-12 says, “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  Apparently, for many Christians the verse reads like this. “Put on the nasty rhetoric so that you can take your stand against those who disagree with you.  For our struggle is against flesh and blood, but not against the rulers, authorities, the powers of their dark world.  In fact, we struggle against the physical forces of evil in the earthly realms.”  This blog is not the place to debate the meaning of this group of verses.  Interested readers can consult my book Right Texts Wrong Meanings where I discuss the meaning and implications.

This week, a conference named “Overcoming the World: Bring a Christian in a Post-Christian Culture” comes to town.  The name says it all.  The World is the Enemy, and our country WAS once Christian.  Obviously, when our country becomes post-Christian (whatever that means), the world has become the enemy.  The metaphor of war has been thrown about since the ancient time.  It is often used on the pulpit to demonize the opposition.  The blog sphere is also a prime piece of cyber estate for such keyboard warriors. They would rally their troops to go on cyber space to wage their own war.  Quite often, they would completely take over people’s Facebook walls or internet forums.  Sometimes, a more subtle form of this battle comes in the inquiry of “Are you pro-___ or anti-___?” as if life is full of black and white.  Before such vitriolic language reaches fever pitch, I want us to think a bit deeper.  

Is living in this world as a Christian really ONLY about a battle? Are there not other metaphors in the Bible that describe the Christian life?  I won’t go into all the metaphors, but the simple answer is “yes.”  Even when the metaphor is about a battle, it is not a battle against human beings.  Since many love to attribute opposition only to the devil, the devil gets entirely too much credit.  It is easier to say that the devil has caused the dissenting voices to speak against us instead of trying to understand dissent.  It is easier to say that the devil is behind all that is wrong in the world instead of doing our best (in our best Christian efforts) to make the world a better place.  The devil must be happy as a lark because he’s getting credit for stuff he didn’t do.  When war metaphors are thrown around too loosely, we risk praising the devil more than he deserves.

All this comes down to worldview.  For the person who sees life as a battle, everyone looks like enemies and every tool looks like a shotgun.  I would dare say that battle metaphors are not a majority metaphor in the New Testament. The only book that is dominated by the military imagery is Revelation, and the war there is not the kind of cultural war we imagine.  I won’t elaborate on this theme.  For my Chinese readers, you can access my two books on Revelation, one of which is still in active print. If we look closely, terms related to discipleship (which implies learning) or household are much more prevalent.  At the end of the day, I’m not saying that the battle metaphor is unbiblical as much as it is inadequate.  When we make a small group of metaphors in the Bible into a major metaphor describing our lives, our lives look funny as Christian witness. So, maybe it’s time to beat swords into plowshares and let the cultural war cease.  Even if it is an uneasy truce, I hope people would see life beyond battle lines and radical opposites.  As my former professor liked to say, “Most people want things in black and white when life is just many shades of grey.”  As for color metaphor describing life, I vote grey.

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