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Hearing the Word in the Modern World, Part 1

Gregory E. Reynolds

As covenantal communication,[1] preaching is always two-way. The hearer is always to be a worshipper. It is never preaching and worship. Preaching is the supreme act of worship.[2] Along with the internal work of God's Spirit, the effectiveness of preaching depends, in part, on the attitude and preparation of the listener. This two-part essay is meant to help those who regularly hear the Word of God preached to take their covenant responsibilities more seriously. It also provides an outline of issues which the preacher should regularly address in his preaching.

Dangers to Avoid

"Take care then how you hear" (Luke 8:18).

Every attentive hearer of God's Word must be on the lookout for idolatrous tendencies in the culture of which he or she is a part. The apostle John was keenly aware of this danger when he issued this pastoral warning at the close of his first letter "Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:21). The following are examples of some of the worst dangers to avoid.

Avoid Being a Consumer of Entertainment

Among other unbiblical expectations of the minister in our age, the preacher is expected to be an entertainer. Television and all of the visual media have cast much of modern life in the entertainment mode. Neil Postman has described all media as metaphors: "Media-metaphors classify the world for us."[3] We have moved from the "Age of Exposition" to the "Age of Show Business."[4] Thus we are a culture which is regularly engaged by talk show and game show hosts. Entertainers have become the role models and spokesmen for our culture. They lecture at colleges and universities. Their opinions on a variety of "serious" subjects are regularly sought. We have come to expect all of life to be entertaining. This may color the way you look at the preacher, as it does the way the preacher often looks at himself.

I have a book in my library which I received in a box from the library of a retired minister. I keep it with the spine turned toward the wall because it is titled: The Preacher Joke Book: Religious Anecdotes from the Oral Tradition.[5] I comfort myself with the thought that I do not recognize any of the names of the contributors. I recently attended a conference at which the main speaker began with a lengthy joke, obviously meant to loosen up the audience, and assure us that he is, after all, a "regular guy." Just before presidential elections it is common for the two candidates now to do a comedy spot.

Humor is a wonderful gift, but it strikes me that only in the Age of Entertainment would humor be an expected part of the preacher's repertoire. When we think of the tone which ought to be set in the act of preaching, especially in the Age of Entertainment, we must conclude that it should be one of extreme seriousness. As our culture entertains itself to death, we must attach to the preaching of the Word a solemnity which we rarely find in the modern world. The analogy of the ambassador gives us biblical boundaries in this regard.[6] Preachers have been given a very serious message from the King of kings. We are to communicate as his messengers. As we bring the message of reconciliation to sinners, we must speak in the words and way of the King who sovereignly proffers amnesty. As we enter the very presence of our augustly holy God in worship, dealing with issues of life and death, we must labor to be as unlike the "house of mirth" as possible. Every faithful hearer must expect this, and thereby encourage the preacher with that expectation.

As a Christian you must never expect entertainment in worship or from the preacher. The proper mode of worship is the holy presence of our Lord. The committed hearer will look for substantive exposition of the Word of God. Exposition, not entertainment, is the mode of the preacher. That is the point of our favorite verse to prove the inspiration of the Scripture, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17). This is the profit we must seek from preaching in the Age of Entertainment.

Avoid Being a Personality or Managerial Cultist

The pervasive power of celebrity is a uniquely modern problem. As media critic and historian Daniel Boorstin notes, celebrity is manufactured fame. Instead of the hero, who is known for his extraordinary character and deeds, the celebrity is a product of the Graphic Revolution. "The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name."[7] The celebrity is known for being known. He has an impressive persona. This has created a great temptation for the church. If the celebrity has become the role model for the world, the preacher may be expected to be the same, an image of the modern leader—just an image. Thus, the church is at times almost as superficial in its expectations of the pastor as the world is of its celebrities, looking for the "nice" personality.

It has been observed that the two vocational heroes of our time are the manager and the therapist. The ideal of the "professional" has become an idol of modern culture. This is no less true of the ministry. David Wells observes: "technical and managerial competence in the church have plainly come to dominate the definition of pastoral service.... [T]he minister's authority or professional status rides not on his ... character, ability to expound the Word of God, or theological skill in relating that Word to the contemporary world, but on interpersonal skills, administrative talents, and ability to organize the community."[8] This is reflected in one of the premier journals for evangelical clergy, Leadership, launched by Christianity Today in 1980. David Wells observes that 80 percent of its articles from 1980 to 1988 dealt with problems encountered by ministers, and 13 percent were devoted to "techniques for managing the church.... [L]ess than 1 percent of the material made any clear reference to Scripture."[9] If the pastor is truly called to imitate the ministry of his Lord, who is the Great Shepherd of the Sheep (1 Pet. 5:1-4), one need only replace Christ's title with Chief Executive Officer, to get a sense of how out of accord with Scripture the modern conception is.

Your attitude, combined with the expectations of the rest of the congregation, will either tempt the minister to consider himself, and therefore act like, a celebrity or manager, or it will encourage him to be what God has called him to be: a minister of the Word. There can be little doubt that the professionalization of the ministry has led to a decline in preaching passion and skills. The less God-centered the church's view of the ministry and preaching, the more man-centered the sermons will tend to be.[10] What is worse, as the church expects the pulpit to meet its needs, the pulpit becomes simply "a sounding board from which the Church hears itself."[11]

The temptation to esteem the "famous" preacher is one of the greatest threats to preaching today. The preacher who has made a name for himself on the conference circuit, even though that may not have been his motive, makes the everyday preacher look drab and dull. There is no glossy photo in the bulletin, no recognition beyond the local church. This undermines God's basic institution. What God has provided for his people in the local church week after week, through thick and thin, is the greatest blessing of all. How can celebrity recognition be important in light of the message of a Savior who was crucified as a despised and rejected criminal?

Avoid Looking for Therapy

In our age the Devil simply caters to an age-old addiction when he promotes the therapeutic. This same anthropocentrism was evident in Calvin's day. In seeking to bring a biblical concept of the church to expression in Geneva, he noted of his opposition: "They were entangled in so many errors, because they would not follow that form which God had appointed.... The first difference between true worship and idolatry is this: when the godly take in hand nothing but that which is agreeable to the Word of God, but the other think all that lawful which pleaseth themselves, and so they count their own will a law." Instead they "forge to themselves a carnal and worldly god."[12]

How much of our modern attitude toward worship reflects this self-oriented pleasure quest? How many judge the preacher and his sermon in terms of the question: "Is it meeting my needs?" This is usually what the slogan "relevance" refers to. The market-driven church has as its motto: "Find a need, meet it, find a hurt, heal it."[13] The entire "self esteem" philosophy which permeates every cultural institution reverses the biblical concern when it claims that loving our neighbor as ourselves is a call to first love ourselves. This falls hard on the central ethical implication of the cross: self denial. The gospel message, from the modern perspective, is irrelevant by its very nature. It demands repentance from our self preoccupation and brings with it a liberating call to a God-centered life, rooted in the kingdom of heaven. As George Macdonald poignantly observed: "that need which is no need, is a demon sucking at the spring of your life."[14] Expect and pray for preaching which will challenge and root out such demons.

Avoid Being a Passive Listener

One of the great dangers of the entertainment and therapy modes is that they make us used to being passive. We are entertained, or have our problems solved for us. Our participation is simply to enjoy or feel better about ourselves. In the consumer mode we are "programmed" to view everything, every situation or person as a product or service to be consumed. We ask questions like: "What can this church do for me? How can this preacher make me feel better, or solve my problems?" So we tend to sit, waiting to be entertained, waiting for our needs to be met. This is not the mode, position, or attitude of the true worshipper.

The cry for "participation" in worship is one of the most misdirected quests of worshipping communities. It is often motivated by the desire to share the spotlight "on stage," or to feel the excitement of an emotionally charged group experience. Covenantal participation, on the other hand, is first of all an inward reality. Outwardly it means being prayerfully engaged in every element in the order of service. This is especially true of listening to the sermon. "Hearing a sermon correctly is an act of religious worship."[15] Physically you may be passive, but spiritually and intellectually you are called to listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd in the ministry of his Word. This takes an intense effort which challenges the "couch potato" mentality of our day. Listen to Sietsma:

Hearing God's Word is not only an activity of the first order but the only activity befitting humans in relationship to their God. A relation of equality never exists between God and His people; however that fact in no way detracts from the dignity or office of the believer. Therefore, when in the administration of the Word, this relationship between speaking God and listening man shines forth, then the office of believer is most beautifully displayed and exercised.

Thus we are not called to find a liturgy in which preaching is minimized so that the congregation can be given a more obvious role. The congregation's duty is to listen. Rather, we are to practice improving and increasing our ability to listen, so that the congregation may listen to the Word with all its heart and soul and mind. That is not a slight task.[16]

Endnotes

[1] Adapted from Gregory Reynolds, The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 345-353 (under the section "Hearts of Flesh: The Committed Hearer").

[2] Hughes Oliphant Old. The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Volume 1 - The Biblical Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 7.

[3] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985), 10.

[4] Ibid., 63.

[5] Loyal Jones, The Preacher Joke Book: Religious Anecdotes from the Oral Tradition (Little Rock, AR: August House, 1989).

[6] I owe the suggestion of this analogy to T. David Gordon.

[7] Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image or Whatever Happened to the American Dream? (New York: Atheneum, 1962), 47, 61.

[8] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 233-34.

[9] Ibid., 113-14.

[10] Ibid., 251.

[11] Ibid., 253.

[12] John Calvin, Commentary on Acts [7:44] (1540-1563. Translation and reprint. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society. 1847. Reprint. vol. 18. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969), 298, 299, 303.

[13] Os Guinness, Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 62-67.

[14] Ibid., 67.

[15] T. David Gordon, "Presuppositions Regarding Preaching," unpublished manuscript, n.d.

[16] K. Sietsma. The Idea of Office. Translated by Henry Vander Goot (Jordan Station, Ontario: Paideia, 1985), 99.

Ordained Servant Online, March 2010

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