The Wisdom of Preaching

So this one’s for all the preachers out there.

For the longest time I gravitated toward a style of preaching that I liked more than another. I liked inductive, narrative style preaching (I still do). But the flip side of this preference is that I disdained most other ways of preaching. I’m not talking about just disliking other styles. I mean I really disdained preaching that wasn’t like mine. And what’s worse, I had theological reasoning for it. And the worst of all preaching (for me) was the practical/pragmatic kind. I didn’t like the kind of preaching (or preachers) that would put this grand story of God repairing the world on the bottom shelf. it seemed like they were dumbing it down, and that was not cool with me.

One of the things that I began to notice during my first few years of ministry, is how many converts I saw from Catholicism, or people coming from Presbyterian or Methodist, or other High churches. But, and here it what really started to confuse me at the time, I also saw a lot of the friends I went to Harding with, and who I had been going to church along side of move the other direction. People who had been raised up in Churches of Christ or Baptist or Pentecostal churches started finding a home in higher church traditions.

It seemed like both High church and Low church traditions had revolving doors on them.

And as I asked my incoming and outgoing friends why they were leaving or coming and they had an interesting response. For the people coming from higher church traditions, they loved the story aspect of the sermons, and how accessible they were. They had been participating in rituals for most of their lives, but had often failed to understand the significance behind them. For the people leaving these lower traditions, they were actually drawn to the ritual of it all. The stained glass, the pomp of a person moving through liturgy that had been going on for thousands of years. 

It’s as if, for both groups of people, they were finding the gospel all over again.

Last year, I heard the Preaching guru Tom Long talk about his own evolution about this. He noticed that the old approach to preaching had really taken a beating over the years. And it had started to die. In fact, Tom Long said that the 3 points and a poem sermon had died and he had danced on it’s grave. And then….

Suddenly all of these churches started to pop up all over the place where the preacher had adopted this old preaching style. And these churches were blowing up with unchurched and de-churched people. They were being drawn to a kind of preaching that Tom Long said should have been as extinct as the dodo-bird. And that’s when Tom Long made this great observation. These preachers aren’t stupid. They aren’t just trying to re-live the past, they are trying to preach Wisdom. The art of knowing what God is calling us to do in the moment. The practical ways that the Jesus life looks like today.

And Tom Long has a point. After all, some of our most ancient Christian texts  like the Didache, or sermons by John of Chrysostom, were practical real-life ways of living out the Jesus story for their time. They were specific to their culture, and they were important enough that churches preserved them for thousands of years.

Anthropologist and Missiologist Paul Hiebert makes a great observation about all of this. He said that in many areas of the world there are two types of religion: High religion and Low religion. As missionaries would go to places in the world that were known for being associated with a particular major world religion like Buddhism, Christianity or Islam, they would discover that while most people would say they belonged to the dominant religion of their area, they would be unable to tell the basic tenents of their religions story. And more than that, they were most often deeply involved with the practices of folk religion like magic/astrology/witchcraft or spirit worship.

And the draw of folk religions, according to Hiebert, is that it doesn’t concern itself with the big questions, like how was the world created, or how where did we come from? Instead, low religion concerns itself with the “everyday.” And in the words of Hiebert:

“Given our Western view of things, we do not take folk religion seriously. Consequently, we do not provide biblical answers to the every day questions that people face….It should not suprise us that many young Christians continue to go to shamans and magicians to deal with such questions.”

And here is why all of this matters to me.

Because my own bent is to preach High religion. I love to deal with the big questions, and this massive story that we have inherited from the Christians who have gone before us. God is, after all, repairing every inch of every galaxy in His entire creation. It’s hard to not get excited about that. And, to be honest, we need that. If churches forget how big their story is, they just might began to live small, petty, self-centered lives.

But the other side of that is true as well. The job of a preacher is also to help their people find their place in the story, and what this big story looks like next Tuesday when they’re put in a comprising situation at work, or when that single mother needs to know how to have the endurance to just make one more day. They need Wisdom.

Because sometimes preaching is about the Big story, sometime is about something that can’t be reduced to principles or good advice.

Sometimes preaching is about High Religion.

But we can’t forget the wisdom of preaching is preaching of Wisdom.

So I’d like to hear from all the preachers out there…How do you balance this? What do you lean toward? Have you seen this in your own ministry?


About jonathanstorment

My family and I love reading, traveling, daddy/daughter dates, playing hide and seek, good music, and long meals with friends. We still miss LOST, and all four of us have Superman uniforms. We are passionate about bringing Heaven to Earth and want to follow Jesus while repainting discipleship for those around us. We are followers of Jesus and I preach at the Highland Church of Christ. We participate in something called A Restoration Movement, and we've come to realize that might be larger than we thought.

7 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Preaching

  1. Different Church families are different.  My Church family seems to really enjoy it when I preach “low religion,” and get all up in their grill while doing it.  The more I challenge them, the more they love it.  The softer I am & the higher I go philosophically, the less-connected they become.

    I am far, far away from a college town (g)

    I’m allowed to go “high church” when I connect it to the a current event.  Like I did Wednesday w/ the Casey Anthony verdict to talk about God’s notion of justice.

    But that’s what my Church family prefers.  And I stive to give them what they need, as well.  But loving them means giving them what they like, also.

    1. Philip, I totally get that man. Part of the point of this post was that both of those things are valid expressions of Kingdom preaching, and we need both. Sounds like you are doing that. Thanks for weighing in…by the way, that’s surprising. I would’ve have thought you would lean toward the high religion. 

  2. What I have noticed is that my style continues to adapt depending on the subject matter. I am more comfortable with a narrative style like yourself. Like Philip I think I have people in my church that enjoy being challenged. So in that sense I guess I am a low church guy. I mix things up I like to give historical background but leave them with practical solutions. The less practical my sermons are the more of a disservice I feel I am to the congregants. It is vital that preachers constantly examine the audience and waht they respond to as their tenure in ministry rolls on. We can not be afraid to change our style when needed. We need to be engaged in the lives of the people God has called us to lead.

    1. Yeah I think that is what I find myself doing as well. I try to start big and end with a few specific pragmatic ways to engage the story (on most days) but I’ve also found that just doing a very practical series from time to time really seems to help mix it up. Thanks David!

  3. Well, I don’t preach unless spewing opinions every chance I get counts, but as a frequent and life-long church auditor I feel that the Holy Spirit likes to shake it up a bit.  I don’t see one model as superior to another, though I prefer your narrative style.  I find your observation about friends and acquaintances interesting and I’ve seen similar patterns.  Moreover, I know a lot of people who have stayed put in either high or low church traditions not because they want to as much as they feel they have to lest grandma has a stroke.  I feel you would agree with me so I’m not trying to one up you as this point is not the one you were making here, but I think it comes back to God’s fresh rhema word for a particular church or region or audience at a given time.  That’s why the most erudite, seminary-educated preacher/teacher/pastor may have an audience of 20, while a college kid or a store-front church leader may start with a handful of congregants and grow it into a movement. 

    1. Haha, yeah you’re very preachy. I like that Maynard, and I totally get what you’re saying about not wanting to upset family members…I think that on some level that is going to get better as our world becomes more Post-denominational (it’ll just take a little longer to reach some areas of the world). 

  4. I’m a young minister (25) in a small town, but I guess in many ways I’m a product of my generation. For one, I’m not a story-teller. Some people are, and they’re good it, but I’m really not. Along with that is the fact that I’m a highly organized thinker, so making principles or points in a sermon is natural for me. It takes a lot of effort for me to do anything else.

    The other thing is that all growing up I saw Church (particularly the CoC) as being totally disconnected from real life. People in general didn’t speak of God outside of the church building, and this always turned me off. My life was miserable, and I didn’t want a religion that wouldn’t do anything about that. I wanted a religion that would make a significant impact in my life and others.

    So, years later, I tend to preach that way. I organize the text in my mind into memorable principles, and I share those. And a big part of my lessons are focused on application. If I don’t have an application for something, I usually decide not to preach it.

    The House Church Movement is seeing a lot of growth in my generation. I think that’s for a reason, and it’s not just based on exegetical conclusions. My generation grew up with religious parents who made work their god, were miserable, and got divorced. Many of those people were the most outspokenly religious, with Christian fish on their car and all that. A lot of us want nothing to do with that. We want a Gospel that transforms. It’s not that we’re not also interested in the Gospel narrative. In fact, that in many ways defines the Postmodern generation – being a part of the Story. But we’re also highly concerned with making a difference.

    Anyway, these are just some thoughts in response to your post. Thanks for posting it; it was an interesting read. I’ll try to stop by this blog more.

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