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?