When I finished pastoring at Edgeworth Baptist, Sandy, the kids and I went searching for a new church to belong to. We weren’t looking for perfection, just for somewhere we could all feel connected, where the preaching helped us make sense of life, and where there was a desire to be a positive influence for good in the world. The first and the third were relatively easy to find. I never dreamed it would be so difficult to find half decent preaching.
The first church we visited had a preacher who should have stood up and said, “I had a really difficult week so I didn’t have time to prepare a sermon”. But when it’s Father’s Day, you’re expected to have something profound to say.
This preacher had a charismatic personality and was brimming with confidence. He reported that God had woken him three times the previous night and on each occasion given him something to say. God woke him at 1am, 3am, and 6am. But apparently God was tired too because it was all gibberish. It sounded like he’d gathered a bunch of books by Steven Biddulph and James Dobson and selected random sentences, cut them out and strung them together.
The crowning moment came towards the end of the talk when the pastor halted mid sentence and said, “wait, there’s more coming through now.” It was still gibberish.
Everyone has a bad day, so we went back two more times but it was no better. The second time a different preacher was doing a men-are-from-Mars-women-from-Venus kind of thing. He basically described his own personality type, said “all men are like this”, and misquoted a few verses to back himself up. He then described his wife’s temperament and said all women are like her.
How good it was to walk into another church a few weeks later and hear great preaching by the pastor there. First, he set the passage he was exploring in context and showed how it was addressing issues of its time. Second, he explored how the themes of the text related to issues of our time. Third, he explained it all in language the average person could understand. Fourth, he did it with a sense of humility, not declaring “thus says the Lord”, but “this is what I think the Lord is saying to us. What do you think?” He invited us into the conversation.
And I reckon these things are pretty much what makes a good, solid sermon.
So does it matter? The church with the bad preaching was large and vibrant, with lots of great ministry going on. The pastor was a dynamic leader, taking the congregation forward.
I think it does matter. When we approach the Bible it can function as a mirror or a window. We all come with particular beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviours, and the tendency is to see them mirrored in the Bible, which provides those beliefs, attitudes, values and behaviours with divine sanction. I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that’s all the congregation in the first church will ever get. They’ll do tremendous things, they’ll be aware how their values, reinforced by their reading of Scripture, contrast with “the world”, but their underlying paradigms will remain unchanged. They will apply the faith they have but that faith won’t change much, at least not as a result of the preaching.
The second preacher saw the Bible as a window. As he took us into the text it was as though we were looking on another world, and by getting inside and exploring it we began to see things in new ways. We could compare and contrast with our own world and engage in some self critique. I suspect this means the members of the second church are more likely to be changed at a deep level. And that’s why I think it matters.
Interested to hear your thoughts.