The virtues of topical preaching?

I had a talk with a retired preacher the other day. He told me he did not like the way everyone preaches today. He said it feels like sitting through Bible studies rather than hearing a sermon.

I asked him what he meant by the distinction he was making there.

He said that in his preaching career, when he was working up a sermon, he started with the human concerns. In his seminary, his professor had given him a list of 34 areas of life that all people are concerned about. He’d been taught to consult that list every now and then to make sure he was not neglecting any of them.

When it came time to preach, he’d start with one of these areas of human concern — how do I deal with disappointment, for instance — and build a sermon that answers that question by drawing on one or more texts of the Bible.

The retired preacher told me what frustrates him about the practice of lectionary preaching — which he notes was just becoming popular in the seminaries when he was coming up — is that is so rarely speaks to him about things he’s really worried about.

What does any of that have to do with me? This was his question, not as a disinterested lay person with only passing interest in his faith but as a member of the preaching fraternity now retired.

He said he listens to sermons that are often wonderfully crafted and powerfully delivered and he wonders whether anything that was said really connects to anything pressing or of deep concern to his life.

My entire ministry has been spent in a time in which the kind of preaching this retired minister practiced during his whole ministry was discouraged as non-biblical. Talking with him, though, did get me wondering if his point was not one that I should take closer to heart.

The virtues of topical preaching?

The Methodist way of preaching

By 1751, John Wesley had become concerned about a new kind of preaching that was taking hold in some Methodist societies. The men who were preaching this new way called themselves “gospel” preachers. The preached only the promises of Christ and none of the law. In Wesley’s account, indeed, they even mocked the original style of Methodist preaching that was careful to preach both law and gospel as warranted by the state of the hearers.

In his “Letter on Preaching Christ,” Wesley describes both the methods by which law and gospel were to be preached and decries the damaging effects of the gospel preaching. He points out that in several cities that once had thriving societies, the numbers had been seriously eroded by the gospel preachers. Without the starch of the law, Methodist zeal and discipline waned.

In contrast, Wesley highlighted the contrary example of a society in Yorkshire, which under the continued preaching of law and gospel had grown from 1,900 members to 3,000 even as other societies withered under pure gospel preaching.

Wesley described the Yorkshire preaching this way:

From the beginning they had been taught both the law and the gospel. “God loves you; therefore, love and obey him. Christ died for you; therefore, die to sin. Christ is risen; therefore, rise in the image of God. Christ liveth evermore; therefore, live to God, till you live with him in glory. So we preached; and so you believed. This is the scriptural way, the Methodist way, the true way. God grant that we never turn therefrom, to the right hand or the left.

I notice that in each of these statements the good news comes first. “God loves you; therefore, love and obey him.” This is the way that Wesley said he would preach to established Christians, those who have already had an experience of conviction and justification. The law is preached here as a pattern for a life that bears the fruit of faith. To the unconverted, Wesley wrote earlier in the letter, he would counsel leading with law to break up the complacency of those who have not yet felt the true forgiveness of Christ.

As always, I’m struck in reading Wesley by how aware he was that the state of his audience should determine the shape of his preaching. This is not “felt needs” preaching. It is much more like a medical diagnosis. Wesley had a clear idea what spiritual health and wholeness looked like. He had strong opinions about the various maladies of the soul and the phases a person must pass through to be “cured.” His observations about the spiritual state of his hearers then shaped his approach in preaching and teaching.

The Methodist cure was not for everyone, of course. At the height of the Methodist movement, it accounted only for a small fraction of the population of England. Not even Wesley would have argued that non-Methodists were necessarily out of step with Christ. But for many people, the Methodist way was the true way to Christ.

The Methodist way of preaching

Preaching health, health when there is no health

I was listening to a sermon podcast today. The preacher used an illustration to make a point about preaching with moral courage.

He described the cancer doctor who — fearful of upsetting his patient — told him time and again that he was fine and should not worry about the pains and soreness he was feeling. It is nothing, the doctor said. It will go away on its own.

Of course, the patient died. The soothing words of the doctor had no effect on the cancer.

The illustration is pretty clear in its application for preachers of the gospel.

It drives home a qualm that often troubles me. So much of what we do in the church only makes sense if their is no cancer.

But there is.

We are all under sentence of death. We need a radical cure, and sooner rather than later.

But would you know that by listening to my preaching? Would you know that by looking at my life?

Preaching health, health when there is no health

Fitting word to need

In his sermon “Scriptural Christianity,” John Wesley describes the way the message of the gospel needs to be fitted to the particular condition of the people hearing it.

They endeavoured herein to speak to every man severally as he had need. To the careless, to those who lay unconcerned in darkness and in the shadow of death, they thundered, “Awake thou that sleepest; arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” But to those who were already awakened out of sleep, and groaning under a sense of the wrath of God, their language was, “We have an Advocate with the Father; he is the propitiation for our sins.” Meantime, those who had believed, they provoked to love and to good works; to patient continuance in well-doing; and to abound more and more in that holiness without which no man can see the Lord.

In general, scholarship and writing about Wesley appears to me to miss this aspect of Wesley’s methods. A a student of rhetoric at Oxford, he would have been steeped in the ancient traditions, including the notion that the speech needs to be suited to the audience. I’ve long thought that much of the hay made in academic circles about the “late” Wesley contradicting the “early” Wesley is a misunderstanding. The late Wesley still heartily endorsed the sermons of the early Wesley, even as he wrote sermons aimed at and fitted to the needs of a Methodist movement that was growing and changing.

We can see this acute awareness even in his earlier works. In “Scriptural Christianity,” he notes that the first Christians fitted their message to the audience.

To those who walked in unconcerned darkness, Wesley claimed, they preached “Awake!” To those who were groaning under the weight of their sin, they preached “You have an advocate with the Father.” To those who believed, they preached patient endurance and offered encouragement to continue in love and good works as they expected and anticipated being transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Wesley’s example — in this sermon and elsewhere — chastens me to consider how well I know the spiritual state of those to whom I preach. Do I fit the emphasis of my preaching to the needs of the congregation before me, or do I preach what strikes me as interesting or helpful in the texts I study? Am I preaching “Awake!” too much to congregations in need of encouragement to continue on in holiness, or, more likely, am I offering encouragement to those who are yet asleep?

Fitting word to need

With sword, basin, and towel

There are times when a “hard word” must be preached, even to God’s people. However, the church and the individual believer do not grow by daily helpings of “hard words,” but by being nourished and encouraged by the full counsel of God. The greatest catalyst for spiritual maturity in the truly converted is a greater revelation of the love of God in Christ. Another thing that “budding prophets” need to understand is that a preacher carries a Sword, a basin, and a towel. He is quick to use the basin and towel with great joy. But he is slow to use the sword, and he always does so with tears and fear and scarred knees.

– Paul Washer, in an interview with Tim Challies

With sword, basin, and towel

Tearing ‘em to pieces

In a letter to a Methodist preacher in 1750, John Wesley cautioned Joseph Cownley against preaching nothing but God’s love and thereby neglecting the law. Here are Wesley’s words:

Let the Law always prepare for the Gospel. I scare ever spoke more earnestly here of the love of God in Christ than last night: But it was after I had been tearing the unawakened to pieces. Go thou and do likewise.

Remember, Wesley preached in many churches once, but far fewer twice.

It is true, the love of God in Christ alone feeds his children; but even they are to be guided as well as fed; yea, and often physicked too: And the bulk of our hearers must be purged before they are fed; else we only feed the disease. Beware of all honey. It is the best extreme; but it is an extreme.

I really wrestle with how to follow this advice of Wesley. It is hard to preach the law, especially in congregations where few people are bold and open sinners and most believe themselves to be good, earnest Christians. The specter of hypocrisy and legalism hovers over my shoulder whenever I try to do this. I never come close to tearing them to pieces.

Just last week, I was preaching on Matthew 10:24-39. It was not a Law text, really. It was about the apostles getting abused in word and body and about not being worthy of Jesus if they did not love Jesus more than family and did not take up there cross.

It was a tough sermon for me to preach. I was determined not to preach it in a way that rounded off the hard edges of that text, but I’m sure my distress over the text showed in the preaching — as well as not managing my week terribly well and not leaving myself enough time to work on it. Thank you lectionary for forcing me to attempt it.

Wesley writes in this letter — and elsewhere — that he too finds the preaching of Gospel pleasing. He suggests that he preached Law because it was necessary to the salvation of his hearers.

His insistence on these points stands as a challenge to me. Do I need more Law in my preaching? Am I tearing the unawakened to pieces?

 

Tearing ‘em to pieces