Friday, May 8, 2009

People of the Sound Byte

A friend came over to see me the other day; bought my dinner to pick my brain about preaching. I told him that everything I know about preaching I published in an article titled “Glimpses of Glory,” Review and Expositor, Vol. 99 (Winter 2002), 71-87. Then he told me something that brought me up short. He said: “Among pastors forty and younger, preaching is virtually dead.” He oughta know; he’s in lots of churches. I asked him why, and essentially he said: “They just don’t want to work that hard.” What he meant is that people’s attention spans have now been reduced to that of a millipede and so, preachers reason, about all they can stomach is a sound byte or slogan or cliché. No time for serious engagement with the Word of God. If it won’t fit on a bumper sticker or a church sign, it’s just too deep to use on Sundays. I lost my appetite.

But I had to admit, he was right. Preaching these days has been reduced to a bit of banal blather for the benefit of the bored. At least part of the reason, I suspect, is that a shift has taken place in the last fifty years or so about wherein lies the essential meaning of the Word of God. Back in the 50’s my late mentor and teacher, Frank Stagg, wrote a book titled Understanding the Bible. He begins the book by noting the diversity of perspectives and opinions among biblical scholars, “but,” he says, “there is virtual unanimity about one thing; namely, the meaning of the text is the author’s meaning.” My, how things have changed in fifty years!

Today, virtually no one believes that the meaning of the inspired biblical author is the meaning of the text. Rather, the text is an inkblot meaning whatever I want it to mean. Practically speaking, that means that most Sundays, when you listen to your pastor preach, you’re not hearing him interpret the text at all; rather, you’re hearing him interpret himself! The text is a mirror in which the preacher finds whatever he wants to find. And to think that we Baptists pride ourselves on being “People of the Book.”

Part of the reason for that, I think, is laziness. It’s just plain hard work to live yourself into the world of the inspired biblical writer so as to hear the Word of God as he heard it. It’s both more fun, and a whole lot easier, just to play “free association” with the text and find in it a word or an idea or a concept that you can exploit in behalf of a slogan or a sound byte. People just don’t want to think that hard anymore.

Or do they? When the preacher takes the time and the effort to live himself into the world of the original inspired author, an amazing thing happens. He no longer hears in the text his own little voice, or even the voice of the original inspired author; rather, he hears The Voice the original inspired author was listening to – a Voice that haunts him and hunts him and hounds him into submission; a Voice that claims him and captures him and consumes him. It’s called preaching, and for want of it the church languishes and, alas, perishes!

And so, for all you forty-somethings out there looking for a Word for Sunday, I’ve got a word for you. Save the sound bytes for Dr. Phil and Oprah and the church sign. I’ve waited all week for a Word from God, so for God’s sake, spare me the sound bytes! Give me a Word with some SIZE. Please!


J. Travis Moger said...

This forty-something's heard what you're saying. Thank you for the reminder to preach the Word, not ourselves.

Unknown said...

This blog made me realize how much I miss your preaching. I always learned something new about God and usually something about the context in which the Word was written. It is always refreshing and sometimes a little scary to see the Kingdom of God a little clearer after a good preaching. I think we look to our preachers to give us a good glimspe of that other world. I think when preachers try to shelter us they allow us to settle for what this world has to offer. I want more.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the reminder of how much I miss your preaching.
I learned so much each Sunday! Seriously!