Monday, June 13, 2011

Any News From Headquarters?

Occasionally someone will say to me: “So-and-so is a really good preacher.” As one who has been interested in preaching for over forty years, that gets my attention. Sometimes I probe deeper: “Really? How so? What is there about his preaching that makes it good?” Typically that gets a blank stare, but when someone does venture a response, it usually comes out something like this: “Well, I found it relevant to my needs, where I am in my life, my home, my job, my family” and so on. That seems to be the sole criterion for “good preaching” these days – I found it relevant to where I am at this point in my life. Or, to say it another way, “It helped me to get along better in the world.” To put it succinctly, good preaching these days is defined as a spiritual “Dear Abbey” column, and a good preacher is a sort of “pious Dr. Phil.”

And some preachers have gotten the message! That’s why you get so many sermons these days on: “How to have a happy marriage” or “How to get your kids to do what you want and like it!” or “How to succeed in your job in ten easy steps.” Some critics of this kind of “relevant” preaching have pointed out that it aims exclusively at helping you be “successful” in this world – financially, personally, relationally. But is that the purpose of preaching? Is that what Paul meant when he said: “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21)? I don’t much think so.

Preaching, at least the kind Paul was talking about, does not have as its purpose helping you and me to succeed in this world. Quite the contrary: Preaching, if it is Gospel preaching, points us to a whole new world Jesus called “the Kingdom of God” whose values and vision are so opposite from this world’s that when we hear it and heed it, we cannot be anything else but “odd,” one might even say “irrelevant,” to this world. That’s why it sounds like “foolishness” to those committed to, and invested in, this world.

Does that mean that Christians shouldn’t want to have a happy home? Of course not. Does that mean that Christians shouldn’t want to be good parents? Of course not. Does that mean that Christians shouldn’t want to do well in their jobs? Of course not. But these things are not the purpose of being Christian; they are merely byproducts of it. The purpose of being Christian is to live in this world as a citizen of that world Jesus called the Kingdom of God. The purpose of preaching is to teach you how.

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, said it this way: “Enemy-occupied territory – that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going.”

And so, when you settle into the pew on Sunday, there’s a question you should be asking of the preacher. Not, “Do you have any advice to help me be successful in this world?” but “Any news from Headquarters?”

1 comment:

Tim Marsh said...

Well said!

Sometimes it is difficult, as a pastor, to get this across in preaching.

We have congregations that assume that the goal of Christianity and subsequently, churches, is to get people saved.

The term "Kingdom of God" is almost unintelligible to the average church-goer. To them, it is equated to the place where they go when they die - heaven.

I find conversation an easier means than preaching to share the Kingdom of God. Nevertheless, I continue to work on it, in spite of the desire to hear "How to Have a Happy Life" Sunday after Sunday in the church.