Preaching and Politics

The preaching of the gospel ought to be a unifying force upon the church of Jesus Christ. The clear proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom ought to draw people together in unity – except for when it doesn’t. politics

Preaching is particularly challenging during election seasons. I was taught that preachers should steer clear of politics and to focus strictly on the gospel. That sounds like sound advice, given the risk to congregational unity when preachers choose a side. Yet, this non-partisan approach to preaching feels a little weak, knowing what is at stake. People want to know where we stand, sometimes because they do not know where they stand themselves, and sometimes because they do. The latter demand the preacher make clear their position so that they can know whether or not they are able to support the preacher, given their political pre-commitments. There is little doubt that preachers who take a strong position will gather numbers of people already settled in the same conviction. Of course, this kind of growth will come at the expense of all those whose views run contrary. In either case, the church is divided, even if it might be growing.

It is tempting to believe that sticking to the gospel will help us avoid the discomfort and disunity that follows when we mess with politics. We might even happily accept the fact that this could cost us the support of people who are hardened in their particular political point of view. Sometimes the subtraction of those folks feels like addition, if we were being honest. Yet, the gospel will not always allow for the comfort we might value. The gospel itself can be dis-unifying. Jesus suggested that when we take our discipleship seriously, it might divide us from our friends and families. No one said there would not be consequences.

The gospel is not an abstract proposition, disconnected from the complicated realities of our cultures. The gospel touches down, bringing the Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. The challenge for preachers is not to be a-political, but to understand the places where the gospel shapes our politics.

How does a theology of grace translate into public policy? How might citizens of heaven, driven by eternal values, reflect on the economics of any specific moment or election cycle? Trying to articulate a gospel-shaped politic will be messy. It will not typically surface a single issue or lay along a particular party platform. The gospel is not red or blue. It adopts neither donkeys nor elephants. It would, of course, be easier if it did, but political parties are human institutions built for the purposes and interests of temporal life, admitting to nothing but the personal interest of those they seek to serve.

This is not to say the gospel has no bearing. We do not preach an abstract theology untouched and unsullied by the concerns of life on earth. It is to say, rather, that the gospel will surface the places and ways that our positions reflect or rebuff the heart of God. Our human systems might ask we choose between a godly passion for the right to life for the unborn and a godly passion for quality of life for people of colour. The gospel knows no such distinction.

Elections are blunt instruments. They take incredibly complicated issues and force them down to simple binary choices – this candidate or that candidate – this party or that party. It is terribly frustrating that we can’t order from a menus when we come to the polling booth. By that time, most of the choices have already been made for us.

Despite that frustration, we need to appreciate that elections offer a tremendous opportunity for dialogue around root issues that deeply matter. When else do we have opportunity to speak deeply to one another about race, money, power, and sexuality? Preachers can’t afford to sit this out. If we could embrace the dialogue, especially in the formative stages when the cement is still wet, we can help our people think about how the principles of the gospel can shape our perspectives and our priorities.

I still believe that preaching should not be partisan, given that no party has ever fully articulated and embraced the values of the Kingdom. Parties are at their base about the exercise and retention of power, which is antithetical to the interests of the gospel. Our concern, then ought to be less about winning elections, than it ought to be about shaping the heart of those who will eventually lead us, and of all of us who will follow.

When I was young, I thought seriously about entering politics. It seemed exciting and I thought it consequential. My thinking was challenged, however, when I heard an influential preacher say, “Never step down from the pulpit, to become Prime Minister.” That seemed a little strong at the time. Surely a gospel-driven Prime Minister or President could do a lot of good. But over time, I came to see that politics is as much theatre as it is substance – especially from an eternal point of view. Politicians deal with the “art of the possible.” Preachers deal with the eternal power of the cross. I know where the real power lies.

What Happens When the Star Preacher Leaves?

So what happens when our preaching is so successful at attracting crowds that we actually make it hard for the church to out-last our influence?
walkingback
We’ve seen how it happens. A preacher does a great job and begins to develop a following. Eventually great crowds are coming, at least in part because of the quality and reputation of the pastor’s preaching. So what happens if the pastor gets hit by a truck, messes up, decides to retire, or just comes to the conclusion that the pressure is too great and he doesn’t want to do it anymore? What does the church do then? Finding another preacher/pastor who can achieve the same level of influence is almost impossible – at least, we almost never see it happen. Occasionally we see the preacher turn the reigns over to his son as if the pulpit were the family business, but again, it almost never works. There is something about the gifting of the original which is seldom replicated in successive pastoral tenures.
So what do we do about this? How does a church protect itself against this eventuality? It’s fun to ride the wave while the star preacher is doing his thing, but eventually the wave flattens out. Sometimes it happens abruptly. If the church hasn’t thought about succession, it can be disastrous.
Actually, I think that succession planning is as much a responsibility of the star as it is of the church. There are several things that a successful preacher/pastor can do to help the church after his tenure has come to an end. Some of those things are as follows: 
  1. Eliminate Debt. It is extremely tempting to load up on debt while the church is riding high. While the people are flocking, the church can handle high debt ratios, and besides we have to have a place for all these people to sit. Yet, when the crowds stop coming and the mortgage lingers, a church can be crippled for years to come. By all means, use the money that is coming in the good years, but be careful about racking up debt to leave to a shrunken congregation after you are long gone.
  2. Build a Strong Governance Structure. If the health of the church is dependent on your personal leadership, it can be difficult to sustain healthy governance after you are gone – particularly if all the other strong leaders are leaving with you. In good times, you want to make sure that the policy structures and systems of governance are well designed and sturdy enough to withstand the challenges created by your eventual departure.
  3. Develop Leaders. It should go without saying, but a big part of your job as a preacher/pastor is to be actively working to develop leaders. A church that is rich in gifted and trained leaders will be more easily able to carry on the vision of the church after you are gone. Developing these people includes letting them have an opportunity to preach often enough that they get good at it and that people are actually happy to hear them.
  4. Create a Productive Denominational Relationship. I know that denominations are not particularly cool or cutting edge, but they can come in handy at a time of difficult transition. You might not need them very much when you are flying high, but establishing a solid relationship will provide the lines of communication necessary when your church is in need of some of the services that they provide. You might even be surprised by how useful and productive the relationship can be even when things are good.
  5. Create a Culture of the Word. You will want to do everything you can to make sure that your ministry is about the Word and not about you. This is always a good idea, but it will be particularly helpful to your people as you transition out. Helping people understand that they are hearing from God through his Word more than they are hearing from you yourself, will make it easier for them to listen to others who take the same approach.
Of course, it will be extremely easy for you to avoid this matter, because after all, it won’t be your problem. You will be long gone and won’t have to face any of the consequences of a poorly planned succession. But if you really love the people to whom you are preaching, you will give attention to these things. This whole thing is a little like squirrelling away the nuts during the summer because the winter could be long and cold. Your church won’t want to wait until they have the problem to begin trying to deal with it. 
There are any number of highly visible examples of churches who have experienced this very problem. You can work to make sure that your church is not the next.
 

No One Prefers Video Preaching

One of the fastest growing trends in recent years has been the move toward video-venue preaching. On one hand, this is an effective way of improving the quality of preaching that people hear. It is not a bad thing to get more people under the sound of the best preaching that we can offer. If hearing better preaching leads more people to respond to the gospel, then it is hard to complain that the preaching was mediated by video. Haven’t we all celebrated the remarkable effect of Billy Graham’s televised preaching over the years?video sermons

There is, however, a concern that ought to be considered. People prefer live preachers. According to a comprehensive new study from Lifeway Research, less than one percent of people prefer a video-venue sermon. 

Of course this isn’t shocking. If any one of us had the opportunity to hear some famous musician live or via video, we would all prefer to hear the music live. Live theatre is a much more enthralling experience than is a motion picture, and the best, most expensive seats are always near the front. Why should we be surprised that people would rather hear their preachers up close and personal?

None of this is to say that video preaching is wrong or evil. Thirty-five percent of people say they will only visit churches with a live preacher, but that leaves sixty-five percent who will visit such churches. If they are hearing transformational, biblical preaching, than why would we complain?

My main concern about all of this is what it says about the nature of preaching. Most people think of preaching as an instructional or motivational event. If we can be instructed by reading a book or a webpage, then we could surely gain such benefit from a video as well.

But preaching is so much more than mere instruction. Preaching mediates the presence of God through his Word and by his Spirit. Preaching is an event in God’s presence wherein the preacher leads the people to a place of encouragement, conviction, and response. In my experience, this broader ambition for the sermon is almost always more effectively achieved in person.

The Kids are Fact-Checking Your Sermons

So you better be careful, pastor. According to research from the Barna Group published this week by Christianity Today, nearly four out of ten practicing Christian millennials are fact-checking the pastor while they listen to the sermon. Perhaps even more surprising is that 14% of all millennials search to verify the things they hear faith leaders say.checkingcellphone

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by this. I mean, I do it too. Whenever a pastor says something controversial, something curious, even something compelling, I am able to check the details right there while I am listening to the sermon. We do it for everything else  – watching news, listening to lectures in class, responding to advertising – why would we not do it for the sermons we hear?

Of course this shouldn’t frighten us. Of all people, preachers ought to be people who speak the truth. We ought to be well-researched and careful with our facts. Exaggeration and fact-twisting should not be part of our arsenal. They never should have been, even when they couldn’t check up on us. If anyone should feel no threat by the opportunity for people to hold a speaker accountable for truthfulness, it ought to be the preacher.

In fact, we ought to be encouraged by this. How great is it that people want to spend time engaging what we say – digging deeper? It’s a whole lot better than putting them to sleep.

And by the way – enough already with all the preaching plagiarism. Why pastors think they can get away from “borrowing” the sermons or writings of others in this day and age is beyond me. This doesn’t fool anyone, anymore. If you could find the sermon in your office on Wednesday afternoon, they can find the same sermon while they’re listening on Sunday morning. Passing off other people’s stuff as your own is sin, for which the preacher will have to answer to God – and now, thanks to Google, to all the tech-savvy people in the crowd as well.

Isn’t accountability awesome!

Change by Accrual, not Transformation

I recently returned from the annual meetings of the Fellowship of Evangelical Seminary Presidents. This is a remarkable gathering of people committed to the management and development of significant academic institutions all over North America. As with every major institution in the 21st century, whether in business, academics, or the church, the major challenge for leaders has to do with managing change. change

Typically, when we think of the institutional leader as a change agent, we are thinking about transformational leadership – leadership that seeks to change the fundamentals of an organization so that it can abruptly and immediately morph. But while the nature of our cultures might seem to require such an approach , the truth is that leading change is almost never so dramatic.

Dan Aleshire, head of The Association of Theological Schools said to us this week that “institutional change is almost always more by accrual than it is by transformation.” This is to follow Ronald Heifetz, who in Leadership Without Easy Answers, suggests that leading change is more about understanding adaptation.

I found this to be encouraging. Whether presidents or preachers, we all feel the pressure to champion some kind of impressive, institution-wide transformation. But such attempts almost always run into opposition from people embedded in the institutional tradition, who will not be convinced of the need for such disruption. Disruptive, instead of adaptive change must always either run past people or run them over. That might not be unreasonable when the situation requires it, or when there are absolutely no other options. But such is very rarely to be the case.

More appropriately, an effective leader will look for incremental objectives that are achievable. A great leader will understand how to put the puzzle together piece by piece, so that the bigger picture change accrues over time. In this way, the changes will run deeper and have greater staying power, while fewer people will be lost along the way.

As I think about the great churches and seminaries that have stayed relevant and meaningful over long periods of time, there is no doubt that transformation has occurred, but this change has been accrued over time, the work of patient leaders who know the times and know the way and who can lead others in the require direction without losing them along the way.

Lessons from the Lockout

As a hockey fan, I am encouraged to see that the lockout between the NHL and its players has been settled in time to assure at least a partial season for this year. The experience to this point has been highly frustrating for those of us who care, yet the truth is that this result is exactly what was expected. Anyone with any kind of perspective or experience with this sort of labor disruption knew that there would be brinksmanship and heated rhetoric resulting in a last minute compromise that would be unsatisfying to the purists, but which would allow for the resumption of work and some measure of temporary peace.th

Situations like this leave me longing for the Kingdom, that place in God’s economy where negotiations could be managed graciously, without rancour, and with an honest concern for the well being of the other. Personally, I serve in leadership within a five-school consortium. Our success in managing the situation is largely due to what we have called “the agape principle,” a commitment to the idea that what is good for one is good for all – kind of a ‘three musketeers’ approach to seminary leadership that would be foreign to the “billionaires and millionaires” negotiating the NHL lockout.

Typically, our approach is to take a zero-sum approach to negotiation, believing that there is only so much to go around and that whatever we give to one must be taken from the other. The fundamental premise is that both parties must be zealous for their self-interest, knowing that if they do not aggressively work for the protection of their own interest, the other side certainly will.

It reminds me of the old joke where  one brother offers his other brother a plate with two pieces of pie. When the second brother chooses the larger piece, the first brother says, “if it was me, I would have chosen the smaller piece.” “What are you complaining about, the other brother said? You got the piece you wanted!”

Of course, this scenario assumes that there is only so much pie. But what if the pie could grow? What if we could adopt an abundance mentality, as described in Stephen Covey’s 12 Habits? Do you remember, for example, the old Jay Leno Doritos telephone commercial where he says, ” Go ahead. Eat all you want. We’ll make more.”

What the hockey negotiators didn’t seem to understand was that by collaborating graciously toward the development of the strongest possible league, they could create something that would allow the pie to grow for everyone, allowing all parties to prosper. A rising tide, as they say, raises all ships.

This kind of attitude, is consistent with the attitudes intended of Kingdom citizens, so it shouldn’t surprise us that this is not our experience today. Like with every experience of dysfunction and malfunction, as a disappointed preacher and hockey fan, I try to let these things develop in me a heathy longing for the kingdom.

It will not always be thus.

The Place of Compassion in our Response to Evil

Yesterday I said that evil exists and that its antidote is found in the gospel. Today I would like to add a word about compassion.

I remember a line from an old Steve Taylor song, “I just want to stay angry at the evil.” I have resonated with that line over the years as it has become increasingly convenient to find ways to get along with the evil in the world – to tolerate and coexist comfortably with things that are at odds with what is right and true and good.

But while I want to name evil correctly in the world, I also want to be sure to sustain a strong heart of compassion for those who struggle with evil and its consequences, consistent with our understanding of the gospel and its attendant grace.

To say that mental illness, like any illness or dysfunction, derives from an evil root, is not to say that we must not offer compassion to those who are caught up in it. I am not an expert in mental illness, and would not claim to be, but I can affirm that those experiencing such torment require us to respond with love and not with anger.  To be compassionate is to be gracious and grace is at the core of the gospel.

I cannot imagine the kind of mental anguish that would drive a person to commit the kind of atrocity that we saw on Friday. I also understand how a well intentioned society can exacerbate such problems through inadequate service and opportunity for care. Even the church (even people like me), can unknowingly  create the conditions where people feel a deeper sense of shame than welcome when they come into our midst, and that too is the incidence of evil – our inadvertent evil.

It might seem a little oxymoronic to speak of compassion in the same breath as we speak of a healthy abhorrence of evil, yet such is in the spirit of the gospel. It helps no one to merely mush into the middle. God hates our sin, but he loves us in our sin. To love like this is itself to war against the evil

See also: Evil and its Antidote

Also: Sermons, Souls and Shootings

Evil and its Antidote

Evil exists and we should talk about it.

Yesterday, I made some comments about the Newtown shootings. Among other things, I spoke of how sickness of soul is at the heart of these unspeakable situations. I mentioned how that it is events like these that remind us why we still need preachers. Where else are you going to hear anyone speak of the reality of evil and the answer provided in the gospel?

You certainly aren’t going to hear much of this in media, social or mainstream. Most of what I have heard in the last several hours has focused on mental illness, and while I would not want to discount or disparage the psychological aspects of the killer’s dysfunction, I would say that such explanations are far too simplistic. Chemical imbalances or mental anguish are not the reason for these shootings. Plenty of people experience mental illness without taking guns into schools.

Let us call this what it is. This is evil and evil requires a more than purely physical response. This is a spiritual problem and it is important that we see it as such. The Bible describes life as a struggle between powers.  The biblical worldview acknowledges that there is an Evil One who is actively engaged against all things right and pure and good. Evil is expressed as sin, which is far more than simply breaking social prohibitions. Sin, at its core, is a prideful rebellion against truth and righteousness. It is a self-pitying cancer that gives birth to pain and fear and mental suffering. When sin plants its seed it blossoms into every kind of evil, including the kind that we saw yesterday.

At a time like this we need preachers to help lead the conversation. We need people who can help us see the spiritual dimensions. We need preachers who can remind us that the gospel offers a meaningful response. In the gospel we have a means by which God reverses the gravitational pull of evil. In the gospel we realize the grace that says we don’t have to manage for ourselves, but that we can find meaning, truth, and forgiveness in the love of God expressed in Jesus Christ. The gospel is the antidote to evil and our ultimate response to human tragedy. These powers are not equal and evil does not exist entirely unrestrained. The gospel teaches that the day will come when all will be put right as God asserts his authority. But that day is not yet here and for now we must resist the influence of evil.

I understand that people do not always live out the implications of the gospel with integrity or with consistency, but that does not obviate the importance of the claim. In the gospel we have the opportunity to re-orient ourselves so that our internal compass points us true. Preachers understand this, and we need them to help us hear this truthful message.

Yesterday I made some comments about form and function and I turned those comments to the subject of guns and their control. I think it is probably wise to try and restrain the opportunity for evil through a simple thing like restricting access to instruments whose only possible function is to exacerbate the incidence of evil. That would help, as similar measures have helped keep people alive all over the world.

But at the end of the day, the problem we are dealing with has little to do with illness or government policy. The problem is that there is evil among us. The problem is that evil exists. The limiting influence of the gospel is being itself limited by those who want to re-imagine evil as something less dramatic.

But perhaps tomorrow as we gather in our churches, with the memory of eighteen slaughtered children on our minds, we might be better positioned to hear the message of the preacher – that evil exists and that it has to be extinguished. The gospel is that extinguisher. The gospel must be preached.

See: Sermons, Souls, and Shootings

Sermons, Souls, and Shootings

Marshall McLuhan famously said that “medium is the message.” Among the many implications of this statement is that the form that discourse takes has some influence upon the outcome of this discourse. In other words, the medium matters. Assuming that he is correct, one starts quickly to consider whether and how morality (good/evil) is attached to the medium or the form. We are quick to judge value based upon the message, but if the medium matters, then can we ascribe moral weight to the form of the message as well.

In the study of preaching, this line of argument is used to consider whether certain forms of the sermon can be concerned morally efficient or deficient apart from any consideration of the content of the message. This is not unlike arguments I used to hear from people in authority who tried to suggest that certain forms of music were “of the devil” and incompatible with a holy or God-honoring message. I always took the position that there were no inherently evil forms of music, but that the morality or appropriateness of a particular piece would have to be judged on the merits of its content alone. No doubt certain musical expressions could be judged by the quality of tjeor expression, but that is a different sort of question. The same, I would say, applies to the practice of preaching. There is no particularly holy structure or system for the practice of preaching. The moral proof of the preaching pudding, is as they say, in the eating of it.

I am thinking about these things in response to today’s horrific shootings which killed 27 people, including 18 children. As I was trying to come to terms with this insistent evil, I noticed a tweet from political commentator Glenn Beck who announced that “It is the soul. Not the gun.” In other words, guns were merely the medium and not the message. Moral judgment falls upon the sickness of the shooter’s soul and not, according to Beck, to the fact that he had access to a gun.

You will have to forgive me for using the space to make this point. Perhaps this is my Bob Costas moment, but I think it instructive to apply the same principle we described above. My comments about medium and message would seem to affirm Beck’s statement. To put it in the popular expression, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Theologically, I am in full agreement. Blame for this and for the far too numerous similar events we have seen, falls squarely upon the individual who gave way to the sin in his soul. Further, as Russell Moore said today, we blame the Evil One himself, the Prince of Darkness who is sponsor of all such horror. But that said, I still have to add a caveat to my earlier claims about the medium and the message.

Whether we are talking about songs, sermons, or in this case, shootings, we need to understand that while the medium is only the means of expressing what is in the individual’s heart, certain forms are better suited for certain functions. A traditional expository sermon, is better suited for the communication of doctrinal instruction. A narrative sermon form is going to be more effective in terms of touching the listener’s heart and motivating a change in response. These are not moral judgments. They simply describe the way that tools enable desired actions. It is not out of line to suggest without ascribing any moral value, that guns (form) are particularly suited to the purpose of killing (function).

My point is that if this young man in Connecticut did not have access to automatic weapons, there would be a lot more children in Connecticut having dinner with their families this evening.

And if you are still squirming by my importing of this theme to a space normally dedicated to the practice of biblical preaching, let me add that it is for things like this that we appreciate our call to preach. Preaching may not be as popular as it once was, but I have got to say that the sermon is one of the few places in contemporary society where we still speak seriously about the nature of sin. Where else will we hear today an argument that makes any kind of sense of what happened earlier this morning? It is only in the proclaimed gospel that we find any kind of meaning and any kind of hope for a world so sick as this.

So preach on, my friends. The world needs us more than it knows.

 

Preaching Against Caricatures

It is always a lot easier to make our points when we set them up against false or stereotyped caricatures. We really don’t like it when people do this against us, so it is hardly fair that we might try the same game with others. 

Russell Moore makes this point in an article in Christianity Today, asking  “What Can We Learn About Preaching from Parks and Recreation.” He speaks in reference to last week’s episode of the popular NBC situation comedy which took a position against abstinence education. I saw the show, and would agree with Moore that this episode was not particularly funny, largely because it seemed more interested in pursuing an agenda than making the audience laugh. Moore suggests that the point was rather bluntly made primarily by setting up a caricature of two Christian activists, whose evident stupidity and foolishness made the anti-abstinence view seem self-evident.

Like Moore, I am not particularly surprised or exercised by this. It is what I have come to expect. Moore’s concern – and mine – is to ask how often we pull the same kind of trick in our own preaching – making our arguments seem evident, by positioning them against straw men caricatures.

“It is easy to preach in a way that, like Parks and Rec, simply seeks to reinforce the assumptions of those who already agree with us. We can rail against people who aren’t in the room, or at least that we don’t think are in the room, simply to get the “Amen” from our people. We can caricature our detractors’ positions in the grossest terms, in order to help reassure ourselves that those who oppose us out there are stupid or peculiarly wicked. But that’s not preaching.”

There is a sense that everyone in Parks and Recreation is a caricature which is why the situation comedy format is not particularly useful as a mode of preaching. Conversely, preaching is not particularly useful as a form of humour – which is fine, of course.  We are not comedians. We also believe in the power of the gospel. If the gospel is as powerful as we claim it is, we should not need to force it by creating false dichotomies.

I could suggest that we take things in the opposite direction, seeking to real-ize our propositions as much as possible. Rather than belittling the other point of few, we should take the opposing side seriously, representing alternative approaches honestly and realistically so that people take us seriously in return. We don’t have to protect the Scriptures, making it easier for them by pitting our biblical propositions against weak opposition, like an aging prize-fighter scheduling washed-up competition so as to pad his record.

The gospel we preach is true. Pursuing truthfulness not only in the content of our preaching but in our manner also is consistent. It is also powerful.

Thoughts on Multi-Ethnic Preaching

This week I am attending the annual meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society where the subject is “multi-ethnic preaching.” The keynote speaker is Bryan Lorritts from Memphis, Tennessee. I have deeply appreciated his emphasis upon the importance of displaying the diversity that is the Kingdom in our churches. He has much to say about the ways by which we can encourage a greater integration around the gospel. 

One of the complexities I have been noticing as I listen is how different my experience is on the west coast of Canada from what it is in places like the American south. In Memphis, multi-ethnicity is about the challenge of integrating long-entrenched cultures – black, white, and Hispanic primarily. Where I come from, the challenge is very different.

My part of the continent is one of the most diverse places on the planet, but the variety of cultures we experience are not well entrenched. Most of the diversity in our part of the world is the result of recent immigration, primarily from places like China, India, Korea, and Pakistan. Segregation, in these cases has to do with the natural desire of the immigrant to band together with others of a similar background and experience.

The difference, between these cases has to do with the experience of the second generation. Where I come from, one of the most hopeful things is the way by which the second and third generations seem to be able to integrate fully with people of a variety of ethnicities. I don’t want to say that they are color-blind, but many others have. While this is not a specifically Christian phenomena, the good news is that we are not seeing a strong entrenchment of culture distinctiveness beyond the first generation.

What I am thinking is that given the freshness of our experience of diversity, we have a unique opportunity to create diverse congregations among the second and third generations, before they become entrenched. This kind of “multi-ethnicity” might require an even different array of considerations than what we have so-far managed. Perhaps there are cultural approaches that transcend ethnicity.

For example, Lorritts described his experience visiting Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. Tim Keller and his team has been effective in developing a multi-ethnic congregation which is, conversely, largely mono-cultural. That is to say that while the people come from a variety of ethnic experiences in their backgrounds, they are largely united in terms of their youthfulness, their urban-ness, often their singleness, and their interest in a highly cognitive presentation.

When that is the case, I wonder whether we are as diverse as we might think. It is natural for people to gravitate toward people they are comfortable with regardless of their ethnicity. But if we truly want to represent the Kingdom, we will figure out how to transcend all of these distinctives. In other words, maybe the Kingdom would be most fully represented when we have those second and third generation people of every ethnicity integrated with the older folks of every background. Maybe we need a whole array af multi-interests – multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-generational and more.

Clearly we still have some work to do.

Kids Who Preach

http://natgeotv.com/uk/kids-who-preach/videos/tiny-preachers

This link is a bit disturbing. I do understand that many of us discerned our call to preach at an early age, but this just smacks of sensationalism. It also raises the question as to whether this is actually preaching.  Truthfully, I don’t take these things very seriously. We are hardly over-run by an excess of prepubescent preachers. Still, perhaps it is a reminder for us that the call to lead the congregation in the hearing of God’s voice through his word is a serious responsibility requiring discernment and spiritual maturity. It is not a spectacle, such has been provided by these sad cases.

How Helpful is Multi-Media?

There was a time, and not so long ago, when it was considered cool to utilize multi-media in our preaching. The idea was that by utilizing power-point, video, texting, and social media in our sermons, that we would be able to show our relevance to an emerging generation. But like most things, I am starting to wonder whether such methods may have past their best-before date. These media forms are so ubiquitous that it may be that by their use, we are diminishing one of our unique and notable strengths – the power of an individual standing vulnerable before a crowd to speak truthfully.

Writing in the blog, College Ministry Thoughts (http://www.collegeministrythoughts.com/2012/06/13/college-students-dont-like-media/), Chuck Bomar, observes a shifting mentality among the next generation with respect to media use.

“As I write this I’m sitting in a coffee shop overhearing a conversation.  College students (or at least, college age people) have been talking in a group for about 30 minutes.  The discussion is about finding a church – what they like and what they don’t about churches in the area.  One of the most fascinating subjects discussed (it has all been fun to listen to and they don’t know I pastor a church) has been about ‘pastors that use media’ in the church services.  Specifically, they have mentioned both videos in sermons as well as in musical worship.

“They are all, and I mean all, saying they don’t like it when ‘media’ is used in church.

“One girl just made the following statement: ‘My days are filled with media.  When I go to church I just want to listen to a message about scripture, learn, meditate and worship.’

“Fascinating conversation to eavesdrop on, for sure.  And one that flies in the face of much of what many think is needed in our college ministries – or ministries in general.  Interesting, if you ask me.”

Of course, I am not suggesting that there is no longer any place for media use in the church. When used to good purpose and with sufficient technical ability, such things can still serve effectively. However, if we use media simply to keep up, or because we think that it is the only way to communicate with people today, we may already be falling further backwards than we think.

One Church

My home church, Parkland Fellowship, just completed a tremendous series that we called One Church. For several weeks we invited pastors from other neighbouring denominations to come and share with us. We are a Baptist church, but we welcomed an Anglican, a Pentecostal, a Christian Reformed, and an Evangelical Free pastor into our midst. 

Each engagement began with an interview. People were invited to text in questions to our pastor who engaged in lively dialogue with these leaders. After about fifteen minutes of such questioning, we allowed the other pastor to preach for fifteen minutes. At the conclusion, our pastor and the visiting pastor prayed for each other.

This was a remarkable and powerful series of events as we put the focus on our commonality in Jesus Christ. As we learned something about the distinctiveness of each denomination. Rather than undermining our own heritage, I would suggest that we became more deeply aware and perhaps even committed to our own doctrinal convictions, while perhaps learning to be a little more gracious about those areas where we might disagree.

On the whole, the emphasis was upon our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, as his glory and pre-eminence is the thing we all hold in common.

I would encourage you to consider doing something similar in your own congregation. This would be good for the Kingdom and for the glory of the name of our Lord.

The Problem of Aggregation

Among the many recent innovations in communication technology is the rise of the “news aggregators”. These amazing services allow the user to tailor the voices that they hear in life. My personal favorite of these is Zite, which allows me to vote on the stories that I read. If I approve a story, I will get more similar stories to read in the future. If I disapprove, all such stories will be removed from my sight, now and in the future. Similarly, technologies like Twitter, allow the user to choose those they will “follow” which offers the user opportunity to tailor the voices he or she allows.

These are wonderful technologies, allowing us to spend our time on the things that we value the most. It is biblical, after all, to choose whom one would follow. There is, however, a dark side.

Paul challenged Timothy to take care with those who would “gather around themselves the people who would tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear”. Aggregation technologies allow for ear-tickling on an industrial scale. We have seen, for example, what can happen when people of distinct political or theological perspectives stop listening to each other. Even preachers, when they only ever hear from people they already agree with, might offer an impoverished form of preaching.

 

Conviction is good. Moderating our influences is very good. Using technology to avoid the waste of time is also very good. And yet, I wonder at the same time, what we may be losing along the way.

Listening to one another is a very important thing. When our technologies erect firewalls so that we only ever hear from those of whom we are already convinced, we may find ourselves increasingly tribalized in our relationships and truncated in our thinking. That would be a problem

If You Preach it Will They Come?

David Fitch writing in “Out of Ur” 3 Myths About Preaching Today, suggesting that a new kind of preaching is needed for our post-Christian culture. The myths he describes are…

Myth One: If You Preach a Good Sermon the Church Will Grow.
Fitch suggests that this is a dying myth in our post-Christendom situation. “Post-Christian people are not attracted to the sermon as the first place to go in their spiritual distress.”

Myth Two: Who You Preach To is Who You Will Reach.
The idea that preaching to an unbelieving audience will attract an unbelieving audience is misguided.

Myth Three: The Goal of Preaching is to Make the Bible Relevant.
“If anything … far from trying to make the Scriptures relevant, the goal of preaching is to make everything else irrelevant.”

Fitch isn’t against preaching, but he is against a kind of preaching that twists itself into an unrecognizable shape in its attempt to satisfy an unbelieving world.

The many comments appended to the article are worth reading as well!

 

Will Video Venues Kill Preaching as We Know It?

Will video venues eventually mean the death of preaching? This is the provocative idea argued by Bob Hyatt on his bob.blog.

Hyatt cites Shane Hipps in his book Flickering Pixels, who suggests that “every medium when pushed to an extreme, will reverse on itself, revealing unintended consequences.” The car, for example, eased our mobility, but too many cars results in injury, death, and environmental damage. The internet speeds communications and reduces ignorance, but too much information leads to greater confusion. “Surveillance cameras, when there are too many that see too far, reverse into an invasion of privacy,” says Hipps.

“In other words,” Hyatt writes, “what was originally meant to make us go fast now slows us down, what was meant to make us smart now increases our ignorance and what was meant to make us feel safe now makes us feel exposed.” The rule, he says, is that “technology, taken too far, creates the opposite of what it was intended to create.”

Hyatt applies this theory to preaching. Microphones were intended to increase our range. Tapes, television, podcasts, and vodcasts all serve to continue to extend the reach of our preaching. The problem, he says, is that now through technology we’re not only recording the sermon, but we’re broadcasting it so that the preaching gift of one person not only has the “ability to reach the back row, but the next town, state, continent.” “And we’re not just talking about Spurgeon publishing his sermons,” he continues, “or Schuller putting his on TV or Driscoll putting his on iTunes… Now we’re talking about not just influencing local preachers by making the ‘best’ communicator’s sermons available… we’re talking about replacing those local teaching elders.” The technology, he says, is reversing on itself.

Hyatt envisions a soon future where every city will have, among others, the Driscoll franchise, the Andy Stanley franchise, and perhaps two or three of each. “Sure, smaller churches will still exist, but in fewer and fewer numbers as dying churches are replaced not by vibrant church plants full of people forced to build a community from the ground up and so learn all the lessons along the way, but by video venue franchises – prepackaged church-in-a-box. And I’m telling you – there will be fewer and fewer men and women (most certainly fewer women) who ever learn to preach, who ever get the experience of working with others to discern what God is saying to their local body through Spirit and Word and prayerfully struggle through how they can creatively communicate that as well over the course of weeks, months and years of life together.”

“We’re talking about the death of preaching in evangelicalism by all but a small handful of Celebrity Communicators who have little knowledge about those they teach from such far distances.”

Of course, we’ve heard this kind of thing before. People have been announcing the end of preaching for as long as can remember. I suspect that the video venue phenomenon will continue and increase in influence, but I’m suspicious of this movement’s ability to completely overtake the church. As a friend of mine put it, you are I on an average day are better than the video preachers on their best day.

I don’t doubt the effect of large screen preaching by specially gifted communicators. These days, we all know the power of the big screen. What I am thinking about, however, is the pastoral nature of preaching. Whether or not we listen once a week to the celebrity preacher, we will still need someone in our midst who knows us and who walks with us.

Besides, preaching happens throughout the church, in multiple venues and many different ways, practiced by a variety of people. To say that preaching is dying, is frankly, laughable. Of course, if we only see preaching as the privilege of a single person, set apart for this special purpose, then we might as well begin connecting to the satellites and enlarging the screen size in our sanctuaries.

Preaching will never be the privilege of only just a handful. Preaching is the task of all of us. May it live long and prosper.

 

Text the Preacher

I heard a couple of my students talking about a sermon they had heard the other day. The sermon was in a large venue and they had been texting their comments to one another during the presentation. As if the preacher didn’t have enough to worry about, now we’ve got our listeners texting one another while we speak.

I mentioned this to a few other students and one of them mentioned that he had been texted while he was preaching that very Sunday. Someone felt he should text the pastor that he had gone on long enough and that he ought to wrap things up. Fortunately for the preacher, he had left his cellphone at home that Sunday!

I believe that this latter text, was meant in jest. Nevertheless, something about the whole thing unsettles me, though I’m not exactly certain why. Listeners will make their feelings known to the preacher and to one another. I suppose that this is just another, more immediate, means. People are going to critique us one way or another. We shouldn’t be threatened by it no matter how the criticism is delivered.

Just so long as preachers don’t start distributing their sermons via text. I’m not sure I could fit my manuscript on such a little screen!

 

Preaching to the Financially Anxious

The first words I heard this morning were unpleasant. My clock is set to wake me with the radio each morning. The words I heard this morning were indeed, alarming. For several weeks now we have heard about foreclosures, bailouts, and the Dow(n)-Jones average. Things here in Canada are marginally more secure than what I’m hearing from the south, but this does not mean that things are not uncertain everywhere. When the United States sneezes, the rest of the world catches the cold. Unfortunately, this is more than just a common cold.

Preachers have to talk about this. People in our churches are concerned about losing their homes and about the likely delay of their retirement. The employers who sit before us Sundays are thinking about what they will say to their employees Monday. The employees are wondering how long they can keep their job. We may have planned our series on “theories of atonement” some months ago, but such important themes might be difficult for listeners to hear today.

This is prime time for preaching. People are never as receptive to our preaching as they are in times of crisis. People need perspective. People need the comfort of the gospel. People need to understand that they are loved by a God who promises to provide. Preachers who speak such messages from God’s Word will find their audience receptive.

I’m not saying that we should take advantage of people in this situation. I’m saying that we should take advantage of the situation for the benefit of people. This will not be a time for platitudes. This is a time for painful honesty. It might be time for some of us to confess our greed and to conceive of new priorities in line with Kingdom values.

Matthew 6 might be a place to start. This text, at the heart of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount counsels a reassessment of what qualifies as treasure and where we find the surest of investments. Don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will wear. It is pagan, Jesus says, to run after such things. Of course, it is the “running after” that Jesus is concerned about. Eating and wearing is essential, but to drive ourselves to a worried chasing is a pagan distrust of the God who promises to take care of his children.

Our job is to seek and preach the kingdom and his righteousness. When we do this, “all these things” will be given to us as well. Preach that to your own heart this morning, then share it with the world.

 

Church Size and Economies of Scale

Last Sunday I attended church with my in-laws. It was a very large church by Canadian standards, perhaps the largest church in the country. I was impressed by almost every aspect of the experience. Everything was done well. Nothing was out of place. The musicians were sharp. The ushers were attentive. The preacher was solid.

I thought about all the neighboring churches that had given of their best and brightest to populate this massive congregation. Then I thought about the fact that it would take almost eighteen congregations of three or four hundred people to handle the number of people that are housed within this church. That’s a lot of buildings, a lot of real estate, and a very large amount of staff. In these days of environmental consciousness perhaps there is some benefit to the economy of scale that can be delivered in a mega-church.

I still believe that there is something powerful about the law of multiplication that can be applied to church planting. At the same time, however, I have noticed how difficult it has become for these plants to get a foothold in their neighborhoods. There seems to be a short-window of opportunity for these churches to get established in a building of their own before the public sees the church as going nowhere and irrelevant. Getting out of the local school gym can be difficult as city officials, politicians, and by-law officers tighten the availability of space while the cost of construction sky-rockets. I talked to a pastor yesterday whose church has 400 people and a large parcel of land, but they can’t put together the funds to build. Construction costs are rising faster than the rate that they can save. This isn’t to say that there church is not viable. But they are finding themselves squeezed for space, their ability to fulfill their mission at some risk.

For many, the solution is in smaller micro-church networks of congregations that meet in homes and coffee-shops. Of course it would take at least three hundred such churches to service the same number of people as the church I attended on Sunday. This is to say nothing of the quality of service. Trying to effectively and powerfully lead a network of hundreds of independently minded very-small congregations is organizationally daunting.

All this to say, that there is something to the economy of scale that can be achieved by a very-large church. Not least of these advantages, for some, is the fact that a large church requires fewer preachers. Worship leaders in large churches rely on hyper-talented musicians due to the fact that they have such a large pool to draw from. The same is true for preachers. Only the very best communicators need to be called upon in a church of several thousand.

While the advantage to all of this is obvious, there is something disturbing about it as well. It is one thing to talk about economizing on the use of physical resources, but the use of human resources is quite another thing. Is there something lost when fewer people have the opportunity to preach?

Of course, all of this is much more complicated than what can be spoken of in a few words on a blog. It is enough for me, at this point, to thank the Lord for the ministry of this large church which is able to bless so many people and help to build the kingdom.

 

Relative Crowd Size

It is interesting to me how much difference the physical ambiance of a building can make in preaching. I preached two services at the same church over the weekend. The first service was on a Saturday night. There was a little more than 100 people rattling around in a space intended for seven or eight times that much. Sunday morning the space was full. I can’t tell you how much stronger the experience was in the morning.I don’t believe that it had anything to do with the fact that it was an evening or a morning. It simply had to do with the energy that came from a full building.

The number itself was also not important. I’ve been in spaces intended for 100 people that were dynamite. Similarly, 700 people in a space suited for 7,000 feels like disaster. I don’t think this has anything to do with the disappointment that comes with a partially-filled room. I think that there is something physically dynamic that happens when people fill a space. In such a circumstance, we are forced to respond to one another. A higher energy level is inevitable.

Of course, the work of the Holy Spirit is not hindered by such things, but as churches look to multiple services and alternate evenings it’s important to remember that the size of the room makes a difference with respect to the listener experience.

 

Surprising Good News about Seminary

I heard some good news about theological education over the weekend at the Chief Academic Officer’s Meetings of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). It seems that people are happier with seminary education than we may have thought. Barbara Wheeler of the Auburn Institute reported on data gathered from an array of comprehensive surveys over several years. It seems that the seminary experience is highly rated. Some highlights:

Seminary students rated the quality of their educational experience as 3.2 out of 4.0.

95% of graduates said that they would encourage others to pursue ministry.

4 out of 5 would encourage others to attend the same seminary that they did.

4.75 out of 5 would attend the same seminary again if they had the chance.

74% of seminary graduates end up in professional local church ministry. 88% end up in some form of professional ministry.

The attrition rate of Master of Divinity grads who end up in professional ministry is only 1% per year over ten years. Put another way, 90% of grads stay in ministry over 10 years.

These numbers are staggering and “blow away” comparables from any other form of professional training such as law or medical school. I agree with Wheeler who said, “I don’t care what your business is, if you can deliver these kinds of results, you are doing phenomenal work.”

It has become common to criticize seminary as “cemetary” and to generally see it as an outdated and inefficient way of training people for ministry. The numbers say otherwise. Perhaps it’s time to stop seminary-bashing and to begin to think more creatively about how seminaries and churches can leverage this work for the benefit of people and the growth of God’s kingdom.

 

Sermon-Mercials

Yesterday’s ‘Preaching Now’ email from Preaching magazine mentioned a new trend toward advertising from the pulpit:

“The newest advertising trend is aimed at your church. As a recent article in the Knowledge@Wharton (from the Wharton School of Business) notes, ‘Advertising has begun to seep into churches, and the phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down.’”

“Examples include a contest last year that gave pastors ‘a chance to win a free trip to London and $1,000 cash — if they mentioned Disney’s film The Chronicles of Narnia in their sermons. Chrysler, hoping to target affluent African Americans with its new luxury SUV, is currently sponsoring a Patti LaBelle gospel music tour through African-American megachurches nationwide.’”

“The article observes that this trend has even produced a new term: ‘The Narnia sermon sweepstakes, first reported last December by the Philadelphia Inquirer, gave rise to the new term ’sermo-mercial’ — along with concerns expressed by blogging Christians that the pulpit was now open for product placement.’”

It seems that some preachers need to read 2 Corinthians 2:17. We do not peddle the gospel. We preach it.

 

Speaking to Postmoderns

Yesterday I spent some time working on a project to help people think about how to communicate more effectively in the postmodern context. The following items are some of my random thoughts regarding attitudes we ought to adopt if we want to be more effective in these days…

humble and confident – we can’t preach without confidence, but we won’t gain a hearing without humility

dignified and respectful – people need to feel that we respect their right to determine their own mind about what we have to say

practical and meaningful – people in postmodern times are very pragmatic given the idea that all we can trust is what works for us, but perhaps we can be practical by offering something that is perceived as meaningful

oral and engaged – communication in these days needs to seem authentic, which is to say that it will be well assimilated, present to the moment, and spoken rather than written

simple and profound – depth is achieved not through complexity but through simplicity

honest and just – truth is viewed as that which is authentic and that which works justice for others in the world

 

The Great Giveaway

David Fitch has been writing and blogging about expository preaching in his new book and blog titled The Great Giveaway. In sum, Fitch offers a number of interesting suggestions:

1. “Quit explaining and start proclaiming.” Okay, it’s not a matter of not explaining. It’s more a matter of priority. “The primary move of preaching will not be sentence-by-sentence explotion and explaining, then an application. Instead the primary move of the preacher will be to describe the world as it is via the person and work of Jesus Christ…”

2. “Please, let’s come to Scripture as drama not a textbook.” This is an attempt to see the sermon in the manner it is given in the Bible itself. “Let us see the Scriptures as alive. Scripture is real accounts, testimonies and witnesses of God’s people, through the prophets and apostles, to see what God has done and said and will do.” …

3. “Forget the application points! Go for the liturgical response.” The concern here is with an unhealthy dependence upon sermonic “to do lists.” “Instead the Word invokes postures of response: i.e., silence, submission, obedience, affirmation in faith, confession before the Lord, and of course the Eucharistic celebration of participating in the receiving of the Body of Christ.”…

4. “The act of preaching can only be the tip of a communal iceberg.” Preaching ought not to be so individualized. “The violence comes when the preaching of the Word separates us as individuals over against one armed with the interpretation we want because we do not come together in mutual submission to discern the Scripture’s meaning for our lives today.” …

Fitch’s work seems to respect a wholistic approach to biblical preaching that ought to be considered. Classic expositors might not agree with everything he is saying, but they ought not be threatened by the dialogue.

 

Tower Building and the Origin of Postmodernity

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”

Whenever I hear people worry about postmodernism and the loss of truth I think of Genesis 11 and this story of the Tower of Babel. In all my reading on postmodern philosophy, it seems that the two most significant contributing factors to this eroded sense of confidence is (1) the imprecision of language, and (2) the problem of diversity. When I read Genesis 11, I come to the inescapable conclusion, that this was all God’s doing. God is the author of the postmodern problem.

Of course, it was an act of judgment on us. Our sin? We were trying to be as smart as God. We were building towers, trying to put ourselves in the place of God. Sounds an awful lot like the whole enlightenment project, doesn’t it.

Even though God judged us by confusing our languages and scattering our peoples, he still requires us to know him and to obey him. Postmodern philosophy, tells us this isn’t possible. The Bible tells us that it is possible, but not if we insist on tower building. Tower building is a bottom up project, a striving to be god for ourselves. Biblical revelation is a top down project, God making himself known sufficiently, if not exhaustively for us to obey him and find fulfillment in him.

That God is making himself known is about the best thing that I know. That he uses preachers in the process only makes the blessing greater.

 

Orality in Preaching

If preachers want to speak so that listeners can hear they will have to learn to speak the listener’s language. We will need to learn to speak “oral.” In North Amerlca, statistics tell us that 45 to 48 per cent of the general population is either completely illiterate or functionally illiterate. This is not to say that these people are not intelligent, just that they process thought in different ways. As Grant Lovejoy puts it, “The question is not simply whether people can read, but how well they learn through literacy-influenced forms of communication.”
There is a fundamental difference between oral language and written language. When you are reading what has been written you have the opportunity to take your time to reflect. You can scroll back and reread sections that were at first unclear. Readers of written language are able to handle detailed outlines and complex language. Multi-point sermons can be readily processed when put into print.

Oral presentation is different. It happens on the fly and it happens quickly. People who listen to oral presentations have to track with a flow of fleeting ideas without the possibility of pause for reflection or the opportunity for question. Preachers need to think about this.

What does oral presentation look like? It will be image rich. It will be less complicated. It will use repetition so as to reinforce critical ideas so that they stick. Most of all it will be engaging.

Consider, for example, what happens in a normal conversation. If we could see a transcript of our talk with one another it wouldn’t come out reading very clean. Sentences overlap and end up discontinued. People interrupt one another and generally it is quite a mess. But it works. It is oral and we get it.

Perhaps we should go for long walks so that we talk our sermons through before we write them down. Perhaps the big idea approach will help us to simplify our presentations so that we can offer a profound message and not a complicated one. Maybe we could consider offering fewer points and more power.

Some have suggested that this less literate culture is to be lamented and that we should work to create literacy among these television addled minds. Maybe, but surely not in the pulpit. Start a literacy program and run it on Thursday nights, but when you preach, learn to speak the people’s language so that they can hear from God.

People today speak oral. Preachers need to learn to speak it too.

 

Literacy in North America

“In 1993 the United States’ National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released the results of the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS). The survey tested participants in their ability with prose (editorials, magazine articles, brochures, fiction), documents (job applications, payroll forms, bus schedules, maps, etc.), and quantitative tasks (texts containing arithmetical operations). The survey then ranked participants on a scale of 1 to 5, representing illiterate, functionally illiterate, semi-literate, literate, and high literate, respectfully. Careful testing of a representative sample of U.S. adults revealed that 48-51% of them performed at the two lowest levels of literacy. nearly a third of adults in the U.S. tested out at the semi-literate level. Thus only about 20% of the adult population ranked at levels 4 or 5, that is literate or highly literate (NCES, “NALS: Overview” 1993, 2-9).”

“Canada has done three studies similar to NALS. The International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) done in 1994 used the same approach as the NALS, testing prose, document, and quantitative skills. IALS reported that 46-48% of Canadian adults age 16 and older scored at the two lowest levels of literacy. It ranked another 33% of Canadian adults as semi-literate. Approximately 28% of Canadian community college graduates scored at level s 1 or 2 and another 42% of them scored at level 3 (Statistics Canada et al. 1996, 2). The IALS survey thus confirmed that though there is a correlation between educational attainment and literacy, years of schooling are not inevitable predictors of literacy skill.”

“An audience composed of high school and community college graduates may still have a significant number of people much more at home with oral communication. The question is not simply whether people can read, but how well they learn through literacy-influenced forms of communication. As the second IALS report puts it, “literacy means more than knowing how to read, write, or calculate. It involves understanding and being able to use the information required to function effectively . . . .” It is this concern for understanding God’s truth and being able to put it into life that drives homiletical concern with the issues of orality and literacy. …Orality is even more prevalent outside the developed world. UNESCO figures indicate that in 1990 developing countries had an over all illiteracy rate of 26.9%. Reported illiteracy rates were 52.7% for sub-Saharan Africa, 48.7% for Arab states, and 53.8% for Southern Asia. … Many of those who were counted as literate because they had completed primary schooling may nonetheless function at very low levels of literacy. So the percentage of people in developing countries with a strong oral communications preference is likely to be much higher than the reported rate of illiteracy.”

“Literacy work can be a marvelous ministry and Christians ought to lead out in it. The question is whether the pulpit should take on the task. The historical record suggests that preaching in literate forms is not a very helpful technique for teaching literacy.
Insisting on maintaining literate approaches also makes literacy an unbiblical barrier to faith. Christianity arose and flourished in an oral environment.”

Grant Lovejoy, “But I Did Such Good Exposition”: Literate Preachers Confront Orality. Presented to the Evangelical Homiletics Society, October 2001.