Sermon Introductions and Badly Stained Tablecloths

This blog post is a response to an informal poll on Facebook in which I asked:

Hey Reformed friends, I’ve wondered for a long time about the first part of a sermon. Which of these two do you prefer, and why?

Option A:
1. introduction/story
2. scripture
3. exegesis

Option B:
1. scripture
2. introduction/story
3. exegesis

The responses were great. On the whole, the majority opted for option B or something similar. Here is my response to the poll:

Thanks everyone for the fantastic conversation about sermon form. You all give me hope that Facebook can be a place for faithful Christian dialogue. I purposely didn’t respond to anyone so as not to tilt the conversation. But now that the responses have slowed down, allow me to push back pretty hard on those who argue for the traditional structure of [scripture > introduction > exegesis] or even more rigorously, [scripture > exegesis].

I totally agree with the theological reasoning for placing scripture first and insisting on the primacy of the word. I do think that starting with scripture should be the norm from which we deviate, not the exception. But I can’t say that starting with an introduction is off-limits. Here’s why:

First, to the charge that starting with an introduction necessarily leads to eisegesis, I tend to think that the line between exegesis and eisegesis is very fuzzy. It is a noble pursuit to try to avoid certain kinds of eisegesis, but it is impossible to eliminate it. It is a function of our human finitude and inherent perspectival apprehension of the world. Better to relentlessly study and name and baptize your perspectives than to pretend that they are not there.

Second, worrying about the temporal primacy of the word in the sermon strikes me as an overworrying. Don’t we believe in the ontological primacy of the Word? Doesn’t that trump our petty squabbles about our experience of a tiny slice of time? Theologically, we can say pretty confidently that the Word precedes us in the creation of the world, and the Word precedes us in the inauguration of the Kingdom of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ as witnessed in the gospels. If we preach these truths regularly, I don’t think we need to freak out about whether or not we start the sermon with the scripture or with an introduction. (Besides, if you start the entire worship service with a votum, you are already starting worship with a curious interweaving of human and divine speech. So calm down. God and we are already, in the power of the Spirit, in this together.)

Thirdly, insisting that we start with scripture assumes a level of Biblical literacy that our congregations simply do not have. When I think about the Reformers (or even the later Puritans) insisting on scripture first, I am reminded that Calvin (and later John Owen) preached every day. In a context with that high level of scriptural knowledge, it makes a lot of sense to not distract your congregation with introductions. Oddly, for all of the Reformation polemics against monasticism, this kind of daily preaching of the word in places like Geneva was actually much closer to a monastic daily spiritual ordering of life than our contemporary American Reformed context. I don’t say this lightly, but times have changed.

And here, metaphorically, is the meat of it: preaching a sermon without an introduction is like serving up the most delicious culinary creation by plopping it directly onto the tablecloth. People need a plate on which to hold the food. If people begin to admire the intricate design on the plate instead of the food itself, then the sermon introduction has gone too far. But it is an act of hospitality, an act of missional engagement, and an act of love for your people to hand them the plate before you hand them the food.

Having said this, I think we can make clear distinctions between more and less faithful sermon introductions. As others have already said, a sermon introduction is helpful to the extent that it provides helpful context to the scripture passage, or asks a key existential question which the text itself will also ask or sharpen or answer. A sermon introduction can be less helpful if its purpose is to emotionally hook (or manipulate) the congregation, or establish the brand of the preacher, or flirt with and warm up the congregation. Put more bluntly: intros that lead into the text are good. Intros that lead too deeply into the interior life of the preacher (or even the congregation) are less helpful.

Sermon form carries invisible theological weight. The form of the sermon subtly shapes the way we see the contours of the life of faith. A sermon which begins with subjectivity (and, most likely in the application phase ends with subjectivity) will shape your congregation to view their spiritual life as the work of God framed within the larger framework of their needs and wants. A sermon which begins and ends with the work of God will form people to see their lives as surrounded by the active grace of God.

This is by no means to eliminate your emotions and guts from preaching. There is totally a place for feelings and subjective experience and your needs and wants in a sermon. It’s just not what should open, define or drive the sermon.

However, for the sake of hospitality, mission, and love, I have to say that in some instances (but not all) an introduction to the sermon can be a very good thing. If I am preaching a narrative, I would prefer to lead with the story of scripture. If I am preaching deep in the middle of Romans, or Hebrews, or Ezekiel, I as the waiter might want to set the table before I serve the chef’s special.

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Why Feeling the Presence of Jesus is Not Enough

At least since the first Great Awakening, American Christianity has been built on the all-important goal of feeling the presence of Jesus. Feeling the presence of Jesus (however you “feel” Jesus) is an important part of religion, but there is a second, equally important question: Is there a Jesus on the other side of your feelings? What Jesus is on the other side of your emotive experience? Is there a God there on the other end? Is it really Jesus, or is it just your hormones, your racial/ethnic identity, your favorite songs? To ignore this question is to open yourself up to all kinds of idolatry.

It’s not a popular position to take in the cultural climate of American Christianity, but I am committed to promoting both the subjective and the objective dimensions of worship. Worship can’t just be about feeling the presence of Jesus. We are also called by God to think (and feel) deeply about the God who is there, not just our emotional experience of that God. Otherwise, we will find ourselves worshiping our music, our politics, or our endorphins.

* * *

We need a holistic approach to worship, one in which critical analysis of God’s work among us and holy, passionate experience of God’s presence are intimately linked. It’s a beautiful cycle:

1. God shows up; we experience God in a passionate, emotional, bodily experience.
2. We reflect (later?) on how God showed up, and slowly start to build a working vocabulary for describing God’s actions among us. We take as much as we can from Holy Scripture to feed our vocabulary. Some words we use are decided to be closer and truer in their description of God and God’s works than others. Some practices are decided to be more faithful than others in how we respond to God’s action.
3. In the context of our revised set of words and practices, God shows up again, and we experience God in a passionate, emotional experience.
4. We reflect (again) on how God showed up, changing our earlier words and practices to be even more faithful.

The process continues indefinitely. We grow in love and knowledge of God. The interplay between the odd steps and the even steps is the interplay between worship and theology. It’s at the core of the Christian life.

* * *

Two nerdy footnotes:

1. Of course nothing in this post is terribly original. It is all stolen with gratefulness from John Witvliet, David Kelsey, and a certain French theologian, who is unfortunately known for not being the most cuddly teddy bear in the toy box.

2. I’ll admit that in our current cultural moment, both objectivity and subjectivity have come under serious fire. We cannot say with certainty anymore whether there is a God out there, or whether there is a self inside of us. (Double yikes!) By grace the postmodern Christian is freed from both of these idols to hope for the knowledge of faith. In spite of our utter inability to know God or ourselves, God is gracious enough to reveal himself, and to illuminate our inner selves for self-knowledge by the light of revelation. But we can’t ground this knowledge in an objective standard (a rational system) or a subjective standard (feeling Jesus). The only ground of our knowledge of God is the self-revelation of God, received by faith, holistically integrating objectivity and subjectivity.