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andrew picard: thank you for your talk

Language is a slippery thing, often failing to capture exactly what we want to say. However, language does carry and make meaning. As I’ve preached in various churches lately, I’ve noticed a slippage in our language about preaching. We’ve become very nervous about using the word ‘preaching’. I’ve noticed more and more people speak about “talks” rather than preaching – “thank you for your talk”, “are you doing the talk today?”

It’s no secret that preaching has come under fire, both from outside and inside the church. Even amongst evangelicals there’s a lot of nervousness about the value and validity of preaching today. I’ve noticed a serious slippage in our language. Instead of church we now have faith communities, instead of worship we now have gatherings, instead of preachers we now have speakers, and instead of sermons we now have talks. But does this new language claim too little? Is preaching simply a human endeavour; mere “talk about God” or is God involved in some way; “a God who talks”?  Is preaching primarily something we do or is it primarily something God does? William Willimon argues that at the heart of preaching is either a God who speaks, and who speaks now, in the sermon, or preaching is silly.

John Webster makes the point that the church’s life comes not from within but from without. The church exists as a creature of the Word of God. The Word of God precedes the church, calls it into being and sustains it. The church exists as a people of the gospel, called into being by a God who speaks his powerful Word to us through his Son in the power of the Spirit; slaying us and making us alive. As a creature of God’s Word, when it comes to God’s Word, the church is always a beginner. As a creature of God’s Word, the church’s primary calling is to be a listening church who hears and obeys the Word God speaks. God, through the Risen Christ, gathers his people in the power of the Spirit and accosts us with his Word of grace and truth. The church exists from the continual event of being crucified and made alive by the Word that God speaks.

We can never assume we have already learnt the gospel and can safely put it behind us and get on with whatever we assume to be the “real work” – evangelism or witness. The church’s witness is not a first move; God himself is his own first witness. By the power of his resurrection and in the energy of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ goes ahead of the church and testifies of himself. He, not the church, is the true and faithful witness. The church’s calling, and that of the preacher’s, is to witness to the true and faithful witness. The ministry and calling of preaching is one of participating in the ministry of the Risen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are called to participate with Christ in his ministry of accosting his people with his grace and truth. Preaching, like the life of the church, is not primarily something we do but something God does. The Word we speak is not our own but that of the Risen Christ to his people to slay us and make us alive.

Now that I have found myself listening to more sermons than I preach, I have wondered how to complement a preacher who has preached a faithful sermon. I’m still not sure, but for the moment I’ve settled for “thank you for preaching God’s Word”.

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Andrew is Director of Community Life at Laidlaw College where he will commence teaching the Preaching course in the curriculum in 2010.

14 Comments

  1. Myk Habets says:

    I think your final ‘thank you’ remark is spot on Andrew…and sadly, I am not confident I have EVER had anyone thank me in this way before 🙁 I too am currently listneing to more sermons than I am giving and it is both enjoyable and ‘odd’ for me. I too want to thank the pastor/preacher appropriately and so have reflected on this issue. Thanks for sharing…

    1. Grant Harris says:

      Myk, I know a good place where you practice this thinking!

  2. Paul Windsor says:

    I wonder whether J Ellul’s Humiliation of the Word is another key resource here. I also found Tom Long’s insistence that as preachers we are ‘bearing witness’ to be liberating. We can own the burden of success or failure far too easily. However if we are committed to being merely faithful witness-bearers ready to bring our sermons as offerings and leave them with him, saying as it were “here is my best, now you do the rest”, maybe the complexion of preaching changes and proper priotities are restored?

  3. Sean du Toit says:

    While I agree 100% with what Andrew’s said, the danger is that we become arrogant as those who deliver “God’s Word”. Even worse, some see it as their vocation to remind us that even “preachers” get it wrong. There’s a gentle balance that is required. I’ve found myself suggesting that if people trust that what I’ve said in the sermon is faithful to Scripture’s message, then they should take that as the authoritative word of God and respond appropriately (I’m thinking along the lines of 1 Th 4:7-8). Or as Gordon Fee says, “the correct response to misuse or abuse is not no use, but correct use.” If we handle Scripture faithfully then it is not our message which carries the authority but God’s word, and then we should exhort people to submit to that.

  4. Dave Wells says:

    Just another thought from a different angle. The problem isn’t with the notion of preaching or even with the content of the sermon (at least not in this instance), the problem is with the actual word ‘preach’ or the phrase ‘to preach’ or the notion of ‘preaching’. Move those words away from the context of a church sermon and they all become very negative words in the wider cultural context. Phrases such as “he is so preachy” or “stop preaching to me” are used of people who are moralising at another person (which may give some insight into a more recent blog on this site where a preacher was considering the difficulty of not turning sermons into moral messages). I expect that the reason young people in particular avoid the use of the word ‘preach’ is because it is a negative word away from the context of church life (it has nothing to do with what they have just heard). And let’s face it, most of our listeners spend the majority of their time away from the context of church life.

  5. Paul Windsor says:

    Yes, this is an important perspective to adopt, David. Ensuring that the categories/vocabulary we use make sense and relate to the world around us.

    But I wonder if there is an equally important contrary perspective. Not just fired by relevance issues, wondering how what “we” do and say fits into “their” frameworks of understanding. BUT also how what “they” do and say fit into the framework of the gospel and of truth.

    See – I want to use a language related to preaching that communicates to people unengaged with the gospel. But there is another side of me that cares not one wit how they perceive the way I talk. I am not dancing to their tune. The gospel, the Bible, the Christ, the evidence history is on the side of me speaking in a certain way about preaching and I will keep doing so – graciously, but truthfully.

    The more and more I look, the more and more I reckon that ‘relevance’ is becoming one of the idols of our time. Too much salt. Not enough light. We need o recover the art of living distinctive lives with distinction, creating an intrigue that attracts people. Incarnational is not enough, not nearly enough. It is being over-payed at the moment. It must be an incarnational that is attractional. Actually looking for ways to act and think and speak in a different way.

    Enuf

    1. Geoff New says:

      Just responding to your comments, Paul, about the incarnational approach being “over-payed” at the moment and your comments about relevance. As an advocate of an incarnational approach I was very helpfully challenged by these comments by Kevin Ward in an article he wrote recently for Stimulus on the emerging church. His comments apply to all expressions of church I suspect!
      “The emerging church articulates strongly an incarnational theology and understands Jesus almost solely in these terms. Yet any serious reading of the life and ministry of Jesus will identify that while he did live incarnationally within the culture of first-century Juda¬ism, he also lived in considerable tension with most in that culture, at times spoke judgement on it, and ended up being rejected by it. If he was simply concerned with relevance, why was he strung up on a cross?”

  6. Paul Windsor says:

    Maybe ‘overpayed’ and ‘overplayed’… but not ‘overpaid’?! 🙂

    An excellent quote from Kevin. Reminded me of being in some hotel somewhere recently, watching BBC and the tailend of a ‘Hard Talk’ chat with some Bishop. Alluding to this relevance-obsession, the person said something along the lines of “the church is meant to be counter-cultural – but now it is just cultural. And so why bother with it? It is so socially-conformed that it has nothing distinctive to contribute.” (not the exact quote)

    It is into this issue that sustained systematic biblical preaching has such a huge role to play. A word from ‘outside’ that will be prophetic – again and again – and thereby truly relevant.

    Only the eternal can hope to be forever contemporary!

    1. Andrew Picard says:

      They must be on to something down there in Otago. I read an article by Graham Redding that asked – to whom are we first called to be relevant, the culture of the triune God of grace revealed in Jesus? I have found myself wondering more and more, how crucifiable is my preaching? When is the last time my preaching has been so offensive that people have wanted to murder me?! Probably the only reason they would want to crucify me would be to shut me up because I’m boring them to death…

      1. Andrew Picard says:

        Oops, that was meant to read “the culture or the triune God of grace”

  7. Joseph Collins says:

    Dave’s right about the use of “preach…” for ‘people who are moralising at another person’. Some non-believers who know I study automatically think I might be “preaching” moral discourse, and possibly like a woman in one of those outdated gowns. Naturally I laughed and settled the confusion. However, Andrew’s context is in the church and possibly less influenced by outside culture in this sense to give it negative connotations. If God is “talking” to the hearers through the “preaching” (speaking) of the word of God, then I can’t see an issue if people call it a talk. i.e. I don’t see how God talking to our hearts, rather than “preaching” to our hearts, is neither an issue. Likewise, if I heard, “thank you for your talk” I would be asking what they liked about it, as by itself it may not offer more than “thanks for bothering mate”. If it was “preaching” in the sense that people have to be compelled by God’s word through me. Sometimes people don’t have the “right” words to say and use a more simple word. I very much doubt Jesus sounded like Spurgen every time He opened His mouth to “speak”. So some may see preaching in that classical term. People have different gifts, some preach, others teach, others may use dialogue. I thought in Jesus’ time that synagogue “preachers” often sat down, opened the scrolls and “spoke” it, then involved questions and answers? Paul debated in the public square and had home fellowships. So either way, its all talk.

    1. Andrew Picard says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Joseph. My response is that the NT uses the word preaching and not talking. My point is that preaching is not merely humans “talking”. I’m not nit-picky about someone complementing me after preaching – rest assured, I’m not criticising people who offer feedback or complements. What I’m highlighting is the slippage in our language about preaching that I think reveals something of our loss of confidence in it.

      1. Joseph Collins says:

        Sure, Paul uses the word preach a fair amount, far more than Jesus had. However, Jesus could preach boldly from the mount or do much less than preach/talk, He could possibly merely whisper and create a universe.

        If it is the power of the word, I can proudly testify of God’s ability to reach the hearer. Funnily enough on one occasion, in truth, I was prompted by God to say merely a single word, “Hello” to a young woman who was walking alongside her mother on their way out from church. That week, her mother went out of her way, found out my name, my number, and thanked me profusely for saying “hello” as it really meant so much to her, more than I could know to her at that time. Days later, God reminded me of my obedience and showered me with grace til I was weeping on my knees.

        I was not preaching in the term you may like to use for behind a pulpit or to a crowd. But, if it is not about power, then to me, preaching can simply be talking. And I see both as just as the same for a Christian who has the intention to glorify God and share His living Word. i.e. ambassadors of Christ, making His appeal through us, or at least making his love known.

        So, the only difference between preaching and talking in the sense of “church” or Eph 4 is our intention to glorify God. It is up to Him whether it sounds like preaching/talking to the listener. Sure we can nit-pick between teaching/lecturing/preaching etc, but they all involve a form of communication called talking which should by no means be seen as less than preaching for it is one of God’s great gifts. It is who we are and more importantly who we point to that matters.

        So is it a really a loss of confidence from the hearer or the speaker in that terminology, or a loss of authority through the preaching?

  8. Joseph Collins says:

    p.s. We could say that preaching is sharing the Scriptures concerning Christ, or the gospel (to a body of sinners, doubters, and believers) of Christ, or maybe even how to raise children in a godly way, maybe even nutritional information to a congregation who need to hear it. Either way, Jesus was the gospel, and although he didn’t always preach, he always was.

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