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tim harris: re-claiming the main event

We should all be concerned at the surveys reflecting the diminishing place bible reading has in people’s lives—Bible-affirming evangelicals included. My reflection here is the extent to which we may be inadvertently contributing to this by our focus on preaching as the ‘main event’ in the church gathering.

Let me jump into my main contention (with the disclaimer that I am presenting the case starkly). In placing such an emphasis on preaching as the key component of ministry of the Word, we all too easily regard the Bible reading as little more than the platform from which we launch forth. The public reading of Scripture is regarded as preparatory to the sermon, and the quality of commentary, explanation and application is regarded as the measure of how good the ministry has been.

A few years ago our ministry team was faced with trying to find an extra 20-30 mins in our regular Sunday services for one week (in Aust. the National Church Life Survey needs completing in the context of each gathering over one week). Using my voice as senior minister, I suggested we drop the sermon… much to the surprise of my colleagues! Now it wasn’t quite as stark as that. My proposal was that we have a couple of our best Bible readers prepare a longer reading of Scripture – a NT epistle in toto. This became the centrepiece of our gathering, and the end result exceeded expectations—many commented they had engaged with Scripture more directly and in a fresh way.

A fruitful area of biblical research is exploring the extent to which the New Testament documents originated as ‘performed’ texts. In the ancient world, reading was very much a vocalised activity, and public reading was the result of both training and dramatic artistry. More often than not, NT documents were written to be ‘performed’. For example, Mark’s Gospel has the aural and dramatic qualities akin to street theatre, while the reading of epistles functioned to a significant degree as an apostle’s presence and message through the medium of public reading. The boundaries between public ‘performance’ and apostolic teaching are far from clear.

What has been the impact of our western habit of making Bible reading a much more privatised exercise, especially in the mode of reading printed text off the page? One reflection may serve as an example: we make expository preaching too much a ‘stop and dissect’ exercise. We analyse and scrutinise every detail and nuance—and there is surely value in that. I love it! But the downside is in what we miss—the bigger picture, the movement, the drama, passions and moods, the creative artistry of the whole.

There are many passages of scripture that are not designed to be dissected, nor reduced to summary lists of main points. They are to be experienced, with full rhetorical and evocative power (whether story, poetic or visionary), speaking at levels that transcend commentary.

I have a simple suggestion. Within the wider mix of preaching modes and styles, plan to have occasions where the sermon precedes and prepares for the ‘performance’ of Scripture as the centrepiece of the service. The sermon may function to (briefly) open up contexts (whether literary, socio-cultural, historical and biblical theological), so that Scripture speaks for itself as God’s living Word.

One benefit of such an approach is that it may take pressure off the sermon as the main vehicle for ministry of the Word, and free space for other forms of address more specifically in prophetic or pastoral mode without the expectation of systematic Biblical exposition.

After 25 years in local church ministry, Tim Harris is now Dean of Bishopdale Theological College in Nelson. He has research interests in the New Testament and biblical theology, while his Facebook page lists his religion as ‘subversively evangelical’.

7 Comments

  1. Tim, thanks so much for the hugely thought (and method!) provoking post. I think Rob Bell’s ‘Nooma’ DVD’s and his fuller-length talks fit precisely into this kind of ‘performance’ genre. I also was quite wow-ed by Stephen Colbert’s “sermon” about America (my home country) and Jesus’s command to look after the needy (viewable by clicking here). It would be very interesting to see someone do something along these lines? Some may think the sarcasm is inappropriate for church, but perhaps they’ve never read Philemon or 2 Corinthians!?

  2. Joseph Collins says:

    Thanks Tim, I think there is room for a little insurgence here.

    Yes, I was also thinking Nooma when I read about reclaiming the main event also Dale. Nooma is definitely not everyone’s idea of perfection, however, it is clearly a way to go about public Bible readings. Everyone can reveal a story with their own researched backdrop or approach to Scripture. It may take a while to turn a prepared sermon into a story, however, the impact will often be more impacting – I would guarantee it if I had done so a lot myself 😉

    In my theology class “Introduction to preaching” my 10min talk (some short prep to preaching huh!) was derived from prayer. I was like, “God, what part of this massive story do I preach on that the class will want to hear and learn from?” That night God gave me plenty of clear sermon options. It was very securing to know God can reveal a few sermons at a time for the hearts he desires to reach and mold. I wrote the brief outline for all of them the next day. Afterward, the Spirit reminded me of yet another, the Tabernacle structures and what the High Priest had to do to make the offering. I was not sure how this would be the best, however, I felt from God that it was the one for the sermon. I wrote it down more fully and took this particular one to a friend to look over. He liked it and suggested changes. But then after I modified it, he was the one who suggested, “Why don’t you write this one as a story?”. I thought about it, and then after going over it in my head, it became much more alive for me also… in fact, this was more like the way it was impressed upon my heart from God in the first place. It felt like a very natural way to go. So I did. I read it out in first person as if I were the High Priest, and the class were listening to a story around a campfire. I talked about the fears that gripped my heart, my trembling knees, the rituals I undertook, the environment and the short passing words with others as I walked through the outer court, those who trained me, and the experience of all that happened in that inner room etc,. I did not perform it (which would be better and take a little more courage), however, since then, if God wills it, I plan to have much more Scripture story-telling/performances. It just completely clicked as the right way to go for much Scripture. It is far more memorable. Despite zero research at the time etc (just recall), my teacher thought it was too good to be put together like that (highly suspicious of plagiarism). That is another reason for me to do more in future 🙂

  3. Paul Windsor says:

    Thanks for this, Tim (and good to have you on board).

    I’ll always remember the time I cancelled the sermon for a Bible reading. I was a guest speaker at a Brethren church and the folk were a little uncertain about the suggestion. But I was determined to convey something of the braided structure of 1 John with the three strands, or criteria, for Christian assurance: a full obedience, a deep love, and a true belief. These three weave their way through the letter and so I had three different speakers, one for each criterium – and off we went, without any explanation. They stood simply and still at the front and then stepped forward to read their section, slowly and clearly, at the appropriate time. This is the way we made our way through the text which was the entire letter of 1 John. Incredibly powerful.

    About 15 minutes later they were finished – and then came the interesting bit. I felt all these eyes on me from behind, waiting for me to get up to preach – and probably hoping it wasn’t going to be for too long! But I refused to move. 10 seconds became 60 seconds. 1 minute became 3 minutes … and gradually you could sense the attention shifting from “is he going to preach, or isn’t he?” to “now, what was it that the text was speaking about – and how close does that come to my life and the life of this community?”

    Your post brought these moments back to mind.

    Thanks

    1. Sean says:

      How exactly did you do that Paul? Could you post it?

  4. Paul Windsor says:

    Not able to locate it, Sean – but I remember how I did it.
    [I did develop this idea in the Discovering the New Testament course I wrote for the Centre for Distance Learning at Laidlaw about twenty years ago – if that means anything to you!]

    Anyhow I worked with the commentaries to locate the three separate strands – full obedience, deep love, true belief – all the way through the letter. That takes a bit to do – but the structure of the letter is odd in that it does have the appearance of a braid, as each strand comes and goes. You have to flex a bit – but it is there. Then I gave each strand to a different person and we started at 1.1 and went to 5.13…

    Paul

  5. Tim Harris says:

    @Paul. It is interesting that we preach more comfortably through those parts of Scripture that have a clear structure, or breaks easily into good preaching ‘chunks’. But not all Scripture is like that, and 1 John is a good example (James is not dissimilar). There are a number of recurrent themes woven throughout the document, so it becomes a little arbitrary to locate one ‘theme’ to each section, when a number of strands run throughout. I like your analogy, and from what you describe I think that is a good illustration of shaping the ‘ministry of the Word’ approach around the material we have before us, rather than trying to reshape it around our preferred preaching mode. Not every time, but well worth considering from time to time where it is more faithful to the texture of the Scripture material.

  6. shaun hutson says:

    thanks for the post tim
    i once started a series, through the minor prophets, by presenting the social and religious situation in israel at the time of the prophet.
    After setting the pre-exilic scene I just read the whole prophecy and then people discussed or reflected , in groups or alone, as they wished.
    I cannot say how well this worked, (if there is a measure) but am convinced that this is a valid methodology

    every service here at greymouth bap includes a extended reading, by someone other then me, esther at pres’, just finished ruth.

    first time on one of these, so sorry if my contribution does not follow the established norms 🙂

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