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tim harris – preaching and a counter-cultural worldview

‘Worldview’ seems to be the buzzword of our times, but it brings a helpful focus to the task of preaching. The notion of worldview orientates around perceptions of our world, both as we experience it and as we identify order within it. It is hard to identify our own worldview because we absorb so much subconsciously and many expectations and patterns are all we have known.

When Paul was converted on the road to Damascus, at one level his commitment to the God of Israel as the object of his faith didn’t change. Yet he was converted to the Lordship of Christ, and his worldview changed profoundly as a result. Christ became the epicentre of Paul’s world, and everything else orientated around this affirmation: his identity, value system, ambitions, hopes and sense of purpose (Philippians 3:7-16).

Competing worldviews come at us in all directions—now more than ever. They are reflected in magazines, novels, TV programs, newspapers, movies, songs, the arts, advertising, conversations at home, over the fence, or at work. We may not name them as such, but the whole way we go about life is shaped by our worldview. The further we move from a Judeo-Christian society, the bolder and more starkly secularist are the competing worldviews our community assumes to be ‘default’ and the outlook of all reasonable persons. Any alternative outlook on life is viewed with suspicion, and if it is overtly faith-based it is frequently subject to caricature and ridicule.

Preaching plays a significant role in exposing worldviews for what they are. Making the connections between day-to-day issues and choices and the worldview that informs our response is vital. The Apostle Paul is an amazing exemplar in exploring such questions. He fielded a great range of questions about everyday life issues, and the way he went about responding is instructional. He did not provide simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, but constantly set such questions within the framework of a Christ-centred worldview (compare for example Paul’s guidance on civil authority and taxation in Rom. 13:1-7). He wanted his hearers to see the reasoning behind such responses, to demonstrate how a gospel commitment impacts the most everyday of concerns—even tax!

One of the challenges of biblical preaching is to open up an understanding of the many worldviews reflected in Scripture. Whether the landscape is Canaanite, Egyptian, Babylonian, Israelite, Greek or Roman, rural or urban, the elite of each society or community constructed a social world through an appeal to greater realities. One of the perpetual questions throughout Scripture concerns how to be faithful and dedicated to God in any given culture and context, and the response is most often with reference to an underlying worldview.

The great affirmations of worship are windows into greater realities. They point to an ultimate worldview of cosmic proportions, but one in which we find our identity and spiritual centre of gravity. Worship at its best opens our imagination to these greater realities, while still connecting with where we are here and now.

It is at this point that preaching needs creative artistry as much as the clarity of godly reason. Many of the perceptions of life come to us through narratives, and in many cases, narratives that name and make sense of the diversity of life’s experiences. We see the world through the eyes of those we identify with, and what seems right and good to them shapes our own perception of life.

Movies, novels and even sitcoms shape us more than we recognise. Media in all its forms is generally neutral in and of itself, but the moment it paints a picture or tells a story, it is conveying a worldview one way or another. We often bemoan how difficult it seems to get our friends and neighbours interested in discussing beliefs and theology, all the while we overlook that conversations in such questions are happening all around us—often with an invitation to join in.

A major element in the task of preaching is to equip the hearer to these greater realities and worldviews that are reflected therein. Yet it needs to go beyond exposing the shallowness of western secularism and consumerism. At its best, a biblically informed worldview as pictured in our day and age will outshine all alternatives. It will open our imagination into what could be, will be, while recognising the present realities of God’s sovereign purposes here and now.

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Tim Harris is Dean of Bishopdale Theological College and a dedicated connoisseur of movies and the creative arts—and happily finds any excuse to show clips of the same in the classroom.  

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’.