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geoff new: why preachers make lousy paparazzi

So here’s the thing. As good and responsible preachers we beaver away with our exegesis for the sermon and utilise all that we learnt in our training. We gain a good understanding of what the text meant “back then” and discover various meanings of Hebrew and Greek words and are now somewhat an expert on the passage of Scripture at hand. But now we have to bridge the gap between “there and then” to “here and now”. And so we cast a furtive glance over our shoulder to make sure no-one is looking and we make the leap and break the conventions of good exegesis. Thomas Long, in an article entitled “The Use of Scripture in Contemporary Preaching”, breaks the silence on this practice. He says that preachers have “long shared the little secret that the classical text-to-sermon exegetical methods produce far more chaff than wheat”. And “more important, alert biblical preachers have been aware for some time that there is a bit of deception, a touch of legerdemain, built into that classical text-to-sermon process”. In short, we pull a rabbit out of the hat and use the imagination to apply the text to our congregation. And how exactly do we work our magic? A number of ways. One example will suffice. And maybe embarrass.

Insofar as the text relates to a character of the Bible, we call our congregations to a lifetime of imitation of such a person. However, the “bit of deception” (or if you prefer, magic) is that we are very selective in what qualities we present concerning David, Abraham, Naomi, Samson, Sarah, Peter, Mary or whoever. In presenting the Biblical character as a role-model a PR exercise of sanitation is called for. Such an exercise comes at a great cost. In his book The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, Sidney Greidanus comments that such a practice “tends to shift the theocentric focus of the Bible to an anthropocentric focus in the sermon”. The world awaits its opportunity to wrestle, engage and question the character but we set up a closed room with invited guests, one TV camera, no questions allowed and appeal to the people that they will “believe in me again”. Greidanus doesn’t hold back: “Imitating Bible characters, though popular and superficially easy, is a dead-end road for true biblical preaching”. He cites John Goldingay’s contention that to focus on the human deed of a Bible character at the expense of the centrality of God’s purpose is to present a message that is opposite to what the Bible is conveying. The Bible is not known for backing off the realism of its characters. Many of them are omnipresent in the Halls of Fame and the Halls of Shame.

Yet as preachers we struggle to make the Word relevant. We have good intentions and good hearts. We want to encourage our people; even for just one more week of discipleship before we can preach to them again. So we photo-shop the pictures of these Bible characters. Even though we have the $1million shot of them caught in the act. Even though the Spirit is saying “Go to print! I dare you!” But we don’t. We are “good” (nice) preachers but lousy paparazzi. Maybe it’s time to become “bad” (real) preachers by becoming good paparazzi.

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Geoff New has been minister of Papakura East & Hunua Presbtyterian Church since 1997. He is currently working on a DMin thesis exploring the effect of using Ignatian Gospel Contemplation and lectio divina in sermon preparation.


  1. Robyn Mellar-Smith says:

    Thanks Geoff for this thought provoking piece.

    I am preaching through the book of Nehemiah at the moment and in discussion with one of my congregation noticed that they held a very saintly, sanitised view of Nehemiah. I ascribe this to the way I have preached him, which has challenged me. Your piece has added to the challenge so thank you!

  2. Geoff, I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for this post!

    As a kid, I could never get my head around why rascally Jacob, who is pretty much the only Bible hero whose flaws make it into Sunday School curricula, was in the Bible at all.

    I have been thinking for a while that one key to preaching on the flawed heroes is observing aloud that it’s a huge relief for us broken people that the Biblical tradition shows us God using people who behaved sometimes heroically and sometimes shamefully.

    But you, Greidanus and Goldingay show a bigger picture, I think, saying that the shift from anthropocentric to theocentric readings/preachings of the text is the key.


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