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myk habets – peculiar preaching

We hear so often today in diverse ways and places, that preaching needs to be ‘seeker sensitive’, that the language and the concepts used in our sermons have to be accessible to the unchurched in such a way that they will immediately comprehend the content and be gripped by the message. If we don’t do this, we are told, people will stop coming to church and the Gospel will be stunted. In short, unless we preach in ways which mirror our culture that culture will not be able to respond to the Word and thus we preachers will be single-handedly responsible for the demise of Christianity.

Phooey! I know of no more appropriate theological term to use.

In the early 1990s William Willimon produced two works; one entitled Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized; the other The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized. In the former work he made a strident and persuasive appeal that we are to preach the Word of God to the people of God – to those people in our congregations who have been called to church by the living God expecting to hear from that God. As such we preachers must rediscover the distinctive language of the baptized community. We preach of the living God of grace, of his triune ways in the world, of his love and mercy, but also of his holiness and justice, of his electing providence and of his suffering compassion. When we preach in the language of the baptized we are dedicating ourselves and our congregations to Christian formation, Christian discipleship, and Christian community. We are, Willimon argues, attempting to help contemporary culture be relevant to the Gospel and not vice-versa.

This means we have to know the Word and we have to know the God of the Word – and in that knowing and being known we have to bear witness to God’s Word in the pulpit. This is our primary task as preachers.

In the companion work The Intrusive Word, Willimon shows how this sort of preaching to the baptized is also appropriate to the unbaptized who venture into our communities (but not as often as we would like). Here the preacher is sensitive to the alien message of the Gospel, to the ‘funny talk’ and the ‘weirdness of the Gospel’ that we so love and proclaim. But rather than change the message, or dilute it, or compromise it in a myriad of ways which tempt us to be more ‘appropriate and relevant,’ rather we continue to talk funny and bear witness to God through his Word knowing that God has called these people into our congregations as well and it would be arrogant at best, blasphemous at worst, for us to substitute the Gospel for any humanly derived ‘message of love and hope.’ After all, the Gospel demands repentance from its converts, it seeks change and renewal, it is a confrontation of the powers, a clash of cultures, a radical call for a radical lifestyle – and if we change that in our efforts to be ‘seeker sensitive’ we are no longer interested in seekers of God and we are no longer sensitive to God’s call on people’s lives.

May 2011 be a year in which we preachers up and down this nation are known as talking funny and bearing witness to that strange new world of the Gospel which calls for a radical conversion, a radical repentance, and a radical discipleship. In short, may we be peculiar people with peculiar words and in that very divine peculiarity – may the Word continue to draw all people to himself!

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Myk Habets teaches systematic theology at Carey Baptist College and is Director of the R.J. Thompson Centre for Theological Study. Myk was an itinerant preacher for over a decade but now, with his wife Odele and two children, he attends Windsor Park Baptist Church.

myk habets: sharing the yoke

Preaching is so often a lonely and solitary affair is it not? We spend hours in our studies pouring over the Word, working through commentaries, looking at our Logos software (but not listening to the online sermons of the text of course!), and praying over the text as we complete our ‘First Fifteen,’ or try to hit the ‘Four Corners,’ or cross the ‘Principlizing Bridge,’ or whatever other sort of ‘template’ or tool you normally use in your sermon preparation. Growing up in the Brethren church this preparation time carried a normal expectation of 40 hours for every 40 minute sermon. We then emerge from our studious ghettos, ascend the pulpit (or climb onto the stage), and deliver the message with all our best oratory and rhetorical skills – God-given and Spirit-filled of course. After which we slump into our pew and hope people got what we said and, God willing, even benefitted from it, all the while knowing that ‘preacher’ would once again be on the menu of the Sunday roast.

We speak a lot about church as community, family, house, an organic unity, and other such metaphors, and in many ways we try to effectively work and live this out. Preaching, it seems to me, often get’s left off the list of community and corporate events though. But it shouldn’t be. In preparing for a sermon I often pray for myself for understanding, wisdom, insight, obedience, honesty, etc, but I also ask that God would prepare the congregation for the sermon as well. I will often start a sermon with a prayer for us as a community that we may together, listen, receive, and respond to what God is saying.

Assuming that God calls the congregation together each Sunday, I think we can rightly make the assertion that preaching is political. It is a communal act. While normally only one person speaks, all listen, all process, all lay themselves open to the voice of the Son and the conviction of the Spirit. When the congregation doesn’t feel a part of the sermon, and when the preacher doesn’t feel a part of the congregation, it is most likely that there has been a significant relational disruption. The preacher and the congregation have been dislocated and the sermon hangs in mid-air like the pungent remains of a flatulent child.

I think my best sermon experiences have been those times when, in my home church – the church that I know well, the people whom I love and who love me, the church in which battles have been fought, and fun has been had, and funerals have been shared, and meals have been consumed, and life has been lived – we have worked through a text together, come under the Word of God together, been rebuked together, been convicted together, been forgiven together, been restored together, been equipped together, and been sent out together.

While I take a sermon script into the pulpit I rarely use it for anything other than an outline – and when the sermon has been truly communal the Spirit has led me to apply the text in unprepared ways in which the shared experiences of this community of the baptized has been the content. Seeing ‘John’ in the front row reminds me of the time he did this or that and we learnt together in that way, and there is ‘Mrs Jones,’ a few rows back, we remember when we buried your daughter many years ago now after that tragic accident, and ‘Sam’ and ‘Olivia,’ ‘Julie’ and ‘Cam,’ “hi, remember how God worked so powerfully that time we ran the Alpha course together”…and on it goes. And with each story, each face, each shared experience, it is God in our midst we are reminded of and referred back to. And it is this, I think, that makes preaching so effective and so communal as we witness to the Word in the world in our midst.

And this is what we find in the Word written isn’t it – when God reminds the people of God of his love and faithfulness, of his power and might, of his patience and promise as when he created the cosmos and planted Adam and Eve in a garden, when he led Abraham to a blessed land, chose Isaac, wrestled with Jacob, restored Rahab, blinded Saul, rebuked Peter, showed himself to Stephen, transported Phillip, and on it goes.

It is a truism to say that God is relational and that the Church is to – let’s also make it a truism that preaching is also relational. Let’s share the yoke.

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teaches systematic theology at Carey Baptist College and is Director of the R.J. Thompson Centre for Theological Study. Myk was an itinerant preacher for over a decade but now, with his wife Odele and two children, he attends Windsor Park Baptist Church.

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I learnt explicitly at a very early age in Sunday School that Jesus loves me and that he was the answer to everything: every sorry, every question, every prayer, and every problem was answered in Jesus Christ. That is why we pray to him, sing to him, worship him, learn about him, and live for him. It’s all about Jesus was the clear message from Sunday school. And my childhood teachers were right! (more…)

myk habets: preaching the husk, discarding the kernel

We are all familiar, no doubt, with the well worn adage that there are ‘many sermons in search of a text’. This expresses the idea that many sermons are well constructed, have well chosen illustrations, apt applications, and well crafted affective impact – but they lack any explicit exposition of a biblical text. It is not that these sermons are necessarily unbiblical; many of them display all the elements of time spent in the study with an open Bible (for those with finely tuned ears to hear!). These sermons may even appeal to ‘Biblical texts’ in general, sometimes even going so far as to specifically name one or two or even read them out in passing. But the sermon does not rely on any Scriptural text in its delivery, it does not invite the congregant to open the Bible and turn to a passage and read it with the preacher and follow it through for the duration of the sermon (or part thereof). There is no exposition of a text, despite the repeated assertion that this is variously a ‘biblical truth,’ a ‘key biblical theme,’ or a ‘word from God to us.’ In such sermons a topic eclipses a text. (more…)