Friday, December 1, 2006

Preaching: Evaluating the Evaluations

Art Rogers is one of the few people who (like myself) somehow missed the memo that the entire Baptist blog world was shutting down at precisely the same time. Thanks, Art, for giving us something worthwhile to read! What started as a a conversation about SWBTS chapel services has opened a conversation (mostly one-sided) about the proper tone of Christian preaching.

I commented over there, but the whole conversation had me thinking about something else, so I thought I would attempt to launch another conversation over here.

What counts as evidence to sort out what kind of preaching works and what kind of preaching doesn't? Of course, the most accessible indicator is the response of the hearers. We all get a report card of sorts from our congregations right after the service, right? And then there is the response shown during the invitation. Sometimes we take the growth or lack thereof in a particular church to be an indirect reflection on what is happening in the pulpit. The response of other preachers is another indicator that is easy to prize.

On "NOW with Bill Moyers" (nothing else on right now, otherwise I would be watching something else), Norman Lear and a professor at the Lear Center are talking about how religion, like politics and all else, is basically show business—that we are all competing for an audience. How much ought the audience to influence the message? How much ought we to let the reaction of the audience influence our preaching?

On the one hand, the Bible does speak of tremendous responses to, for example, Peter's message in Jerusalem, seemingly indicating that the massive response of the audience was evidence of a superlative work of God.

On the other hand, the Bible speaks of "itching ears" and gives us the example of Jeremiah. Jesus apparently preached Himself right out of several audiences. In much of Paul's writings, the idea of "pleasing men" is, remember, considered a bad thing.

Yet we all, from every corner of Christianity that I know, regularly use the response of the audience as one of the primary indicators of what constitutes good preaching. And I don't know that we can easily rid ourselves of it. I know that I've heard preaching that was exegetically sound, theologically orthodox, and technically correct, but homiletically poor. How else can we distinguish between preaching that is engaging and preaching that is boring without appealing to the response of the listener?

Also, doesn't missionary zeal usually effect some concern over how the listeners respond to the message? Is it possible to have a hot heart for world evangelization and simultaneously to take seriously the clear biblical teaching that few find the narrow way?

It seems to me that doctrinal standards ought to come first. I try to evaluate my preaching not only by trying to keep it exegetically sound, but also by looking at whether I'm preaching the whole Bible: both testaments, various books, different kinds of passages and genres. In the first seven years at FBC Farmersville, I've preached from every book of the Bible. That kind of thing is important to me.

But, the exact same sermon on the exact same topic embodying the exact same theology can be either engaging or dry ( some topics are indeed inclined toward either "engaging" or "dry", making it a little harder to push them into the opposite category). And I don't know any way to evaluate such a thing other than by evaluating how the listeners evaluate the sermon.

So, the way people evaluate a sermon is a worthwhile indicator, but I think it ought to matter not at all in the topics we choose or the theology embodied in our preaching. Instead, it ought only to influence the format in which we present those topics and that theology.

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