What good is a bold stand for the truth if we cannot make it understood? Peter Mead offers some practical steps.
“Homiletics is all about making truth memorable.”
That’s what I was told recently. It was explicitly focused on the issue of sermonic outlines. While I can see some merit in the statement, I ultimately have to disagree.
I think this is an old way of thinking that is rooted in a limited understanding of both the Bible and the listener. It assumes the Bible is a repository of truth statements muddled by different genres. It assumes the listener is a mind-centered creature who will live well if well-informed. It assumes preaching is primarily about the orderly transfer of information.
There may be some value in memorable preaching outlines for the listener. I suspect they are overrated. Do people really review passages and ponder the outlines they have heard preached? Perhaps. Here are a few thoughts on why preaching is more than making truth memorable:
1. Transferring an outline to the listeners is not the goal of preaching. In fact, it might even distract preacher and listener from what is more important: understanding the passage, encountering God in His Word, feeling the force of its application, etc.
2. Overly crafted outlines might have some negative side effects. For instance, the listener may equate crafting alliterated outlines with accurate interpretation of Scripture and then either copy the method, or feel inadequate to handle the Bible for themselves. In this generation, perhaps more than before, the listener may find the preacher with clever outlines to be inauthentic and perceive him to be something of a performer. We need to be wary of overcrafting. It would be better to understand the passage more, especially since many passages are not written as equally weighted paralleled points.
3. There are some things to make memorable. The main idea of the message, the application of the passage, perhaps the sense of encounter with the Lord, the sense that the passage was helpful (better for them to go back to the text instead of relying on a simplified outline).
4. There is more to preaching than making something memorable. The human is created as a more complex creature than a computer. We don’t simply live from coding placed in our memory. We are heart-driven responders and relaters. We need to be informed, but in that informing process we ultimately need to encounter the Lord who reveals himself to us in His Word.
Making Truth Known
So then can we say that preaching is about making truth known? Yes. But not only that. Preaching is certainly about declaring and proclaiming truth. We live in a world of lies and confusion. Whether we are focusing on evangelism or building up believers, there is a massive need for the proclamation of biblical truth. Here are some pointers:
1. We cannot assume that people have knowledge of truth. We live in an age of increasing biblical illiteracy. Actually, we also live in an age of increasing access to information, but increased shallowness in engaging with available information. People are not well-read. Thus it is not wise to assume that people have a certain level of knowledge of the Bible, or philosophy, or history, etc. Assuming knowledge can lead people to either disengage from presentations, or to take that information and wrongly integrate it with their own perceived insight.
2. We must demonstrate the authority for our authoritative statements. We do not live in an age where a person’s perceived authority can be assumed based on position or title. Simply because you are the speaker does not mean much anymore. Thus we have to demonstrate and prove authority for what is said. Obviously we must be well-read and accurate in our handling of information. More than that, we need to help people see for themselves that what we are saying from the Bible is what the Bible actually says. They may or may not accept that the Bible is inspired by God, but we must show that we are not simply giving our own personal take on what it says.
3. We must recognize that truth statements alone will not suffice. We should be declaring truth, but let’s be sure to proclaim a person. People are trained to hold any truth statements at a distance, but we are wired to engage with other persons. Thus we don’t just state truth, we proclaim Him. We have to have an authentic personal relationship with the One we then seek to offer to others. We need to speak from a life of authentic integrity, not performing, but sharing genuinely. And we need to recognize that we are not simply addressing a brain in a body, but a person whose heart determines the value system of their life.
Making Truth Understood
So we’ve thought about making biblical truth memorable, and making it known, but what about making it understood. Is that what preaching is? Again: Yes, and no.
1. Contemporary listeners need help understanding the Bible.
There is a significant distance between today’s world and the world of the Bible. As the preacher, you have a key role in helping to bridge that divide. This means overcoming differences in culture, in language, in politics, in religion, in worldview, in geography, in customs, in perspectives, etc. When you preach the Bible you need to help make sense of a very different world for the sake of those in yours.
This means we can’t just read the text and then apply it. We have to make sense of what is going on. This means plumbing not only the historical setting and context, but also the literary setting and context. We have to help people make sense of not only a strangely different world, but also an unusual collection of texts. People need to understand the canonical structure, the development of thought, the informing theology feeding into a passage, the shape of the story beyond the passage, the nature of the genre of the passage, the forms of literary design within the passage, etc.
And all this means that as preachers we have to make value judgments. We can’t just dump all the information we know and learn into a message. This would make it overwhelming and too long. So we must decide what needs to be said, this time, to make sense of this passage.
2. Your listeners need more than just understanding, but not less.
Just to make matters worse, understanding is not the only goal. It is the foundational step. That is, without understanding we cannot build effective application, and we cannot expect genuine transformation. It is no shortcut to bypass understanding and go straight to application, pressing for compliance or hoping for transformation. Application and transformation must be built squarely on clear understanding of the text. God is not into radically new revelation. He has given us His Word to transform lives. He invites us to engage Him there, and as we do so, He also encounters us to change us now.
God hasn’t appointed us to simply explain the truth of His Word, nor to simply seek transformed lives by means of pointed application. He has appointed us to put it all together — explain, apply, pursue transformation.