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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What Is, Was, and Could Be

The prophetic role of the preacher is something that needs to be emphasized in Baptist life. We have become something other than prophets in recent years; I read and hear more sermons that are historical explorations of Scripture or moral lessons suitable for children than I do those that strike me as prophetic.

What is prophetic preaching? Certainly it is not the pop-culture-defined telling of the future, as though the preacher was some sort of Christian Nostradamus. Prophetic preaching is more like the things to which Jeremiah was commissioned in his calling: “…to pluck up and break down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”[1] The preacher is to be a prophet in that the preacher is called to point out those things that should be rejected, torn down, and thrown out as well as to present those things that should be built up and planted.

I do not mean the contemporary “vision casting” that so many refer to in church leadership literature.[2] Rather, the preacher is tasked with the great responsibility of moving beyond the lessons of Scripture to the nature of the Kingdom of God as it is being formed in the local congregation.

This type of preaching is firstly an act of identification in which the preacher points out those things that are worthy of examination. Not everything is worthy of such identification; Baptists have a sad habit of emphasizing cultural and ecclesial issues that have little bearing on the Kingdom to the exclusion of those things that would truly bring that Kingdom in a more present reality in the congregation. Prophetic preaching is an act of contrast in which the preacher reveals the dissonance between the way things are and the way things could and should be under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.[3]

Secondly this type of preaching is an act of evaluation. We are called to give insightful, critical, and thorough analysis to those things that are truly worth our sermon time. We are commissioned to point and say, “this is good!” or “this must go!” or even “this is sinful and a shame!” More to my overall point though, our preaching should move in focus from the general and the broad to the focused and the specific issues of our congregation.[4] We should be about the work of evaluating the identity and ministry of our congregation, thus bringing to light the assumptions, implications, and consequences of our previous choices and actions as a church.

The final act of prophetic preaching is proscription. Jeremiah’s commission to “build and to plant” is certainly a command to develop the new and the previously un-thought-of. With the Spirit’s leading from within the congregation the preacher can describe those things that are not yet real and true in the church. We are commissioned to preach more than the negative of issues, the ills of society, or the sinfulness of culture. We are called to point toward something new, something that has not yet been experienced by our people.

Allow me to illustrate. In the first Superman (1978) the hero spends time in a Fortress of Solitude wherein he interacts with recorded holograms of his father and mother who teach him about his heritage and his destiny to be a hero. At the time of its release the idea of a hologram or a realistic way to store such a massive amount of recorded data was fantastic and certainly “alien” to audiences. By the time The Man of Steel was released in 2013, the Fortress of Solitude was more technologically appropriate for the digital age. Instead of crystals that contained recorded images, Superman was taught by an interactive Artificial Intelligence that was a disembodied version of his father.

What was alien and beyond the realities of audiences in the late 1970s was insufficiently advanced and alien for people in 2013. The same task, that is, the contrast of Superman’s native technology and that of contemporary America, could not be accomplished with holograms and recordings because we have such things. They have become normal or at least plausible to us. The new movie introduced technology that is still beyond us - a self-actualizing artificial intelligence that is essentially the preserved personality of someone long dead. That’s something audiences find sufficiently “out there.”

Prophetic preaching must point out these differences. Our old modes of thinking, our assumptions from generations long passed, and our models of ministry need examination and evaluation as much as our moral positions do. Prophetic preaching is, at its heart, the same work that Jeremiah was called to do: point out those things that need to go, tear them down, and then replace them with new, good, growing things.

[1] Cf. Jeremiah 1:10.
[2] I’m thinking of George Barna, Andy Stanley, Ed Young, John C. Maxwell, and Bill Hybels. Each of these men (and many others) emphasizes the development of a vision to be described and explained to the congregation by the pastor or other leader. This is an importation of a secular business model and business language into church leadership and is not what I mean by prophetic preaching. There is certainly a place for this idea of developing, casting, and refining a ministerial vision, but it is most often not the pulpit.
[3] Fundamental to my point is that preaching is not about the preacher. I am often tempted to use the pulpit to show off my skills at research or oratory or to emphasize some obscure point I may have uncovered in preparation. Preaching should instead be focused on the congregation and on encouraging transformation in them.
[4] I’m not talking about the traditional Baptist practice of “stepping on toes” or calling out sinners in the congregation. Although that sounds like an exciting service!

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