Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The lust for instant relevance

Does a book, or a sermon always have to be instantly relevant to the needs of the reader/hearer? Listening to some people you would think that the answer is a no-brainer, "Of course, stupid!" When it comes to preachers, some seem only or mainly read books that will be of direct and obvious relevance to their ministry such as Bible commentaries, works on How to... preach, counsel the afflicted etc, or historical/biographical material from which we can pinch sermon illustrations. I think I can hear the booming voice of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones denouncing ministerial professionalism, "Should preachers only read "how to" books, my friend? No! No! That is sheer professionalism and harlotry. What an abomination!" He urged preachers to “Keep on reading [theology]; and read the big works.”

This is something that has been bothering me for a little while, but two things have concentrated my mind on the matter. One is Mostyn Roberts excellent post on Westminster Conference - what's the point? and also some comments on my review series on Kevin Vanhoozer's Remythologizing Theology. In both cases the issue is one of instant relevance. The idea that pastors should attend a conference devoted to historical studies or read a work of theology simply to sharpen one's thinking and and deepen one's understanding of the truth doesn't seem to compute with some people, which I think is a crying shame.

Pastors should endeavour to become pastor-theologians simply because God wants his servants to know him better and love him with all of their minds. In addition, reading widely and thoughtfully in the fields of theology, biblical studies and general stuff will have the effect of giving a preacher's ministry added depth and breadth. A work of theology that may not seem to have immediate relevance for one's ministry may help to throw light on an aspect of truth with which the preacher is wrestling in sermon preparation. When poring over a biblical text something you read a while ago may come to mind as you find yourself thinking, "I remember that Augustine/Calvin/Jonathan Edwards/Bavinck or even Vanhoozer had something to say about this." Of course, truths expressed in the language of academic theology will have to be translated into the plain speech of the pulpit, but the message preached to the Lord's people will have been enriched by your theological reading.

People today like to be spoon fed, hence the lust for instant relevance. "Yeah, but what does all that have to do with me, now, this very minute?" But, come to think of it, not even the Bible can always be read with a view to immediate usefulness. Why bother with those chapters in Exodus that describe the construction of the tabernacle or the chapters in 1 Kings about the building of Solomon's temple, or Ezekiel's vision of the temple? What's the use? All that stuff is so Old Testament. We don't have tents and temples now. But hang on a minute. You can't properly appreciate what John says, "Word became flesh and tabernacled among us" (John 1:14) or what Jesus says about the temple in John 2:19-22 without some knowledge of the Old Testament background. The same goes for Paul's teaching  in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, 2 Corinthians 6:16-18 and Ephesians 2:18-22, Peter's in 1 Peter 2:4-10 and John's in Revelation 21:1-4, 22-27. The Exodus/Kings/Ezekiel material needs to be read in the light of the New Testament's teaching on Jesus as the new temple and that founded upon him the church is the dwelling place of God in the Spirit. In other words, we need some grasp of the redemptive-historical flow of biblical revelation in order to understand what Ezekiel has to say to the New Testament believer. The Bible doesn't offer instant relevance that requires little thought as to the meaning of the ancient text of Scripture and how it applies to us today. But reading the Bible prayerfully and meditatively is indispensable for equipping believers to faithfully play their roles in great drama of redemption.

Similarly, preaching that seeks to explains and apply biblical truth may not always have immediate and direct relevance for each and every member of the congregation. For example, if the text under consideration is Colossians 3:18-21, then not all will be married or have children or be children. Some may one day get married and start a family, so the teaching may be of benefit to them in the future. But others may never marry, or be widowed and childless. However, all the people of God need to hear what the whole word of God has to say. Those not directly addressed by the text in question should not complain, "There was no point in me listening to that sermon. What did it have to do with me?" The widowed/lifelong single may be called upon to counsel and advise a young married couple who are having relationship difficulties, or draw their attention to the biblical teaching on bringing up children. In other words, the sermon will have helped the widowed/lifelong single Christian to minister to others. That's what it has to do with them.

The lust for instant relevance is a form of me-centred spriritual short-termism from which we should repent. Oh and if the cap fits...


Jonathan Hunt said...

I'm not looking for instant relevance. What concerns me is whether something is relevant _at all_!

Exiled Preacher said...

Sure thing, J.

Anonymous said...

Good words, Guy. Jonathan, how can true teaching about God not be relevant at all?!

Exiled Preacher said...

Martyn Smith emailed me this comment:

I couldn't agree more!

As you've acknowledged, however, one route (instant gratification) is easy and requires very little from the one delivering it or those receiving it. In fact, the instant, "great sermon pastor!" will usually motivate most church leaders to keep on down the churchatainment route.

On the other hand, taking the time, care and effort to think, reflect, research and see the big picture is, by definition, a long and let's face it, sometimes labourious task.

There will be little to no instant gratification and most will deem those on this path to be 'dusty', irrelevant and old-fashioned.

I am with you on this though and would implore you to keep taking the more difficult path and encouraging others to travel it with you.

You have at least one new reader of your blog who is very glad indeed to see this kind of ideal being championed!

Thank you...

Martyn J Smith

Jonathan Hunt said...

Matthew Mason: That depends upon what you are considering 'true teaching about God' to be relevant to.

All true teaching about God is valuable, but that does not make it relevant in every situation or suitable for every 'audience'.

Jonathan Hunt said...

And another thing - whilst there is such a thing as a bad sermon, I have never heard a sermon by a good and capable preacher that was entirely irrelevant. The Word of God is always relevant.

I had in mind the previous post about the very academic Vanhoozer book.