Thursday, December 19, 2013

When will they learn?

The discussions below on preaching, 3rd use of the Law, exhortation, etc., have also served to reinforce the connection in my mind between these issues and the need to do a lot of teaching from the pulpit.

I've not been out of the seminary long - just shy of a decade - but this is yet another issue where I have changed my mind pretty thoroughly...and reluctantly. One of the formative books for me in my seminary education was Forde's Theology is for Proclamation. Forde had his problems, to be sure: he was a universalist, did not subscribe to the Formula, and had no problem with women's ordination. But whatever his (significant) faults, this book forcefully and beautifully reminds us that preaching should actually do something, not merely be about something. We should preach the Gospel; not merely preach about the Gospel.

So in my early ministry a definite pattern emerged. My sermons were tightly knit, intentionally and individually crafted proclamations of Law and Gospel. The sermon was almost exclusively "preaching the Gospel" and I saved almost all of the teaching of doctrine, the "preaching about the Gospel,"  for Bible Class.

I love teaching Bible Class. I flatter myself to think that I am good at it. I love to get down into the nitty gritty of Lutheran theology, talk about the liturgy, dig deeply into a book of the Bible, etc. The expositional homiletic style popular in American Evangelicalism I find truly cringe-inducing. For one thing, I don't think it works well with a lectionary. I don't want to turn sermons into Bible Class. I don't want to be guilty of merely preaching about the Gospel and never preaching the Gospel. So I was very comfortable and very happy with the arrangement in which I preached almost straight proclamation from the pulpit and did almost straight teaching in Bible Class.

But as time wore on, especially as I stayed put in one place, the more I came to see the weakness of this arrangement. First of all: most folks just aren't coming to Bible Class. No amount of inviting seems to affect my numbers much. I have anywhere from 1/5 to 1/3 of the adults who were in church in Bible Class each Sunday. The number fluctuates not because of new people trying it out, but due to the weather.

Second, the more I remain in one place, the more I see how little of catechesis sticks and how little I'm actually able to get my catechumens through (especially the kids from families that choose not to utilize the Lutheran school). It needs constant, life long reinforcement.

Third, I began reading a lot more Reformation era sermons and Church Orders. I saw that the Reformation actually took place via teaching from the pulpit. I saw Luther preaching not exactly like Dr. Stanley on the radio, but not exactly like me and Forde either. I saw Chemnitz give instructions that the preachers should make sure that the people learned "something definite" from the sermon.

And fourth, and perhaps most decisively, I realized that many of the people were unable to articulate why doctrine was important, why it was good to be in this church and not that church, why the liturgy is a good thing and not merely a preference, why we practice closed communion, why we teach what we teach, etc. I was covering all that in Bible Class....but the majority of the people were not hearing it.

I still don't imagine that I have "fixed" my preaching in this regard. I try to do more teaching from the pulpit, even while I try to also keep Gospel proclamation in there each week. One problem is that I am acutely aware of my congregations' expectations when it comes to how long church should last. I have to plan to be very efficient in my presentation to keep church around 60-70 minutes. We can complain about that all we want, but I don't see it changing very fast, at least in my neck of the woods. Pastors who have tried to move their parishes to every Sunday communion have encountered the same limits and frustrations when it comes to time.

So, I think we need to be very intentional about doing more with less. One great idea I got from a friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Ben Mayes. He keeps notes on what doctrinal topics fit well which each Sunday's readings. Then he can refer to that list during sermon prep and easily cover a topic - and make sure that a full range of doctrinal topics are covered in the course of a year. I have his notes here somewhere....I should be more faithful in using them!



  1. Heath, Thanks for sharing this. Your comments describe my experience as well.

  2. This, I think, drives to the heart of textual preaching (and dare I say preaching a lectionary). If one uses the three year, as you move through each of the Gospels, you will have a ton of topics that come up -- if one uses the one year (as I prefer) you move through the Gospels in a topical fashion. Elsewhere you posted the topical list for the one year that Juhl translated - it's a great observation.

    One of the things I find myself often doing is spending the first half of the sermon going through the text, bringing out nuances, expanding upon it. And then, roughly halfway into the sermon, there will be one of two questions. "So, what do we learn from this?" Or even the Lutheran question: "What does this mean"? Then the text, which has just been reviewed (because while we live and wrestle with the text, repeating it is good for the folks who have heard that reading just once in a year is good) is applied. How does this text shape what we believe and teach? How does it shape how we understand ourselves and our own actions (i.e. the Law)? How does it shape how we understand Christ Jesus (i.e. the Gospel)?

    + + + + + + + +

    And now the caveat. While it is good and vital to teach and preach doctrine, I'm still dubious of the impact. Or at least think that the impact is less than we might hope. Why do I say that? Two things:

    1, As the Head of the Household - Even as Luther is in the midst of the great campaign to teach with his preaching, even when he knows he has to teach the preachers with the Large Catechism, the Small begins with those words - as the Head of the household should teach his family.

    This is simply a matter of time. I think of it in terms of Confirmation class - where suddenly 60 1 hour classes in a group environment is supposed to be enough time for me to teach stuff and make it stick. That's not exactly a lot of time - and simply put Sunday School teachers will have more of an impact, Christian day school teachers will have more of an impact - and parents at home have a whole bunch more impact. Especially as it comes to attitudes and priorities: is prayer, is the contemplation of God's Word a priority or not? Which ties into the second point...

    2, Why They Aren't At Bible Study - Let's be honest. Why are most people not at Bible Study? Really... it's they don't care all that much. That isn't as harsh as it sounds - but it's just not as important to some people. I teach tons of bible studies - Generally I have 4 or 5 a week, on a variety of topics, so people have every opportunity to come if they wish. Weekly devotional e-mails too.

    And some folks, many even, just don't want that. You note "but the majority of the people were not hearing it." That's partially because... they just don't want to. That's why there are the time limit pressures - we give God an hour a week (and maybe 3 minutes a day with the Portals of Prayer) - that's our interest level. And let's face it - regulars who give an hour a week are even becoming a dying breed across the Country.

    Luther remarked that the Gospel is like a passing rain shower, and that when it is no longer appreciated, God waters some other place. I rather think that now describes us and places like Africa or Asia. This isn't to say "it's futile, don't worry about teaching!" No, teaching is good - but don't worry if, even after three years focused on teaching from the pulpit if a lot of the same people who didn't care now don't care then. Maybe a few will start to get it - Come Holy Ghost! But, many won't. Because it's not a priority -- the opportunity to learn is already there for most of them.

    Hence, why we pray, "Come quickly, Lord Jesus!"

    1. Of course, surely we can do something to correct a situation where are sermons are running only 8-10 minutes.

      I hope?

    2. Depends on how agitated people get. This is the difficulty of life in the parish. How many people WILL get ticked off and stop coming if I had 5 minutes a week to the sermon? That's the sort of trade off folks in the parish have to make every week.

      Ideally we'd all have congregations that were fine with 30 minute sermons and 90 minute bible studies each Sunday -- of course, if we had those ideal sorts of congregations this wouldn't be that much of an issue.

    3. I would think that it is not a choice between an 8 minute sermon or a 30 minute sermon. When we reduce our sermons, as I have seen done, to 5.5 minutes, in some cases, it is no wonder we can't offer our people more than a fleeting glance at Biblical truths from the pulpit.

  3. I have found the iPod to be an indispensable tool for hearing Christian instruction while going about my daily vocations and largely solving the problem of insufficient time for instruction. There are several fine podcasts, but I think Pr. Brian Kachelmeier's "Redeemer Theological Academy" takes the cake for substance and seriousness. Pastors should encourage people to seek out these resources though I understand that many Christians are unable or unwilling to deal with this kind of technology.

  4. If you think of the Pastor as the head of the household (the Christian congregation) and a sermon as catechesis at the Family Table, I think you could make a case for catechetical, i.e. doctrinal preaching. But then, Scaer always said, "No one was ever saved by a sermon on doctrine." I think Fritz has some nice things to say about what preaching should cover in Pastoral Theology. Not every sermon of mine is the same. Some texts lend themselves more to straight Law-Gospel proclamation. Others lend themselves to some catechetical preaching, etc.

    1. That assertion by Dr. Scaer is, frankly, absurd. Just another little fire bomb he likes to toss out. Doctrine is life, as Dr. Robert Preus so well put it. If you are not preaching "doctrine" you might as well start talking about unicorns and little fairy princesses giving out chocolate and kisses.

      : )

    2. Would the unicorns and fairy princesses give out chocolate and kisses to everybody, or only to those who are nice? Or perhaps only to those who are naughty?
      O, wait a minute. That would be a doctrinal question, would it not, and thus an illegitimate topic to address in preaching ...

  5. I think Lent and Advent can be great times to do catechetical preaching... of course, then you have the same problem with less attendance. I know on Vicarage at some point over the summer they would normally do a two or three week sermon series on something... it's okay to do that - just I think sparingly as the lectionary keeps us from going off on our own hobby horses (well, somewhat).

    At best, we are like parents of adults who are out of the house. We can give them every opportunity, but we can't make them. You can lead a horse to water.... Hence part of the frustration of being a pastor.

    Think about it - you love studying God's Word, you spent years immersed in Doctrine at the Seminary... and if 20% of your congregation comes to a bible study to learn, that's pretty good. Somewhat depressing if you focus on it too much.

    1. Amen. You're right. You just can't worry about it. I spent many years being angry about it, but it doesn't do anyone any good. It comes out in your preaching, and the ones who are present hear not the comforting good news of Christ, but an angry pastor.

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