How shall they hear?

McGraw HowShallTheyHear

Here is a book on preaching which non-preachers are invited to read. Ryan McGraw’s recent book, How Shall They Hear? is subtitled, ‘Why non-preachers need to know what preaching is.’

This is an important topic, and yet I’ve come away faintly dissatisfied.

Overview of the book

The explanation of preaching itself is not unsatisfying. McGraw opens by showing from 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2 what the task of preaching is: “Preaching is a public, authoritative proclamation of the gospel, through ordained ambassadors of Christ…” (p3). Then using Romans 10:14-17 he shows why preaching is necessary: “preaching is the ordinary means by which we must learn Christ and hear his voice” (p13). From 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 he shows that preachers must preach Christ crucified, in the power of the Spirit. Then from Colossians 1:28-29 he shows that preaching is hard work, because its aim is nothing lower than the salvation (justification and sanctification) of the hearers (p31). And from John 16:8-11, 14-15 he shows that the preacher’s aims in preaching must reflect what Christ has sent the Spirit to do through preaching – bringing people to Christ by convicting them (of sin, righteousness, and judgment) in relation to Christ (p42).

These five points take up the first five chapters, and so far these basic principles are clearly and persuasively laid out. This is a straightforward, comprehensive view of preaching and the preacher’s task and the preacher’s hope of success. If more preachers were more familiar with these principles and more consistently putting them into practice, without doubt we would all be happier and spiritually healthier hearers.

There is also certainly great value for hearers in having this clear a statement of what preaching is meant to be like, and what it’s meant to achieve. As McGraw says, although preaching is the primary means of grace, hearers often sit under preaching every week with only very little understanding of why it is the primary means of grace and what we can expect from it (p ix). But when this is left unspoken, and as it becomes forgotten, preachers lose heart (and confidence and authority) and hearers come and go mystified and unimpressed (and wither and weaken in their spiritual liveliness).

But for the next several chapters, the book seems to lose its focus slightly. Not so much its focus on preaching, but on what preaching means for the non-preacher. Chapters 6 to 12 are on topics like ‘proper methods for preaching Christ’ and ‘what should sermon application look like.’ It’s good material, there is plenty to think about, but it is geared for the preacher, with the applications for non-preachers having the distinct flavour of the afterthought.

It is only in the final two chapters that the non-preacher comes back into the picture again. In Chapter 13 McGraw argues that all Christians have a role in participating in sermons. He advises non-preachers to pray for preachers as they study and prepare. ‘Do we pray that the Spirit would increase love for Christ in our ministers so that they would preach him devotionally? … Do we pray that Christ would give them the ability to apply their sermons wisely…?’ (p104). He also reminds us to take diligent heed during the service to what we hear and how we hear. After the sermon is over, we can discuss it in conversation, ‘ready to highlight what is good in the sermon and to overlook any faults in the preacher’ (p105), and put it into practice in our lives. Overall, he comments that ‘the purposes of preaching should set the tone for our prayers for the preached Word,’ and for our aim in listening to sermons (p107). This is all good advice, because often you get out of a sermon (by way of spiritual profit) only as much as you put in (by way of self-preparation and believing expectation during and after).

Finally, in Chapter 14, McGraw tackles the question, ‘What if I sit under preaching that does not match the biblical model?’ This is perhaps the trickiest question in the book. The advice in response is necessarily given in broad outlines. If the preaching denies or neglects cardinal doctrines, it is time to find a new church (p110). But when preaching is doctrinally adequate but feels like watching a train wreck (p110) then hearers should have a charitable attitude which looks for what is good in the sermon, and they should be patient with the preacher, ‘looking to the Lord to develop them as preachers’ (p112). In general, we should pray always (p113): ‘first pray for the preacher, then talk to him about his preaching if necessary, and then talk to the elders of the church’ (p113).

The stated aim of this book is to be helpful to all believers, preachers or not. “It is only indirectly a homiletical manual for pastors; directly, it is a guide to believers” (p xi). In my view this should have been phrased the other way round. It is more directly addressed to preachers, and although it does perhaps have listeners more prominently in view than other homiletical manuals do, it is not geared towards them (us) directly. The book is not necessarily unsatisfying for its content but because it does not match its own sales pitch.

Reflections

My disappointment with this book arises from the fact that for some time now I have been on the lookout for a book that would be helpful for non-preachers. In denominations which have a high regard for the Word and its truths and the preaching of it, there is a noticeable famine of the Word. For every person who says they love their pastor’s preaching and continually get spiritual benefit from it, there is at least one other person who loves their pastor and wouldn’t countenance leaving their church, but whose soul is not being fed by the preaching they hear.

I used to assume that if you didn’t get benefit from a sermon preached by a faithful minister, the problem was on your side. This is more or less the implication arising from McGraw’s book and others like it. Ministers quite rightly don’t want to blame the Holy Spirit for lack of appreciation of and/or fruit from their ministry, but this means that the next obvious place to put the blame is on the hearers. And there are after all plenty reasons why the problem could genuinely be on the hearer’s side. No doubt if we aren’t acting on the advice McGraw gives in Chapter 13 on praying and preparing to hear and receive the preached word, some portion of the blame does belong to us as poor hearers. We’re not spiritually hungry enough, we’re not expectant enough, we’re too distracted by other problems (in everyday life, or our wriggly children in the pew), we’re too critical of the preacher, we’re too easily tricked by the devil’s temptations.

But there are also poor sermons, and poor preachers. There are worship services where, however well prepared and expectantly you come, the likelihood of spiritual nourishment is small because the content of the sermon is the equivalent of spiritual cardboard rather than the feast of fat things the hearer longs for. You wonder whether these preachers themselves get anything out of their sermons – whether they would really be satisfied if they were in the pew listening to someone else saying these same things from the pulpit.

When a hearer is disappointed over a period of time by the sermons of their faithful pastor, what can they do?

McGraw is offering basically the same advice as Christopher Ash gives in his booklet, ‘Listen Up! A practical guide to listening to sermons’ – pray, be patient, be charitable. Of course this advice is sound. It is however very difficult to put into practice, especially when someone’s problem with the preaching they hear has been ongoing for a long time. Little recognition is given to how demoralising and spiritually debilitating it is to sit under inadequate preaching long term.

Simply because preaching is the primary means of grace, it’s those who sit under disappointing preaching who are least well placed to pray and be patient and charitable. Easy enough for writers of homiletics manuals, who presumably preach fairly decent sermons to fairly appreciative congregations, to urge those less favoured to sit tight and exercise more of the graces of patience and charity. Much harder when the feeding you should be getting from the preaching is starvation rations and you’re resorting to dietary supplements in the form of your own reading and your own listening (with all the associated limitations and risks) in order to sustain spiritual life in your soul.

Hard too when you love your pastor and it feels like a betrayal to acknowledge that his sermons are not bringing any benefit. Or it’s a series of supply preachers because you don’t have a pastor, and none of them could preach their way out of a paper bag, but you feel guilty even thinking that because all of them are lovely Christians and gracious saints and they pray so beautifully. Or the sermons are always preached from such lovely texts, so surely it must be your fault for not getting something out of it.

What can you do? How can you keep turning up? What coping strategies are there? How can you turn a poor sermon to some benefit?

I suppose we could pray again. It’s the Lord’s day, it’s the Lord’s truth, it’s the Lord’s ambassador – it makes sense to ask for the Lord’s blessing.

And there are tough-love truths we could try to take in – the possibility that some people may be benefiting from the preaching even if we’re personally not, and the fact that there is more to being a believer and a member of the congregation/church than consciously benefiting from all of the services all of the time.

Sometimes it might help during a sermon to think your own thoughts on the text and whatever aspects of its meaning and implications the sermon would ideally be bringing out (although when does this become a disrespectful refusal to engage with the sermon the Lord has arguably given this preacher to preach to this congregation including you at this time?).

Or there are sanity-check measures we could take, like educating ourselves on what it is and isn’t realistic to expect from preaching, so that we can evaluate sermons on objective criteria rather than simply failing to profit from personal failings or prejudice, or continually doubting our own judgment. (For this, I would recommend How Sermons Work by David Murray, as exceptionally helpful – it equips you with concepts and a vocabulary to understand what’s going on in a sermon, so that when things go wrong, you can at least identify it to yourself.)

At institution level, those who are responsible for arranging supply preachers should perhaps do a more careful cost-benefit analysis of having poor preaching supply versus no preaching supply, in the light of what kind of preaching the congregation appreciates and needs more than simply who might be available to fill gaps in the rota. Churches perhaps need to be more rigorous in assessing who they accept as preachers, not just in terms of the clearness of the call they feel but also in terms of whether they have any gifts for preaching. Perhaps a case could be made of reviving the old practice of ministers meeting to preach to other ministers specifically for the purpose of getting brotherly feedback on their preaching.

But these are only partial answers (and at institution level virtually impossible for the average hearer to do anything at all to implement). Why does the Lord provide preaching as the main means of growth for his people and then let the preaching be dull, ineffective and wearisome even when you really want to benefit from it? To me this is still a conundrum, and I’m still waiting to find someone to explain.

pulpits, women, and consciences

90791205If you’re looking for a way to grow in grace, it’s useful to know that the Holy Spirit makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word an effective means of building believers up in the faith.

‘Especially the preaching’ gives the priority to what comes from the pulpit. For feeding, for growing, for finding closer communion with the Lord, believers are meant to find what they need primarily from the Word as it is preached, by one of the Lord’s sent servants, in the assemblies of the Lord’s people, on the Lord’s day.

On one hand, this places a huge responsibility on preachers to say things that are not only true in general but relevant to the building up of believers – to rightly divide the Word of God so that they are in fact feeding the flock.

On the other hand, this means that believers should be cautious about expecting to find blessings that genuinely help them to grow in grace from other sources.

Unfortunately, however, there are plenty of other sources competing with preaching to be the place that believers look for help in the Christian walk.

For some reason, many of these sources target women in particular. There is an astonishing variety of ministries offering to help women make better, deeper spiritual progress.

I’m not entirely sure why this would be. Maybe women are particularly disadvantaged by poor preaching and therefore feel a greater need to look elsewhere for additional help. Maybe there are particular reasons why women face barriers to receiving the benefit of even good preaching (let’s just mention enforced absence from services because of childcare, or inability to concentrate properly in services because of childcare).

Or maybe Christian women have more reasons to struggle in the Christian walk more than Christian men? Christian mothers of young children, perhaps, have to shoulder the larger part of the responsibility of the round the clock demands of early parenthood. It is entirely possible that between an unpleasantly early start to the day, the school run, the cooking of meals that no one will appreciate, and failing to keep on top of housework, opportunities to read the Bible or pray seem to slip away before they’ve barely appeared.

In circumstances where it seems that your relationship with God is the remotest it’s ever been, your appetite for the Bible is sadly diminished, and your fervency in prayer has vanished, there can be something very attractive about a women’s ministry – advice or mentoring by women for women which understands the difficulties of your situation and offers hope of a renewed enthusiasm for the things of God.

Yet too many women’s ministries are not trustworthy and cannot deliver on what they promise.

The attraction comes from seeing articulate, relatable women describe their passion for the Lord and express their desire for others to rediscover their own joy and delight in God.

The problem is when their teachings, rather than feeding the soul, work like spiritual junk food – after an initial taste explosion, the actual nutritional value turns out to be minimal.

This happens any time when:

  • the theology is shallow. This inspirational speaker mentions the name of God, Christ, and the Spirit, but can you actually tell whether she believes in the Trinity?
  • the doctrines of grace are unclear. This passionate writer just can’t help magnifying the love, grace, mercy and kindness of God, but does she convey that God’s love provided a substitutionary atonement for a definite number of sinners?
  • the concept of sin isn’t fully biblical. Here’s a challenging blog post from someone who certainly doesn’t want you to think she doesn’t struggle with these issues herself. But the issues are more about the way you fail your family and friends and let yourself be taken prisoner by self-doubt than about the law of God.
  • emotions matter more than understanding. Here’s an intelligent writer who always offers some new insight when you read. But it’s insight into how you feel, or how you respond to people and things, or how your own behaviour holds you back – rather than explaining an important part of theology, or connecting the dots between one doctrine and another.
  • the overall effect is to make you feel good, rather than be holy. Here are some powerful bible study materials from someone who really understands how women get oppressed by low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, and the pressures of a hectic lifestyle. The support it offers helps you to stop feeling guilty about things you can’t change and move forward with more confidence and self-acceptance. But the concept of dying more and more to sin and living more and more to righteousness doesn’t feature so prominently.

Alongside the junk food problem is the fluff problem.

Mostly, these writers and speakers tend to be devotional, not doctrinal. This, it seems somehow, insulates them from scrutiny. When someone excitedly shares about their love for God and their heart for their sisters in Christ, inviting you to join them on a journey into a more peaceful way of living as you experience the transformative power of prayer and learn how to delight in authentic worship – how can you even hesitate?! It seems pedantic to pause and ask even basic questions like, What kind of Christian are you? Baptist? Presbyterian? Mormon? Do you identify with any recognisable statement of belief, articles of faith, creed or confession? How will I know if your spirituality springs from ideas and doctrines that are fundamentally different from mine and potentially harmful to my own spiritual exercises?

And the fluffiness, over time, clogs up the spiritual air we breathe and starts to stifle our consciences. Long term exposure to other people’s devotional output – when it isn’t modulated by the sound preaching of the Word – either has the result of making you feel inadequate, or making you feel virtuous.

Either of these results is problematic for the conscience. Any activity which involves someone comparing themselves against a moral standard so as to either accuse or excuse themselves is an activity which involves the conscience. When someone puts themselves forward as a Christian who can lead other Christians in devotional matters, their main sphere of activity is going to be the conscience. Leading people to query their standing before God and putting questions about the quality of people’s relationship with God are matters of self-examination which involve the conscience.

Since God alone is the Lord of the conscience, when someone confronts our conscience we have the right to ask what is their authority for doing so. Are you living a life that is truly devoted to God? Do you really pray with earnest wrestling prayer? Are you not, if you’re honest, enjoying other things more than the Bible? Before anyone starts examining themselves, they have the right to say in response to questions like these, ‘Who are you to ask?’

If these questions aren’t coming from the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture, or some legitimate church authority (namely your pastor or elder), you’re under no obligation to take them seriously. Because, after all, who are these people? In the worst case scenario, they’re unqualified, unaccountable, self-appointed, and disconnected. Unqualified in terms of any theology training. Unaccountable to you or your church, unless they happen to belong to your denomination. Self-appointed, because you don’t need any recognition or commission from any churchly authority to get blogging or start producing bible study materials. And disconnected, in the sense that you have no real relationship with them, they don’t really know you or your situation, and all that you likely know about them is the version of themselves that they choose to disclose online.

Obviously it’s not that a believer can’t chat frankly about their devotional life with a trusted friend or respected long-standing member of (say) their own church. But when someone starts putting out pointed questions for self-examination, and they’re unqualified, unaccountable, self-appointed, and disconnected, then, for the sake of our consciences, we need to remember that we’re under no obligation to confess our failings, and we’re certainly under no obligation to take their advice for how to put matters right.

In fact, for a believer to put themselves in the hands of someone else for assistance in their devotional life (someone unqualified, unaccountable, self-appointed, unconnected) is to run the risk of entangling their conscience all over again when Christ has set them free. If I compare my devotions with someone else’s – my level of passion for the Lord, my fervency in prayer, the authenticity of my worship experiences, the sweetness I find in the Word, the depth of my trust in God – I’m bound to acknowledge my inconsistencies and shortcomings. I’m bound to feel guilty. But Christ was supposed to have set my conscience free from feeling guilty about falling short of other people’s standards. It doesn’t matter how godly they appear, how exercised they seem, how relatable they are, or how motivating and inspiring and uplifting they try to be.

Believers are, after all, warned about the dangers of people who have an impressive appearance of godliness, but ultimately deny its power. We should really turn away from these people and have nothing to do with them, because unfortunately they have a knack of finding the believer’s weak spots and exploiting their gullibility. They look like they want to help us be better Christians, but in the end they leave us as they found us – according to 2 Timothy 3, laden with sins, led away with various passions, ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.

Junk food and fluff make women’s ministries a laughing stock, not to mention more hindrance than help in the Christian walk. If only we were prepared to stick more closely to the means of grace which the Holy Spirit has actually provided for our conversion and sanctification – especially the preaching of the Word.