July 13, 2016

Should Preachers Prep Sermons with David Marr in Mind?

Should preachers be preparing their sermons with David Marr in mind?  Should preachers  write their talks imagining that even if a  well educated, handsomely remunerated, liberal  gay journalist is not sitting in their congregation ready to pounce,  one day he might be?

Following a recent scurrilous campaign in which evangelical churches using public school amenities in New South Wales were outed for preaching homophobic sermons, (they weren’t), Anglican minister John Dickson, founder of the  Centre For Public Christianity, posted this on Facebook:

Every sermon should be preached as if Jane Caro or David Marr were sitting in the audience listening in with critical faculties and background assumptions fully engaged. Sure, that’s not who our sermons are for, but a thought experiment like this will certainly concentrate the mind and make us sharper, gentler, and therefore stronger. And, besides, nowadays it’s not completely out of the question that one or other of these sharp, vocal doubters could be sent a link of your sermon for ‘review’. Fun times.

Leaving aside the fact that Marr is not a gospel doubter, but a gospel hater, John Dickson’s point is a good reminder, especially in terms of having sharper, gentler and stronger sermons.  But is his suggestion actually what we as preachers should do?  Should we be preaching every sermon with the non-present hostile audience member in mind? I don’t think so.

Now at one level it does make sense. Tim Keller says we should preach for the sake of our congregation’s non-Christian friends who aren’t there yet. They may just get invited if our members feel safe enough that our sermons won’t be an intellectual embarrassment.  I understand that sentiment, having come through fundamentalism, and then through unreconstructed Pentecostalism. I wouldn’t have dreamed of inviting a non-Christian friend. However there’s a difference between preaching with the vaguely curious friend of a congregation member in mind, and preaching with a hostile cultural shaper like Marr in mind.

Dickson’s suggestion risks falling into the same trap that political observers fell into in this recent federal election here in Australia, namely the problem of providing even further cultural oxygen to a group which is already using up its oxygen quota yet wants more.

Now Dickson’s primary caveat is “sure that’s not who are sermons are for”. But from my observation we’re doing a poor enough job of writing sermons for who they are for never mind who they are not for.

Anecdotally, and by observation, we’re struggling enough with the simple task of preaching to who actually is there, without complicating it further. Already too many of our sermons are answering questions that people are not even asking.

Once again the political scene in Australia provides a clear example of this problem. Newly re-elected MP for the seat of Canning in my state of Western Australia, Andrew Hastie, recently made national waves  by saying he ripped up the Liberal Party’s re-election script as he conducted his door-to-door campaign.

Why?  Because he realised by the blank stares he was getting that it didn’t resonate with the lives of his constituents. It may have been a good set of abstract ideals, but the message content and delivery neither illuminated nor translated into their lives. There was a total disconnect between how the party thought and how they thought. Hence the blank stares.

Here’s what Hastie said, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald:

I did the political field work – I went out and knocked doors and spoke to as many people as I could and the more I did that the more of a disconnect I sensed between the voters and what we were campaigning on.

The SMH report continues:

Mr Hastie said a conversation with a local father during the campaign made him realise that “a lot of what we were campaigning on nationally just wasn’t resonating with everyday Australians”, 
He “asked me directly why our plan would benefit the future of his five children. I struggled to answer. He was just an everyday Australian who was trying to pay down his mortgage and look after his children and ensure they had a brighter future.”

The same is true of too many of our sermons – they just don’t connect with the audience which is there, never mind the one which isn’t.  Now this is not a call for “relevant” preaching, often merely an excuse to dump expository preaching in favour of something other.

But then again, many preachers who say they are preaching expository sermons aren’t either.  They’ve fallen into the trap of the Liberal Party – they’re preaching an abstract, disconnected campaign that is neither illuminating nor translating.

Why is this so? Part of the problem is the pathway to pastoral ministry. When you get an  elite-level education in a city theological training centre, it’s entirely possible that the way you think – as opposed to what you think – has more in common with David Marr, than it does with “the local father”.

David Marr’s problem is the problem of all elites – whether atheist liberals or theistic conservatives: they think that their world is the world. Living in an echo chamber will do that to you. Which is why the federal election result was such a shock to so many (and why so much preaching is such a turn-off).

Hence David Marr stratosphere existence means he is not asking questions, he’s making statements. The culture ticks enough  boxes for him to think he has arrived.  He’s not looking to fill any gap in his life. On the contrary he’s scrutinising, looking for holes and he’s paid well to do it.

And because he and his ilk occupy such a large powerful space in our minds, their stern, pompous faces will push other faces out of our minds, just as his political and social agenda pushes out other political and social agendas on the public cultural stage.

Hence when we read that we should preach as if David Marr could hear it –  we risk making our sermons sound reasonable. We risk tidying them up to sound like they could hold their own in the Aeropagus, and all of its intellectual foibles and graces.  And fair enough, if you live in the shadow of the Aeropagus perhaps that’s your call.  Just don’t go quoting Acts 17 to prove it, especially not the last three verses.

But most of us spend most weeks ministering and preaching to Mr and Mrs No-Names who are looking for a brighter future.   Hence we must preach the gloriously unreasonable gospel that, that is yet fantastically true, and that provides a brighter future than even Mr and Mrs No-Name could even imagine.

Besides, if we try to play the David Marrs of this world at their own game, we’ll play it badly, poorly and in a second rate manner. Marr is cleverer than I.  Can see holes in arguments quicker than I.  He has read more than I, written more than I and has a higher IQ than I.  Play him at his own game and I am toast.  Ironically my sermons won’t be sharper, gentler or stronger with him in mind. No, they’ll be duller, panicky and weaker, because I’ll be preparing reactively. In short I will lose the argument with someone who is not even there, and sail over the heads of those who are in the process.

Preachers, remember what James 2 says:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

The key term here is “special attention” (v3). It doesn’t say  “no attention” – we don’t preference the poor man either, as if his poverty makes him any more worthy of our attention. But for James’ day, the man wearing a gold ring and fine clothes is the oxygen sucker in the room – the cultural elite.  And since our natural tendency is to  walk by sight and not by faith, we will preference him.  He takes up a space bigger than is his right before the eyes of God – and before our eyes. Only as believers in a one more glorious than even he can we resist this temptation.

So too with our preaching. If the man with the gold ring and fine clothes should not get a preferenced seat at our church table, then the man who is the cultural winner should not get a preferenced ear with our sermons. Now, to be fair, John Dickson is not saying to preference him, but he is, I believe, giving him more oxygen than he deserves, especially at a time when there is little enough oxygen left in the culture for the average Christian.

David Marr’s primary problem with the gospel is not what it says about homosexuality or any of the other elite culture hot topics of the day.  David Marr’s problem with the gospel is the gospel.  Just as Mr-No-Name’s problem with the gospel is the gospel, especially if he is looking for brighter future for his kids that precludes Jesus.

Jesus was the friend of sinners, but the deep implacable enemy of the pompous and self-righteous.  Hey preachers, just keep preaching Jesus, and the friends and enemies thing will sort itself out.


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