The Art of Tacky Preaching?

Steven Mathewson’s work The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative1 is a somewhat helpful but ultimately disappointing book. Curiously, only ch. 3-6 (pp. 43-78) deal with narrative.

Mathewson’s discussion of expository preaching as “more of a philosophy than a method” is quite good (pp. 21-22). He appropriately critiques pastors who preach all genres the same way. “The analytical outline approach presses the story into a mold that often works against it, especially when the outline points are alliterated or parallel,” (p. 26).

His review of the building blocks of a narrative plot are adequete (pp. 57-78). However, a pastor will only be a competent interpreter if he is already a reader. So, attempts to explain nuts and bolts about the narrative genre are of limited value. It would be akin to me, the investigations manager for a WA-state agency, trying to explain the basics of ERISA health benefit plans to laypeople and expecting them to do something meaningful with this information. Unless you are already “in the know,” such an explanation would be a waste of time. I fear it is here, too.

Mathewson suggests the pastor ask himself three functional questions when considering application; (1) what does it mean?, (2) is it true?, and (3) so what? (pp. 95ff). I do these during the sermon as rhetorical questions to engage the audience so we “discover” the story together.

His application suggestions are disappointing. He suggests the pastor “build application around the contours” of the vision of God and the “fallen condition factor” (a la Bryan Chapell) of the text (p. 101). I agree with Abraham Kuruvilla that such an approach is inherently generic and can be applied to many other passages—thus implicitly denigrating the concept of plenary inspiration.2 If the inspired author’s intent with the passage, the action he wants the audience to take, does not drive our application then we are tacitly saying the text is useless. Christlikeness predicated on the theology of the passage is the better way.

Mathewson follows Haddon Robinson’s “big idea” approach (ch. 9), which distills the theology into a memorable saying. This approach is an error. Did God really inspire 1 Samuel 17 so Mathewson could fashion a kitsch ditty like, “when God has big business, faith always gets the contract!” (p. 105)? We can distill the application; the author’s imperative from the passage’s context, but we ought not do it to the theology of the passage.

Troublingly, Mathewson suggests our “purpose” for the sermon (again, following Robinson) can be different than the author’s purpose “as long as it is in line with the author’s purpose” (p. 109; emphasis added). His Father’s Day suggestion from Genesis 22 is tawdry and irrelevant.3 Ironically, he doesn’t follow his own caveat; “Would the author be comfortable with the way I am using his story to address this particular situation?” (p. 109). Regarding Mathewson’s butchering of Genesis 22, Moses would perhaps be tempted to call down an 11th plague upon him.

He helpfully suggests pastors craft specific and measurable purpose statements, but his examples are crude and of dubious exegetical warrant (pp. 110-111). For example, applying Genesis 13 means people ought to set lunch appointments to resolve interpersonal conflicts.

Mathewson prefers an inductive, “telling the story” shape for the sermon (pp. 113-115). His discussion of outlines is fine (pp. 122-130), but I confess I have never used outlines. He provides troubling advice for “cold opens” involving first-person narrative, costumes, and triteness that veers well-nigh unto blasphemy.

  • He suggests pastors turn their backs on the congregation, then spin about and “become” the character for a brief period (p. 149).
  • Mathewson sums up Genesis 22 for an introduction by suggesting the immortal line, “There’s a story in Genesis 22 that helps us understand why God appears to eat our lunch when we’ve asked him for our daily bread,” (p. 148).
  • He also recommends pastors begin the sermon “as” the character to introduce the passage. “I always figured that the movie based on my life story would be called The Natural. But a more appropriate title would be The Jerk. My name is Samson,” (p. 150).

Mathewson’s book has some helpful but unremarkable advice recycled from better-known works by other authors. In that respect, his book is what generic Target-brand soda is to Coca-Cola. It’s not bad. It just isn’t particularly great. In addition, his rhetorical suggestions are tacky and cheap. His commendable passion to tell the biblical narrative “as story” has led him astray into irreverence.

Notes

1 Steven D. Mathewson, The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002).

2 Abraham Kuruvilla, “Time to Kill the Big Idea? A Fresh Look at Preaching” JETS 61.4 (2018), pp. 833-834.

3 “Fathers will write out a list of sacrifices they make for their children that steal time or money rightly belonging to God,” (109).

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There are 17 Comments

josh p's picture

Thanks Tyler. Sounds like one to skip. I went to an IFCA church where the pastor started coming out dressed like biblical characters to preach. So ridiculous. 
 

I preach sometimes at my church (yesterday actually) and am always trying to improve. Lately I have been reading books by preachers and about preachers. I am enjoying "An Invitation to Biblical Preaching" right now. 
 

I have been following your comments about Kurvilla. I may have to read him at some point. 

T Howard's picture

Tyler, I share some of the concerns you have with examples from Mathewson’s book. However, much of the same advice is found in other preaching texts (e.g. Preaching with Variety: How to Re-create the Dynamics of Biblical Genres by Jeffrey D. Arthurs). How do you determine whether a preaching style or method is tacky vs. creative and engaging?

Thoughts?

TylerR's picture

Editor

I've seen some of that same advice in other places, too. I think there's some degree of subjectivity, but I suppose it comes down to whether your preaching treats the proclamation of God's word as holy. Luther believed that, in preaching, Christ "became present" in the same sense in which he was "in" the Lord's Supper. That's intriguing to me. I think I believe something along those lines, personally, but I haven't thought it out too much. I anticipate an objection from somebody about how Ezekiel acted out events to mime real foreshadowings. I haven't thought too hard about criteria for reverence in preaching. My own opinion is this kind of thing is just tacky and irreverent.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

T Howard's picture

I'm curious if other styles of preaching can be considered "holy" other than lecture-style preaching. Does that say more about our culture than it does about the style of preaching? Isn't this similar to the argument that was bantered back and forth during the "worship wars"?

TylerR's picture

Editor

Perhaps. I haven't thought too critically about it. To be honest, I don't plan to. I have the privilege to decide what's "reverent" in my own context, and I plan to go right ahead and continue defining it as I see fit! To each his own.

No matter which way you slice it, you're going to get some degree of subjectivity. Dialogue (give and take with an audience) and lecture (and polemic! Acts 13) seem to be what the NT shows us. That's why I've done "team preaching" before, where the other pastor and I preach a sermon together and dialogue with one another. Beyond that, I'm uncomfortable.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

....that the use of Weird Al tends to improve a lot of explanations!  :^)  (sorry, Tyler, couldn't resist)

Seriously, as I read the article, I was thinking of how Isaiah and Ezekiel made their points at times to the people of Israel and Judah.  We are shocked today as we think of it, but....was it wrong?  Or what kinds of things ought we do to make sure we don't become just a spectacle and actually distract from the message?

One place to start, I guess, is to remember that the prophets I mentioned were indeed speaking the very Words of God, so that we would presume that wasn't at issue.  I know that when I've taught in Bible Studies and children's church, I do occasionally have someone do some role playing so that there's a visual that might help with understanding.  Hopefully I don't mess things up too badly that way!

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Should we consider having an interactional dialogue with the congregation for a sermon? Jesus did this. What think ye? Why must the proclamation be a lecture-format? Even if you like the regulative principle, you can find precedent for a dialogue format in the Gospels.

In a DMin class on preaching, I mentioned the team preaching format I've tried, which is almost a podcast setup where the other pastor and I discuss the passage together. The professor liked it, but would never do it. It was a personal preference to him.

But, why not think outside the box a little bit? Not that we donate pulpits to Goodwill and buy bistro tables, but will dialogue work? Is it bad?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Bert Perry's picture

Tyler, my thought is that a huge weakness (IMO) about "our tribes" is that we all too often do very poorly in looking through the various types of literature, and that would include narrative and dialogue.  So it might fulfill a very good purpose to demonstrate (our best estimate of) the give and take in dialogue/dialectic/debate of the time, perhaps with interludes where another person steps in and "tells them to rewind", and illustrates some of the nuances of what theologians believe is going on.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

T Howard's picture

Tyler, in your example with team teaching, there still is no true dialogue with the congregation. Acts 17:10-11 is an interesting passage. The Bereans "received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so." The word Luke uses and that is translated "examining" does not mean the Bereans were studying scriptural texts on a daily basis. Rather, it means they were asking Paul questions about the Scriptures and how his teaching cohered with what they knew about them.

A better format for teaching and preaching to your people may be to preach the message the first hour then have an "open mic format" the second hour to take questions about the sermon. This way, your congregation can ask you questions about your sermon, and you can have a real dialogue with them about it.

A friend of mine does this regularly at his church. His church is pretty small (35+ people), but it seems to be an effective teaching format. Many of the questions he receives about the sermon are application-focused, but a few people are particularly good exegetes and question him on interpretive issues. 

What do you think about this?

TylerR's picture

Editor

Yes, team teaching isn't dialogue. I've thought about doing a dialogue with the congregation, a back and forth, which would essentially make it into a bible study. We'd have to reconfigure the physical arrangement if I wanted to do that. I've pondered it. I've been pondering a lot of things!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

T Howard's picture

TylerR wrote:

Yes, team teaching isn't dialogue. I've thought about doing a dialogue with the congregation, a back and forth, which would essentially make it into a bible study. We'd have to reconfigure the physical arrangement if I wanted to do that. I've pondered it. I've been pondering a lot of things!

Honestly, transitioning from preaching a sermon first hour to having a Bible study on that same passage second hour seems pretty advantageous. 

TylerR's picture

Editor

I've seen that done before. It was a fad a while back, I believe. I was a member in a church that did it. My experience was that it was a good idea that degenerated into staleness pretty quickly. Only the same few people had questions. After a while, those people stop asking questions because they felt self-conscious for always talking. The pastor then felt obligated to make a list of questions we'd all discuss. So, it turned into a bible study re-hashing the entire sermon rather than a dialogue. He killed it eventually.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

T Howard's picture

TylerR wrote:

I've seen that done before. It was a fad a while back, I believe. I was a member in a church that did it. My experience was that it was a good idea that degenerated into staleness pretty quickly. Only the same few people had questions. After a while, those people stop asking questions because they felt self-conscious for always talking. The pastor then felt obligated to make a list of questions we'd all discuss. So, it turned into a bible study re-hashing the entire sermon rather than a dialogue. He killed it eventually.

Maybe it's a cultural thing then. I would probably be one of the people who tended to ask questions. I imagine doing this with a larger congregation (100+) may present some challenges. Or, you just move to a smaller classroom for those who want to ask questions. Others go to their own classes.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

We do something similar to dialogue in our 2nd hour.  Instead of a traditional SS for the adults, the 2nd hour after the service and break we call application hour or application class, where the practical implications of what was taught in the sermon are discussed.  To both guide the discussion and prevent the type of thing Tyler mentions where the same people ask the questions, the pastor does indeed ask a few questions.  However, they are somewhat open-ended, and almost always generate good discussion, and sometimes some questions back.

We've been doing this for a couple years or so, and it has worked well for us, and almost everyone appreciates using the time to really drive home the practical outworking of what was preached.  I guess at the worst you could call it a rehashing of the sermon, but I haven't spoken to anyone who thinks it comes off that way.  Most visitors even comment quite positively on the experience.  I guess if it "degenerates into staleness," we could kill it off in favor of something else, but we've seen no reason to do so yet.

Dave Barnhart

Paul Henebury's picture

It may be the jingoist in me, but the books written by Americans on preaching are all about technique (owing to the rampant pragmatism in the culture?).  The books by British preachers do not focus upon technique but upon what preaching is and the responsibility to proclaim.  One exception is J. A. Alexander's superb Thoughts on Preaching, and perhaps Dabney.  But there is no substitute for Spurgeon or Lloyd-Jones or Stott etc, in my book.    

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Mark_Smith's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

It may be the jingoist in me, but the books written by Americans on preaching are all about technique (owing to the rampant pragmatism in the culture?).  The books by British preachers do not focus upon technique but upon what preaching is and the responsibility to proclaim.  One exception is J. A. Alexander's superb Thoughts on Preaching, and perhaps Dabney.  But there is no substitute for Spurgeon or Lloyd-Jones or Stott etc, in my book.    

Paul, I wouldn't blame it on pragmatism. I'd blame it on the audience. In America, the audience is supposed to sit there like a stone, and the speaker (whether preacher or teacher) is supposed to entertain the crowd. You have to win them over. By and large, Americans aren't interested in information, or truth. They want flash, style, and to be entertained. That is why the focus on technique, so that the preacher wins the attention of the audience first. Its a shame.

I know this from years of teaching at a college. No matter the material most students complain you are "boring" when really it is the student who is intellectually lazy and shallow. Same thing for most Christians. 

Bert Perry's picture

I wish I could argue with you, Mark.  I really do.  :^) 

Seriously, though, I have, though not in a university setting, been dealing quite a bit with the reality of general intellectual laziness and the emphasis of culture over Scripture.  Perhaps Paul benefits not only from a general higher esteem of the academy in British culture, as well as the fact that a certain part of the cultural baggage we have in the U.S. simply doesn't exist in the same way elsewhere.  And perhaps a few other things.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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