But every disciple of Christ is called to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19), so the question of biblical relevance is a question of relevance for all Christians. In terms of "preaching" the gospel, we can each consider whatever individual call to carry the message God has put on our hearts in our respective faith lives. So what does "preaching" look like in day-to-day life? Or rather... how does day-to-day life speak to the message being preached? I think this preacher kinda nails it:
I have to constantly remind myself that if I am not immersed in the text, living and breathing it for myself, then I will probably have a hard time trying to make it come alive for the people who hear me preach. And unless I am connected to the real stories, the real hurts, the real experiences and fears and successes of people, I will most likely not be able to connect God’s truth to their lives in my preaching." (Kyle Idleman)
Out of the loads and loads of observations, impressions, and suggestions I received, one of the most thought-provoking discourses centered on my use of my own story to build a connection through my message. Almost every one of my viewers made some reference to the value of vulnerability, authenticity, transparency, or the like, and then one viewer (a pastor of nearly 20 years) made the comment, "You know, if you preach from experience, you'll run out of stories."
Now, that really made me think. I'm a writer, so the idea of running out of stories is sort of absurd to me. I observe new stories all around me every day. But I digress.
In the context of that discussion, I determined that by "biblical preaching," this particular pastor meant "expository preaching." And, in the inherent contrast between expository preaching and experiential preaching, I heard the covert implication that one may constitute "biblical preaching" whilst the other might not.
Before we go any further, let's hit on a couple of quick definitions:
- Expository preaching is a form of preaching that details the meaning of a particular text or passage of Scripture. It explains what the Bible means by what it says. Exegesis is technical and grammatical exposition, a careful drawing out of the exact meaning of a passage in its original context.
- Experiential preaching addresses the vital matter of how a Christian experiences the truth of Christian doctrine in his life. ... Experiential preaching stresses the need to know by experience the great truths of the Word of God. ... Such preaching aims to apply divine truth to the whole range of the believer’s personal experience, including his relationships with family, the church, and the world around him.
Now, here's some quick background about how this conversation got started. For the purpose of my video sermon assignment, I had been instructed to follow a particular suggested sermon structure outlined by megachurch pastor and popular biblical studies teacher Andy Stanley. In his book Communicating for a Change: Seven Keys to Irresistable Communication, Stanley proposes a ME-WE-GOD-YOU-WE structure for preaching, designed around connecting, relating, and applying biblical principles to inspire life change. Briefly, the outline guides a message as follows:
- ME - My experience with an issue.
- WE - Our experience with an issue.
- GOD - What Scripture says about the issue.
- YOU - What are you going to do about the issue?
- WE - What would the world look like if we were all doing that about this issue?
In short, Stanley's structure seeks to relate through experience first, then apply God's truth to inspire change. Admittedly, Stanley's approach runs contrary to many more traditional preaching styles (in the book, he admits to "volunteering" to preach rather than being "called" to preach), and that's part of his point about communicating for change. If the goal of preaching is a changed life, and traditional preaching styles result in many churchgoers who live basically secular lives outside of Sunday services, then how do we connect, relate, and apply biblical principles in a way that changes lives? Well, altering one's preaching style might be a start...
Ironically, considering the feedback I received about "running out of stories," one of the lines I had underlined emphatically in Stanley's book was this: "If you preach from your weaknesses, you will never run out of sermon material." But I digress.
Earlier this fall, following an August sermon that caused a stir, Stanley has taken some searing heat in evangelical circles for a few of his statements about the authority of Scripture, as Christians often see fit to apply that authority to non-Christians. Despite providing an exhaustive response to the controversy, delving deeply into self-analysis of his intentions throughout the sermon series as well as his commitment to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, Stanley has been accused of heresy, liberal theology, flawed hermeneutics, and worse. Now, let's not forget, this is the same gentleman whose book on effective communication forms the curriculum for my "intro to preaching" course on the ordination track at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.
What is the horror of horrors that's gotten Stanley in so much hot water? Well, in one of his sermons, he was quoted as follows:
Christianity does not exist because of the Bible any more than you exist because of your birth certificate. Your birth certificate documents something that happened."
Over coffee one morning, I described this hoopla to a friend who recently completed a master's degree in ministry leadership. I got to this point and stopped, and she looked at me like she was waiting for the punch line. When I said nothing further, she said, "That's it? There's nothing unbiblical about that."
Indeed, if one examines Stanley's actual message in context, instead of picking out a sub-point or two to pick apart, there's nothing unbiblical about the causal relationship he's describing. But in a wake of evangelical upset, Christian media has filled with pedantic complaints that Stanley's logic discounts millennia of Scriptural relevance going back to Abraham. The observation has been made that Jesus Himself quoted Scripture as authority, concluding that Scripture is the source of our faith.
However, if we believe that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1), then Stanley's view does in fact include the Old Testament part of the Bible, "before Christ," since the Old Testament is part of the story of Christianity, too—at least, the way Christians see it.
After all, Scripture tells us Abraham is the father of our faith (Romans 4:16), and Abraham believed God well before the canonical Bible, the Ten Commandments, or any of the prophecies. "If you were Abraham's children," said Jesus, "then you would do what Abraham did" (John 8:39). What did Abraham do? He experienced God. All throughout the New Testament, Abraham's experience with God is held up as the archetype for our faith in Christ. The Bible documents the story of Christianity from beginning to eternity. We cannot separate Christian experience from Christianity, or vice versa.
But there's part of the perspective problem at the heart of the "controversy" over Stanley's comments. The Bible is only considered true by people who believe the Bible, and only people who believe in God believe the Bible. But somehow, that part of reality is lost on the commentators who've headed the witch hunt over Stanley's "heretical" observations.
The substance of the offense is perhaps best summed up by one of the most quoted of the offended parties:
Stanley also said we do not believe Christianity because of the Bible, but because of the resurrection and eyewitness testimonies. A couple of years ago, Stanley said that preachers should stop saying, 'The Bible says,' a position he reaffirmed during the conversation. ... He began his sermon by quoting the beloved song, 'Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,' and contends, 'This is where our problem began.' Stanley says the song is fine for children but not appropriate for adults. He believes we have been naively taught, 'The Bible says it, that settles it' and that kind of simplistic reasoning is why many walk away from the faith as adults." (David Prince)
Now, I'm no Bible scholar. I only have one biblical studies degree and about five years' worth of professing Christianity to back me up. That's a fact of which a few folks love to remind me, whenever I question anything about what we call "church life" today. Oh, look, our little one is practicing inductive Bible study methodologies all on her own... how cute.
However, in carrying the message of Christ, I carry a unique credential which many Bible scholars do not: the experience of coming to Christ as an adult, versus the "career Christians" who have "always believed."
Now, to be fair, in all my years living far from God, I was not your standard antichrist. I was always "searching for something." I studied world religions, looking for resonance. I interviewed priests and pastors, seeking perspective. I asked my churchgoing friends and classmates to show me their personal proof. I looked for meaning in Scripture on my own. I was constantly accused of taking verses out of context, without being taught how to do any otherwise. I wasn't burning Bibles or outlawing prayer in classrooms; I was trying to understand how so many people could swallow something I couldn't. Sometimes (oftentimes), that came across as hostility. I was frustrated with "church people" who took the avoidance track. I was aching, empty, and dead inside, searching for any reason to keep living. In secret hours of utter hopelessness, I picked up the Bible time after time after time. I was always determined that this time, I would keep reading until I got to the part that would make the words "Jesus loves me" real to me, like they were when I was a child.
Instead, I kept getting about as far as Noah's genealogy before I put the book back on the shelf and wandered away, shaking my head and thinking, This has nothing to do with my life. It was my own incomprehensible demoralization that had me despising the Christians who kept telling me the answers were in there. And it was the condescension of believers who don't know what it's like to be lost that kept me from believing they could know how to lead.
Of course I can point back now and pick out a hundred million different ways I was stubborn, unwilling, and blinded by pride, but this was the experience of someone who was trying to understand and trying to find biblical relevance.
So I get what Stanley's saying—maybe simply because I haven't always been a Christian. Frankly, when I was a non-Christian, a statement like "Because it's in the Bible" was the least credible statement you could possibly make to me. As an adolescent, it was statements like that which first got me doubting Christians, then disbelieving in God. In my teens and early twenties, for all the church people I heard singing the tune "this I know, for the Bible tells me so," I knew no such thing for myself. And telling a person who doesn't believe in God that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God is about as effective as telling a teenager they're going to end up on Santa's naughty list.
I was 26 before I met anyone who offered compelling evidence of a life changed by faith. I happened to find my proof of God among drunks and addicts, not a one of them dressed in their Sunday best. That's not because everyone else is doing it wrong; it's just because that happened to be my experience. So, now that I'm a shiny new Christian, I see a stance like Prince's undermined by his own argument against Stanley's experiential approach. Prince says,
The biblical witness authoritatively judges the validity of our Christian thoughts and experience and never the other way around."
In the end, in his complaints about Stanley's audacious position on the "for the Bible tells me so" mentality, Mr. Prince sums up his offense with a slam-dunk quotation from a gentleman named J. Gresham Machen:
Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life.”
I will never, ever minimize the authority of the Bible in the lives of professing Christians. But I can say with 100% biblical authority that Christianity is founded upon Christ, my friends. The thinking and the life of Christianity is based upon Christ. The Bible is based on Christ. God is not true because of the Bible; the Bible is true because of God. This I know, and you know what? The Bible tells me so.
This is where Prince and his compadres, Stanley and the Millennials, and millions of disillusioned in-betweeners will probably never come to resolution. The message is persistently proclaimed, "You must believe in God because of His book," when the truth is a more nuanced, "When you believe in God, you will believe in His book."
In that, I can sympathize with the Millennial groupthink. We "must" believe nothing. God Himself gives us the choice to believe or not believe.
So let me ask you this... when someone comes to you and says, "How do I know Jesus loves me?" is the answer only "Because the Bible says so," or can it also be "Because I love you, too"?
I can't speak for everybody, but I can say I accepted Christ back into my life as an adult, at the age of 26, when I was still extremely skeptical and cynical about the Bible and its right to speak into my life. When I accepted Christ and was baptized, I was anointed by the Holy Spirit, and I began to understand and accept the Bible as God's Word. There's no set formula for Christian conversions, but the book of Acts shows us this is a pretty common series of events when it comes to coming to faith. This was the case for me. It was the case for my husband. It was a similar case for this friend of ours, who writes, "No matter how you dress it up, condemning someone to Hell and pelting them with Bible verses isn't love and it's not Good News." It's still the case for a dozen other friends who are still struggling to make sense of Scripture as they seek to know and draw closer to the Lord.
Sure, my social circle might be a relatively small sample, but in terms of Christian experience, I can look all around me at living examples who support the theology that Christianity starts with Christ. That being said, we can read Scripture without becoming Christians, but we can't become Christians without believing Scripture. And I'd be awfully hard-pressed to find an expository point of Scripture that would disagree.
What is biblical preaching? The point is not that one approach is right and another must be wrong. The point is that truths exist concurrently, and all aspects of faith are necessary to faith. So, keep preaching to the Christians... but remember the non-Christians can hear you, too.
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