Reimagining preaching?

Doug Pagitt: Preaching Re-Imagined: The Role of the Sermon in Communities of Faith (Zondervan, 2005) I got hold of this because I wanted to read the best arguments for dialogical preaching; Glen suggested to me that this was one of the key texts. I found it particularly interesting, because it doesn’t assume the standard (in my experience) dialogical argument (the role of preaching is to convey information; but, monologues are a poor way of conveying information; therefore, monologue preaching is poor preaching; it seems to me that neither premise is sustainable…) Pagitt’s argument/vision starts with a concept of community: Christian communities are to be places of genuine relationship; the role of Bible is to be ‘an authoritative member of our community, one we listen to on all topics on which she speaks’ (195). In community, Pagitt argues, the notion of deferential listening to a monologue has no place: we learn and discover by dialogue. The Bible’s voice is to be heard directly in the dialogue by all, not mediated indirectly by one particular person. The task of the community is together to grow up into Christian maturity. Refreshingly, Pagitt recognises the power of the monologue to touch hearts and minds; however, he dismisses this as manipulation: ‘Knowingly manipulating the emotions of my hearers to get them to come to a predetermined  conclusion felt like the very thing a pastor shouldn’t do. It felt like a violation of the human relationship.’ (74). Well, perhaps. Pagitt is clearly deeply troubled about any intrusion into the sovereign interiority of the American self; I tend to the view that all of us are constantly shaped by all sorts of messages, and so I am less worried about attempting to convince my hearers of a point I believe happens to be helpful, meaningful, and true. (And appeals to emotions are the normal currency of human interactions, surely – I say to my wife, ‘Oh come on, you’ll enjoy it…’ or to my daughter, ‘I know you don’t want to – but you should do it…’; it can get manipulative, and we all know when it does; but making an appeal to the emotions is not in itself the same as manipulating.) Instead of the monologue, Pagitt suggests ‘progressive dialogue’: a model of preaching where the preacher introduces a subject or Bible passage and then together the community discuss it, each listening to the other, and building insight and conviction through their shared conversation. The Bible becomes not a truth to be ‘applied’, but a story to be indwelt (a third-hand echo of Hans Frei?), and a voice in the conversation that carries peculiar authority. Many of his criticisms of contemporary church life hit home, although perhaps particularly in America (I doubt there are many local churches in the UK where there are regular worshippers who do not know the pastor(s) personally, the ‘megachurch’ phenomenon not having particularly hit us, except in a few isolated instances in London). I am not sure that the proposed solution is adequate to the task, however. In particular, the notion that a rational dialogue about what Scripture demands of us will be enough to change the way we live in community seems to me astonishingly optimistic. Pagitt thinks that the problem with our communities is an informational deficit: we don’t know what we ought to be; I suspect it is far more a volitional deficit: we know what we should do, but it seems too hard, or asks us to give up too much, and so we evade the issue. Paradoxically, I think most of the reason I disagree with Pagitt is that I have a much more modest – but, I think, more precise – account of the nature of the preaching task. As Pagitt imagined his ideal Christian community, I was reminded repeatedly and forcibly of the old vision of Baptist/Congregationalist life: a people covenanted together before God to seek the mind of Christ, to walk according the rule of Christ, and to call others into the covenant community. But you can’t do all that on Sunday morning. Conversation is vital as a part of the prayerful discerning of the mind of Christ for this people at this time – the task of Church meeting. The hearing of Scripture as a shaping voice in our conversations was a part of ‘godly conversation’, later formalised into small group ministries. Pagitt wants to do all that in the sermon, and discovers that the sermon isn’t very good at it. That might be why we used to do it elsewhere… What is the sermon good for? In the earliest Baptist communities, three or more members...

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Prayer and productivity

‘Prayer is … a protest against the pragmatic…’ That claim, made by Jim Gordon in a comment on this post, has stuck with me. Over the last six months or so, I have been attempting, with mixed degrees of success, to find new habits of prayer, and new habits of productivity, for my life – both in different ways a response to necessity (or at least what I perceived to be necessity). The three things stuck to the wall next to my monitor as I type are a cross, a picture of my daughters, and an annotated flowchart entitled ‘mastering workflow’. I have wondered along the way whether in fact I was trying to do two contradictory things – whether prayer and productivity simply pulled in different directions. Are that cross and that flowchart in inevitable competition? Some reflections on recent developments in British Methodism that my old friend Angela Shier-Jones has posted on her blog made me think harder, as did Jim’s comment.Prayer and productivity? Or Prayer or productivity? There is an easy answer to this, which I would like to believe. Productivity is about process, not goals. There is nothing wrong with my having systems in place which enable me to deal with incoming emails efficiently, to process projects smoothly towards goals, and to keep on top of the sheer volume of work that comes from every side, constantly, whilst still making space for – well, spending time with the afore-mentioned daughters, for one, but also for serving the churches in different ways, which is no part of my contract of employment, but central to my understanding of my present vocation. But… we live in a culture that has made an idol of efficiency; we define our lives by our mastery of technique, not by our depth of vision. He is honoured who cranks more widgets than anyone else, not who explores the moral value of widget cranking. In such a culture, to give disciplined attention to productivity is necessarily to come face to face with the idols of the age. And the idols we make are powerful – they can enslave and ensnare us very easily. (The masterful exposition of all this remains Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet, which takes as its theme the need for poetic preaching in a ‘prose-flattened world’. To take just one wonderful example: ‘[t]he Prince of Darkness tries frantically to keep the world closed so that we can be administered. The Prince has such powerful allies in this age … The Author of the text laughs in delight, the way that author has laughed only at creation and at Easter, but laughs again when the sermon carries the day against the prose of the Dark Prince who wants no new poetry in the region he thinks he governs.’ (p.11)) A friend said recently of a university manager in his institution ‘since he joined senior management, he’s gone over to the dark side.’ We all knew what he meant: someone who, becoming immersed in the world of necessary administration, had forgotten that administration in a university only serves the ends of teaching and research, not the other way around. We speak glibly of ‘bureaucracy’, not knowing what we are saying (or reflecting on the barbarism of the franco-hellenic compound) – if the kratia, the rule and authority, is invested in the bureau, the office, then the administration has necessarily, simply, and precisely, become an idol. So productivity – can we touch the idol and not be rendered unclean? The message of the NT is, surprisingly, yes. Perhaps uniquely amongst religious teachers, Jesus believed that holiness was stronger than uncleanness. The leper could be touched, Peter could greet Cornelius, Paul could eat meat sacrificed in the pagan temples – the unbelieving Corinthian spouse would not contaminate his/her partner, but would be contaminated, become holy. Productivity can be rendered safe, if explored alongside a disciplined practice of prayer. By good luck, or by God’s grace (it was not by my planning, certainly), I got something right for once… This seems to me important: some of the great leaders of the church, in this and every generation, have been people whose great organisational talents have been beaten into service of the gospel by their even greater commitment to the gospel. David Coffey transformed English Baptist life, and left it the only growing mainstream denomination, through an amazing ability to organise, that was disciplined constantly by a profound spirituality. Doug Balfour did the same thing with Tearfund. It is the same back in history: Mr Wesley’s branch of the revival survives still because his genius for organisation served his gospel proclamation;...

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Spiritual direction in the nonconformist tradition

There has been a recent, and welcome, tradition of the various Principals of our Baptist colleges in the UK publishing jointly-authored books (something of the story of how this came to be is told in a chapter in Fiddes, et al., Doing Theology in A Baptist Way (Whitley, 2000)); the most recent contribution is in the Regent’s Study Guides series, Fiddes (ed.), Under the Rule of Christ: Dimensions of Baptist Spirituality (Smyth & Helwys, 2008). The various chapters in the book treat various themes, not including spiritual direction: Paul Fiddes and Steve Finnamore look at ‘Baptists and Spirituality’; Richard Kidd looks at suffering; Nigel Wright at ‘Spirituality as Discipleship: the Anabaptist heritage’; Jim Gordon treats Scripture; John Weaver the Eucharist; and Chris Ellis Mission. There are many good things in the book; one of the repeated emphases, however, perhaps more powerful because it is apparently unconscious, is the assumption that, for Baptists, spirituality happens in gathered community – the local church congregation. Of course, there are those (Christopher Jamieson, Abbot of Worth, for one) who would claim that the classical spiritual disciplines only make sense in community, but the recent emphasis of the retreat movement has been on personal spirituality. This is perhaps particularly the case when it comes to spiritual direction – a quintessentially personal relationship, one-to-one, confidential, and ideally removed at some level from broader life (the advice I have seen seems to suggest that a spiritual director should be someone you never otherwise encounter in your life). I began to wonder, where is there a history of spiritual direction in our Baptist (and broader evangelical and nonconformist) traditions? We can find examples of ‘soul friendships’ from various points in history, which can be mapped onto the concept of spiritual direction, certainly – and I do not want to minimise or decry that; but it is not something natural to us. But if we understand spiritual direction as a process where the disciple is able to give an account of her walk with Christ, and to receive guidance, wisdom, encouragement, and prayer in furthering that walk, then, it struck me, reading the Principals’ book, it is something that is native, and central, to various Baptist, evangelical, and nonconformist traditions. It is just that we do it corporately, not individually. The purest example is perhaps Wesley’s vision for the Methodist class meeting; this was precisely spiritual direction, but in community – members sharing with and supporting each other. There is at least something of this vision in the theory, if less often in the practice, of Baptist church meeting, however, and the recent proliferation of small group ministry in evangelical churches, whilst usually ill-thought out (small group meetings are too often held to be a Good Thing in themselves, which rather obviously they are not – no meeting is, ever – they have value to the extent that they are useful means directed towards valuable ends), introduces something of this into church life when, by accident or design, it works. What to say about this? I want to support it – it is native to my tradition, and I believe in the notion of the body of Christ, the local church, being the basic agent of discipleship (and of course of mission) in the world. But I wonder about the practicality of it; in just over twenty years, now, of Christian discipleship, I have been a member of two small groups that have worked on this level, and one church fellowship – places where there were sufficient levels of trust, maturity, and openness to enable honesty about doubts, struggles, fears, joys, and hopes. Easier, far easier, to find a spiritual director who one can trust… …but ease is never a good criterion for gospel...

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