The Preacher as Antichrist: a sonnet

The Preacher as Antichrist To seize the flesh and make it word instead, Dissecting lived perfection to display Cold concepts, or trite lessons—mere cliche— I block th’ incarnate Word in printer’s lead, Make husk and dry chaff of the living bread, Turn laughter, tears, and blood, to an essay— Mere cleverness—affront to those who pray. To those who come, desiring to be fed And given hope, is all that can be said A worthless, weak, and cheap call to obey? Alliterated numbered points convey A dreary discourse, dull as it is dead. I look up to the Spirit that me owns, And ask, can life be given to these dry bones?   (Certainly not a theorised criticism of preaching; more a confession that, too often, this is what it feels like I am...

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The preacher’s task

I get asked sometimes if I enjoy preaching. I find it a hard question. I know I can’t not preach. And often, when actually preaching, I know that intoxicating experience of utter single-mindedness and control – ‘flow’ as they call it – which is dangerously exhilarating and addictive. Every worthwhile sermon I have ever preached, however, has hurt to write, as I have found that in the text that I wanted so much to avoid, and have been forced to face up to it. And Sangster’s old line, that every preacher sits down every time with disappointment and the hope that ‘next time I shall preach!’ rings true for me. These words probably reflect those two moments of pain more than the ecstatic moment of preaching that comes between. Read Revere Relish Reflect Research Receive Realise React Recoil Resist Repress Reject Rebel Retreat Reassess Repent Reform Return Recall Rephrase Reclothe Redact Rehearse Refresh Rewrite Reveal Recount Release Rejoice Reap Regret Rest Regroup...

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‘Show, don’t tell’: bad preaching and mock reality TV for kids

Our seven year old daughter is presently obsessed by a CBBC show called ‘The Next Step’. I stand up and leave the room when the show comes on. Recently I finally worked out why. It’s because it is far too like bad preaching. And I hate bad preaching (particularly when I am the preacher).

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Why TED talks are far less interesting than revival sermons

I like good oratory. I teach public speaking regularly. I source and buy or download examples of great (imho…) examples of the genre, from business, politics, cinema, and the church. I watch the best of them over and over, making notes on why they work. I go over videos almost frame-by-frame with classes and seminars, pointing out this hand-movement, that inflection, the use of eyes, the deployment of silence, and of course two dozen or more classical rhetorical techniques, which I name easily in Greek and English. I like good oratory. A while ago, at a dinner party, the conversation turned to TED talks. I admitted, truthfully, that I have never yet watched to the end of one. It turned out that another guest was VP of a firm that sponsored one of the regional conferences, and so the conversation became slightly awkward… …I remember, however, not so much the awkwardness as the realisation. It had not occurred to me until I said it over that table, but it is the case that I have never yet watched to the end of a TED talk. I’ve begun to watch several dozen – over a hundred perhaps. I’ve learnt from many of them. In several cases I’ve bought the speaker’s book. But I’ve always clicked the close button before the presenter received her/his applause. On reflection, this is odd. I like good oratory. I study good speakers obsessively, watch them repeatedly, pause the video, go in slow-mo, rewind, replay. But every TED talk I have clicked on, I have clicked off soon afterwards. This week I tripped over an NYT op-ed entitled The Church of TED, proposing that TED talks are the revivalist sermons of yore. This made me think again of my awkward conversation. I have heard and analysed great revivalist sermons; they are a world away from what I see on the TED video streams. When I teach public speaking, I stress one point regarding purpose: the stand-up monologue is, demonstrably, a fairly poor way of communicating information. It excels as a way of communicating vision. To use the form effectively, the speaker should not aim at the mind, but at the heart. A good set-piece speech is not about changing ideas, it is about changing desires. All of this is extensively demonstrated in the literature on public speaking. Of course, this makes sense of preaching. When I speak to experienced preachers I ask them to summarise the message of their last sermon in one sentence (if it was a well-constructed sermon, they will have done this before starting to write it of course). Then I ask them to estimate how many of those who heard the sermon would not have already known that idea. 5% is rare; 10% almost vanishingly so. Preachers repeat endlessly truths their congregations know well, with the hope and prayer that at least some of those congregated might this time be inspired to live what they profess to believe a little better. They aim at hearts, not minds, seeking to change desires, not ideas. The TED talk – classically; no doubt there are exceptions – proposes new ideas to the hearer; it aims at communicating information, not redirecting desire. Generally in my (I freely admit, limited) experience, the informational content of a TED talk is fully conveyed in the first three minutes; however interesting and arresting the talk, there is no need or purpose in watching beyond that. I confess to a very short attention span – no; let me rephrase that; I confess to a very low boredom threshold. I can give weeks to working slowly through an obscure Latin text if it continues to offer me something new, but a videoed speaker who has said his piece gets about twenty seconds more, and then is dismissed. Revivalist sermons told their hearers nothing new, but convicted them of the need to act on the things they professed to know. They aimed at desires, not ideas. This is, simply, the right use of oratory. And in politics and in business this is visibly the successful use of the set-piece speech. I play my students a speech Bill Gates gave, full of technical specs, rich in information, instantly forgettable, extraordinarily boring. Then I play them Steve Jobs’s keynote from a few weeks later, launching the MacBook Air. He said one thing: ‘it’s thin.’ Oh, there is a pile of numbers and pictures and comparisons to make you realise that he means, ‘no, really, it’s thin!’ And there is of course a powerful message about desire: ‘thin is beautiful; thin is desirable; you want this computer…’ But the informational content of the speech? ‘It’s thin.’ The speech is aimed at hearts, not heads; it is about desires,...

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On International Women’s Day: Why I can no longer defend the ministry of women in the church

I have defended the ministry of women in the church in public for a while now, including on this blog.

I don’t think I can do it any longer.

Not because of any lack of calling or gifting in their ministry, but because of a lack in mine.

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