Sunday, December 07, 2008

Prayer. The antidote to "unmeditated" sermons

Phil Miglioratti interviewed Zach Eswine for Praying Pastor



Praying Pastor ~ Zach, your book, Preaching to a Post-Everything World: Crafting Biblical Sermons that Connect with our Culture, seems to have been prompted by a gnawing concern in your gut - Am I right?



Zach Eswine ~ Yes. I suppose that concern has three roots. First, I'm concerned that we have a tendency as preachers to forget where we've been. There was once a time when we did not know where the book of Exodus was. We had never heard of Arminianism or Calvinism. We did not have the answers or the position that we now have. Yet, our Lord met us with His grace and grew us. We need God to remind us where we have been so that we can give others the same amount of time, grace, and room to make mistakes that we have needed to get where we now are. Second, I'm concerned that as preachers, we not only learn to say what the Bible says; we also need to take into account how people hear what the Bible says. A person who has not been raised in Sunday School will have a very different frame of reference for the words we use. We need to learn to account for this when we preach. Third, once we learn to say what the text says with a sensitivity to how people hear these things from their cultural backgrounds, we still have no lasting spiritual power in our preaching unless God intensifies the presence of His Spirit's work in our preaching. To sum up my concern? (1) Remember where we've been (2) Preach like a missionary who translates the text for people (3) Believe that the intensified presence of the Holy Spirit is the greatest need a preacher of any generation or culture has. Testimony and contextualization without the immediate working of God's Spirit is like taking a toy-shovel to a blizzard. God knows this and has wisely prepared us with what we need--which is, Himself.


Praying Pastor ~ "Post-Everything" ... How has the "post-everything world" infiltrated every congregation (regardless of size, style, or systematic theology) and what does that mean to the pastor slugging it out 6 or 7 days a week in relative obscurity?

Zach Eswine ~ By "post-everything" I mean that there is essentially nothing new under the sun. No matter what cultural climate a preacher serves, the human heart has not changed. Some preachers will do their work in postmodern climates. Others will serve in climates that more fit the descriptions of pre-modern environments. But no matter which climate a preacher serves, whether churched, unchurched or in-between, God is the supreme expert the preacher needs. To put it somewhat crassly, God knows how to use an Ipod. He has seen the Matrix and the Lord of the Rings. He has read the greatest philosophers and understands the nuances of their out-workings in societies. God speaks Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, Japanese, English, etc . . .In other words, we must be careful of acting as if God is an elderly frail man who does not know what to do with these young people, the internet, and the global realities of our current generation. As if we have to teach God about what's happening. When we lose sight of God's wisdom, we rush to strategies other than His for the power we need to navigate those daily challenges that confound us. In other words, no matter where we preach, the fundamental issue remains: will we actively wait upon God and seek His power for the substantial healing our congregation or community requires? If we will, then not only will our sense of control frighteningly diminish, but our preaching discussions will subsequently change. We will still talk about power-point, drama, inductive versus deductive forms, pulpits or no pulpits, and the debate between propositional or more narrative forms of sermon styles. But these discussions will move from the front seat of homiletics to the back as preachers begin to bring the work of the Holy Spirit through Christ by and with God's Word to the forefront of our concern again. No matter what "ism" we face, we must not only take our responsibility to understand and navigate that "ism" wisely, we must also recognize that understanding and wisdom apart from the illumination and empowerment of the Holy Spirit will leave us planting and watering with no sunshine or rain to birth the roots and the fruit of our labors. Only such attention can keep our roots from withering and burst our labors into fruitfulness (Psalm 1).


Praying Pastor ~ What is the role of prayer in crafting biblical sermons that connect with culture?

Zach Eswine ~Prayer acknowledges that we are limited, that something more than our resources, abilities, skills and planning is necessary for us to accomplish our goal in preaching. We believe that Christian sermon-making is of a different order than secular speech-making. Both can powerfully move people and change their lives. But only one can make an eternal difference. If we learn that speech-making involves attention to the speaker, the message and the audience, then sermon-making must pay attention to the speaker, the message, the audience and the living God. Along with saying what the biblical text says, prayer is what leads us to this "fourth" category of communication. By it, we look to God's present persuasion in the preaching moment. But not only do we acknowledge by prayer that we need God's active presence and power, we also demonstrate our belief that God possesses exhaustive knowledge of our culture in general and the individuals we minister to in particular. In the task of faithfully expounding the Scriptures in context and pastorally understanding people in their environments, we ask God to illumine His word and the human heart of these people so that we know what to say. Our active prayer-lives as preachers declares our belief that God is not only present and powerful, but He is also wise, knowledgeable and intimately familiar with what the people we serve need. It is as if we have a family member or intimate friend that we can converse with in order to better understand and communicate with this person and that one. But better than a human confidant, we have access through Christ to the One who created our listeners, providentially governs their lives, cares for them and knows them through and through. Prayer describes this conversation with God for the well-being of our sermon listeners. Prayer is a gift of God's grace. It is like Gideon's smashed glass or Joshua's shouts or the staff of Moses. The thing in itself has no power to change anything. Furthermore, it is inadequate for the task. And yet, the inadequate thing when it is given to us by God, instructs us that the power we need does not come from us but from Him. Prayer is the primary means that we have to expose ourselves as clay jars who need a power greater than ourselves to ignite. Jesus paid for our prayerlessness. His active life of prayer is accounted to us by faith. Forgiven, flawed and limited we lift our voice to the One who has no limits, no flaws, and true might for the moment.


Praying Pastor ~ In your section on "slowing down" you direct the reader/learner to focus on God ... What do you mean by:
  • Talk about God
  • Talk to God
  • Listen to God
  • Talk for God
Zach Eswine ~I'm building upon an idea from Eugene Peterson. A preacher's calling makes him noisy if he or she is not careful. We talk so much about God and for God that we may feel as if we have actually talked to God and taken silent time to listen. When this illusion happens, we start to only offer people our first-drafts. Our conversations and sermons give unmeditated words, thoughts and ideas to people. A habit of giving people our unmeditated messages slowly decays our interior lives. Like a tree that dies, we do not see the damage until it is too late because the decaying tree continues to bear fruit. Fruit-bearing hides interior disease but only for a while. Eventually the disease engulfs the tree. So it is with us. In the Wisdom Literature of the Bible it is the fool and not the wise who constantly chatters. As preachers we become foolish when we constantly vent our own opinions, assume that problems must be solved immediately, assume that we know the answers before we've heard the nuance of the question, and when we become impatient with taking time to consider, wait, meditate and pray over a matter. Talking and listening to God are necessary to make sure that we are speaking from a posture of active waiting rather than impatient wrangling. Otherwise, we eventually become hollowed-out preachers building our ministries on yesterday's sermon series' and second-hand testimonies from what we used to experience. We also begin to lose our ability to readily discern Jesus' voice from the competing voices in our hearts, our congregations and our community. We need to ask and listen in order to know which voice most resembles our Master's voice on a given matter. He knows this about us. In His kindness He calls us to slow down, to wait, to listen. Such commands are grace-giving. They fit our frame and intend our good. No wonder our Lord often withdrew to quiet places early in the morning or late at night. Our speaking about and for God is meant to flow from a hear that has first spoken to God and hear from Him. We need each other's help as preachers to receive the strength His grace gives us to enjoy and inhabit a live of active converse with God.


Praying Pastor ~ Agree or disagree? Prayer is vital to connect with the text (God's words about his Word) and with the context (culture).

Zach Eswine ~We do not mean to imply it, but when we do the work of understanding God's text for the sermon without prayer, we actively imply that (1) the bible is the same as any other book, (2) our human brainpower all we need to understand the Word of God, (3) we actively contradict the regular teaching of the Bible itself that only by prayer and God's giving of wisdom can we understand His word. "Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things from your law." Likewise, when we approach our neighbors or cultural artifacts such as films, poems or songs without prayer, we unwittingly imply that (1) we can adequately navigate the human heart on our own (2) that our ideas about people or things are without need of further instruction from God, (3) that reaching people with the gospel is a matter of applied formula, i.e., "if I do this, they will do this." The problem is this: Often, people will not reject the gospel because they do not understand what you are saying. Sometimes people reject our sermons precisely because they do understand what we are saying. The issue for them is not the absence of information. The issue is something in their heart. Only God can break the idols of the human heart. Only He can disrupt how such idols blind our own interpretations of the Bible and of each other. Prayer is the means Christ has purchased for us by which we listen to and learn from God about the text He wrote and the people He created. Prayer puts us in our place and preserves the truth that we are not God.

Praying Pastor ~ Zach, please write a prayer for the pastor who wants to prayer-saturate the sermon preparation and sermon presentation processes . . .

Oh Father, slow us down, wake us up, open our ears, humble our hearts, rouse yourself, thunder your speech, see us undone, see the blood shed from your Son, see our limits, our sins, our inabilities and draw so very near that we can hear you breathe, if that were possible, and from there, reach into us O God and prove yourself the lifter of our heads. And then, gracious, masterful, Lord, our Creator, redeemer and friend, fill our lungs and give us voice. For the glory of Jesus in this our generation, fill our lungs and give us voice in such a way that when this generation hears our feeble words with their ears, their broken and sin-sick hearts will know along with ours that it is your voice truly, calling to us. Tell us O Lord that it is time to come home to you. We are hollowed out. You are in tact. We are diseased and decaying. You are vibrant and flourishing. Proclaim yourself to us in Christ O Lord that out of our own personal need and comfort and repentance and forgiveness and faith, that out of our own human experience of such things we will testify in our generation of Jesus until you come or until we breathe our last here, whichever comes first. Return our preaching to testimony. Return us preachers to human beings. Forgive us for preaching as if we are orators rather than martyrs, gods rather than creatures. Exalt yourself O Lord. You are our greatest desire and need. Not to us but to your name be glory and honor. Restore your voice. Restore you voice in this generation we ask. Remember your servants who cry out to you through Christ. Amen.

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1 comment:

Mark Hollingsworth said...

What a great interview. This is the first time I have been at your blog but it won't be the last. I love your emphasis on prayer. I know you are familiar with E.M. Bounds book "The Preacher and Prayer" but it is probably my favorite. Almost every sentence is a quotable quote and very convicting as well.
Thanks for the post ofthe interview,
Mark