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“Relevant” Preaching

2 August 2007

Kenneson and Street wrap up their book with a flourish that is worth an aspiring preacher’s close attention, quoting Willimon at length:

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Perhaps the church that views itself as an embodied question mark will see the wisdom, as Willimon suggests, of preaching as if a miracle will be needed for it to be heard and understood.

Desiring too desperately to communicate, at any cost, can lead us into apostasy. The odd way in which God has saved us presents a never-ending challenge to those who are called to talk about it…Can we preachers respect the gospel enough to allow people not to understand it? We are not responsible for all failures of communication. The gospel itself, in collision with the corruptions engendered by life in a democratic, capitalist society, bears some of the responsibility for people not hearing. We preachers so want to be heard that we are willing to make the gospel more accessible than it really is, to remove the scandal, the offense of the cross, to deceive people into thinking that it is possible to hear without conversion. This is the great lie behind most of my apologetics, the deceit that it is possible to hear the gospel while we are still trapped in outmoded or culturally conditioned patterns of thought and hearing. How are we extricated from such patterns? Only by being confronted by the gospel. How does the gospel manage to work such power among epistemologically enslaved (ouch…see below for a translation! -qb) folk like us? I don’t know. It’s a miracle…

We must learn to preach again in such a way as to demonstrate that, if there is no Holy Spirit, if Jesus has not been raised from the dead, then our preaching is doomed to fall upon deaf ears. Our preaching ought to be so confrontive, so in violation of all that contemporary Americans think they know, that it requires no less than a miracle to be heard. We preach best with a reckless confidence in the power of the gospel to evoke the audience it deserves.

Our task as preachers is not the hermeneutical one of making the gospel capable of being heard by modern people but the pastoral-political job of making a people who are capable of hearing the gospel.

Philip Kenneson and James Street, Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 158-9.

Quotations in italics are from William Willimon, The Intrusive Word (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 18, 19, 22; and William Willimon, “Preaching: Entertainment or Exposition?” Christian Century 107(1990):206.

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Don’t let phrases and terms like “epistemologically enslaved folk” and “hermeneutical” throw you. Willimon probably means more than I can ferret out with my untrained mind, but here’s a first cut at what those two things mean:

“Epistemologically enslaved folk” are people who are trapped into ideas about faith (pistis, pisteuo) that derive more from the surrounding culture, by default rather than intent, than from a clear-headed appreciation for the gospel of Jesus as it, and He, have come to us. The opposite, one supposes, would be people who take Jesus at face value and are free to follow Him in faith wherever He goes – countercultural directions, mainly – instead of trying to squeeze His gospel into the cultural mold that modern America seeks to impose on it.

“Hermeneutical,” in this context, just means “devising a way of translating and pre-digesting the gospel content of a message.” Willimon is interested here in letting the gospel stand on its own as the glorious feast that it is and releasing the preacher from the self-imposed or culturally imposed burden of chewing things up before feeding them to the people. He has Hebrews 5 clearly in mind, I think.

What say you?


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