When Scholars Preach

That last post and a conversation in the comments on the post I linked to reminded me of something that happened my senior year of college. I was the supply pastor of a small Methodist church in northern Missouri that year about 30 minutes away from where I went to school (and about ten minutes from the nearest paved road). My college friends would occasionally come out to my services. One time, a friend from my department told me afterward that she took objection to the way I had used the word “church” in a sermon. It was a fine sermon on the whole, she said, but I should have defined my terms more clearly. Sometimes it seemed like I was talking about the congregation, sometimes about the denomination, and sometimes about the church catholic. I thought about it for a few minutes, and decided that if I had presented a paper in class or at a conference, this would be a fair criticism. But for a sermon, both the goals and the ways you go about achieving them are different. That congregation already thought I was too intellectual, and if I’d spent a minute or two clarifying which of the possible meanings of the word I had in mind, I would have completely lost them.

But perhaps more importantly, the slippage between various meanings of the word “church” is not a bad thing in most sermons. Not only will a good preacher probably do nothing to correct it, she might also deliberately exploit it. Or even if she doesn’t deliberately exploit it, she can’t really object when a hearer finds an application to the local congregation of something she really meant to be about the universal church. Her aim was to help the congregation hear and apply the word of God, not to convince them of the significance of her project and the soundness of her argument.

Now this isn’t to say that you can just half-ass your theology in a sermon. The theology is the backbone on which the sermon is built. If it’s wrong, everything else will be wrong. But what people need to see on Sunday morning is the meat, not the skeleton (actually, you should probably have some clothes on). And perhaps after the service, somebody will ask you to clarify the ecclesiology of your sermon. But if that friend had written an article about “Kyle’s Muddled Ecclesiology” based on my sermon, well, that would be both foolish and rude.

Incidentally, I taught the preaching class at my school last fall. This is a school that tends to prize academic rigor above all else. The ministry students normally take preaching their second year, after they’ve spent a whole year learning how to make rigorous arguments about academic texts. I found that the students who were able to understand the distinction I’m trying to make here, and who had learned to appreciate both forms of discourse, they were usually the best preachers, regardless of style or background.

Speaking of sermons, I’m supposed to deliver one on Sunday. I’d probably best get on that. I would not object to your prayers for myself and my audiences (I’m preaching at two places).

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