“God Used You To Destroy My World”: Preaching and Spiritual Formation

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A couple years ago now we had a large group over to our house for the Super Bowl. I ended up sitting with a lot of people in a room where there was no TV. I think we talked all night. I didn’t see one play of the football game (the Hamilton Tiger Cats weren’t playing). I end up sitting with this guy named George (name changed to protect the innocent) and we started talking about preaching.
He says to me the following on the difference between preaching at Life on the Vine and other churches he’s been to.

“When I’ve been at other churches, I walk away saying “that is something I need to work on for my Christian life … At the Vine, I am confronted with a reality that I see I am not quite there yet and I’m invited to enter. I feel the tension. I can’t go there yet. I’m not ready. Yet I have to respond.”

Then he said,  “and when we have the communal response … it is so painful … because I know if I pray it out loud, if I respond and put it out there is words  … things have forever changed …”

All this was unprovoked and fascinating for me to listen to. It illustrates for me the difference between teaching and preaching. Teaching is informational. We are digging into the backgrounds of texts, the meanings of words, explaining what the text means in terms of its original context.  It is heavy with information. Preaching is proclamation. It declares the truth of God in Christ. It proclaims the reality of Jesus as Lord over us as we submit and what that means for our lives right here and right now. And then we are invited into that reality. It is the Kingdom breaking in by the work of the Spirit. And we, if we hear God speaking to us, we have to respond to Him. At the Vine, there is always a time after our preaching when we respond, most often in prayers of the people when we are given a liturgical prayer to fill in the blank for.  Being in the midst of those prayers is an oasis of the Spirit. It always reminds me of the words of Paul – if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The “being saved” that is happening here in this meeting room after we have just heard the Word proclaimed is the whole entering into the reality (gospel) that God is working in the world. This is why preaching can be God’s instrument to transform the world.

There is always the awkward moment when I meet people after the Sunday gathering just after I have preached. People don’t really know what to say. But I confess, one of the things that makes me cringe is when some one says “I really enjoyed your sermon.” Ouch. I know what they mean. I should be more gracious. And they are being incredibly encouraging. Yet, when they say this this, it reminds me too much of Zizek’s dictum (I’ve read too much Zizek I know) that saying “I enjoy my religion” implies I mustn’t take it too seriously. Instead we are “enjoying” it, keeping it at a distance, so as to not let it endanger my life. This distance is subtle. It was what George was describing so skillfully above. I think classical expository preaching, that focuses on information, borderlines on providing this distance. I think that’s ironic because I think it was originally devised to keep the preaching as close to the Word of God as possible. I wrote a whole chapter on this dynamic in the Great Giveaway many years ago. In the process it informationalized preaching. Gave us an excuse to say “hmmm, that is something I have to work on in my Christian life.” And so we never get to it.

For all these reasons, I much prefer telling the preacher after the gathering:  “Thank-you, God really used you to destroy my world” (versus “I really enjoyed your sermon”). If someone would say that to me, I would also have to confess that I have been destroyed as well and need to trust in Jesus as Lord to do His work in us. I confess I have had my world destroyed more than a few times at Life on the Vine gatherings, by the sermon in worship. And it’s been good.

What do you think about all this? What would you prefer to say to the preacher (or have said to you after you’ve preached?) Is there something to be learned from George about the way we preach?

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9 responses to ““God Used You To Destroy My World”: Preaching and Spiritual Formation

  1. The ONE thing that stood out to me the most from your commencement address at my seminary graduation was your admonition to not preach “nice” sermons…it destroyed my world… No longer do I look forward to “nice sermon, preacher”…now I wait for the inevitable “yeah, but…” that comes…showing that, instead of just making nice, I stirred someone up, challenged preconceived ideas, and made them rethink things…those conversations are SO much more productive than “nice sermon, preacher”

  2. Of course, we’re not looking for authoratarian sermons, that come “down hard” on people.” What we should be after IMO is gospel proclamation that shatters ways of thinking/paradyms we have become comfortable … but this should always be heard as good news … or else it ain’t preaching.

    1. Of course! For example, I gave a sermon on December 16th right after the Newtown shootings. I could have given a nice informational sermon on the lectionary for the day (which I had all planned) or I could have given a sermon that challenged preconceived notions of joy and that joy can happen even in the midst of tragedy… Got a lot of “Wow…that totally turned things on their head for me.” Wasn’t a “nice” sermon, wasn’t “authoritarian”, but certainly changed the world and gave good news to folks… and the humbling thing was, it wasn’t me giving it. Had to rewrite the sermon on the fly on the drive to the church because it was obvious what I had prepared was not going to work for that day. Had to lean heavily on the Spirit to give me the words that day….

  3. Best thing I heard after sermon recently (pardon the raw language), “Pastor every time I hear you preach you kick my ass with that shit!” It was said with a big grin and a bear hug. Best thing someone has said to me in a long time.

  4. A few hours after reading this post, and reflecting on it, I was reading the story of the two disciples trodding back to Emmaus in Luke 24 in my Greek NT, and I noticed the use there of the two words in Greek which become “homiletic” and “hermeneutic” when transliterated/applied into English. The two yet-unseeing disciples are “homileting,” or having an (unfruitful and dispassionate) “discourse” as they mull things over. – just what the word “homily” has come to signify for me as I have heard them over the years: a quiet “discussion” of the possible ramifications and inferences of this or that theological starting point. Later, Jesus “de-hermeneutes” the whole range of Hebrew Scriptures for them (prefacing his remarks with the impolitic “You IDIOTS! Don’t you understand?!”). When they look back later on this hour or so of his interpretation of the meaning and import of Scripture they agree, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us when he was explaining the Scripture to us?!”My point: I agree with your observation that too often our Sunday morning in church “speeches” are nice soft inoffensive little entertainment-oriented “homilies,” whereas what people may need more is the vigorous kick-in-the-pants prophetic “proclamation” that leaves them breathless and stunned and, like those in Jerusalem, ‘pierced to the heart,’ asked Peter at Pentecost, “Brother, what shall we do?”

    However, I don’t think we need to bumpt the prophetic or proclaiming mode up to always being the “norm,” each time the church meets. There are plenty of other examples in the NT of Jesus, Paul, Barnabas, etc. spending hours at a time “explaining” the meaning of the written Word of God. And that, to close this loop, is what caused the Emmaus-bound disciples’ hearts to glow with awe, appreciation, and understanding.

    So maybe Spirit-driven “hermeneutic” is somewhere in between the two extremes you discuss in your original post.

    1. I think that a “world destroying” message is not necessarily going to be the “you morons, listen up!” kind of message all the time… As I mentioned above, the message I gave on December 16th, 2012, right after Newtown on “Joy” was certainly a world destroying message… it recast the idea of “joy” as something more than “happiness” but as in something that can even occur in the midst of tragedy. That didn’t kick folks in the pants, necessarily… but it turned upside some pre-conceived notions of what “joy” is.

  5. […] about his desire to have people respond to his preaching with something more along the lines of “God used you to destroy my world today“.  I would love to hear that sometime myself but I’m not sure a weekly diet of world […]

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