Letting Go of Expository Preaching For Preaching That “Funds Imagination”

Then he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. Luke 4:21-22.
Two weeks ago I wrote a post on “Expository Preaching.” On the one hand, I was surprised with the number of sympathetic comments and excellent discussion (both on my blog and the Out or Ur Blog) that recognized the realness of this problem of “commodification of the Word.” On the other hand, there were some folk who implied that I was either denigrating Scripture, diminishing the importance of preaching, or making “meaning” unstable so much so that it wasn’t worth preaching anymore. To me, these were the very things I was working against by alerting us to the danger of “the commodification of the Word.” And so I promised a second post that would explore how we might preach more faithfully in our times. To this end, I offer the following four directives. There is this warning however. This is the longest post I have ever posted. To those who have little time I suggest you read the four headings and glean what you might from the suggestions that interest you. However you proceed, let us have a vigorous and charitable discussion. Let us work together for the reshaping, restoring and reclaiming of preaching as a practice for our times.

1.) QUIT EXPLAINING AND START PROCLAIMING. Let us preachers quit explaining the text so much. Instead let us proclaim the reality revealed in the text so that we all might live in it. In other words, let us preach to unfurl the reality revealed in the text that we could not see apart from being engulfed in the story of God from creation to redemption. We will no doubt, need to explain some things in the text. But the primary task of preaching on Sunday morning is “proclaiming” the reality of the world as it is under the good news of the gospel that renders all things new.

What can this possibly mean? Unfurling? Reality? It means our first task, as preachers, is to describe, not prescribe (although prescription will flow out of the description). The primary move of preaching will not be sentence-by-sentence exposition & explaining, then an application. Instead the primary move of the preacher will be to describe the world as it is via the person and work of Jesus Christ, then invite the hearers into this reality of Jesus Christ, Savior and Lord by calling for submission, confession, obedience or the affirmation of a truth “for our lives,” We used to exposit sentence by sentence and offer an application to take home and do something with. Now we describe the world as it is under the One who died, rose, sits at the right hand and will come again. And then we invite people to live under this reality and respond accordingly.

To sum up in a few short words, we preach to “fund imagination” in Brueggemann’s words. Through preaching and proclaiming the Word, the Spirit reorganizes perception, experience, and even faith so as to enable hearers to live in the reality of Christ’s work, respond to Christ and obey. This kind of preaching subverts the dominant habits of thinking and the ways our imaginations have been taught to see the world. Instead of dissecting the text making it portable so as to be distributed to isolated Cartesian selves for their own personal use, the preacher renarrates the world as it is under the Lordship of Christ and then invites people into it. And it is from such preaching that we, the hearers, can receive a new self in Christ.

When I preach, as I stand in front of the open Scripture, before His people, I see my role as the herald of the new world that has been inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Christ. Whether in the Old or New Testaments, I am unfurling the world as it is under the work of God down through history and ultimately in Jesus Christ. I always start by narrating a common experience out of a personal story, a movie, a piece of literature. I try to paint the way of seeing we might be caught in via a movie or a story. I try to expose the way we might be living under an alternative interpretation of the way things are. But then I move to the text for the day, read it and start to unfold the reality as it is in God thru Christ, either in contrast, or in fuller magnitude through the text of the day. I seek to paint the view of this reality, the way we must see things because of God’s work in Jesus Christ as revealed here in this text (It can be either Old or New Testament – but all is informed by God’s revealing himself in His Son). I then move faithfully to invite the gathering into this, looking for responses we all must make to live more faithfully out of who He is, what He has done, is doing and where He is taking us and the world. Some call it narrative preaching, some call it story, Brueggemann calls it “funding imagination. I’d like to think of it as “proclaiming the reality of the good news over our lives.”

Let us preachers resist all modernist temptations to see the Scriptures as a propositional textbook of religious facts. Instead, let us see the Scriptures as alive. Scripture is real accounts, testimonies and witnesses of God’s people, through the prophets and the apostles, to what God has done and said and will do. So let us read and speak as ones invited to see ourselves as invited in to participate in the continuation of all this! This might mean we might have to see the Bible as a Narrative (as became so popular in the 80’s.) More recently von Balthazar (Theo Drama), Sam Wells (Drama – Improvisation) and Kevin Vanhoozer (The Drama of Doctrine) have all taught us to think of Scripture as Theo Drama where we become the participants. This is the metaphor I believe we must follow in our preaching.

If this is true however, we will need to put historical exegesis in its proper place as a limited tool grounded in history that must be submitted to the traditions and history of God’s work in the church. We need not spend countless hours translating each text thinking we have reached the original meaning somehow by our own brilliance. Instead we stand in a long line of preachers, and the vast theological realities have been interpreted and shown out of Scripture down through the ages. We must pay attention to these great overarching Grand themes. And unfold the glory of God’s Story in Christ and His mission in the world. Historical critical methods still have service, but they must serve the explication of Scripture’s narrative. Authorial intent is not the main issue although this may be of importance for understanding the text at certain times. What is important is the reality being unfurled about God in Christ and how we can best respond so as to live into it until He returns. The hubris of pastors thinking they can exegete a text better and more accurately than the thousands that have gone before gets in the way of the Main Thing, the Glory of His Majestic Work and What He is working For in History. This is where our imaginations will be fed. This is where we will be formed as missional people.

By “liturgical” I mean the activity of responding to God, who He is, what he has done, what He has said. It is what shapes us into relationship with Him. It makes no sense then for the preacher who proclaims the Word of God to conclude with more notes of applications and “to do” lists. Instead the Word invokes postures of response: i.e., silence, submission, obedience, affirmation in faith, confession before the Lord, and of course the Eucharistic celebration of participating in the receiving of the Body of Christ. Each time I respond, each time I submit, each time I affirm the truth about the reality as it is under Christ, I am changed and I grow. Slowly I am formed over time through the faithful preaching of the Word and the ever hearing, responding, submitting, obeying, confessing, affirming and acting in faith. This is why the silence, when it follows the preaching of the Word, is often the most powerful moment in the sermon.

This means our understanding of sanctification in preaching might have to change. For what is happening here to the hearers is not a.) the cognitive digestion of some information about God and moral life, from which we b.) understand and assent and then c.) tell our body to do it. Instead we hear proclaimed the reality (“redescription”) of the world through the good news, a declaration of the way the world is, from which we are invited to enter in through submission, confession, repentance, and affirmation, from which we cannot help but be changed and engage the world differently. Our character changes, the way we see the world changes, the way we see the poor, the way we see our money, the way we see the children changes and we naturally respond to obey and move in faith. In Christ, by the Holy Spirit, “the eyes of our imaginations are opened, and we receive a new self.”

If preaching starts and ends with the sermon on Sunday, and it is distributed to individuals as portable property to be taken home in notes or a cassette tape, it cannot help but be the means of fostering interpretive violence. Because it will inevitably put the text at the disposal of the listening or speaking subject’s own structure and agenda. The violence comes when we put our own meanings or agenda onto Scripture. The violence comes when the preaching of the Word separates us as individuals over against one another armed with the interpretation we want because we do not come together in mutual submission to discern the Scripture’s meaning for our lives today. If preaching is to avoid this violence, it must foster communal practices among us that allow us to submit to one another in the work of the Spirit to interpret the Scriptures. We do this not as a democracy, but as a Spirit filled community where we submit to each other’s authoritative gifts. Of course, to even think of doing church this way requires a new imagination.

At our church, many of us meet in small triadic fellowships, to read the texts from Sunday, confess sin, sit and listen, and practice speaking truth with love and submission. We have a B&B (Bible and Brew … uh … coffee) session every Sun a.m. to read the texts together and ask what these texts speak about God, His mission in Christ and how we must respond. We need more places to read and listen and speak into each other’s lives out of the preaching of the Word.

I believe each local Body of Christ is the fertile ground for the forming of our imaginations through the interpretation of Scripture. Here in community we learn the virtues necessary to interpret Scripture for the local challenges of the Christian life. Stephen Fowl, calls these communities “vigilant communities” in his book Engaging Scripture. He says faithful interpretation requires vigilant communities that engage in regular practices of truth telling, forgiveness and reconciliation (ch. 3). Humility and the skill of listening are prerequisite for anyone being transformed by Scripture. These are the tools for the reshaping of imagination by the Holy Spirit. Humility and listening (i.e. patience) can only be learned in communities who practice worship and mission in ways that foster these basic Christian skills. Without becoming vigilant communities, I fear we all fall into modernist temptation, to believe that Scripture is perspicuous (to me), its meaning is automatically self evident to each individual (as long as they agree with me), and I know Scripture (well enough to justify my life to myself): the ultimate denial of the hermeneutic task.

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