There is an increasing argument (in some circles) that the so-called ‘moderns’ of the last century responded well to more ‘concrete’ biblical messages (on passages like the Epistles, for instance). Whereas, the postmodern mindset responds far better to the story telling approach to biblical preaching. Further, there is the thought that people in housing schemes can’t listen to a message more than 10 minutes long unless accompanied with some video footage and an all singing, all dancing power point presentation. We live in a ‘visual age‘ after all, or so I’m told. Well, I hardly use video, power point a bit more perhaps, and even then it looks like I put it together with the help of my neighbour’s cat. I just use the Bible and words. I just believe what I preach and try to illustrate and apply it in everyday language. I do it systematically and, in the main, expositionally. Do you know what? People stay in and listen. People you wouldn’t believe stay in and even take some of the message on board.
Now, expository preaching gets a bad rap from many people (not all) who like to debate the merits of social justice and mercy ministries. They think it is too one-dimensional and an irrelevance in a non reading culture such as ours. All the talking heads and experts say so. They think that poorer people listen better when we ‘story’ the Bible and that we shouldn’t have just one approach from the pulpit. We shouldn’t even have a pulpit! Instead, we should mix it up and have more dialogue. Certainly, when we look at the NT we find little evidence for a set pattern of preaching. Indeed, the whole idea of the NT ‘pulpit monologue’ has scant evidence full stop. The Bible is also full of wonderful ‘true’ stories (I tell my girls the difference between a Bible story and Cinderella – one is made up for our entertainment and the other is true and has been written for our spiritual benefit). So, should we be teaching our people more biblical narrative and maybe having a more interactive approach from the pulpit in our housing schemes and council estates? In a word, no. Here’s why.
1) I base my ministry here not on what people want to listen to but on what God’s Word has to say. I can debate with my people every day of the week but for 30 plus minutes a week I am going to declare God’s Word loud and clear from our pulpit. Often, people will remark: ‘I heard you preached for 40 minutes on Sunday. How did your people handle that? Implying what exactly? Usually, I will shrug and respond: ‘Fine, thanks’. It’s not as if we’re reaching out to monkey’s here in Niddrie. Enough of the patronising drivel that seems to suggest that because a person didn’t finish their education they are unable to listen well. I have heard all the stories and read all the reports that talk about the difference between visual and physical stimulation blah blah blah. People here are smarter than we give them credit for. In fact, in my congregation most of my new Niddrie believers read more than my educated middle class members, including those who find it difficult to do so and had never even picked up a book pre-conversion. Pick the bones out of that!
2) Anybody who thinks that interactive, dialogue style approaches from the pulpit is effective in areas like ours is welcome to come to Niddrie and show me how it’s done. Here’s a golden rule (and most visiting speakers fall into it): rhetorical questions are taken literally. As a preaching device in a scheme it doesn’t always work. So for instance, “have you ever been lying in bed in the morning and thought, I can’t be bothered to go to work?” Response here? People shouting out the answer. Some arguing with you say they don’t get up until the afternoon. Some saying they have to be at the chemist to get their script. Christians who know the literary tool stay silent (amused). It is then very difficult to move the topic on without having to be very firm and telling people to be quiet and, usually, you lose the flow of the point you were (cleverly) taking your people toward. I am not saying you shouldn’t use rhetorical questions but here declaration works far better than investigation. They are very often literal thinkers.
3) I like to think of Bible teaching as a plate of food. Narrative story is one food group. But the Bible also contains theological, doctrinal, poetic, wisdom, historical, literal and metaphorical genres. Therefore, because I want my people to have a healthy, nutritious and balanced diet, I seek, over the course of a year, to educate their palate across the full range. Otherwise, (in my opinion) over fascination with one type of literature inevitably leads to spiritual malnutrition. Telling stories is all well and good but the Bible is a big book! I can tell stories to illustrate my point(s) but I like to introduce my people to a nice salad once in a while instead of chips every week. Chips are good now and then but can become boring all the time, not to mention disastrous for the body.
In my experience, when we open the Word, God’s Spirit brings it to bear in people’s lives. The Bible is the Word of God. It is alive. It is sharper than a double-edged sword. The problem is that it is usually wielded by half-wits who wouldn’t know a sword from a sausage. The problem (usually) isn’t the length of the message, rather than the person stood giving it. Too many Herbert’s leaving Bible colleges who think that being able to preach to a class of theological students and maybe an odd, dusty, old congregation is going to wash in the wilds of our kind of ministry. Good exegesis is irrelevant if we can’t connect with people. Expository preaching isn’t the problem. Our pulpits are just full of irrelevant, expository preachers on the one hand, or namby, pamby, wishy washy emergent types on the other.
In Niddrie people are able to listen to, and retain, far more than we give them credit for. True, they will forget an awful lot. But good, systematic, expository preaching should train our people not only to read the scriptures well but to listen well. We can’t go wrong if we preach the whole counsel of God to our people. It might hurt at first. Like a muscle that hasn’t been used for a while. But we are remarkably adaptable creatures and before long it will become almost second nature.
The mark of any healthy church plant in whatever context – indeed any church that takes the scriptures seriously – is good, solid, applied, expository preaching that mixes and matches all of it’s genres and inspires its people to get into the Word for themselves. Of course, we’re not going to win back our housing schemes solely through expositional preaching. That is just not going to happen. Firstly, we need men and women to move in to these places and begin to share the good news of Jesus. We need God, in His mercy and by His Holy Spirit, to save people and then we begin the long, arduous process of discipleship, teaching and preaching. So, preaching in this sense is not the first thing that is going to happen when you move into a scheme (that’s another article) but it should be at the forefront of our minds and at the centre of our strategy as we enter these places thinking, ‘what kind of church do we want to plant here?’
Mez McConnell is pastor of Niddrie Community Church and oversees the UK portion of 20 Schemes, a church planting effort to plant churches in the poorest areas of Scotland.