Friday, June 16, 2017

What became of preaching? (asks a preacher 50 years ago)

A couple of months ago I was preparing a one-day preaching course at a local cathedral and went back to some classics on the topic of homiletics, such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones' Preaching and Preachers (the copy I'm citing is the 1971 edition from Hodder & Stoughton). It was fascinating to look back almost 50 years and see a British theologian asking something that could just as easily be asked in parts of England today:
Why then this decline in the place and power of preaching; and why this questioning of the necessity for any preaching at all? (11)
Even more interesting are the answers Lloyd-Jones offered. There are several factors, he said, but the first goes back to an 'antithesis' represented by Stanley Baldwin, Britian's Prime Minister in the 1920s and 30s. At that time, says Lloyd-Jones, Baldwin had to contend with great orators for power (think Churchill), and because he did not have the so-called 'gift of gab' found the need to carve out another niche. So he put into the public ethos that it was less essential to be a great speaker, and more important to be a 'simple, honest, ordinary Englishman.' In fact, he went so far as to suggest that 'if a man is a great speaker he is a man whom you cannot trust, and is not quite honest' (11).

In Lloyd-Jones' observation that represented something of a shift in the zeitgeist: namely the 'distrust of the orator'. It took hold in churches as well, and went on to find support in the general sense that we are 'more cultured and educated people' than we once were, and thus do not depend on the 'great orators' as we once did (12). Here Lloyd-Jones points to the phenomena of radio, television, and libraries, but had yet to even get a sniff of the internet!

So it was that 'sermons were replaced by ethical addresses and homilies, and moral uplift and socio-political talk' which more or less restored people to that which they already thought (13).

This was not all Prime Minister Baldwin's doing, of course. Another factor in this social-shift came down to the great orators themselves, and it sprang from their descent into what Lloyd-Jones called  'pulpiteering' (13). The skill of oratory can hold such power that it can be used to 'dominate the people,' and after a while the people become sensitive to being 'handled' and emotionally cajoled by rhetorical 'showmanship' (13). So it is that in reaction they become suspicious of direct address; especially the sermon.

Lloyd-Jones went on to discuss radio and print media further, wading into territory that has exploded beyond anything he could have imagined in the 1970s. Not irrelevant, however, is his comment on the proliferate 'publication of sermons' (which we now see in the form of youtube channels and podcasts), which he said had unfortunately turned preachers into 'essayists'. In his view this drifted the preaching event away from 'what a sermon should be,' turning it into an 'address' full of 'literary effusions'  (15).

Thus the sermon was less a congregation's act of coming under the guidance of the Word in their place and time, and more the congregation's participation in a large-scale public address that could just as well be for anyone.

In the book Lloyd-Jones goes on to complain about a number of other things, such as the formality of the worship service, the 'increase in the element of entertainment in public worship,' the elevation of 'song leader' to 'a new kind of official in the church,' and the elevation of testimony and therapy above the preached Word (16-17) -- all of which would make a fascinating comparative study with the as-yet unwritten After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. Lloyd-Jones concludes:
To make this list complete I must add tape-recording--as I see it, the peculiar and special abomination at this present time (18).
Perhaps Lloyd-Jones starts to sound like a bit of a geezer at this point, but it is worth asking ourselves what the homiletic event was in his day, which perhaps it should not lose. His answer to this comes later in the book. It follows a quote from Epictetus, who famously walked out of a room where someone had been speaking and said: 'The philosopher put his finger upon my faults. I must not behave that way again.' Reflecting on this, Lloyd-Jones observes how the sermon had wrongly become 'stimulating' rather than convicting -- and 'that is not what preaching is meant to be' (56).

But he goes on to say more, and if we shrugged him off as a mere Luddite, perhaps this cuts closer to the bone:
Preaching is that which deals with the total person, the hearer becomes involved and knows that he [or she] has been dealt with and addressed by God through this preacher. Something has taken place in him and in his experience, and it is going to affect the whole of his [or her] life (56). 
If one allows for the implication that a 'total person' means a person who is part of a local community who is sharing not only in the hearing of the sermon but also the living that it touches, then one sees why the distributed tape-recording could be such an 'abomination' to old-time preachers like Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

As the book goes on it becomes clear that this is not simply a nostalgic attempt to re-elevate the preacher to a pedestalled place of honour and authority in the church. The definition of a preacher is for Lloyd-Jones one of witness for someone else; an ambassadorship. The preacher is someone who sits under that same Word along with the congregation, who is charged with the task of giving it speech for the people with whom he lives (61).

For more of my own thoughts on preaching, see Preacher as Pastor: Shepherding the Community in the Word.

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