Here’s a confession. I really struggled with Chapel services at Theological College. It wasn’t the Anglican liturgy I struggled with. Although I’m a free church guy and wouldn’t use Common Worship in my church context, I’ve actually appreciated the prayer book for time to time. We even used it for a daily Facebook slot during the pandemic.
I struggled with the sermons. We followed the lectionary and each day, a student would take it in turns to speak for 10 minutes on why this or that passage in Ezekiel showed us that we were terrible people and needed to sort ourselves out.
Now, some quick and important qualifications.
- I’m Reformed. I believe in Total Depravity. So, I don’t think we are all lovely and nice or our good works capable of saving us.
- I don’t think that being in Theological College means that you get a free pass on being challenged.
However, it did seem at times that we were feeding ourselves a heavy diet of discouragement at the point when many of us were also struggling with heavy workloads, life circumstances, early morning weariness etc. And where people had made real sacrifices to respond to a Gospel calling. I think we were victims of the way the lectionary worked, we had a run of particular themes and our desire to take our opportunity to use our ten minutes to be punchy and memorable. To be clear again, I am sure that our heart motives were good as we preached our hearts out for our allocates slot. We genuinely wanted God to use us so that he would speak to the College community through the preaching of his word.
Then, something clicked when we got to take classes on those books of the Bible. We were always in a rush to ask the question “but how should we preach this?” And our Old Testament lecturers would frustratingly encourage us to be patient and not to rush to ask that question too soon. I think that’s great advice for theological students -and even for pastors in the study. You have to ask the question “but how will it preach” at some point but don’t ask it too early.
Then one day, Thomas Renz made this illuminating point. He told us to remember that our congregations will not always be in the same place that the original audience in the Bible were. We therefore shouldn’t rush to assume that because the application of the passage to the original hearers was x, that this is also the application that our congregation today needs to hear. This I would suggest applies to tone as well as content. Furthermore, it applies both to passages that vary rebuke and to those who carry encouragement.
It is so important that a pastor doesn’t just exegete the text. He must also exegete his own heart before he preaches and he must exegete the congregation and their context if he is to know what God is saying to the church that Sunday morning both in terms of tone and content.
This doesn’t mean that we pick and choose which Bible passages are applicable to the congregation. We still preach the whole counsel of God. However, it does mean that the line of application to the church may not be a direct one. A passage that speaks rebuke, discipline, judgement needs to be heard but for some people the message is “This is where you are now, you are in a place of rebuke, discipline, judgement.” For others, there is a warning “Beware of complacency that you don’t end up in that place later.” Then there are others who need to hear encouragement “You are not in that place because of your trust in Christ. You’ve kept clinging to him. Well done good and faithful servants. But there’s also the good news here that those outside of Christ who attack and harm his people will face God’s judgement.” And all the time we need to be reminded that Christ bore the punishment for us.
On the other hand, when we hear messages about comfort and hope, sometimes the reasons why we are not experiencing that comfort and hope need to be addressed head on.
So, when preparing to preach, ask specifically “What is God saying to this congregation at this time through this Scripture?”