The Preacher’s Assumptions


Never assume interest. I recently saw a street entertainer at Covent Garden. Initially I wasn’t that interested – I just wanted somewhere to sit and rest for a few minutes. As this guy started his show I was fascinated by how hard he was having to work to gain an audience. Many just pass by, some stop for a while, others keep their distance. Maybe they’re worried they’ll be coerced into parting with money; maybe they fear some sort of forced involvement in his performance. His sweat and hard work paid off (literally). What started with a dozen finished with over a hundred. And as a cautious, somewhat nervous observer it struck me that when we preachers get up to speak we should never simply assume interest. We should always be thinking about how we can engage folk well to gain their ear. While we should never assume interest, there are a number of things preachers can safely assume:

  • Some are there against their will. Maybe it’s the 15 year old who has been forced to come to church with her parents. Maybe it’s the friend who accepts an invitation to church out of a partial interest and unwillingness to offend. They are there in body, but not necessarily in spirit.
  • Some people aren’t buying it. It’s possible (hopefully probable) that some in the congregation aren’t Christians (yet). As you get up to speak they are erecting their mental defences. To use a cricketing analogy (sorry!), they see your gentle off-spin and are striding down to ‘pad-up’ outside the off-stump. They aren’t persuaded of the truth of anything you have to say, and they may well strongly disagree. They can’t wait to find you afterwards to persuade you of your intellectual buffoonery.
  • Some people are in a bad way. They may be grieving a loss, or suffering with some aspect of their health. There may be a secret struggle sapping their soul. Just being there is a struggle, and their hearts aren’t quite ready to listen.
  • Some people are having a bad day. Having three kids myself I know there are some days when we walk into church, smiling broadly, having just had a blazing row as we’ve walked across the park. I’m still seething as the preacher gets up, and frankly I’m not interested in why this passage is the most amazing, world-transforming, joy inducing, thing in the world ever. Wrong, I know. But sadly the reality I suspect for more than one or two each week.
  • Some people struggle to track. It’s great you’ve been to college and have a PhD and prepped with fat commentaries and a Hebrew Bible. It’s great you know what all those big words means. It’s great that your brain (having spent all week on this) can move swiftly from one idea to the next. But for a good chunk of our congregation they don’t know everything you know. For some their struggle to read or write means they can be swiftly alienated by your speed, depth, abstract ideas, or meaty PowerPoint. It’s not that they don’t want to learn – they just can’t move as fast as you.
  • Some people are cross with you. Hard to believe I know, but sometimes we upset others, and for those people its difficult for them to get on board quickly with us. This is one we can’t necessarily do that much about, especially if we don’t know we’ve upset them, but our tone can significantly help or hinder.

All of this makes us stop and think about how we communicate doesn’t it? All of us probably need to work much harder at engaging our listeners. For all sorts of reasons, as we get up to speak, a gap exists between the speaker and the hearer. We need to be those that work much harder at gaining their ear.

The Mission of the Church

mission church

Here’s a little plug for a book I’ve recently read – The Mission of the church: Five Views in Conversation (edited by Craig Ott). 

The five contributors (and their basic positions are as follows):

  • Stephen B. Bevans – “A Prophetic Dialogue Approach.” Bevans arguing from a Catholic perspective suggests that the church needs to be sensitive in dialogue and confident in its witness. [In my view a tad optimistic about the work the Spirit has been doing in advance of the missionary’s arrival].
  • Darrell L. Guder – “A Multicultural and Translational Approach.” Guder is retired missiology prof at Princeton and argues for a missiological approach that is sensitive to new cultures and contexts. Witness covers the total vocation of the church. As such any one programme or method will not be sufficient to equip the church to witness to diverse situations. [I understand him theoretically but I’m not sure it helps much on the ground!]
  • Ruth Padilla DeBorst – “An Integral Transformation Approach.” Padilla DeBorst is the gen sec of the Latin American Theological Fellowship and proposes an approach to mission that refuses to play proclamation off against social, political, economic, and ecological concerns. Integral mission holds the whole package together [not sure, but think she would reject the idea of evangelism as more important/ultimate/central]
  • Edward Rommen – “A Sacramental Vision Approach”. Rommen is an Orthodox Priest and argues that the church offers not a message but an invitation to an encounter with a person (Jesus). This encounter happens within the walls of the church, and through the sacraments in particular [tbh, this is the view I found hardest to follow and understand – pretty sacramental and mystical – and I’m not sure what he’d make of church as organism]
  • Ed Stetzer – “An Evangelical Kingdom Community Approach.” Stetzer, the President of Lifeway, argues along similar lines to Padilla DeBorst, but would emphasise evangelism as primary [this is the view I personally found most persuasive].

There is also an excellent introduction and summary of recent discussion and debate by Craig Ott – maybe worth the price of the book on its own. At the end of the book each author also responds briefly to the other essays. In general it’s a really helpful book, summarising the contemporary state of missiological discussion and debate. It’s helpful to read people outside of our usual ‘tribe’ and stimulating to engage with other views and practices. I think it’s a book that would benefit pastors generally, but specifically those working or researching in the field. If you’re already somewhat familiar with the terrain, or want to stretch yourself a little, then I’d definitely encourage you to check it out.