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Month: February 2016

Communicating for a Change

Every journey begins and ends somewhere. The same should be said for every sermon. Unfortunately, what most of us grew up hearing were messages built around several points rather than one clear destination. Andy Stanley and Lane Jones explain that the point of having points is to move people systematically through an outline of information; but if life change is your goal, point by point preaching is by far the most effective approach.

I haven’t written a hundred sermons. But I know that when I write, I have a dangerous tendency to structure a sermon too much like another one of my seminary papers; and that becomes obvious the moment its read aloud. Communicating for a Change contains so many implications, insights, imperatives, and instructions (one of them is that alliterations are much less effective than you think!) for how to carefully craft a sermon that will not only engage your audience, but actually take them on a journey that they want to remain on all the way to the end.

My wife isn’t a seminary graduate. But her Dad is, and after many years as a Pastor’s Kid she’s been on the receiving end of her fair share of sermons. Plus, she’s an articulate communicator on her own, and I know she shares the sentiment that forms Stanley & Jones’ main premise: Pick a Point! There are plenty of Sundays to go around, and they aren’t going to stop any time soon. So rather than seeing that 30 minutes on Sunday as an opportunity to display your exegetical prowess and vast knowledge of church history as you build towards application, why not simply determine your goal and reduce your sermon to a short, simple statement that summarises the whole message. “But, what if there are several great things I want them to know?” These authors simply say “save it”.

The second danger in my seminary-brained construction of sermons is that when I read aloud what’s been written it can sound like information transfer, and generally speaking that’s about as personally convicting as a Quit Smoking TV commercial. “You weren’t talking to people, Chris. You were talking at people”. the always straight-shooting voice of my wife’s observation isn’t without sting (as though I wasn’t trying to connect) but it certainly contains truth. An outline that came straight from your research degree or an exegetical commentary has the potential to be dry as dust to an audience who don’t move in the same circles as you do during the week. On the other hand, an outline built around your relationship with the members of audience (rather than the content) best matches what they feel, and because of your conversational style with this familiar crowd, it will come across the way they naturally process information.

Andy Stanley & Lane Jones have taught me to ask the right questions to assemble a message designed to stick. I’ve found both Communicating for a Change and Saving Eutychus (read my review) to be immensely helpful as I develop my craft in the pulpit by observing these principles from the pew. The reality is that my own style will no doubt be a hybrid of these two excellent resources, and in any case I highly recommend a read and a re-read for any preacher, teacher, or communicator who desires to be engaging while cultivating positive change in their people.

Pneumatology

All too often relegated to a minor role, one of the most exciting developments in 20th century theological thought is a resurgence of interest in the Holy Spirit. While historically there have been a broad spectrum of views held with regard to the person and work of the Holy Spirit, no denomination or movement can be said to hold a monopoly on the Spirit’s activity or involvement, and the Bible itself presents no systematic view of the Holy Spirit any more than it presents such a neatly delivered package on any other doctrine. In his book Pneumatology: The Holy Spirit in Ecumenical, International and Contextual Perspective Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen surveys the Biblical canon (with commentary from church history) to form a solid ‘core’ for understanding the Holy Spirit. This is followed by an examination of perspectives on the Spirit from the main Christian traditions (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Pentecostal/Charismatic) with contributions from leading contemporary theologians.

An overarching theme throughout Pneumatology is the assertion that one cannot simply pursue abstract definitions or general facts with regard to the Holy Spirit, but rather (Kärkkäinen believes) the Spirit himself must be encountered. Further, he says “the experience of the Holy Spirit is as specific as the living beings who experience the Spirit, and as varied as the living beings who experience the Spirit are varied”. Thus while we should earnestly attempt to repair the Pneumatological deficit present in much of the contemporary church, a fuller understanding of the Holy Spirit cannot be acquired without the lived experience of the living Spirit, and that in the communal discernment of the church – called and gathered by the Spirit.

There is much to say when it comes to documenting the unfolding experience of the Holy Spirit throughout Church history. Beginning with the Charismatic experience – which Kärkkäinen proposes (via James D. G. Dunn) actually found expression right from Christianity’s inception – Pneumatology traces the church’s growing understanding of the Holy Spirit and the various expressions that this experience was manifest through. Next came the Eastern Fathers; the most noteworthy of which is perhaps Gregory of Nazianzus who was likely the first of his company to call the Holy Spirit “God”. Contemporary Christianity owes a great debt to the Eastern Fathers for their wrestling with the doctrine of Pneumatology and how it is interwoven into every other area of theology. Almost simultaneously over in the Western church, Augustine was hard at work laying a foundation with the same purpose with the notion that the Spirit is the bond of love between both Christians and God, and Christians one with another. The implications of this rippled forward to medieval mystics such as Bernard of Clairvaux, who spoke of the Holy Spirit as the one who makes the knowledge of revelation possible – but ultimately love is the goal, not knowledge – the Spirit also revealing the intimacy of love between the persons of the Trinity that is now offered to humankind.

While historically there have been a broad spectrum of views held with regard to the person and work of the Holy Spirit, Kärkkäinen brought together a coherent introduction to this crucial doctrine. His treatment of the depth and breadth of such an array of perspectives was enlightening, accessible, and holds much value for the contemporary Christian. His summaries of the main traditions (enhanced by rich discussion from the voices of prominent theologians) were formational both in gaining a better grasp of Pneumatology as held by the orthodox Christian Church, but also for acquiring a more considered appreciation of what different contextual Pneumatologies throughout history have revealed about the experience of encountering God the Holy Spirit. Pneumatology makes an excellent contribution to a broadened understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit in a way that will help Christians in the church today to understand and encounter what was once a seemingly incomprehensible doctrine through this clear, accessible work.