Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Redeeming Conversation

Given the choice between a lectern (or even a really sturdy music stand) in a classroom and a pulpit in a sanctuary, I'll take the lectern every time. I'll also opt for the one-on-one ministry of the Word over sermonizing, too. I'm haunted by a comment made by one of my seminary professors years ago. "Consider," he counseled us, "where else during the week the people you're preaching to have had to sit for thirty minutes listening to someone talk." That was in the late '80's. Almost twenty years later, it's no more likely that those listening to sermons on Sunday morning are any more practiced to giving sustained attention to monologues throughout their week and attention spans certainly aren't any longer now than they were then.

For the last fourteen years I've served in an associate pastor role that has allowed me to concentrate on teaching in the contexts of adult education and one on one discipleship with minimal responsibilities in the area of preaching. I don't mean to disparage preaching at all. I recognize its importance and am grateful for those who devote themselves to it. In fact, I'm an auditory learner who enjoys listening to sermons and lectures. It's just that when I'm on the giving end, I prefer the dialogical nature of teaching. I like being able to stop and ask "Am I making sense?" or having someone stop me to ask a question. I realize that in part my reservations about preaching are due to my own shortcomings such as my prideful worry that I'm boring my hearers and my unbelief that the Holy Spirit will use the words he inspired (despite my inadequacies) to accomplish his gracious purposes through biblically-grounded preaching. Nevertheless, the fact remains that I still prefer speaking with people as opposed to merely speaking to them.

In his A Christian Directory, Richard Baxter includes a section on the importance of what he called "Christian conference, exhortation, and reproof." Essentially, it's about the necessity and benefit of believers conversing with each other about biblical truth. One of the advantages of such discourse, he says, is that it supplements the ministry of public preaching:
Your fruitful conference is a needful help to the ministerial work. When the preacher hath publicly delivered the word of God to the assembly, if you would so far second him, as in your daily converse to set it home on the hearts of those that you have opportunity to discourse with, how great an assistance would it be to his success! Though he must teach them publicly, and from house to house, Acts xx.20, yet it is not possible for him to be so frequent and familiar in daily conference with all the ignorant of the place, as those that are still with them may be. You are many, and he is but one, and can be but in one place at once. Your business bringeth you into their company, when he cannot be there. O happy is that minister who hath such a people, who will daily preach over the matter of his public sermons in their private conference with one another! (Part IV, Chapter XVI, Motive X).
Later, Baxter enumerates more advantages of spiritual conversation including the following which is the best articulation of why I prefer teaching that I've come across:
5. Interlocutory conference keepeth your auditors attentive, and carrieth them on along with you as you go. And it maketh the application much more easy, by their nearness and the familiarity of the discourse; when sermons are usually heard but as an insignificant sound, or words of course. 6. You may at your pleasure go back and repeat those things which the hearer doth not understand, or doth forget; which a preacher in the pulpit cannot do without the censure of the more curious auditors. 7. You may perceive by the answers of them whom you speak to, what particulars you need most to insist on, and what objections you should most carefully resolve; and when you have satisfied them, and may proceed. All which it is hard for a minister to do in public preaching; and is it not a great sin to neglect such an advantageous duty? (Part IV, Chapter XVI, Motive XII).
When I came across these thoughts from Baxter, I was reminded of an article by David Powlison called "What is Ministry of the Word?" (Journal of Biblical Counseling, Winter 2003, pp. 2-6) in which he distinguishes among three mutually supportive aspects of the communication of biblical truth. The first two, the public and private ministry of the Word, are those with which we are probably most familiar. The former refers to the proclamation, exposition, and application of Scripture that good sermons consist of. The latter refers to personal study of and meditation on Scripture in private devotions or "quiet times." While acknowledging the necessity of both for cultivating spiritual maturity, Powlison rejects the idea that they are sufficient:
Perhaps you've heard it said, "If people would only sit under good preaching and meet God regularly in private devotions, they wouldn't need counseling." That statement is well intended. It's even partly true. Lots of personal problems are transformed by public ministry of the Word and by private ministry of the Word. But the statement is completely untrue in its premises and its conclusions. A central purpose of good preaching and private devotions is to create mutual counseling and wise counselors! When any personal problem is in fact truly transformed, then a wise counselor of others has been produced. Fruitful interpersonal ministry of the Word is the main proof that sermons and devotions are worth the time and effort.
This calls to mind Paul's exhortation that we "Let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom..." (Col. 3:16). In today's church there is certainly a great deal of emphasis on preaching and devotions but are we neglecting the importance and necessity of believers learning how to skillfully bring biblical truth to bear on each other's lives?

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Milton Stanley said...

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"Isn't it wonderful that our Father has equipped his various children to do and enjoy each?"